Be careful what you throw out. The usual view is that one technological advance follows another in a steady stream. Devices and equipment are invented, serve well, grow old, become obsolete and are replaced by new and better components. This progression is certainly dominant, and most technologies do follow a chronological bell curve of early adoption, widespread mainstream implementation and declining use. However, this may be an incomplete and immature perspective because it fails to recognize less obvious, but still potentially priceless values that older technologies and their development can bring to future inventors and their innovations.
For instance, the members of the Hudson Valley Old Time Power Association in Hudson, N.Y., collect, maintain and operate a variety of agricultural and rural manufacturing equipment from past decades and generations. They also hold annual fairs, tours and events to demonstrate antique engines, tractors, other farm implements, old-fashioned handcrafts, including lumber milling, ironworking, woodworking, quilting and letterpress printing.
My father and former newspaperman, Dick Montague, runs the association’s print shop, and has been repairing a donated linotype machine. The affection that my dad and his power association buddies have for these old devices, and their enthusiasm in demonstrating old and now-unfamiliar technologies to visitors, especially youngsters, is inspiring and infectious.
Of course, the common view is that old technologies may be dabbled in as hobbies and for nostalgia’s sake. However, I think there’s more to it than sentiment. Sure, watching or operating an old tractor, log splitter or printing press provides a vision and helps takes people back to a time when these were mainstream devices, but they also point out the problems and challenges that these devices successfully solved in their own eras. Tractors were better than horses or oxen, which were better than scratching the earth yourself. A log splitter was better than an axe, which was better than a stone tool, and an electric letterpress is better than a manual one, which is better than hiring a squad of monks or copying documents by hand yourself.
I think the attraction of old technologies is that they contain the whole, big-picture history of their development, widespread use and replacement. This can give observers a deeper understanding of a device’s true influence. However, like any good history lesson, it can indicate how current events may be unfolding and suggest possible future courses of action.
For example, proportional, integral, derivative (PID) loop-tuning calculations that used to be done manually are mostly automated, computerized and buried deep in PC-based components. However, it’s still crucial for users to know how to do these calculations so they can better direct the programming of the devices that will do the routine work.
Likewise, learning about former flowmeter methods can help users appreciate the mental leap made by the first people to ask if the Coriolis effect or ultrasonic properties might help them figure out what was going on in their pipelines. However, examining how those leaps occurred also may help users cultivate a more innovative mindset when facing problems that have no solutions yet. I’ve been wondering when and how the more recent magnetic resonance imaging, PET and computed tomography scanning technologies used in healthcare will follow lasers, radar and ultrasonic instrumentation onto the plant floor.
Past technologies, the stories of why they were needed and an understanding of their development can be useful now and in the future. Certainly, a specific tool may be obsolete, but the mental process that went into addressing the problem it solves remains as instructive as ever. Just as children grow up to sometimes appreciate the hard-won wisdom of their parents, engineers can reuse the inspiration that went into former breakthroughs, even if the actual devices aren’t practical anymore.