Advancing into the electronic age

Another joyful Christmas has passed into our family archives. Nothing remarkable happened at our home, except for the arrival of a unique, awe-inspiring gift: a set of three remote-control electric candles. Yes, you heard it right, remote-control candles.

It took over 2,000 years from the time candles were invented during the Han dynasty in China to move from an animal fat base to the paraffin wax product developed in England in the mid-1800s. Extracted from coal, wax candles are cleaner and cheaper than their tallow predecessors. They still are in use to this day, unless you have advanced to the remote control candles that now grace our dining room table.

Candles were the light of night for Americans for the first two centuries of our history. In the year Iowa became a state, 1846, kerosene lamps were invented by a Canadian, Abraham Gesner, and soon replaced candles for lighting. Thomas Edison’s creation of the incandescent light bulb in 1878 moved the country a giant step further in challenging the darkness of night. Those benefits, however, did not reach Iowa farms for decades thereafter until the Rural Electrification Association was established in 1935. Years passed as the REA extended lines across the state to every Iowa farmer. I remember too well trying to read by the light of a sooty kerosene lamp in the late 1940s.

As we have moved further into the electronic age, remote controls have followed. We no longer need to walk to the television set to change channels or exit a car to open a garage door. Similar conveniences exist for stereos, DVDs, fans, fireplaces and an assortment of other items. But candles?

We have so many remote controls in our home, a dozen or more, that I cannot keep track of them. I find them hiding under the bed, tucked behind a sofa cushion, or marooned in a drawer. And now I need a place for the candle remote.

It was my job in childhood to set the table, a responsibility that has continued into husband-hood. I know the fork goes to the left of the plate and the knife and spoon, in that order, to the right. So where does the candle remote control go? I doubt Emily Post could supply an answer. So, relying on my own judgment, I selected a place at the top of my plate, where the dessert spoon should go. Because we seldom use a separate dessert spoon, that doesn’t seem like a major violation of table setting etiquette. The key is to have the remote easily accessible. One never knows how many times during a meal you might want to turn the candles on or off.

Candles these days purely are for ambience. Food tastes and digests better with candlelight, even if powered by AAA batteries. And if the setting requires any additional adjustment, I can bring my arsenal of remote controls to the dinner table and do any number of things, such as turning on the television, adjusting the stereo, or adding some fireplace illumination. By twisting in my chair to the right, I even can open the garage door.

I understand the value of saving the exertion of walking across the living room to the television or fireplace. And when push comes to shove, I am probably capable of reaching the battery-operated candles an arm’s length away and turning them on or off by hand. But that would spoil the fun. I’m joining the Electronic Age and managing our dinner candles by remote control.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: