Monday, April 28, 2008

German engineering

I have spent almost three years as a Wikipedia editor. In that time, one thing that has surprised me is the strength of the German Wikipedia: out of proportion to its number of native speakers, it is the second largest Wikipedia (after English). More impressively, several technical features were originated on the German project and then adopted by the English version. To my knowledge, no other language besides English has contributed to the administrative development of the Wikipedia project.

In my editorial work with Wikipedia, I have done some research on the history of birth control methods. One thing that stands out in my mind from this research is the huge influence of German-speaking countries to the development of modern birth control methods. The cervical cap: invented by a German. Ditto the diaphragm. The Rhythm Method: invented by a Dutch man (OK, they don't speak German in Holland, but it's a closely related language). Using records of basal body temperature to avoid pregnancy: first done by a German. The IUD: invented independently by a Japanese man... and a German. The condom: a bicycle-tire like version was developed by an American, a German invented the modern thin, disposable version. The pill: one of the major contributors was a naturalized American... from Austria.

They don't just engineer methods of avoiding conception, they are highly skilled at using them. From p. 150 of The Art of Natural Family Planning by John and Sheila Kippley:

The extremely low actual-use surprise pregnancy rates... suggest... the Austrians and Germans must be among the world's best rules-keepers.
The latest large study of German users of fertility awareness (BBC article) found that even women who slipped up and had intercourse on fertile days only had a pregnancy rate of 7.5% per year. A large survey by the CDC found that comparable American users had a pregnancy rate of 25% per year.

It makes me think there's more to the reputation of "German engineering" than a marketing campaign.

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