For economists, “widgets” are the example of a hypothetical product you use when you don’t want to get specific.
Another common hypothetical product is “leets,” which is “steel” spelled backward. But where did the terminology of widgets first appear, and how did it work its way over to economics?
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the etymology of “widgets” is unclear. It’s sometimes thought to be a spin-off of “gadgets,” but there don’t seem to be examples to support this claim. Instead, the origin of “widgets” is usually credited to the playwrights George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly in their 1924 play, Beggar on Horseback.
The play revolves around Neil McRae, who is a poor and unknown composer of classical music, working odd jobs to get by. There is a wealthy industrialist named Mr. Cady, with a beautiful daughter named Gladys. Will Neil give up his classical music dreams, marry the boss’s daughter, and work at the factory? In the play, the factory makes “widgets.” Here’s some dialogue from the play between Neil, Mr. Cady, and a secretary named Miss You:
CADY: Why, Neil!
NEIL: Here I am—at work!
CADY: Yes, sir! Business! Big business!
NEIL: Yes. Big business. What business are we in?
CADY: Widgets. We’re in the widget business.
NEIL: The widget business?
CADY: Yes, sir! I suppose I’m the biggest manufacturer in the world of overhead and underground A-erial widgets. Miss You!
MISS YOU: Yes, sir.
CADY: Let’s hear what our business was during the first six months of the fiscal year. [To Neil.] The annual report.
MISS YOU [Reading.]: “The turnover in the widget industry last year was greater than ever. If placed alongside the Woolworth Building it would stretch to the moon. The operating expenses alone would furnish every man, woman and child in the United States, China and
similar places with enough to last for eighteen and one-half years, if laid end to end.”
CADY: How’s that?
NEIL: It’s wonderful!
CADY: And wait for September 17th!
CADY: That’s to be National Widget Week! The whole country!
NEIL: That’s fine, but what I came up about …
CADY: Never mind that now—we’ve got more important things. Conferences, mostly.
The terminology of widget seems to have caught hold fairly soon. I was especially struck by this short 1939 movie by the General Motors Department of Public Relations. It’s called “Round and Round,” and as you will see, it’s an attempt to describe a circular flow in the economy. It’s about a factory that uses skilled labor and machines to make widgets. As the video explains: “A widget might be a radio, a refrigerator, a musical instrument, or a motor car. A widget, you know, is just a symbol for any manufactured product that people use.” The factory sells widgets to farmers, coal miners, steel manufacturers, and others. In turn, they use the widgets to produce the inputs needed by the widget manufacturer to make more widgets.
In 1969, the Guinness company decided to take the widget out of the hypothetical, and to make and patent an actual product that has come to be called a “widget.” The company filed a patent application in Ireland for an “Improved Method of and Means of Dispensing Carbonated Liquids from Containers.” As explained here, the widget is a small plastic ball with a hole in it that sits inside a can of beer. When the beer is put under pressure, there is nitrogenated beer under pressure inside this hole. When the can is popped open, this extra dose of nitrogenated beer combines with the rest of the beer in the can to produce a foamy head on the beer as it is poured.
Modern software programmers have also tried to commandeer the terminology of widgets for their own. For example, the Techopedia webpage defines widgets in this way:
Widget is a broad term that can refer to either any GUI (graphical user interface) element or a tiny application that can display information and/or interact with the user. A widget can be as rudimentary as a button, scroll bar, label, dialog box or check box; or it can be something slightly more sophisticated like a search box, tiny map, clock, visitor counter or unit converter. … The term widget is understood to include both the graphical portion, with which the user interacts, and the code responsible for the widget’s functionality.
This seems a long way from National Widget Week as conceived by Kaufman and Connelly back in 1924! But economists have by and large shrugged off the attempts by beer companies and software firms to appropriate their single most prominent hypothetical example. Instead, economics lecturers stick with the meaning of “widget” as defined by the General Motors Public Relations Department.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.