Useful Dead Technologies
As time progresses, we expect technology to progress as well. It doesn't always do so.
Whether from corporate greed or corporate stupidity or just plain evil orneryness, some very good technologies have been allowed to die, usually being replaced by something vastly inferior and sometimes not being replaced at all.
Listed here are some technologies that were very useful, but have become not more useful but less; or died off completely. These are good and useful technologies that have been superseded by less useful and usually very annoying technologies.
During the 1950s when I was a young boy, machinery was made of steel. Not just machinery, but almost everything. Even my toys were made of solid steel. I learned at an early age not to drop things on my foot.
All the mechanical parts in your automobile, your washer and dryer, your furnace, etc were made of solid steel. Good strong durable steel. If a gear broke, it usually broke within the machinery's warranty period, as a broken gear meant that its casting or tempering was flawed.
Nylon and other plastics replaced the steel for many gears, including in your washing machine, in your car's now obsolete distributor, and in almost all electric motors.
Now, some time after your warranty expires, your washing machine or dryer or dishwasher or other appliance will fail. Old appliances' lifespans were in the decades. In the late 1960s when I worked in a drive-in theater, its refrigerator was a model made in the 1920s and still hummed along merrily. For all I know, it's cooling someone's beer today.
Today's appliances will give you a few short years – if you're lucky. Then, one of its cheap plastic parts will break, usually a part that cannot be replaced; a part that was designed to never be able to be replaced or repaired. If you're lucky you'll shell out big bucks to get your cheap appliance repaired. If not, and more and more often these days, it will be unrepairable and you will shell out even bigger bucks to replace it, as your old (but not very old at all) nylon-gear laden piece of junk goes into a landfill.
They don't make 'em like they used to. They used to make 'em solid, to last. Now they're made of materials designed and guaranteed to break. Get out your wallets, suckers!
Properly constructed sandwiches
Legend has it that several hundred years ago, the Earl of Sandwich somewhere in the British Isles liked to play cards, and he liked to eat. His invention was named after him, the “sandwich”. It was designed to be eaten without requiring silverware and without getting your hands greasy.
Flash forward a couple hundred years to the 1980s, when the Wendy's Hamburger chain redesigned this useful food technology, having the meat hanging out of the bun and grease and condiments sloppily dripping out. Their hamburger was accompanied by a hilarious commercial, where an old woman in her late 80s or early 90s (she's dead now, Jim) walked up to a giant hamburger bun, maybe ten inches diameter, lifted the top where a piece of meat about the size of a pepperoni slice sat. She grumpily demanded “Where's the beef!?”
Because of this, today you cannot buy a commercial sandwich that you can eat without making a disgusting mess. Often these days if I'm in a sit-down, non-fast food restaurant I'll eat my sandwich with a fork. WTF is the point of a sandwich, anyway?
Flat cotton shoelaces
Shoelaces have been designed for hundreds of years to keep your shoes on your feet. No longer. Today's shoelaces are designed with one purpose in mind – to annoy you.
The nylon gears mentioned above were supposed to be superior to steel because they don't need grease and should theoretically last longer than a greased steel gear. Usually, though, when the grease got old (usually years and years later, much later than a nylon gear will last) the gear would just get noisy. A shot of grease and it was good as new.
So what are they making shoelaces out of now? Nylon! Good old frictionless nylon “because of its strength”. One wonders if today's engineers even need a college degree, as it seems that some things, like today's shoelaces, were designed by “special ed” students.
Because now, not only are they made of a friction-free material, they're round rather than flat, further eroding their ability to stay tied.
But all is not lost – today's laces are three or four times as long as yesterday's laces so you can double or triple tie them.
They don't last any longer than the old cotton laces, either. Thank God and Science for Velcro. I gave up on shoelaces a few years ago, and I don't care how gay the kids think strap-on shoes are.
Velcro straps are an almost acceptable workaround to the incredibly stupid, badly designed shoelace technology.
T-shirts that actually fit
Now, I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but here in the good old US of A we used to have textile mills and clothing manufacturers. A t-shirt snugged the back of your neck, and the front of the neck was very loose. It fit.
Then the Chinese started producing all of our clothing, and t-shirts don't fit any more. They always feel like you're wearing them backwards. If you have a large neck, like I do, they're extremely uncomfortable, pulling against your Adam's apple.
I have two theories about this. The first theory is that Chinamen are all pencil necked geeks. This seems to be borne out by the fact that Asians in this country usually study computer science.
The other theory is that when they stole the original fabric patterns, they mistakenly got two copies of the back of the pattern and missed the front of the shirt, because today's Chinese t-shirts feel like they're on backwards whether backwards or not.
Sure, they're only five bucks... but I'll give you fifty for one that fits.
Volume control knobs
You're driving down the road and that song comes on. You know the one, it really rocks and you must crank that sucker up.
But there's no crank any more. You have to take your eyes off of the road to find the one button on the fifty buttons to turn the damned thing up or down. Thank God they invented cell phones so you can call an ambulance after you wreck your car trying to turn the volume down to answer your cell phone!
And if you want to adjust the tone, balance, or rear fade, forget it. You're either going to have to stop the car, or get a passenger to do it for you. If, that is, he or she can find the owner's manual to figure out how to.
The old technology used knobs. There was a volume knob on the left, and a tuning knob on the right. Behind the volume knob was a tone control, or two tone controls (treble and bass). The knob on the right changed the stations, and it had a knob or two under it controlling balance and sometimes fade.
Some less stupid car radio manufacturers still use knobs, albeit digital knobs. But even these are less useful.
Old fashioned analog potentiometer knobs not only could be used without taking your eyes off the road, they were far more precise. My car stereo (with its volume buttons you have to look at to adjust) has 25 discrete volume levels. Some stereos have 50.
The old fashioned analog volume controls had an infinite number of levels. They were analog. If you're at the fringe of a reception area and the weather or whatever has caused the signal to drift, you could precisely tune it with your radio's analog variable capacitor. Today if (for example) KSHE 95's 94.7Mhz drifts to 94.8 and you're north of Litchfield (about 50 miles), you're out of luck, as you can tune to 94.7 or 94.9, but not 94.8200032010023445 like you can with an analog tuner.
Cars you can work on without $100,000 worth of tools
Sure, it's nice that a car will last 300,000 miles instead of 50,000 (despite the fact that I got 300,000 out of a 1974 Pontiac); it's nice that you get 30 miles per gallon rather than 18 for a comparable sized vehicle; and it's nice that they don't spew as much filth out of the tailpipe (unless you're driving a Chrysler or Mitsubishi or Kia product with more than 30,000 miles)...
But you can't repair them. Sure, the mechanic at the dealer can, but you can't. Most cars these days you can't even change the oil yourself, much less the spark plugs. And forget about a minor repair like a water pump or an alternator, they're now completely inaccessible.
A tune up? New points, spark plugs, perhaps plug wires, adjust the dwell and timing and you're done. Forty or fifty bucks worth of tools (including the strobe and dwell meter), fifteen or twenty minutes and the job's finished. Now, you're going to be without your car for a day as it sits in the shop. You can't tune it without a very expensive, proprietary computer.
There are no more timing chains. They've been replaced with belts.
For the less technically inclined out there, a timing chain controls a car's valves' motion. I've heard of timing chains breaking, but it was very rare, and I never experienced it myself. Not even in the old Pontiac (which I had to change a clutch once and a water pump once in) with its 300,000 miles.
Now they have timing belts. Changing it is now part of a tuneup, and what's worse, in some models of automobile, if it breaks while the engine is running it will ruin your valves.
“Well,” I can hear the amoral bean counters say, “they didn't complain about the nylon gear in the distributor!”
Two handled shower faucets
I cannot for the life of me figure out why these damned stupid one handle spigots ever got popular. They can't possibly be cheaper... can they?
Like the digital volume controls, these are simply unadjustable with any degree of accuracy. Your shower will either scald you or freeze you. You're not going to get it comfortable.
Jesus I miss two handled showers!
Gravity furnaces with power piles
Here in Illinois it gets damned cold. God damned cold. Colder than a witch's tit. Colder than... well, pick your own cliché.
We get ice storms dragging power lines down once in a while, people sliding into utility poles with their cars, squirrels trying to get warm in transformers with the resulting explosion when the squirrel gets to meet its maker. Although the electricity here is very reliable, it does occasionally fail.
I've never had my natural gas supply fail, not one time in 50 years.
Er, okay, once. But that was my fault; I forgot to pay the bill.
The house I rented on Reservoir Street was built in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and had a coal furnace in the basement. Some time in the 1940s it had been converted to natural gas. It was what they called a “gravity furnace”, where gravity would pull the heavier, cold air down the intake into the furnace, while the hot air coming from it was displaced upward into the home.
It stayed a steady, comfortable temperature.
My apartment now is too hot when the blower is on, and too cold when it's not.
The gravity furnace also had what was called a “power pile.” You can still get replacement power piles (I had one replaced in that house), but no new furnace has one.
A power pile is a little tube about an inch diameter and maybe an inch and a half long. It looks like a small can capacitor. It sits in the furnace's pilot light and generates electricity for the thermostat from the pilot's heat.
The electricity failed one cold winter night when we lived there. We were blissfully unaware of the fact, as the furnace did not need the city's electrical supply!
Unfortunately, I didn't have a gas alarm clock and was late to work.
A power pile couldn't work in today's furnaces, as today's furnaces have no pilot lights, instead relying on an electric spark.
The new furnaces are cheaper to run, but if the power goes out, you're going to have to shell out for a motel room.
What useful old technologies there were before my time that have perished? Like the powerless winter night with its gravity fed power pile furnace keeping its owners toasty, or comfortable t-shirts, what other technologies generations before mine not only had, but wondered how they could ever do without?
And what useful old dead technologies didn't I think of? What is your favorite dead technology?
Jan 30, 2005
Two things have changed for the better in the ten years since this article was written.
The volume knobs in car radios have come back. Now watch them go away again with touchscreens in cars. But the knobs are still digital, limiting the number of volume levels that can be attained.
When a potentiometer failed, it usually didn't really but was only dirty. When the speakers crackled when you adjusted the volume, a little switch oil almost always cured the problem. When the volume knob on my older car went out I was clueless. Well, maybe not completely, maybe a little switch oil would have fixed that, too. Often when you tried to turn it up, it would go down, and vice versa.
Fortunately, that car had two volume controls, the knob on the radio and buttons on the steering wheel that you never had to look for. It was the safest car radio volume control I ever saw.
The second change was shoelaces. Did an engineer who worked for a shoe company see this article?
For the last few years, laces have become flat again, plus they're even better than the old cotton laces! New laces are nylon and cotton interwoven, giving you nylon's strength and cotton's friction.
Unfortunately, like t-shirts, socks no longer fit, either, at least if you buy them at Walmart and don't wear clown shoes.
Nov 8, 2014