Do Tools Ever Die Off?

from the species-extinction dept

Robert Krulwich, who has done some interviews with Kevin Kelly recently, highlighted a recent discussion in which Kelly makes quite a claim:
"I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet."
Further in the debate, Kelly expanded and even bet Krulwich that he couldn't find any tool, no matter how far back in the past it was from, that wasn't still being made today (and made new) somewhere in the world. Krulwich brings up a few suggestions, each of which gets shot down, including "paleolithic hammers." Turns out they're still being made (mostly by hobbyists). He then went through a bunch of pages of an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog... and found that every one is still being made. So Krulwich asked people to chime in with suggestions, and they've come up with a few, such as radium suppositories, a Roman corvus (a ship boarding tool) and the ferrite core of a Seeburg Jukebox. Kelly's job is to try to find if all of these are still being made.

Of course, some of this depends on how you view the initial premise. The initial claim from Kelly was that no species of technology has ever gone extinct -- and in that case, you should be able to include more updated technologies that are better/safer/more efficient. But, in the interview, Kelly does seem to take it a step further in claiming that no tool itself was no longer being made new. So, I'm curious if anyone can actually find "new" versions of the things listed above.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Joe Gamer, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:09am

    Well,

    I'm still waiting for Jack Thompson to croak.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:10am

    Ship boarding tool: Ask the Somalian pirates how they do it! :-)

     

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  3.  
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    chris (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:20am

    Re: Well,

    I'm still waiting for Jack Thompson to croak.

    you and me both.

    tho, ted "old intertubes" stevens is no longer with us.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:23am

    Buggy whips?

     

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  5.  
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    freak (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:28am

    The premise sounds too vague to me.
    When is a tool a new tool, and when is it an improved version of an old tool?
    Not that it can't be both. But, at which point do they become mutually exclusive?

     

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  6.  
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    Nick Coghlan (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:31am

    Re:

    While the buggy whip industry is an oft-cited pale shadow of its former self, it still exists.

     

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  7.  
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    AudibleNod (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:31am

    Damascus Steel

    As far as history is concerned, Damascus steel hasn't been replicated. Though, modern steel making methods have grown, in part, from attempts to recreate Damascus steel. Though, this may be a material and not a tool for the sake of the argument.

     

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  8.  
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    Nick Coghlan (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:34am

    Any tools made by civilisations that have completely died out (e.g. Easter Island). *Similar* tools may be made elsewhere, but those *specific* tools are long gone.

     

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  9.  
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    chris (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:43am

    clever distinction: tools vs. techniques

    a physical object is easy to keep in existence, as long as it's made from a non-perishable material, since objects don't really decay. also, from a historical standpoint, the information about a tool's application will also probably always be around, even if the information exists only in historical records.

    but what about the techniques or methods for applying a tool?

    for example: because they are generally made of steel, forceps will probably always exist, but will their use in childbirth become a lost art?

    thanks to cheap video recording and storage, this may not be the case in the future, since historical "documents" may include historical footage, but techniques of the recent past may die off with their practitioners.

     

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  10.  
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    LumpyDog (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:48am

    I thought they just ended up with shows on MTV.

     

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  11.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:55am

    Re:

    I think it goes without saying that we aren't talking about the specific roots of a tool. Otherwise you could just say "hammers built by a worker named Joe in 1820" - that isn't still being made either.

     

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  12.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:58am

    Roman corvus - Pretty much every ferry boat has something similar at the front or back end. Smugglers use something similar also to transfer goods boat to boat.

     

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  13.  
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    Chuck D. Money (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 6:59am

    Greek Fire

    There are a few things, mostly advents of the ancient or classical periods, that we cannot replicate - not because it wouldn't be useful or nobody wants it, but simply because the knowledge required to do so has been lost. Greek Fire is a great example of this. A substance that can be stored and transported safely in a ship, then somehow lit aflame and projected (supposedly to almost 100 feet away) at an enemy vessel. Granted, this would be somewhat useless in ship-to-ship warfare now, but there are now much more practical applications for this. On the military front, combat flamethrowers often suffer from 1 major weakness - the chemicals are incredibly vulnerable to ignition by enemy gunfire. One account of a great Greek sea battle (against the Persians, I believe) tells how the Greek ship carrying Greek Fire was directly struck by lightning, killing half the crew on board, and yet the Greek Fire in the hold did not detonate, and the remaining crew pretended to be dead, luring the Persians into boarding range before turning the Greek Fire upon them, roasting them alive at point blank range. The point here is that it would be a stable, liquid fuel with detonation properties similar to modern C4, but the inherent transport benefits of a liquid. To this day, nobody knows the formula to make it, and centuries of chemistry have failed to even come close. Of course, a much more controlled burn could have use in construction and even medical fields. Heat Shielding for aircraft and spacecraft is tempered with incredibly expensive, highly purified fuel due to the disaster that would result in fuel residue being left on the shield. Burn victims are, strange as it sounds, sometimes burned a little more to create enough burned tissue for other treatments to take hold, yet common fuels such as Butane have inherent medical hazards, and their storage in a hospital setting increases fire hazards in an already highly explosive environment. If it could be controlled with the same precision as more volatile fuels, Greek Fire might solve the problems in these fields and more inherent to virtually all other liquid fuel.

    That said, I just want to say, the number of "tools" that are no longer in use can probably be counted on your own ten fingers, so the point is still pretty much valid, and I'm willing to bet that out of 7 billion people, there's at least one who knows SOME of this, and just doesn't realize what they've accomplished or isn't willing to share.

     

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  14.  
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    Marcel de Jong (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:05am

    How many people today still use flint to make fire?

     

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  15.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:10am

    Re:

    "How many people today still use flint to make fire?"

    Total fail ... every lighter has flint in it.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:14am

    Re: Re:

    It's not actually flint though, but "scratchable tool that makes a spark" certainly is still in use.

     

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  17.  
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    Joe Gamer, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:15am

    Re:

    http://bit.ly/ekaYE1

    They still make flint strikers. Though I'm sure the hardcore are still using bows and cottonwood fluff.

    Me, all I need to start a fire is a good stare.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:25am

    Well...

    ...I sure haven't seen any of those nail driving push tools Bob Villa used to hustle on TV. I wanted one a couple years back, and the closest I got was a blank stare.

     

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  19.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:30am

    Re: Re:

    buggy whip industry = Content industry??

     

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  20.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:39am

    Hmm...

    Greek Fire is a good one, but farming tools probably provide some better examples. For instanc, is anyone actually making moulboard ploughs any more? Winnowing baskets? Flesh hooks for cooking?

     

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  21.  
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    cseiter (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 7:48am

    A tool by any other name

    They don't make honest politicians anymore, and they are technically tools.

     

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  22.  
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    Adam, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 8:02am

    Not here perhaps...

    Dark Helmet asks about "moul[d]board ploughs any more? Winnowing baskets? Flesh hooks for cooking"

    Flesh Hook -- Modern Gaff for fishing?
    Winnowing -- still done with a basket in parts of India and Africa
    Mouldboard Pough -- modern plows mounted to tractors are still like that.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 8:03am

    Re:

    how many boy and girl scouts are there.

    also don't they use flint in survivor (or is that show over?)

     

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  24.  
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    davebarnes (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 8:10am

    Radium suppositories

    I watched the Super Bowl halftime show and I am pretty sure that glow was not natural.

     

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  25.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 8:14am

    Re: Not here perhaps...

    Ugh, how ethnocentric of me, I guess. Although the flesh hooks and gaffs are different tools used for different purposes, aren't they?

    And are modern tractors really equivalent to using a mouldboard? Or am I just being picky?

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 8:22am

    Still available but no longer being manufactured and will eventually be gone for good: Nixie Tube

     

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  27.  
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    Overcast (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 8:45am

    "Further in the debate, Kelly expanded and even bet Krulwich that he couldn't find any tool, no matter how far back in the past it was from, that wasn't still being made today"

    Stone Axes and Bone Knives?

    Cups for sadistic rituals made from human skulls?

    Oh wait, I bet they still need those at the Bohemian Grove, lol.

     

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  28.  
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    Supertec2u, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 9:25am

    Re:

     

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  29.  
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    :Lobo Santo (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 9:28am

    Re:

    There are hobbyists who make nixie tubes.
    (and, nixie tubes are awesome! Why on earth would anybody let them die out?)

     

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  30.  
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    Rekrul, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 9:32am

    The Commodore 1984S monitor.

     

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  31.  
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    DanZee (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 9:40am

    Good theory

    I think it's a good theory. The broader picture here is that we build technology on top of older technology.

    But it is possible to "lose" technology. For example, the Roman formula for concrete was lost for about 700 years. (Imagine if they had concrete for building Medieval fortresses instead of stone.) Likewise, all of the technology used in Roman baths have not been fully rediscovered. The Romans used air channels in the walls and under floors to heat rooms and water to different temperatures. We're not 100% sure about how they were able to adjust the temperatures.

    And certainly some technology in ancient times may have been independently developed, such as pyramid building in the Old and New Worlds. But it's a good theory.

     

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  32.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 9:56am

    Re: Re:

    Personally, I like fire pistons.

     

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  33.  
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    Beta (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 10:19am

    selection effect

    In our world there are people who still do things the old-fashioned way, either because they're too poor to invest in dishwashers and milking machines, or because they're rich enough to spend their spare time learning how to knap obsidian and navigate with cordierite pebbles. That leaves three paths to extinction, that I can think of, but I can't think of any examples.

    1) A technology was never really any good, we just thought it was, and now we know better. Quack medical remedies and ritualistic magic? I can't think of any that don't still exist (I've seen advertisements for therapeutic magnetic bracelets in contemporary and Victorian newspapers). Maybe Fermat's proof of his Last Theorem.

    2) The use for a certain tool no longer exists. Mammoth spears? Dodo clubs? Smallpox vaccine? Well, scratch that last one. And I thought about things associated with animal sacrifice and the slave trade, but that just made me feel depressed.

    3) As Chuck D. Money (was your grandfather a Count?) illustrates, a technology can be lost. But that splits into a couple of sub-fields:

    1. Something can be lost and then rediscovered. The secret of concrete was lost with Rome, and wasn't rediscovered for centuries. Egyptian hieroglyphs were a totally dead language (i.e. nobody in the world could read them) for, what, a thousand years before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone? It took us quite a while to figure out how the Easter Islanders moved those statues. Ötzi's straw-and-birch-bark shoes turned out to be amazingly good cold weather shoes. Then there's the Antikythera Mechanism, which we didn't even understand when we found it in 1900 because it was too advanced.
    2. Something can be so lost that we don't know it ever existed. We don't know of examples of this one, by definition, but they may exist.
    3. The narrow middle ground of things we're pretty sure existed, but we have no idea how they worked. Money cites the beautiful example of Greek Fire; I can't think of another. This field is narrow because modern science and engineering are so gosh-darned good at figuring out how to do things (once we know that those things are possible, that's the tricky part).

    Now for a fun parlor game, see how a little accident of luck or history could nudge each example from one category to another.

     

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  34.  
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    Sean T Henry (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 10:36am

    Re: Hmm...

    Yes those are all still used just think of third world or the Amish. The challenge was for the species of tool not a specific tool like "lead pencil vs. graphite pencil" both are a pencil so even if one is not still made the other is.

    As for flesh hooks I believe they are still used for smoking.

     

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  35.  
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    DS, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 11:58am

    Re: A tool by any other name

    They ever did?

     

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  36.  
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    Richard (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 12:08pm

    Re: selection effect

    Donald Rumsfeld rides again

    (unknown unknowns,known unknowns etc)

     

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  37.  
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    Richard (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 12:16pm

    Re: selection effect

    things we're pretty sure existed, but we have no idea how they worked.

    The blue colour in medieval stained glass and the secret of Stradivarius violins are often touted as examples - but it is not clear that either really are .

     

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  38.  
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    DS, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 12:27pm

    Floppy disk drives/flat magnetic media are slowly on their way out... I suppose you could say that CDs are an extension, but I'd say you were stretching.

    Also, someone once invented a utensil with a knife on one end, and a spoon on another. That dead ended as well.

     

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  39.  
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    Joe Gamer, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 12:28pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Never heard of one before until now, and yes they are cool.

     

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  40.  
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    David Spira, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 3:36pm

    Re: Greek Fire

    My first thought when I read the article was Greek Fire.

     

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  41.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Feb 8th, 2011 @ 3:42pm

    What about these?

    Before tape recorders, there were ones that recorded on magnetic wire.

    What about Edison-style wax phonograph cylinders?

    8-track audio cartridge tapes?

    Rotary dial phones?

    Black-and-white TVs?

    8-inch floppy discs?

     

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  42.  
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    Rose M. Welch (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 5:17pm

    Re: Damascus Steel

    As far as history is concerned, Damascus steel hasn't been replicated.

    As far as history is concerned, we're not sure whether or not Damascus steel has been replicated.

    FIFY

     

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  43.  
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    Rose M. Welch (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 5:18pm

    Re: Damascus Steel

    Oh, also, Damascus steel was a material, not a tool.

     

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  44.  
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    Rose M. Welch (profile), Feb 8th, 2011 @ 5:22pm

    Re: Re:

    First I've heard of these. Now I want a nixie tube clock. :P

     

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  45.  
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    cram, Feb 9th, 2011 @ 2:38am

    what about cyclostyling machines?

     

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  46.  
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    scottbp (profile), Feb 9th, 2011 @ 5:53am

    how about a music player

    that works with MS plays for sure DRM?

     

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  47.  
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    Jeremy Lyman (profile), Feb 9th, 2011 @ 9:05am

    Proof

    Isn't this like proposing that there is no technology that has ever been forgotten in the course of human history? Anything we've heard of wouldn't qualify and we don't know the things that would by definition.

    People using tools for the sake of preserving antiquities, historical researchers and the like, ensure that if someone has heard of a tool, it won't satisfy the challenge.

    It reminds me of a proof that seems true, but is unprovable because an infinite (or unknown) set of prospect counter examples. He's laying the onus on others to disprove him, but the lack of disproof will never result in a proof.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godel's_incompleteness_theorems

     

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  48.  
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    Beta (profile), Feb 9th, 2011 @ 10:29am

    Re: Proof

    Eh? Gödel proved his theorem. What you describe sounds more like a conjecture, like Goldbach's.

     

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  49.  
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    aldestrawk (profile), Feb 9th, 2011 @ 3:25pm

    The best area to look for such tools is where there is a burst of technology improvement and the earlier inventions have been abandoned. An example that everyone can relate to: Tools to cut weeds around the home/farm. Most everyone in the US uses power tools but I am sure that manual tools which have a long history are still used in much of the world. I myself, use a scythe which was made for me 8 years ago and which I think is better than any power tool. What I am thinking of are the earliest and crappiest power tools that were abandoned for good reason.
    I can imagine that paper tape readers are not still made. I actually have some paper tape from the early '70s that encodes the World3 model (look up Club of Rome, the limits to growth). It is fragile now and likely wouldn't survive being read. If for some reason you actually wanted to read it I would try scanning it with a manual optical scanner and write a program to do a translation.
    Another example: I don't believe that Dolby DBX disc decoders or encoders are being made. DBX discs are vinyl records encoded using DBX noise reduction. Not a lot of albums were made (I've heard 1100). I have two of them. It's very impressive to listen to them in comparison to standard vinyl releases. No surface noise at all! The decoding could be done entirely in software but I don't think that has been done. Why bother? If you need to transfer your album to another format, I will rent you my DBX 228 decoder for $2.28/day.

     

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  50.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 9th, 2011 @ 8:02pm

    I think I saw something a few years ago about some musical instruments that had been lost to history--nobody really knows how to make them any more, or even really what they looked like. Something like that would probably count.

    http://www.science20.com/news_articles/lost_sounds_orchestra_ancient_musical_instruments_b rought_back_life

     

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  51.  
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    Rupert, Feb 10th, 2011 @ 1:12am

    Extinct Technologies

    Can anyone say Antikythera? We can't duplicate the device, hell we don't even know what it was for!

     

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