Year End Obituary: Charles Harrison, Inventor Of The Plastic Garbage Can Charles Harrison, an African-American groundbreaking designer of industrial products for Sears, died on November 29. His contributions include the plastic garbage can and a view-master for children.
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Year End Obituary: Charles Harrison, Inventor Of The Plastic Garbage Can

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Year End Obituary: Charles Harrison, Inventor Of The Plastic Garbage Can

Year End Obituary: Charles Harrison, Inventor Of The Plastic Garbage Can

Year End Obituary: Charles Harrison, Inventor Of The Plastic Garbage Can

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/679895372/679895373" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Charles Harrison, an African-American groundbreaking designer of industrial products for Sears, died on November 29. His contributions include the plastic garbage can and a view-master for children.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As 2018 winds down, we're taking a few minutes to recognize some of the people who died this year. These were people whose obituaries did not dominate headlines but still told fascinating stories.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today - Charles Harrison, an industrial designer who lived to be 87. Harrison's obituary emphasized how he changed the View-Master to better appeal to children.

KELLY: View-masters - you know, those gizmos that look like small plastic binoculars. Pop in a thin cardboard disk, ringed with tiny color photos. Look through the view-master, and you see those pictures in 3D.

JOEFFREY TRIMMINGHAM: Everyone talked about the View-Master to him, and he always downplayed the View-Master. What he really up-played was the garbage can.

SHAPIRO: The plastic garbage can.

KELLY: Designer Joeffrey Trimmingham worked with Charles Harrison. He says Harrison's redesign of the garbage can solved one of life's nagging problems.

SHAPIRO: Back in the 1950s, those cans were made of metal. They rusted out, and they made a lot of noise when workers dragged them from the curb.

KELLY: Charles Harrison set out to make those cans more durable, less clunky and easier to drag - voila, plastic garbage cans with wheels.

TRIMMINGHAM: That garbage can has influenced everything - literally, like, on every driveway now you see the garbage cans that he created.

KELLY: Charles Harrison redesigned and tweaked a lot of other everyday objects, including the plastic see-through measuring cup.

SHAPIRO: The riding lawn mower.

KELLY: The cordless shaver.

SHAPIRO: And the Dial-O-Matic food slicer.

VICTORIA MATRANGA: It's difficult to separate his influence as a man from the influence of the products he designed.

KELLY: Simplicity was a hallmark of his work, says industrial design historian Victoria Matranga. Harrison had dyslexia, and he tried to make all of his products intuitive. He didn't want anyone to have to struggle to read the directions.

SHAPIRO: And Matranga says he broke ground in another way too.

MATRANGA: He was alone in his field as an African-American in industrial design. And he even said it was maybe in the '80s or '90s that he met another person like himself in the field.

KELLY: Charles Harrison graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. But he had a hard time landing a job. When he showed up for interviews, companies turned him away despite good references from his professors. Sears, Roebuck and Company wouldn't hire him. But they changed their minds in 1961.

SHAPIRO: He became the first African-American to lead product design for Sears, and that's where his plastic garbage can comes in. Harrison's concept looked plausible on paper and proved durable after the company's product testing, says Matranga.

MATRANGA: They filled the cans with water and froze them and dropped them from planes in order to prove their shatter resistance and their strength. This really did change household maintenance.

KELLY: Meanwhile, Joeffrey Trimmingham says Harrison was dedicated to helping other black designers succeed. After he left Sears, Harrison started teaching.

TRIMMINGHAM: I firmly believe his greatest legacy is the young people, including myself - thousands of us literally - whose lives he shaped and whose careers he shaped.

SHAPIRO: Charles Harrison, who redesigned the plastic garbage can, the View-Master and many other products died in November. He was 87.

(SOUNDBITE OF LORD HURON SONG, "FOOL FOR LOVE")

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