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.

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Comments on “Do Tools Ever Die Off?”

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51 Comments
chris (profile) says:

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.

Chuck D. Money (profile) says:

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.

DanZee (profile) says:

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.

Beta (profile) says:

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. ?tzi’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.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

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

aldestrawk says:

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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