If “matter can neither be created nor destroyed,” as the ancient Greek philosophers postulated, can the same principle be applied to technology? Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, thinks it can. In his new book, What Technology Wants, Kelly asserts that “[a] close examination of a supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it.” NPR’s Robert Krulwich recently debated this theory with Kelly, and asked readers of his blog to submit examples of extinct technologies, hoping to refute Kelly’s argument (see “Tools Never Die. Waddaya Mean, Never?”).
Left: Cabinetmaker's tool chest, about 1818. Right: Machinist's tool chest, 1860s.
See these and other artifacts in the online exhibition, "Tool Chests: Symbol and Servant."
Questions about where technology comes from, and where it might go, have long gripped historians. In The Evolution of Technology, for example, George Basalla writes that “any new thing that appears in the made world is based on some object already in existence” and that “each new technological system emerges from an antecedent system” (pp. 45, 49). Some technologies, then, should endure at least until they become elements of something else. Also, as technologies evolve, the “old” and the “new” often coexist for significant periods of time. Horses and cars shared city streets, video didn’t kill the radio star, and we’re still waiting for the paperless office to become a reality.
Sometimes, too, a technology that seems outmoded in one part of the world makes sense in another. In The Shock of the Old, historian David Edgerton writes about transferred technologies that “appear, … disappear and reappear, and mix and match across the centuries” (p. xii). He cites, for example, the persistence of carrier pigeons as a communications tool used by the police in parts of India from the mid-1940s until the 1990s. As an illustration of how technologies can ebb and flow, he describes the mechanization of farming in Cuba during the Soviet era, followed by the resurgence of ox-powered farm equipment when the steady stream of machinery and supplies to Cuba ended with the breakup of the Soviet bloc. Similarly, Edward Tenner outlines the continuing innovations in draft-animal equipment made by Amish farmers—and the global export market they have entered as tractor fuel prices have soared.
With apologies for a painful tool analogy, I think that historians see the history of technology and invention as less like a table saw and more like a clothes dryer. There are few straight cuts; instead, things tumble around and bump into each other in sometimes unexpected ways.
But what do you think? Is Kevin Kelly right? Does the Sears Craftsman lifetime tool warranty apply to all technologies? We invite you to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
Joyce Bedi is senior historian at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.