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Less is more in the lessons of evolution and ephemeralisation

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Last term at my son's school his year did a project on Victorians. The net was cast as wide as that in order to admit almost anything that could be described as Victorian dress, or sung to the words of a Victorian song, or wielded like a Victorian scythe. Beyond that there was little I could contribute to the project except to calm an ashen-faced victim when he returned from a museum visit with a grim tale of how children had been sent down the mines in the century before he was born.

I was thinking about that side of Victorian life when something struck me. Perhaps child labour was not really explained by anything to do with the exploitation of children but was simply an early example of value engineering; a way of obtaining the minimum-sized labour unit for the task, as in the case of chimney sweeps and cabin boys.

Clearly this line of thought could not be presented to the rest of Year Three in the cheerful tones of their form teacher, but it could be used to reveal some of the similarities and differences between ancient and modern that would otherwise be lost in the tide of Morris Dancing with balloons that was already taking the lead.

Take, for instance, the evolution of the sailing ship, which started the 19th century as a 100-tonne vessel with a crew of 50 and ended it as a ship with a displacement of 2,000 tonnes and a crew of 10. Was this not value engineering at work and ephemeralisation - doing more with less - for that matter? The Victorian age was the age of ephemeralisation, to an extent and with a speed that seems entirely beyond our powers today when our imitation of the Victorian consists of little more than the production of common goods with luxury trappings.

And yet there is a similarity. Glaring down on my desk for the past 20 years has been a Codd bottle, a glass container for drinks like lemonade and ginger beer, that dates from the Victorian age.

Patented in England in 1886 by Hiram J Codd, this all-glass bottle was resealing and reusable and remained in popular use well into the 1920s. The Codd bottle could be charged with a carbonated drink, protected from leakage by a captive glass marble running in a groove to effect a seal except when held back by gas pressure.

Looked at through contemporary eyes, the Victorian Codd bottle still has much to recommend it. It is made of only one material - recyclable glass - which is made from sand, and is thus cheap and limitlessly available. It is also reusable and manufactured in standard sizes, one of which, either by chance or by international standardisation, is 330ml - exactly equal to the present day all-aluminium Coca-Cola multipack can. Here, for sure, is a comparison that will show an example of Victorian superiority.

But does it? The glass bottle is easily smashed (and each bottle contains its own motive for this in the shape of the glass marble inside it). But far more important than breakage is the simple question of weight. Empty, a Victorian Codd bottle tips the scales at 594 grams; filled, its weight rises to 910 grams - but 316 grams of that difference is the weight of solid glass.

In the case of the contemporary multipack aluminium cans, the difference is shattering. The empty can weighs less than 0.5 grams, the full can 316 grams. The benefits of ephemeralisation are drastic when applied to the Codd. As a teacher remarked after translating grams into tonnes:

'No wonder they needed a coach and four just to go on a picnic.'

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