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Forks: the Google Glass of the 16th century

Waiter, there’s a fork in my soup

What can the rise of an everyday utensil tell us about the trajectory of technological adoption? Tom Standage lays the table

What can the rise of an everyday utensil tell us about the trajectory of technological adoption? Tom Standage lays the table

Tom Standage | October/November 2018

The year is 1004 and at the party celebrating her marriage to the son of the doge of Venice, Maria Argyropoulina, niece to the emperor of Byzantium, has scandalised the guests. Her crime: using a fork to eat.

At the time, people generally cut up food with knives and transferred it to their mouths with their fingers. Forks did exist, but they were large, two-pronged implements used for toasting or carving meat. Occasionally, people used smaller versions to fish things out of jars. Maria, however, used one of these to put food in her mouth.

Her wayward behaviour was immediately condemned by the clergy. One priest declared that “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers.” When Maria died of the plague two years later, it was seen as divine punishment for her decadence. Yet today we would look down on anyone who didn’t use a fork. Its transformation from a heretical utensil into an everyday one is a parable of technological adoption.

It took another five centuries for the fork to gain more widespread adoption. Thomas Coryat, an Englishman who travelled through Europe in 1608, noted that forks were widely used in Italy “because the It

alian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike cleane”. Many used them in Spain too. In other countries, using a fork was still regarded as pretentious or vain. Coryat was mocked for employing one when he returned home.

Catherine de Medici seems to have introduced the newfangled cutlery to the French court when she married Henri II in 1533, but noblemen who used forks were laughed at as affected and dainty. The mockery arose not only because forks were unfamiliar, but because they were so tiny that they weren’t much use for eating. For most people, the embarrassment of using one outweighed its utility.

The balance shifted in the 17th century. People began to worry about the unhygienic practice of eating shared food with their hands. Forks picked up food more cleanly. In 1633 King Charles I of England declared that “it is decent to use a fork”, possibly prompted by his French wife (the daughter of another Medici). In France, Cardinal Richelieu banned knives with sharp points, supposedly to prevent people from picking their teeth with them, but probably to reduce violence. Knives were no longer available to spear food (or other dinner guests). Suddenly, everyone needed forks.

The fork itself was also mutating. The short, flat, two-pronged design gave way to a three- and then a four-pronged version with curved tines, which could be used for scooping as well as spearing food. The idea of putting a knife in your mouth started to be considered uncouth. Forks spread from the elite to the wider population during the 18th century and by the 19th century were in common use throughout Europe.

The fork broadly follows the path that all new technologies must take if they are to become universal items. Being the first to adopt a new device is embarrassing: just ask anyone who bought a Segway or a pair of Google Glass “smart” spectacles. Unless and until that awkwardness is outweighed by the product’s overwhelming utility, it will struggle to convert people wedded to what they know.

Today virtual-reality headsets and other kinds of smart glasses are struggling to overcome the imbalance between minimal utility and major embarrassment. Innovators need to acknowledge that social cachet as well as inherent usefulness determines which technologies catch on (to modern eyes, the Medicis, Charles I and Richelieu are influencers). Electric scooters are one example where attitudes appear genuinely to be in flux. Is being able to zip around town more quickly worth the risk of looking like a child? It looks like we’re at a fork in the road.