Skip

The Soul of an Old Machine
May 3, 2001 6:28 AM   Subscribe

The Soul of an Old Machine This is a wonderful article on Ron Popeil, founder of Ronco (remember the pocket fisherman?) and the Showtime Rotisserie. Besides some great reading on the marketing of pre-digital technology, Gladwell has some great things to say about usability.

If Ron had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words, he would not simply have sold it in an infomercial. He would also have changed the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial. The clock, for example, wouldn't be digital. (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.) The tape wouldn't be inserted behind a hidden door--it would be out in plain view, just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn. The controls wouldn't be discreet buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it.
posted by mecran01 (21 comments total)


 
If Ron Popeil had written that article, maybe he would have included a few images to liven it up.
posted by hmgovt at 6:44 AM on May 3, 2001


I read it on my palm pilot yesterday while waiting to get my haircut. Fortunately it was good writing and interfaced nicely with my "imagination" plugin.
posted by mecran01 at 7:14 AM on May 3, 2001


hmgovt: when this article ran in the New Yorker (late last year, i think) there were some great pictures of Popeil showing off the rotisserie. really classic, corny stuff.
posted by jpoulos at 7:15 AM on May 3, 2001


He is the MASTER!
posted by ParisParamus at 7:52 AM on May 3, 2001


I remember Ron Popiel primarily for Popiel's Pocket Fisherman -- a concept that always cracked me up. Like we need a fishing pole small enough so that we can tuck it in a hip pocket and forget about it -- and then as we go about our daily business, if there happens to be a trout stream, we can whip it out.
posted by luser at 8:20 AM on May 3, 2001


Whoa, just found out from New Yorkerthat this piece got an award at the thirty-sixth annual National Magazine Awards. No pictures on the NY website either. However, the Showtime Rotisserie is on sale at Amazon. It's interesting to read the customer comments after Gladwell's article. For the most part they rate it highly. I'm tempted to get one in lieu of a barbecue, but then I'd probably start eating a lot more meat than I really want to.
posted by mecran01 at 8:20 AM on May 3, 2001


Luser: There's a great quote from the article on the pocket fisherman: "It's for giving, not for fishing!"

Makes me wonder about my current array of gadgets and the different purposes they might serve.
posted by mecran01 at 8:23 AM on May 3, 2001


That VCR description pretty much fits the old tape cassette recorder we had in the 70's. Analog counter, big press buttons, viewable tape so you can see the spools going 'round. Are we moving away from usability?
posted by dithered at 8:35 AM on May 3, 2001


Half on, half off topic: Malcolm Gladwell is a very decent guy. I did an email interview with him for a magazine article (sorry, not online), and he was a kind and helpful fellow.

Let's not forget, though, who first captured the essence of "Mr. Popeil"
posted by jhiggy at 8:41 AM on May 3, 2001


if there happens to be a trout stream, we can whip it out.

You don't need the Pocket Fisherman for that...
posted by kindall at 8:50 AM on May 3, 2001


Makes me think of the Chia Pet/Head/Zoo - nobody would ever buy one for themselves, but as a wacky gift.... hmm, maybe. And you rarely see commercials for Ch-ch-ch-chia except around holiday times.
posted by kokogiak at 8:55 AM on May 3, 2001


Mecran, I wish to award you the plaque for "Best Lead of the Month". *Very* nicely chosen.
posted by baylink at 10:15 AM on May 3, 2001


Thank you! Mr. Jhiggy!
posted by baylink at 10:16 AM on May 3, 2001


Kindall:
if there happens to be a trout stream, we can whip it out.

You don't need the Pocket Fisherman for that...


This puts me in mind of the Richard Pryor box set, which I learned the other day is called "... and it's *deep*, too".
posted by baylink at 10:18 AM on May 3, 2001


Imagine Ron Popeil hawking Blogger!
posted by ParisParamus at 10:26 AM on May 3, 2001


Who can forget GLH - spray on hair!
posted by spunkster at 12:18 PM on May 3, 2001


The Pocket Fisherman was a cool product, indeed. But anyone remember the Record Vacuum, or the Rhinestone and Stud Setter (make your own Disco Stu jacket), and let's not forget the Buttoneer! Almost forgot Mr. Microphone (sorry, no picture). Fun inventions for their time.
posted by Sal Amander at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2001


Luser: There's a great quote from the article on the pocket fisherman: "It's for giving, not for fishing!"

Makes me wonder about my current array of gadgets and the different purposes they might serve.
posted by mecran01 at 1:39 PM on May 3, 2001


That story made me cry. I'm not kidding. I wouldn't lie about this; this is embarrassing.
posted by lbergstr at 4:16 PM on May 3, 2001


Actually, early VCRs, like the 1970s-era Betamax player (which was huge), had you insert the tape heads-down into a slot on top; and other models resembled a stereo-cabinet tape player, with a pop-out vertical holder. The slide-it-in-through-a-horizontal-slot design came later, to eliminate placement issues and allow consumers to put the TV on top of the VCR.

But yes, things like the stupid clock and the endless variety of on-screen, front-panel, and remote-control interfaces pretty much mean the VCR is a Dante's Inferno of usability.
posted by dhartung at 7:15 PM on May 3, 2001


One of the rad things about Ron is that he really invents this stuff!

... I guess that's what makes him an excellent salesman...
posted by ph00dz at 7:43 AM on May 4, 2001


« Older A new Museum for the tourist   |   It's almost over! Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post