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Steering Wheel

The first cars had tillers. Tillers worked, but they transmitted the vibration from primitive roads to the driver’s hand, making it hard to steer. When engines moved to the front of the car, the increased weight made tillers impractical. The steering wheel puts a gear system between you and the car’s wheels, offering a mechanical advantage and isolating you from vibrations. Despite this extra layer of insulation, a good steering wheel manages to give the driver a feeling of intimate contact with the road.

One unforeseen problem with the wheel was that, as cars got speedier, people started getting impaled on steering columns in crashes. In the 1950s, concept cars were developed that did not have steering wheels-but the public wasn’t interested. A car without a steering wheel just isn’t a car.

Contribution to the lexicon: “Take the wheel”

Magnetic-Stripe Card

Machines let us through doors, dole out money, and extend credit. To do these jobs, they read an identity code embedded in a magnetic strip on a plastic card. Indeed, when you lose your wallet, the biggest concern isn’t the cash-it’s the cards that might enable someone else to abuse your privileges.

Part of the reason we’re scared is that we’re so good at abusing our own privileges. In the early 1970s magnetic stripes on credit cards streamlined the authorization of credit card purchases, making them more attractive to retailers; combined with interest charges and new kinds of payment plans, the magnetic stripe helped the credit-card industry gorge America on credit.

Will new incarnations of plastic data in the form of “smart cards” go even further and make mag-stripe cards disappear? Not so fast, says David Warwick, author of Ending Cash. “Chip cards are going to find niches in certain applications,” he says, “but I don’t see them replacing credit cards. No one wants to invest in new terminals.”

Contribution to the lexicon: “Swipe your card.”

Traffic Light

When African-American businessman Garrett Morgan patented the traffic light in 1923, trains had been using automated lighted signals for some time. But trains run on set schedules, in single file, and it’s no small task to stop; therefore, the default message from a train signal is “proceed.” Traffic lights for automobiles have a quite different task, and more often than we’d like, it’s to tell us to stop.

We hate being told to stop. Road-rage expert Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, says we link self-esteem to the gas and brake pedals. “If you see a light turning yellow, you have to accelerate. If you have to stop because the light turned red, you feel crestfallen.” James calls the intersection a “psychodynamic zone.” If so, it’s a zone increasingly under the dominion of the superego rather than the id. Some new traffic lights can take pictures of the license plates of cars that run red lights. The offender later receives a ticket in the mail-or a printed driving lesson. Others show drivers their current speed. At a traffic light, says James, “a lot can be done between the city transportation department and the driver. It’s a communication hotspot.”

Contribution to the lexicon: “Give it the green light”

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