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The Biographical background of
Elegant Technology


Jonathan Larson
Place and Date of Birth
Little Falls, MN 7/17/49



University of Minnesota; BS. Urban Studies (1974); Major, City Planning; Minors, Sociology, Political Science, Statistics.

Publications before
Elegant Technology

Hanki ja Jää
Tuottajat ja Saalistajat: Johdatus ekoteolliseen ratkaisuun (Producers and Predators: an introduction to industrial-environmentalism) (Feb. 1989)



Biographical information:

How I came to know what I know
by Jonathan Larson

It has LOTS of parts (some even related)

Although I researched over 600 books and 70,000 magazine articles for Elegant Technology; economic prosperity from an environmental blueprint, it is far from being a traditional research paper. Much of what I write about has been learned through experiences in life. What follows is a list of those experiences that influenced the final form of
Elegant Technology.

Religion and the History of the Protestant Reformation

Born the eldest son of a Lutheran minister, childhood pressures and training were directed towards a life as a clergyman. For over 20 years, my father served on the executive board of an overseas mission society. My godfather, for whom I was named, was born in China and spent his life as a missionary to Nepal. Missionaries were regular and frequent guests in our home.

In 1954, my father took a church in southwest Minnesota and we moved to a town that was predominantly Mennonite. Shortly after this move, the Mennonite clergy. in a spirit of ecumenicism, elected my father to head the local Ministerial Association. The professional circle of acquaintances expanded to include Mennonite clergymen and missionaries. As a result of this cooperation, I was sent to the local Mennonite parochial school from K-6.

Although the Mennonites are liberal by comparison to their Amish cousins, this school was demanding and rigid. By the sixth grade, I had been forced to memorize over 2000 Bible verses and learn 600 hymns (in addition to the three "Rs" and most especially geography--these people travel the world.)

Although Luther once taught that Mennonites were heretics to be excommunicated or killed, my father got on well with them because he agreed with their emphasis on mission work and their Biblically inspired fundamentalist pacifism. The Mennonites make terrific missionaries because their simple agrarian lifestyle makes it easy for them to minimize cultural imperialism and maximize the amount of practical good when working in underdeveloped countries. As a child, I benefited from this cultural bilingualism by being shown what is important and what is trivial about religious practice.

As this was the craziest period of the cold war, Mennonite pacifism was muted. Because Dwight Eisenhower was raised a Mennonite and the defeat of Fascism was considered good, there were some doubts that pacifism was an absolute teaching. A neighbor had defied church authority and fought in Europe. He was part of the liberation of Dachau and had ghastly pictures to prove it. When he came back from World War II, he was not allowed to return to his Mennonite congregation and so he and other veterans formed the Christian Missionary Alliance church in town. Nevertheless, he was elected as a State Senator from a virtually all-Mennonite district. My bother worked on his campaigns. Mennonite pacifism during this period demonstrated itself in a quiet concern for the victims of war. During the 1950s, that little town took in several hundred European refugees of World War II. Today, it contains over 1000 Hmong refugees from Laos.

Nevertheless, my upbringing was quite Swedish Lutheran from Swedish hymn-singing to rice pudding with lingonberries at Christmas. All my relatives are Swedish and Lutheran. To this day, my best friend, named Jonathan Carlson, is another Lutheran preacher's kid (PK). When my book was published in Finland, I discovered that the editor, named Matti Virtanen, is also a Lutheran PK--in his case, his father is a Bishop which is a very big deal in a country where the Lutheran church is the state religion. None of us are very religious but all are devoted to public service. It is easy to forget the dogmas of Luther. (All of us would have trouble remembering Luther's definition of "sanctification" although we memorized it for Confirmation. I was even required at one time to memorize large sections of the Augsburg Confession--the defining Lutheran doctrine of the Protestant Reformation.) It is probably impossible to shed the cultural manifestations of being a Lutheran PK.

Although we would rather not think of ourselves as politically conspiratorial, Virtanen points out that over 80% of the known members of the Beider Meinhof Gang are Lutheran PKs. Our opinion is that this is a perversion of the call to public service. Rather than being conspiratorial, gatherings of Lutheran PKs usually sound like a victim's support group--only another one quite understands the cultural pressure of that childhood which is relentless.


Johann Sebastian Bach was Lutheran. Lutheran dogma requires congregational singing. Lutheran clergy sing part of the liturgy. Ergo, Lutheran PKs learn to sing. I was continuously in choirs from 1954 to 1974 with time out only for a voice change. Some, like the Minnesota Bach Society and the University of Minnesota Chorus were very good--others I would prefer to forget. Although I only memorized Handel's Messiah and Verdi's Requiem, I have performed in most of the major choral works in an area of the world where choral singing is very important. In addition, I had piano lessons and took music theory and history at the University of Minnesota. Not all my musical training was deadly serious--I was once a sailor in Gilbert and Sullivan's "H. M. S. Pinafore" and a juror in "Trial by Jury" at the Chimera Theater in St. Paul.

Tool Use and Design

When I was only five years old, a member of my father's church gave me a box of woodworking tools. He believed that all good little Smalanders (the province in southeast Sweden which was home to a majority of those emigrants who found their way to America's Midwest) should know how to build. As a result, my childhood was spent building toys, kites, treehouses, soap-box derby style coasters, and most especially flying model airplanes.

Beginning at age 15, I worked summers on home-building crews eventually acquiring journeyman carpenter skills. Following graduation from the University of Minnesota, I became involved with the rebuilding of an historic neighborhood in St. Paul. Our projects had a social dimension--we wanted to hire and train "street people" who came from a half-way house for drug and alcohol abuse. Because nineteenth century carpenters were so skilled, reproducing their work with essentially unskilled labor required tool modifications, fixtures and jigs. I became interested in various tool design practices.

A friend named Frank Ryan was especially helpful in this effort. He is a master tool designer and set-up man for a custom metal-stamping shop that supplies such things as internal parts for aircraft instruments. The 1970s and 80s produced great changes to his business with the advent of statistical process controls, just-in-time inventory practices, the internationalization of competition and the drive for zero-defect output, self-inspection, and the computerization of machine tools. Whenever I had a tool-design brainstorm, he would tell me where it fit in the overall scheme of production practices internationally and whether it could be built for my budget--which was always close to zero.

For a period of time, I did nothing but design and build production equipment. In 1984, I was granted a 19-claim product-by-process patent (U.S.#4,484,782) for the tooling necessary to produce prescription seating for the bad-back market. This tooling was a combination of the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of mass-production methods with an ability to make each product significantly different from the next one. It is a thinking that combines Japanese lean production methods with Scandinavian ergonomic considerations and German "Green" design-for-disassembly practices.

Historical Preservation

From 1975-1980, I served as production supervisor-general contractor for a series of privately organized restoration-rehabilitation projects. The most significant effort involved preserving the Louis Lockwood Rowhouse, probably the only Prairie School Rowhouse extant. In addition to construction supervision and worker education, this job involved community organizing and the associated tasks involved with federal historical designation of the Woodland Park Addition of St. Paul--a middle-class neighborhood built between 1870 and 1900 that features some of the best examples of Queen Anne and Victorian architecture left in the United States. I also have done free-lance work as a restoration carpenter. In 1987, I made a exact copy of the wooden lychgate designed by Cass Gilbert for St. Clements Episcopal Church in St. Paul. One rebuilt grand staircase was pictured in Historic Preservation Magazine, Workbench Magazine, and National Geographic Magazine.

Energy Policy and Conservation Strategies

During oil shock #1 in 1973, I studied energy policy from Dean Abrahamson, a man who had started his career in physics, became concerned about the hazards of radiation and so became an MD.., and after all that education decided that nuclear power was neither a physics or a medical issue but a public policy matter and wound up teaching in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Because of my construction background, I wrote a major paper for him on methods for increasing energy-efficiency in existing structures.

For the next decade, energy conservation in existing buildings became an avocation and vocation. Making a one hundred year old wooden house, that has been neglected for the last fifty years, energy-efficient is probably impossible but much was learned and some buildings were rebuilt to modern American if not Scandinavian energy-efficiency standards. The energy consumption of Lockwood Rowhouse worked out to 6.4 b.t.u./sq. ft./heating degree day at 68· F in winter and 78· F in summer. 4.0 would be possible today with few problems.

City Planning

Planning ultimately became my major at the University of Minnesota with an internship served with the City of Robbinsdale, Minnesota.


My career as a "motorhead" is something of an accident--like most bookish types, I had learned class scorn for the hot-rod set in high school. Then I bought my first car which was an Austin Healy Sprite. Since I had little money, I was forced to learn to be a mechanic because this car broke regularly and often.

Knowing how to fix Sprites was sufficient qualification to get a job in 1969 at a general auto parts store. 1969 was the high-water mark for American muscle cars and drag-racers patronized our store. As I got to know these people, I volunteered to do some serious racing wrench-spinning.

Long quiet winter evenings at the store were spent poring through the parts catalogues looking to find the winning edge--the catalogues covered over five feet of counter space and we stocked about 25,000 different parts. Amazed by the sheer size and complexity of the automobile world, I began to study the literature. Though I now usually feign ignorance about matters automotive to avoid working on cars, I have not missed reading an issue of Car and Driver since 1969 and the fact they once published a letter of mine is an accomplishment of which I am most proud. CD's description of the decline of America's largest industry was much better than even David Halberstam's critically-acclaimed The Reckoning on the same subject.

Aircraft Design and Aviation History

Airplanes were the joy of my youth. Aircraft are very important in the Midwest. Relatives of mine worked for Boeing in Wichita Kansas. My father's best clergyman friend had a Waco which he flew as a flying evangelist. Missionaries flew planes as a part of their work so my airplane-lust was never discouraged. I was born about six blocks from Charles Lindbergh's boyhood home. At 13, I built my first flying model. At 14, I formed a model airplane club that had 10 members and an adult advisor who had his commercial rating and was part owner of a Mooney Mk 20. At 15, some of us were experimenting with new designs and had constructed a crude wind-tunnel. When I was not building model planes, I was reading about real airplanes--their history, their design, and their uses.

Since then, I have been an occasional member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and still read Flying, Sport Aviation, and Aviation Week and Space Technology on a regular basis. My brother-in-law has been a prototype fabricator for Boeing in Seattle and built, with four others, all the pre-production air-launched cruise missiles--an interesting source of information.

Agriculture and Associated Political Movements

Both my grandfathers were farmers. At least 50% of all my father's congregations consisted of farmers. As a child I spent time on farms pulling weeds, detasseling corn, feeding animals, filling silos, and putting up hay. Over half of my classmates from school lived on farms. Mennonite farming can be technologically primitive as a matter of religious practice and so I witnessed many examples of preindustrial agriculture.

One grandfather was a Kansas Republican, the other a Minnesota Farmer-Laborite. My father taught that cooperatives were the most moral form of agricultural organization. One of his jobs was to comfort victims of farm-foreclosure auctions--it was at such an auction that I first saw a grown man cry.

The adult advisor to my model airplane club was an organizer for the National Farmer's Organization (NFO) and we were not talking about airplanes, we were discussing the mad policies of Ezra Taft Bensen--the Eisenhower-era Secretary of Agriculture who deliberately determined that the number of family farms should shrink. The NFO was a movement of small farmers which traced its roots to the Grange, the National Farmer's Alliance, and the Farm Holiday movement of the 1930s.

I also lived in North Dakota, a state where agriculture dominates the economy and where the Non-Partisan League was born. North Dakota has probably the most progressive political history in the United States and is the only state with a state bank.

As an adult, I have continued to read the various histories of the progressive farmer's organizations and am in regular contact with members of the sustainable agricultural movement.

Monetary Theory

When I was 14, the NFO organizer gave me my first lesson in progressive monetary theory. I have been an ardent Fed watcher and have read at least 50 books and 5000 articles on the subject since then.


At 12, I was given a chemistry set for Christmas back in the days when such sets were still legal. By the time I took high school chemistry as a junior, we were living in Tioga North Dakota which was an oil company town complete with a large refinery and extensive drilling activity. As a result, most of the town's professionals were chemists, engineers, or geologists who insisted that chemistry was well taught and the high school lab well equipped. For me, chemistry was intuitive (my uncle spent his working life as a chemist for Phillips Petroleum retiring with eight significant patents so ability in chemistry has been treated as a family trait) and at the end of the year, I was named as one of 250 National Science Foundation scholars. Because of family problems, I was not able to spend the summer at college.

As an adult, I have only maintained interest in chemistry as it relates to toxic waste disposal.


In 1970, I got a job with a company that rented high-tech medical equipment to hospitals in Minnesota whenever they were caught short or needed something they had not purchased as yet. We were trained to operate and perform basic repair on infant incubators, heart monitors, but mostly respirators. I was trained to run the Puritan-Bennett MA-1 (the respirator that forever fuzzed the line between life and death) before even the University of Minnesota Hospital had one.

As a Vietnam era pacifist, I was "sentenced" to two years alternative service which I spent at the University of Minnesota Hospital as an operating-room orderly. This is the hospital where open heart surgery was perfected in the 1950s by C. Walton Lillihei, Norm Shumway, and Christian Barnard (the South African who performed the first heart transplant.) By 1970, this research had produced companies like Medtronics. The joke was that the pacifists had traded an experience with the military-industrial complex for a stint with the medical-industrial complex.

While I was there, six of the eight orderlies were pacifists which made for interesting conversations about medical ethics and the social organization of the hospital. We were part of a union organizing drive and voiced complaints about the growing crises in medical ethics. Since that time, the University Hospital has hired a full-time ethicist whose opinions I share at least 98% of the time and like to think our agitation caused this to happen. We got the hospital to begin regular seminars and training on coping with death. The first one was to be addressed by the poet John Berryman. He committed suicide ten days before he was scheduled to speak which shocked and saddened us all.

During this time, I met a woman with whom I would spend 17 years. She would eventually become the clinical director of the operating rooms so for 17 years I had a daily bulletin from the epicenter of the medical-industrial complex and grew to know staffing problems, budgets, and technological decisions including the building of a new hospital.

Industrial History

As I child, I was fascinated by the devices people built to make work easier--especially in agriculture. At 14, a family tour took us to Detroit and Washington D.C. and I got to see the Henry Ford Museum and the Smithsonian--I have still not forgotten Henry Ford's attic! WOW! Later, I would also see the Deutches Museum in Munich. Over the years, I have been most interested in the invention, development, and production of airplanes, automobiles, and machine tools and often joke that I walk around with the history of the industrial revolution in my head. At one time, I seriously considered writing such a history, but when I read Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, I decided the definitive book had already been written.

Ergonomics and Industrial Design

I hold a patent which includes disclosure of an ergonomic measuring device for determining the shape and size of the human back. In 1980, I worked for a company that produced giant industrial displays for trade show clients like Minnesota Mining (3M) and worked with award-winning designers. I discovered that American industrial designers were far more concerned with appearance than function so my design is more Germanic. In 1981, a design of mine was named product of the month by Twin Cities Magazine and in 1986, I designed the workstations for the new University of Minnesota operating room sterile processing area.

Small Business Organization

Since graduating from college, I have been involved with three different start-up businesses--one successful, one a flop, and the third one is in the birthing stage. All made a product for sale.


My college minor was in sociology. At the time, the University of Minnesota was computerizing statistics in the social sciences--the hot new software was the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). Fortunately, a professor was very skeptical about computerized research and correctly predicted that it would lead to widespread abuse by people who would forget the important problems of data-gathering. He scorned those who showed up to study assembly-line workers dressed in suits and carrying briefcases stuffed with surveys. "How," he would ask, "can such people even know what questions to ask?" He was a big believer in the participant-observer method of social inquiry.

When it came time to conduct a real study, I decided to try his way instead of the department's way. As I was working in a hospital, I decided to study worker attitudes towards management by comparing orderlies, food service workers, carpenters and maintenance personnel, lab attendants, and nurses. We were assigned to work as a group and everyone wanted to do this project. I designed the questionnaire based on almost two years of observation. We had some problems. The food service workers were suspicious, the orderlies were atypical college-educated pacifists, and one member of our group, a high-round, pro draft-choice, football-playing hunk, volunteered to interview all the nurses--he got too many dates to trust his objectivity or the nurses'. Nevertheless, we all got As and I became a lifelong believer in the value of participant-observation--especially at the stage of study design. As the Finns would often compare me to C. Wright Mills, I figure the lesson was worthwhile.

Shortly after the hospital study was completed for grade, I completed my alternative service and quit work as an orderly. The tensions of 1972 were such that labor turmoil was threatening to disrupt surgery so the doctors staged a revolt and in spite of air-tight civil service rules, got the old army nurses in charge of sterile routine and cleanup fired to be replaced by a more enlightened regime. The new director of personnel (with 14 rooms, the University O.R. was large enough to have its own permanent personnel department--it took two years for a new nurse to learn all the different surgical procedures) had read my study and commissioned me to do one for only the operating rooms. The findings stressed worker empowerment with increased respect for the professional status of the nurses, higher pay and better training for technicians and nursing assistants, and most especially, better treatment for orderlies. The personnel director is now the director of the operating rooms and her reforms are still in place.

Political Economic Theory and Philosophy

At one time, I wanted to be an economist and took the beginning courses--one taught by Walter Heller (Kennedy's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors and possibly the only qualified person to have ever held that post.) I dropped economics when I discovered that Heller was being edged aside by the quant jocks who were claiming that econometrics was superior to political economy. Nevertheless, he inspired a lifelong interest in economic theory and I have plowed through the definitive works of the worldly philosophers from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (his General Theory is really as difficult as everyone says, more difficult even than Das Kapital!)

Thorstein Veblen

Of all the economic theorists, I have always felt most connected to Veblen. We have much in common. We are both Lutheran Viking-Americans who grew up in rural Minnesota around politically progressive farmers. Both of us are fascinated by the people who built the industrial state and both scorn the petty, ridiculous people who sabotaged its potential. Currently I am involved in an effort to save to old Veblen farmstead which lies less that 15 miles from where I did the final rewrite of Elegant Technology.

Labor History

Even though I have belonged to three unions and was involved in organizing a forth, my understanding of labor history is mostly as a result of research for Elegant Technology.

Military History

An interest in things military may seem strange for a pacifist but in fact, pacifism was the motor that drove my interest. I was bedeviled by the question, "Is there such a thing as a just war?" Seeing pictures of the liberation of Dachau as a fifth grader left a lasting impression that was not exorcised by visiting there in 1970. Finding out that Lutheran clergymen, labor organizers, and pacifists died at Dachau only confused matters in my mind and so I dove into the history of Fascism, World war I, and so on back through history. Eventually, I gave up when I had made a study of the Thirty Years War. To cope with all the bloodshed and madness of these accounts, I specialized in the history of weapons development rather than tactics or generalship. My conclusion after reading hundreds of books was that the defeat of Hitler may have been history's sole example of a just war and that it barely qualifies.

Political Activism

Since the heady days of antiwar activism, I have been politically quiet except for some community organizing. Three times I have been elected as a county representative at Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucuses--most recently as a Jesse Jackson delegate (mostly because of his support for Midwestern farmers) but have gone no further.

Environmental Consulting

Since 1986, I have served as primary consultant to Jonathan Carlson, an Emmy-Award winning producer for WCCO television (the CBS-owned station in Minneapolis) on a series of environmental programs for children. I have also done consulting in the area of design-for-disassembly.

International Environmental Strategies

As a result of my book being published in Scandinavia, I discovered that many of those environmental strategies that I thought I had invented were already in practice in northern Europe. Far from being ahead of the pack, I have spent the past two years scrambling to catch up. This new information was incorporated in the final rewrite of Elegant Technology.

General Knowledge

As can probably be deduced from the above list, I have a wide range of interests and am an information sponge. I declared six different majors in college before deciding on city planning. When I was five, my parents bought me a set of World Book Encyclopedias to shut up my nagging questions. By nine, I had read the whole set. I once tried my hand at selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was not much of a salesman but I read most of the then new Britannica 3 in 14 months.

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