Honeywell

I grew up in Minnesota, in the “north country fair,” as the Bob Dylan song goes, “where the rivers freeze/and summer ends.” In the winter, the outside air does occasionally reach spectacularly low temperatures. Only in my memory, the cold in itself had no particular poetry about it. It didn’t seem to matter as much as the subtle temperature variations inside. More often than not, these turned out to be variations in perception. My parents’ ritual winter dialogue went: “Fred, I’m chilly. Could we have a little more heat?” “Oh, Louise, just put on another sweater.” It was a feature of the season, like snowplows and ice skating.

 

These differences were settled by thermostat. He always won. The thermostat didn’t actually control us—it controlled the heat in the house. But the device – a small, round object on the dining room wall — embodied logic, and so did Dad, on the whole. His usual argument was cost-efficiency. Occasionally there was something about health as well, but it didn’t matter because he was going to win anyway. Mom didn’t argue. She just liked being warm. She made the decision the way most of us make most of our decisions most of the time: “because I like it.” It’s not something you can argue about. And at least in our family in the 1960s, what anyone “liked” couldn’t compete with the majestic force of “what’s best” or “what’s reasonable”. We learned to be—or to appear to be—logical, and a little vague about what we really liked.

 

At that time the small, round object on the dining room wall had not yet become the global icon it is today. We knew it had been made just up the highway in Minneapolis, Minnesota’s largest city. We didn’t know that even then, families in the Netherlands, Germany and France would have been looking at an identical dial for identical reasons, possibly having identical conversations in their respective languages. The manufacturer’s name, in the same clean, functional type it uses today, was “Honeywell”.

 

Founded as Butz Thermo-Electric Regulator Company in the 19th century, the company had morphed into the Consolidated Temperature Controlling Company, then into the Electric Heat Regulator Company. In 1927, it merged with a competitor company run by a young engineer called Mark Honeywell and became the Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Co. By 1963, though, it was just plain Honeywell, Inc. You can imagine why. It sounds nice, like “source of sweetness”. “Honey” sweetened away all reference to the company’s central purpose, too, namely regulation, or to put it a bit more bluntly, control. Honeywell seemed to be the company that kept your house warm; it was in fact the company that kept the temperature in your house under control.

 

The round thermostat – the T-86 — went on the market in 1953 and remains in production today. The concept of systematic control went on to bigger things, such as control systems for missiles, surveillance, detection and alarms. For a little while, Honeywell made computers. When the U.S. was waging war in Viet Nam, Minnesota’s anti-war protesters demanded that the company stop its military production—bomb guidance systems and napalm. And it did stop. In 1986 it merged with Sperry Aerospace. Through all the corporate mergers and spin-offs, the name persists: the sprawling global conglomerate that surfaced in 2015 is called Honeywell.

 

When it’s cold outside, it’s logical to keep the number on the thermostat low; it’s also a sensual pleasure to be warm. Dad liked the open fireplace. He could show his considerable fire-building expertise to good advantage, discourse about how various kinds of wood burn, wax poetic about the visual aesthetics of flame and glowing coals. I suspect he spent more time than anyone else sitting in front of the fire, reading. The number on the thermostat in the next room hardly ever changed, although our sense of his logical consistency did, a bit. Thermostats impose Dad’s logic, even when Dad himself is doing what he likes.