I remember, when I was younger, reading Restaurant at the End of the Universe and learning about the Golgafrinchans, who had eliminated all of the workers who didn't fit into the intellectual or laborer groups. Among the workers eliminated by sending them away on a spaceship were telephone sanitizers. (Which would turn out the be their downfall, as the remainder of their race would die from a telephone-based plague.) I found the idea of telephone sanitizers amusing.

Then I worked a job involving the telephone. Every night, when you left, you had to ensure that the phone you used was sanitized for your protection. Or rather, the protection of whomever used it next. We had some sort of aerosol can that sprayed some form of antibacterial agent. What I remember most is that it felt odd, even through the paper towels used to spread it and wipe it off.

Then, while doing a search to find out which book of the HHGTTG this event was in, I found the MSDS for a chemical agent intended solely to make a telephone sanitary at http://www.premiereproducts.com/pdfs/sds/Telephone%20Sanitizer.pdf For the curious, it contains mostly butane and isopropanol with the bactericide at less than one percent of the composition. Further searching reveals that a member of Spinal Tap supposedly tried the business; see http://www.chiprowe.com/tap/atozed/TAP00544.HTM Finally, if you're in the UK, try getting your telephone sanitizer at http://the-internet-pages.co.uk/england/oxfo/jani1/page3.htm

The telephone sanitizer in Douglas Adams's HHGTTG book and radio series was provided as a textbook example of a useless occupation. The idea was that the Golgafrinchans realized that a substantial portion of their population was completely useless, and so they got rid of them by making up a story of impending planetary catastrophe and sending them ahead on a space ark that was supposedly the first of several. (This is similar to the trick that the Tallest play on the useless Irkan Invader, Zim, in the first episode of Invader Zim.) The joke turned out to be on the Golgafrinchans, however, when they were wiped out by a plague contracted from a horribly dirty telephone.

The telephone sanitizer was clearly meant to be a humorously-exaggerated example of sheer uselessness--perhaps the most useless occupation that Adams could possibly conceive--so as to depict the others with whom the telephone sanitizers shared the ship (advertising executives and hairstylists and lawyers and so forth) as being even more useless (and annoying) than their popular stereotypes. This being the case, it is strangely ironic to consider that Cornell scientists discovered in 1997 that many public surfaces--ATM keypads, computer lab keyboards, doorknobs, bus handholds, and, yes, public telephones--were contaminated with a whole host of virulent and nasty disease-causing microorganisms.

So, perhaps a telephone sanitizer might not be so useless after all.

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