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Open sesame

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In 1899 Charles H. Duell, the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office said, “Everything that can be invented, has been invented.” I wish he had been right. Nothing can stop the torrent of crack-brained inventions designed to make life more difficult.

As much as I honor the genius of inventors throughout the ages, who have given us such life-enhancing products as the paper clip, the microwave oven, and of course the radio (thank you Mr. Marconi), it must be admitted that many inventions are and always have been bad news. Some exceptionally clever inventions, like the nuclear bomb and the Internet, are so very bad that they threaten to destroy civilization entirely, but there’s not much we can do about that. It's the small stuff that gets on your nerves, trivial inventions that never needed to exist at all.

Here is a prize example. Locks have been used for 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptians and Romans used them, because mutual trust was no higher then that it is now. A lock is a mechanical device to secure a door or strong box and can be only opened by its own special key, providing simple and effective security for thousands of years.

Sometime in the late 1980s, some deranged genius decided that car owners were being oppressed by their locks. The effort of placing a key in the door lock and turning it was just too much. So, remote or touchless keys appeared on the market. Nobody asked for them, nobody needed them. But now we can lock or unlock our cars merely by standing close to them, and so it seems can anybody else. It once took some skill to unlock a car door and wire the ignition. Now professional thieves and bored teenagers can just step in and drive away.

What is “remote” about these keys is intelligence. The inventor forgot that the main purpose of a key is not to open something, but to keep it closed. When we bought a new car recently, after reluctantly selling an old one with proper locks, we discovered that the doors worked on the opposite principle. This car was hard to lock, and reluctant stay locked.

So remote keys have been a bonanza for car thieves. It is all too easy to leave the remote in or near the car, or to have the code stolen out of your pocket electronically by cunning thieves who lurk in car parking lots. Naturally there has been an explosion of car theft all over the country — an increase of up to 80% in Washington D.C., which I suppose is only to be expected.

A remote key costs a fortune to replace, if you can get a replacement at all with the current microchip shortage. Thousands of cars are going nowhere for the want of that vital microchip. A simple key would get them on the road in seconds.

Nothing has been improved by this ridiculous invention except the productivity of car thieves. The inventor, if he is still with us, should go back to the drawing board. Starting with a flat piece of metal, a file and the application of a little intelligence, it should surely not take him long to reinvent the simple key.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.