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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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