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When I was a kid, early middle-school age, my buddies and I got hooked on a TV show called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  Now, we were just kids, ten, eleven years old, and to our minds the show spent altogether too much time following the exploits of Dwayne Hickman in the title role as he tried to get into Tuesday Weld's panties -- in a wholesome, fifties sitcom kind of way, of course.  And if that's all there was to the show, we wouldn't have been caught dead watching it.

But Dobie's best buddy was a guy named Maynard G. Krebs, and Maynard was 1959 TV's conception of a beatnik.  We thought Maynard was the coolest, even if he was portrayed as sort of a buffoon.  We tried to talk like Maynard, walk like Maynard, dress like Maynard...  Hell, if eleven-year-olds could grow beards like Maynard's, we so would have done that!

We loved Maynard.  So we were understandably devastated when we heard that Bob Denver, the actor who played Maynard, had died, electrocuted in a freak accident when a radio fell into the tub where he was taking a bath.  To the flip, if you please.

Update: There is a video embed in a comment about six down that auto-starts -- an attempt to modify the code so it wouldn't auto-start that worked in preview but not when posted.  We all know how that goes.  You may want to scroll down and hit the stop button, then come back and read the rest of the diary.  Thanks.

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

It turned out, of course, that Bob Denver hadn't been electrocuted in a radio-in-the-bathtub accident.  As we all know, he went on to play the title role on Gilligan's Island in 98 episodes from 1964 to 1967, and...  Well, that was about all, actually.  When you hitch your wagon to an iconic character like Gilligan, that's pretty much it for your acting career.  You ain't gonna be doing Tennessee Williams any time soon.  As for the radio-in-the-bathtub rumor, it was a weird urban legend that would resurface periodically throughout Denver's career.  And when he finally did pass away September 2, 2005, at the age of 70, radios and bathtubs had nothing to do with it.

Now, Bob Denver wasn't killed by a radio falling into a bathtub, but if he had been, his life might have been saved if the outlet the radio was plugged into was protected by a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.  Ironically, the first GFCI device was invented right about the time the radio-in-the-bathtub rumor first surfaced.  And the person we have to thank for it is an academic named Charles Dalziel.

Charles Dalziel was a professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of California at Berkeley, later to be home to the Free Speech Movement and host of other things that make conservatives' heads explode.  (A good place, in other words.)  As sometimes happens, he achieved his greatest impact when he ventured outside his narrow field of interest and specialty.

Charles Dalziel, inventor of the
Ground Fault Current Interrupter

His particular research interest was in power systems, but a chance event diverted him to a new area. Faculty of the Davis campus enlisted Professor Dalziel's aid in developing an electric insect trap. Thus was started a lifelong interest in the effect of electric shock on living creatures, starting with barnyard flies and progressing to livestock, and ultimately to humans.

Even then, research on the effect of electric shock on humans was a very sensitive area. Dalziel, using unique methods of persuasion, extreme care and rigorous methods of testing, amassed a large amount of data from a wide range of tests on approximately 200 volunteers of both sexes and a range of ages. These data provided an excellent source of information on the physiological effects of electric shock, and Dalziel soon became a world authority on the subject.
University of California: In Memoriam, 1986 -- Charles Dalziel

The results of Dalziel's studies (pdf) on the physiological effects of electric shock on humans are still used today.  As an authority on the subject, he was frequently asked to review and offer his opinion in cases involving death or injury from electric shock.  From this activity he came to recognize that the great majority of deaths from electric shock came as a result of a malfunction in ordinary household circuits known as a "ground fault", where electricity, instead of passing through the wiring in an electrical device, takes a "shortcut" to the ground through a person touching the device.  And while this might be a useful plot device in any number of movies and TV shows, it was clearly not a good thing if you were the person completing the circuit.

His research objective then became to create a device which would interrupt a ground-fault current before it became large enough to cause human physiological damage. The sensitivity, speed of action, reliability, small size, and small cost required made the device almost impossible to design.

Dalziel persevered, however.  In 1961 he succeeded in inventing a functional device and in 1965 patented a "Ground Fault Current Interrupter" that achieved a fair combination of all the required elements of sensitivity, speed, reliability, size and cost.  He most certainly did NOT test the device by tossing a toaster into the bathtub with his daughter. (Warning:  Bad science inside!)

At the time Dalziel patented the first GFCI, deaths from accidental electrocution in the United States were approaching 1,100 per year.  And while this might be useful for holding down the population of 8-year-old evangelists, there was clearly a problem desperate for a solution -- and here was a solution.  Once the invention was picked up by manufacturers, commercially viable products were quickly developed, and then regulators went to work.  Just three years after Dalziel received his patent, the National Electrical Code first required Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters on swimming pool underwater lighting systems.  Other applications followed soon after.

Year GFCI Protection was Required for Specified Application

  Year     Application
  1968    Swimming Pool Underwater Lighting
   1971    Receptacles Near Swimming Pools
   1973    Outdoor Receptacles
   1975    Bathroom Receptacles
   1978    Garage Receptacles
   1981    Whirlpools and Tubs
   1987    Receptacles Near Kitchen Sinks
   1990    Receptacles in Unfinished Basements and Crawl Spaces
   1993    Receptacles Near Wet Bar Sinks
   1996    All Kitchen Counter-Top Receptacles
   2005    Receptacles Near Laundry and Utility Sinks

While the National Electrical Code is actually a voluntary standard developed by a non-profit organization, the National Fire Protection Association, it is adopted in whole or in part by so many states, counties, and municipalities that inclusion in the NEC insures that a particular change will implemented in large portions of the county.

Expanding the required applications created more demand, increasing production, which brought down prices, which made it feasible to expand the required applications at a reasonable cost, which further increased demand and hence production, further lowering prices...  In 1984, when about two million units were produced (pdf) the average price of a receptacle-style GFCI ranged from $16 to $35.  The progressive changes to the code outlined above resulted in an increase of production to nearly 25 million units twenty years later, with the result that today, despite a quarter century of inflation, a household 15-amp GFCI device sells for about ten dollars or less at your local hardware store or home center.  And the adoption of the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter produced dramatic results.

Just 25 years after the GFCI was first introduced, the number of accidental electrocutions in the U.S. had dropped in half, even though the use of electricity had more than doubled in that same time period.
Underwriters Laboratories Inc.: Some History of Residential Wiring Practices in the U.S. (pdf)

An article on eLCOSH, the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health, calls the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, "probably the most significant life-saving device ever invented for protection against serious injury or death caused by an electrical shock."  And take a look again at the dates in the table above.  Realize that buildings built before those dates are grandfathered and are not required to have the devices installed unless they are having re-wiring done.  The Electrical Safety Foundation International estimates that if GFCI protection was installed in all houses in the U.S., 70 percent of the approximately 400 home electrocutions that occur each year could be prevented.  A little project for the next round of stimulus spending, perhaps?


And now for the "audience participation" part of our diary:

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters should be tested every month.  If you haven't been testing yours, right now is a good time to start, especially since May is National Electrical Safety Month.  Here's how:

You'll need something to plug into the GFCI so you can tell whether the device is working properly.  A night light will work nicely, but almost anything with a visible light or an audible sound can be used.  A tape machine playing Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" works especially well.

Plug in your device and turn it on.  Now locate the "TEST" button.  On the GFCI pictured, it's the black button.  Depress the TEST button.  The other button, marked "RESET", should pop out and the light go out or whatever other device you might be using turn off.  If this happens, great!  Everything is working fine.  

Left: Identify the "TEST" button.
Middle: Depress the TEST button to trip the circuit protector.
Right: The "RESET" button should pop out and the light (or other test device) should go out.  After testing, depress the RESET button.  The light or other device should turn back on.

If pushing the TEST button doesn't trip the interrupter, or if it trips but the light stays on, or if the GFCI cannot be reset after it has tripped, your GFCI has a problem and will need to be replaced.  Because the mechanism that provides the protection is extremely sensitive, GFCIs are susceptible to failure, especially if subjected to repeated power surges such as from lightning strikes or power company equipment cycling.  In a limited study by the  International Association of Electrical Inspectors, for instance, 58% of GFCIs in homes inspected in one part of Florida were found to be defective, so it's important to maintain a regular test schedule for your Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters.  It's for your safety.


And now here we are at the end where I usually give my little blurb, "So that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from, not some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit..." etc. etc.

But you know what?  There really are no villains in this installment (well, maybe Milton Armitage) just a problem, a man with a solution, and government ready to to put it into widespread use through regulation.  And a whole lot of winners who, while they may not be able to read women's minds, are still alive today.  How can anyone call that bad?


Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:
How Regulation came to be: 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
How Regulation came to be: The Iroquois Theater Fire
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part II
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part III
How Regulation came to be: Construction Summer
How Regulation came to be: Red Moon Rising
How Regulation came to be: The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I
How Regulation came to be: The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part II

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun May 24, 2009 at 02:09 PM PDT.

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