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Comments (2) Posted 01.23.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Chappell Ellison

Ultraflo: Plumbing of the Future


Ultraflow Push Button Plumbing. Photo: Chappell Ellison

In 1870, Mark Twain sat down to his desk to write an essay entitled, "Political Economy." It was to be a serious sort of thing. “Political economy," Twain began, “is the basis of all good government. The wisest men of all ages have brought to bear upon this subject the — ” Twain was interrupted by a stranger at the front door. The rest of the essay continues as Twain’s account of interacting with the stranger. "Privately I wished the stranger was in the bottom of the canal with a cargo of wheat on top of him." As it turns out, the stranger was a salesman, a person whose presence was no more welcome then as it is now. “I was all in a fever, but he was cool. He said he was sorry to disturb me, but as he was passing he noticed that I needed some lightning-rods,” Twain explains in utter exasperation. By the end of the derailed essay, Twain was no closer to finishing his political essay and he had 250 feet of zinc-plated lightning rods on his roof.

I thought of Mark Twain’s angry lashing of a traveling salesman while spending time in an Ohio farmhouse over the holidays. After receiving directions to the bathroom, I stepped in, closed the door behind me and approached the sink to wash my hands. Out of habit, I reached to the right of the sink. My hand grasped at air as I realized there was no cold water knob. I stared for a moment, then saw a small electrical panel on the backsplash of the sink.

Tappan Ultraflo plumbing. Photo: Popular Mechanics, 1963, courtesy of Retro Renovation.

I knew the farmhouse was built in the 1970s (linoleum kitchen floor, wallpaper borders), so I hardly expected a push-button plumbing system. I tried to imagine the pestering salesman that sold such a system to a rural household. I assume his bravado was similar to Twain’s unexpected guest. As I toyed with the system, which was in perfect working condition, I pressed buttons with glee, clicking from hot water to cold. But as time passed slowly (very slowly) at the farmhouse, I understood why Ultraflo plumbing failed to sweep the nation. Not only is it impossible to control the flow of water, the user is locked into only three temperatures: hot, warm and cold. I can only assume that water conservation was not a paramount concern when push-button plumbing was invented. I have not seen Ultraflo in any other house, nor do I expect to.

When I traveled back to my Brooklyn apartment (traditional plumbing, though sometimes a lack of hot water), I found that aside from a few part replacement sites, very little documentation of Ultraflo exists on the internet. So, on this week, one that finds a whole new crop of cell phone users preparing to switch to an iPhone, it’s a nice reminder that sometimes, the push-button aspirations of the future don’t always pan out as planned.

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Comments (2)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

My dad had a powder blue 1962 Valiant that had a push button shift on the dash. Very futuristic. Imagine how cool we would have been with a push button sink!
Mark Duran
01.24.11 at 05:37

In Japan, the bathtub fills at the push of a button, with automatic level shut-off, and accurate thermostatic control.
Your Ultraflo obviously just needed a bit more work.
soubriquet
01.25.11 at 03:18



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Chappell Ellison is a design writer, editor and educator. She is a proud graduate of the Design Criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, and previously received her BFA in Design at the University of Texas. In 2009, her essay on design issues related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder received the AIGA Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing.
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