By LEON YOUNGBLOOD
The assignment was to “bring any single small item, the invention of which changed the course of human history.” A presentation would be required, merely a few words on the object and the reason it was chosen. A few moments of class discussion would go from there.
The first presentation was, surprisingly, a lump of charcoal. The student explained, “Somebody was probably around a fire pit when it occurred to them that charcoal could be used to make marks. Then they figured, ‘Hey, we can draw pictures with this!’ Pictures communicated ideals, and somebody realized they could make symbols for words, and invented letters and an alphabet. Communication without having to have the other person present maybe got its start from a lump of charcoal.”
This prompted the next student to hold up an inch-square plastic cube. “This has a microchip in it,” she explained. The significance of this was seen instantly, as everyone had cellphones and laptop computers. A few minutes worth of discussion revealed the staggering magnitude the development of the microchip brought to the world.
A student presented an arrowhead. “In the beginning, people used their fists, and feet and teeth to kill animals and each other with. Somebody found out you could use a stick for a club, and that gave you an advantage. Spears were invented, and the one with the spear had the advantage over the fellow with the club. The arrow could be shot from a bow, which was an advantage over spears. This little arrowhead represents the development of stone tools. I think it’s safe to say, the microchip wouldn’t be here today if the first humans didn’t start banging the rocks together!”
This was acknowledged by the class generally. The teacher asked where the artifact came from–“found on my uncle’s plowed field,” was the reply.
Somebody showed a brass wood screw, “a simple machine of the ‘inclined plane’ type.” She went on to state how screws, nails, nuts and bolts were “essential to the formation of any industrial society,” and how “the machine itself provided a useful vulgarity to the English language.” This amused her classmates, of course. They admitted how screws advanced the human race, and admitted they did not know they were “machines.” It was suggested spiral seashells may have given the ideal for screws. That sounded plausible enough to suit everybody.
A student held up a lepton, “the ‘Widow’s mite’ of the Bible.” He theorized that early in human development, there no possessions and things were shared communally by tribes and clans. Eventually, individuals claimed possessions, which led to bartering, and then to a system of currency. “Coins and paper money have no value in themselves,” he explained. “They represent value. Even on Antiques Roadshow, the value of the stuff isn’t appreciated until the appraisers say how many dollars it will bring.” This led to a distinction being made between “cost” and “value,” and the distinction was appreciated; but everybody still wished they had more money. Somebody asked what the lepton cost. “Fifteen dollars. I read somewhere, in New Testament times, it took three hundred of them to by a small loaf of bread.”
A pocket watch was produced. “Clocks and watches told you how much time you can waste before you have to be at work on time, or be at school on time, or catch the plane on time. Life is scheduled down to the second, now. Blame watches.”
An old hypodermic needle and glass syringe were shown. “These were my grandfather’s,” the presenting student said. “He was a diabetic. Do you remember all the vaccines and immunizations we got when we were babies? I think syringes have changed the world, and humanity.”
Other small, instantly recognizable things were hauled out, and the assignment led to some interesting realizations, revelations and comments. As for myself, I recall an occasion from my own school days, when a teacher called awarded a kid his “prize” for some accomplishment or other. She called him to her desk, but the prospects were doubtful. She held whatever it was in her clasped hand! The entire room of fourth-graders gasped, though, when she opened her hand and gave the boy a five-dollar bill! “Big things come in small packages,” she said.
They do, don’t they? Incredible, how little things mean a lot and do more than we realize.
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