Sunday, April 26, 2009

American Icons

I was reading a magazine the other day that had a review about a new book marking the 100th anniversary of the Ford Model T. This car surely has become an American icon of the automobile industry (truly the Good Old Days in light of recent events). I got to thinking about what made the Model T an Icon (definition: a thing regarded as a representative symbol of a class of products). The Model T was not the first American car. It was not the first factory-produced car, but it was the first to create the first mass market for automobiles. As the Model T penetrated people’s daily lives it became synonymous with the collective consciousness of that class of objects called cars. Icons are like that. They may not be the first invention in a new class but they become the short-hand for our mind’s eye. Often the very brand names of the product become generic to the whole class: Kleenex Tissues, Scotch Tape, Xerox copies. If asked, people will often be able to name the icon in a particular class of products. Here are some of my guesses:

Refrigerators: Frigidaire
Steamboats: Fulton’s Claremont
Electricity: Edison’s Lightbulb
Commercial Airliners: DC-3
Personal Music Device: Walkman
Personal Computer: Apple II
Sewing Machine: Singer
Tractor: John Deere

Not every product category has an icon, of course. Sometimes nothing dominates a category to the degree that it becomes the single representative of the entire class. Is there an iconic television, for example? Successful products tend to draw imitators and the choices quickly proliferate. This is one of the reasons that icons tend to be found early in the life cycle of a product category, before they are overwhelmed by imitators.

I was thinking of trying to collect even more iconic examples of American technology. I would also be interested to know what icons are emerging today? If you have any suggestions, I would appreciate your comments.

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