Video Didn't Kill the Radio Star

Written by Joyce Bedi, a senior historian at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, this post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog. It is republished here with permission.

See more posts from and about the Smithsonian.


SmithsonianImageCollage.jpg

Tools Never Die ... Do They?

If "matter can neither be created nor destroyed," as the ancient Greek philosophers first 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?").

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 created 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.

Images: 1. This woodworker so closely linked his identity with his trade that he chose to be photographed with his tools, 1860s; 2. Machinist's tool chest, 1860s; 3. Cabinetmaker's tool chest, about 1818.

More from the "O Say Can You See?" Blog:

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.

Video

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.

Video

A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.

Video

'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Technology

Just In