Tonawanda News

February 21, 2012

CONFER: The ingenuity of the Greatest Generation


The Tonawanda News

— — Last Sunday marked the birth date of my grandfather Ray Confer, who, along with my father, had founded Confer Plastics. Had he been alive he would have turned 90. On that day I had spent some time pondering some of his many inventions, especially his most ubiquitous, something we all use in our day-to-day lives: the living hinge.

Ray designed the living hinge in the early 1960s as a means to more efficiently make plastic tool cases. The addition of metal hinges always added cost to the final product due to materials and assembly and such hinges always placed limitations on overall product design. So, Ray came up with an ingenious way to eliminate the metal hinges by molding a plastic hinge in process as a part of the case itself, rather than as an add on.

Basically, the living hinge is a thin section of plastic that connects two halves of a part to keep them together and allows the part to be opened and closed over and over again. It can be found in toolboxes, tackle boxes, and those plastic clamshells that are used as takeout containers and storage boxes for produce; Ray’s invention is everywhere. This was just one of his many patented ideas and countless more that went unpatented and became norms within the plastic industry and other manufacturing sectors.

His nearly limitless ingenuity got me thinking about how special he and his generation were in regard to engineering and innovation.

The Greatest Generation left an indelible mark on America from the experiences they shared during the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Golden Era that followed. But, they also introduced so much advancement to us in what was, comparatively, such little time. In a few decades they pushed the limits of technology (and therefore humanity) to extremes that would have been deemed unapproachable just a few years earlier.

Men like my grandfather and other Western New York geniuses like Wilson Greatbatch and Herbert Hauptman devised so many things that dominate our lives today, as did their peers in the local aerospace industry who helped put man into space and then onto the moon. Their compatriots developed transistors, microchips, and the foundations for today’s computer technology.

It can be said without any exaggeration that the generation preceding the Baby Boomers featured the greatest and largest collection of highly-achieving thinkers, designers, engineers, and scientists ever assembled at one time. Most all them lived and worked in anonymity, outside the boundaries of fame, unlike the previous but smaller collections of bright minds of greater renown like our Founding Fathers, the scientists and artists of the Renaissance, and the Greek philosophers.

Who knows if we’ll ever see a peer group even remotely close to the creative intellect of the Greatest Generation. In recent decades it so seems that technology and science aren’t growing at the leaps and bounds they once were under the watch of today’s oldest seniors. Sure, there have been developments in efficiency and communication, but where is the next big thing that’s not a phone or tablet? Why did space travel stall at the Space Shuttle? Why is solar energy still so inefficient? Why are people still starving around the world? Why are we still so dependent on oil?

If Baby Boomers and my generation were even half as talented as their parents and grandparents, those questions — and more — would have been sufficiently answered by now. But, we’re not and chances are none of our heirs will be. The Greatest Generation is known as that for a reason. They set the bar high and it’s difficult for just anyone to attain their heights.

But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. They set a good example — no, a great example — for us. There’s a lot we can learn from them — not only what they did, but how and why they did it — and that should serve as a template for success and progress far into future generations.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. His column is published on Mondays. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.