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Moen facuet (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

My wife and I had a new faucet installed, the kind where the water flow is controlled by a single handle. This single-handled faucet has been listed as one of the top 100 mass-produced objects of the century - right along side Henry Ford's Model-T. The impetus to invent this faucet came from an accident.

In 1937 Alfred Moen worked part time in an auto garage to earn money for engineering school. Late one night, tired and ready to go home, Moen stopped to wash his hands in a sink with the usual two handled faucet. Moen turned the wrong handle, creating a burst of hot water, and burned his hands. This gave the budding mechanical engineer his lifetime passion: the perfect faucet.

What Moen confronted was a common problem of any human/machine interface: How to communicate, instantly, to the user the way to control the device. Usually a faucet designer takes the easy way by giving us clear pointers to the hot and cold water - the two knobs of a typical faucet - but that isn't what we want to control: As Moen realized, we want to control the volumetric flow and the temperature. And that's the problem Al Moen tackled.

"The more I thought about it," Moen said, "the more I was convinced that a single-handle mixing faucet was the answer, so I began to make some drawings." He first designed a complicated faucet with a cam to control the flow of hot and cold water, but it was too complex to be manufactured cheaply. As Moen refined his faucet World War II broke out, making metal scarce, so he went to work as a tool designer in Seattle, then served in the Navy.

But he never abandoned his vision for a perfect faucet, and by 1947, he'd reinvented it and interested a manufacturer. In that year they sold their first 250 faucets to a San Francisco plumbing supplier for twelve dollars a piece. Moen's invention transformed the industry to the point where today more than 70% of kitchen faucets sold in the United States are now Moen's one-handled variety.

Oddly, he never owned the company that still bears his name, preferring instead a behind-the-scenes role. He spent his life in the research and development section compulsively refining his faucet, and even inventing a special valve to prevent shower shock; the rude surge of hot water caused when someone flushes a toilet while another person is in the shower. So, appropriately, Alfred Moen listed only one occupation on his business card: "Inventor." When his son asked him, near the end of his life, if he were disappointed at not having been elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, he replied: "No, I didn't invent anything great. I didn't invent penicillin" - just a faucet with a single handle.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises