In my History of Technology course the origins and importance of various discoveries were often discussed.  It is often in solving everyday problems that scientific theories were discovered and illustrated.

I asked the class what was the most important invention?  Writing?  Electricity?  the Wheel?  The most important invention I declared was the thermos bottle:  It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold:  how does it know? The thermos bottle is part of the solution to the problem of carrying solid foods and liquids for a period of time and having them remain palatable.

Food carrying has been tackled by many cultures.  The Japanese have featured food boxes for over 900 years.  These food boxes were called “bento” boxes and with typical Japanese attention to appearance as well as function were often aesthetic objects in themselves.  In India you have the term,”boxwallahs.”  This term was used to describe both a group of merchants and their wares.  The boxwallah is a box made of wood or cardboard used by traveling merchants to contain their inventory which might be food or other goods.

In the United States metal boxes were the containers of choice for those who could not be home for a hot lunch.  In the late 19th century empty tobacco tins were often used if they were large enough.  In the early 20th century people found that paper shopping bags could be used as tote bags for midday meals and the production of larger sized bags proved profitable.    The brown paper lunch bag was first manufactured by Francis Wolle in 1852.  (Brown bag it!)  The iconic brown paper bags contain the lunches of thousands of students and workers down to the present day.

A major advance on the metal lunch box was made by Aladdin Industries in the late 1940’s.  Aladdin produced a lunch box aimed at children.  The box featured a decal of cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy.  Some 600,000.  Hopalong Cassidy was popular in serial form on the motion picture screen and he (portrayed by actor William Boyd) transitioned to the early days of television.  (I wore my Hopalong Cassidy tee shirt until it literally fell off me!)   This success was followed by the manufacture of boxes decorated with all kinds of decals from children’s movies (Disney) and stories.  The metal, decorated children’s lunch box lasted until the 1970’s when some safety-conscious parents pushed for a transition to plastic since the argument was that the metal box could be used as a lethal weapon.

Bad jokes aside, the thermos bottle is a form of a Dewar flask which was invented by James Dewar in 1892.The sealed flask had remarkable insulating properties because air was vacuum sealed between the walls of this double-walled container.  The name “thermos” (derived from the Greek term for fire) was the result of a contest held in Germany in 1904.  Now there was a way to keep coffee, tea, soup, cocoa and stew piping hot.

Three companies produced thermos bottles, including the American Thermos Bottle Company.  A thermos bottle became a standard piece of the American lunch box.  The bottle was improved in 1923 by the development of Pyrex glass which has superior insulating characteristics.  Now everything from blood plasma to tropical fish could be transported with no ill effects.  In the 1960’s stainless steel was introduced and thermos products multiplied.  You soon had all kinds of coolers and carafes.  Vacuum flask cooking became popular in Asia and is a type of slow cooking still practiced today.

It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold: how does it know?

Food can be weaponized.  In the 20th century two shocking examples of this taking place were the administrations of Josef Stalin and Mao Tse Tung.


Josef Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union in 1924 after the death of Lenin.  He was determined to cement the place of the Soviet Union as a world power in both industry and agriculture.  He resolved to do this in a very short period of time.  The rise to economic prosperity in Great Britain, Germany and the United States had taken years, but Stalin would equal them in record time.  A key to this progress was to be the collectivization of agriculture.  All land, tools, livestock and crops belonged to the state and would be distributed as the state saw fit.


If you want to understand the modern relationship of the Ukraine republic to the Russian Republic one need only lookback to Stalin’s policy toward the Ukraine.  The Ukraine was one of the most valuable and certainly the most fertile part of the Soviet Union.  The Ukraine was the equivalent of the American Midwest.  The Ukraine was Russia’s breadbasket.


A barrier to Stalin’s plan were the Kulaks.  “Kulak” is a term applied to well-to-do farmers, often holders of large amounts of land.  These farmers often employed farm workers, could afford servants and could lease out land.  The Ukraine was a land of many Kulaks.  Stalin was determined to destroy r them and take their land.  In the old days Moscow seemed very far away and the Czar seemed to have little to do with agriculture.


Stalin wiped out individual land ownership.  Land belonged to the state-run collective farms.  Resistance to the land program meant a trip for the whole family to the gulag, the state-run labor camps in eastern Russia from where there was no return.


The growing season of 1931 was poor.  The harvest was a small one.  Stalin insisted that the harvest was a good one.  The problem was that the people were hoarding the grain.  Police squads roamed the Ukraine looking for hidden caches. Stalin looked upon the Kulaks of the Ukraine as enemies of the state and he destroyed them.


In 1932 and 1933 authorities confiscated all of the food in the Ukraine that they could find.  There was no letup until 1934.  It is estimated the some 6 to 8 million people starved to death as a result of a state-caused famine.  It is estimated that 4 to 5 million people starved in the Ukraine.  The people were reduced to eating grass and cases were reported of people eating the bodies of their dead.


In 1934, Stalin final allowed the people to farm small private plots of land.  Some animal and dairy could be kept, and the people could keep the products of these efforts.  With this nod to private property and initiative, ironically these plots would become the most productive parts of Soviet agriculture from the 1030’s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.  The lack of precision in calculating the number of people who lost their lives is due largely to Stalin’s denial that the starvation ever took place.


Another communist leader, China’s Mao Tse Tung was responsible for the greatest food disaster in history. (2019 marks the 670th anniversary of the communist seizure of power in 1949.)  After achieving power Mao decided that Chinese agriculture needed collectivization based on the Soviet model.  The state was to have a grain monopoly.  The state sold the grain.  The farmers could only sell their grain to the state.  An artificially low price was enforced by the state guaranteeing that the state would show a profit.


Households, eventually thousands of households were combined into agricultural communes. All tools, animal, and farm products were to be pooled and were ultimately the property of the state.  Those who objected could be killed or given a free trip to the labor camps: many people simply vanished.  By 1956 the government had instituted a system of internal passports so that it was impossible for rural folk r to flee to the cities.


Mao had decided to make China a modern power in heavy industry and agriculture.  He named his program “The Great Leap Forward.”  A major part of the plan was to increase steel production by having iron produced in many small facilities.  Backyard iron furnaces bloomed all over China.  Making steel turned out to be a little more complicated than Mao decreed.  The result of the iron program was less than expected.  China ended up with vast amounts of low-quality iron ore which China did not have the capacity to turn into quality steel.


Mao’s ideas on agriculture proved to be just as unfortunate.  Mao’s ideas were based on the pseudoscientific theories of Trofim Lysenko, whose theories had also been adopted by Josef Stalin.  Mao decreed Lysenko’s ideas to be correct> no discussion or dissent was allowed.


Increased irrigation was practiced.  Unfortunately, China had hundreds of earthen dams and dam collapse and flooding were the results.  Deep plowing was to be practiced, regardless of varying soil conditions.  Bizarre results were reported. Tomatoes were crossed with cotton and sunflowers were successfully crossed with artichokes or so the official reports of the agricultural agencies maintained.


In 1956 grain production had decreased by 40%.  It was reported in 1958 that the grain harvest had doubled.  China increased its exports of grain.  An all-you-can-eat pervaded the farm commune dining halls.  Unfortunately, reality was something else.  By the winter of 1959 some 25 million people were starving in the countryside.


Target crop yields were set yet higher for 1959 and increased yields were officially reported but other sources said that crop yields were 20% smaller than the previous year.  Grain had to be shipped to central facilities so Mao decreed that the problem must be the hiding and hoarding of grain.  Searches for hidden grain like those which had taken place in Soviet Ukraine, complete with torture and executions, were instituted.


In 1959 China cut itself off from the outside world and from the Soviet Union in particular so that the true state of Chinese Agriculture would not be seen.  Grudgingly Mao allowed for small private plots for grain and livestock.  China constantly reported increased grain production and imported grain was repackaged into sacks that read “product of China.”  In the late 50’s real agricultural production had fallen by 40%.  Food went to the cities, to the military, to communist party officials and to foreigners.  China never stopped exporting farm products.  Surely, Argentina, Canada and the United States would have generously helped to alleviate food shortages.


The country bled.  It is estimated that some 30 to 40 million people died of starvation.  The rural areas were allowed to die to affirm the superiority of communist central planning.  It is both stunning and grotesque that the estimate of death varies by as much as 10 million souls.  Mao engineered the greatest food disaster in human history.  All that death was to support ideology.  It need never have happened.


The food man-made food disasters of Stalin and Mao rank right along with Hitler’s Holocaust: 6 million Jews and 12 million in total dead by his policy.  Some amazingly contend that the Holocaust never happened. Even today the government of Turkey does not admit to the slaughter of one million, five hundred thousand Armenians (the Armenian Genocide) between 1915 and 1923.  The weaponization of food in the 20th century by communist regimes has been as deadly, if not more so than bombs and bullets

I majored in history at Fordham University.  Doing that convinced me that while I wanted a career in college teaching, I did not want graduate work exclusively in history.

The last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th centrury saw discoveries and conflict in technology and public policy as sharp as any that one might imagine.