Fix Underrated Problems

The story of a 2,000-year-old yet broken device

Niklas Göke

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Photo by Aline de Nadai on Unsplash

When I studied abroad in the US, on one of the first nights out with my fellow German exchange students, I lost my umbrella. “Oh, you don’t do umbrella sharing?” one of them asked me.

“Umbrella sharing? What’s umbrella sharing?”

“Well, when you lose an umbrella, you’ll shortly find a new one lying around somewhere. So you just take it. Once you lose that, you’ll find another one, and so on. You contribute your umbrellas to the system, and so does everyone else. It’s like karma. Lose an umbrella, find an umbrella. And round and round it goes!”

In a story like only life can write, that same night, after realizing I had forgotten my umbrella in the cab home from the club, I walked in the front door of our shared student housing, and lo and behold, a lonely umbrella sat in the corner of our living room. My roommates had had a party, and someone had forgotten it. Umbrella sharing!

I’ve now been a member of that club for over a decade, and while the system sort of works, every now and then, I wonder: Why do we even need umbrellas in the first place? How come we can tell AI to code a website for us in one sentence, reuse the rockets that deploy internet satellites into orbit, and catch Pokémon in real life, but when it comes to finding shelter from a daily weather phenomenon, our technological development has stalled at the equivalent of a monkey poking a hole through a leaf with a stick? Surely, we could have come up with something better by now. Or, well, maybe not. After all, it’s been a few thousand years. Perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath.

Initially used only as parasols to protect humans from the sun, umbrellas as a defense against rain go back to ancient China and at least 500 BCE. From crumbling leaf tops to a lack of folding mechanisms, however, they weren’t without problems — and still aren’t today.

As Edouard Bellin remarks, most modern umbrellas are neither windproof nor very sturdy. When the rain flies sideways, they can’t do their job. They can be difficult to open, difficult to close, and even once we manage the latter will they get our floors wet when we return into the dry. That is, if we haven’t forgotten them in the cab, the store, or at…

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Niklas Göke

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. Read my daily blog here: https://nik.art/