Design for life

Wilson’s world

David Wilson is editor of Engineeringtalk and Electronicstalk and associate editor of The Engineer

Because she lived through the exigencies of rationing during the Second World War, my mother threw away very little during her long lifetime. Indeed, many of her possessions are still tucked away in a variety of nooks and crannies in the house where I now live.

One of the more interesting items that I discovered secreted in one such hideaway this past bank holiday weekend was her old hairdryer, a fine piece of memorabilia from the 1950s that was clearly crafted with care from one of the newest materials at the time — Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic.

What struck me immediately about the 520W hairdryer was its rugged construction. Its thick casing, which had been made in two main sections held together by numerous screws, was complemented by two heavy plastic switches on the handle used for operating the dryer and for controlling the temperature.

Typical of products from that era, there’s also a metal manufacturer’s identification plate screwed onto the side inscribed with the name Ormond Engineering Company Ltd. Underneath it, in somewhat smaller letters, is the phrase ’Made in England’.

My own new polypropylene hairdryer, by contrast, is not only three times as powerful but much lighter too. Not only that but the plastic subsections that comprise it have all been designed to snap fit together. Only a few key components are screwed together in a move that has undoubtedly helped slash the cost and reduce the assembly time of the unit.

But there is another important difference. While my mum’s hairdryer proudly displays the name of its creator, my modern-day unit simply displays the name of the retailer from whom the unit was bought. I assume that should the name of the actual manufacturer be placed on the unit that it would comprise a rather long set of Chinese characters.

Aside from its value as a curio from the 1950s, my mum’s old hairdryer still works well, even through the motor and the heating element are now more than 50 years old. And the numerous screws that hold it together should make it easier to repair should something ever go wrong with it — that’s if I could find any replacement parts for it.

I doubt very much whether my own new-fangled hairdryer will have such a long life though. In fact, it’s unlikely that it has actually been designed to. Indeed, I’d put money on it that every component in it has been engineered solely for cost purposes, rather than to ensure that it provides a lifetime of service for the customer. Maybe that’s one reason that the manufacturer is reluctant to put a nameplate on it.

One thing is for sure though. When the new lightweight model does inevitably break down, I still have a back-up. That’s right. It’s the trusty old model from the Ormond Manufacturing Company that I’ll be relying upon to keep what’s left of my own hair nice and dry.

David Wilson

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