Bring Back Spider Ranching

More

Henry Fountain's feature on uses of spider silk in the New York Times lauds the material but is pessimistic about its production:

There has been a big fly in the ointment, however: spiders cannot spin enough of the stuff. Although a typical spider can produce five types of silk, it does not make much of any of them. Obtaining commercial quantities is a practical impossibility -- spiders are loners and require a diet of live insects; some are cannibals. In other words, spider ranching is out of the question.

But is this right? When growing up in the midst of the industrial cornucopia that was Chicago in the 1950s I regularly saw from the elevated tracks a slide rule factory where silk from real spiders was used in making cursors. Maybe some of the more senior scientists interviewed by Mr. Fountain actually used them as students, since electronic calculators did not prevail until the 1970s.

Searching the other Web, I discover I missed an exhibition last year at the Hoboken Historical Museum about the Hoboken plant of the same company, Keuffel and Esser. According to the exhibition page:

One of the displays will explain a fascinating aspect of K&E's Hoboken operations: A spider ranch! Read about how spider web filaments were used as crosshairs for telescopic sights, and the "Spider Lady," Mary Pfeiffer, who ran K&E's spider ranch from 1889 to World War II.

So spider ranching can be done! There's an excellent piece by the historian of science Silvio Bedini here, from catch-and-release in English gardens to recent efforts (2005) to produce spider silk with transgenic goats.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

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

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In