Tue February 1, 2011
Krulwich Wonders…

Tools Never Die. Waddaya mean, Never?

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:30 am

Submit your tool idea!

Or, see what we've got so far.

Kevin Kelly should know better, but boldly, brassily, (and totally incorrectly, I'm sure), he said this on NPR:

"I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet."

What does that mean? I asked him. (Kevin, among other things, is founding editor of Wired Magazine and runs a very popular blog, called Cool Tools, that reviews new gadgets.)

That means, he said, "I can't find any [invention, tool, technology] that has disappeared completely from Earth."

Nothing? I asked. Brass helmets? Detachable shirt collars? Chariot wheels?

Nothing, he said.

Can't be, I told him. Tools do hang around, but some must go extinct.

If only because of the hubris — the absolute nature of the claim — I told him it would take me a half hour to find a tool, an invention that is no longer being made anywhere by anybody.

Go ahead, he said. Try.

If you listen to our Morning Edition debate, I tried carbon paper (still being made), steam powered car engine parts (still being made), Paleolithic hammers (still being made), 6 pages of agricultural tools from an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue (every one of them still being made), and to my utter astonishment, I couldn't find a provable example of an technology that has disappeared completely.

And Kevin continues to insist he is right. In his new book What Technology Wants, he says:

A close examination of a supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the modern urban world but quite common in the developing rural world. For instance, Burma is full of oxcart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa; hand spinning is still thriving in Bolivia. A supposedly dead technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for ritual satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities or fanatical vinyl record collectors. Often old technology is obsolete, that is, it is not very ubiquitous or is second rate, but it still may be in small-time use.

I know Kevin's wrong. There have to be prominent exceptions to his Technologies Never Die claim. Problem is, I'm the wrong person to prove him wrong. I'm just not tool-wise. Pens instantly dry up when I touch them, computers — don't even ask. So what I'm wondering is: Can you help me here?

Help Me!

If you honestly think there is a tool or invention from any century, any culture, any time (no science fiction please, we are trying to be real here) that has gone completely extinct, please send it in.

Just mention the tool in the "comment" section.

We are publishing the most promising claims — and counter-claims — in the next Krulwich Wonders... blogpost which you can find here.

We will keep this post open a couple of days and if, collectively, we come up with a list of plausibly extinct technologies, it's back to Kevin for Round Two of this colloquy.

I know I can count on you people. You always bite me when I say something wrong. Now it's time to bite Kevin.

Kevin Kelly's new book is called What Technology Wants, (Viking, 2010); He and I and the writer Steven Johnson debated some of these issues at the New York Public Library in October, 2010. That debate is on video. A different, edited version that focuses on Kevin and Steven's ideas about how technology evolves (and, says Kevin, has a primitive "will") appeared on a Radiolab podcast.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



We're going to begin this next story with a list of items that used to be popular: horse-drawn buggies, chariots, detachable collars on men's shirts, top hats, corsets. Now they're gone. Or are they? It turns out that old things do not disappear like you'd think.

Here's science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: We invent things. And then after a while, some of those things disappear because we don't need them anymore. Everybody knows that.

But no, says Kevin Kelly. Human inventions don't disappear. They just don't -ever.

Mr. KEVIN KELLY (Author, "What Technology Wants"): I say that there's no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.

KRULWICH: Which means what?

Mr. KELLY: That means that things that are invented don't die off.

KRULWICH: What? That's...

Mr. KELLY: I can't find anything that has disappeared completely from the Earth. Anything that's...

KRULWICH: Oh, I'm sure there's got to be things. There's got to be things.

Mr. KELLY: Well...

KRULWICH: Before we get into this, you should know, Kevin Kelly was founding editor of "Wired" magazine. He runs an influential blog called Cool Tools about new technology. But apparently, he did not notice, for example, that nobody makes carbon paper anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: I'm willing to bet. I mean, I'll take your challenge of carbon paper. But I am going to go all the way on this. And so, there - I can find no case of an invention that is not being used somewhere on Earth today still.

KRULWICH: And then he made this ridiculous bet. He said: I bet you can't find any tool, any machine - go back to any century you like - that still isn't being made and made new today. So all I have to do is find a single tool that's not being made anymore, and I win.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: Yes, that's right.

KRULWICH: You're so going to lose this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: How about a Paleolithic ax, stone ax?

Mr. KELLY: Stone ax?

KRULWICH: Yeah, stone ax.

Mr. KELLY: Stone ax is still being made, almost exactly the same way today.

KRULWICH: And who's making them? I mean...

Professor JOHN WHITTAKER (Anthropology, Grinnell College): Who is making them? Well, lots and lots of people from all walks of life, all over the country. And...

KRULWICH: Oh, come on. Come on. I'm talking about ancient hammers here.


KRULWICH: John Whittaker, who teaches anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa, says there are hobbyists by the thousands who buy Paleolithic hammers to make arrowheads for fun.

You're talking about history buffs here, right?

Mr. KELLY: Yes.

KRULWICH: But that doesn't mean, though, that everything gets remade. I mean, nobody makes - I don't know - like, steam-powered car engines any more.

Mr. KELLY: Actually, they do.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KRULWICH: And sure enough, I looked online and I found Jay Leno showing off a steam-powered car engine.

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): This is a 10-horsepower, which - 10 doesn't sound like much, but it makes a lot of torque.

KRULWICH: They actually - you can actually buy brand new parts for your steam-powered car. So people who collect - old cars, toys, planes, typewriters - they need new parts. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: It's getting a little harder than I thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: So maybe because he was feeling so confident, Kevin confessed that at one point, he'd found a copy of an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue, which is kind of like a Sears' catalogue from 115 years ago. And just to test himself, he turned to the farming section, thinking...

Mr. KELLY: There's got to be really weird farm implements that were dead, that are extinct.

KRULWICH: And what happened?

Mr. KELLY: We went through, and in every case, we were able to find...

KRULWICH: You just said every case. Do you mean every case?

Mr. KELLY: Every case. Everything on that page, they were still being manufactured new.


Mr. KELLY: Shockingly, yes.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: Yes.

KRULWICH: Okay. So now I know how to - I know I'm going to win this bet. I'm going to go through not just that page, I'm going to through page after page, after page of the Montgomery Ward catalogue until I find something - which I will - that is not being made anymore.

And so I'm going to do this by calling...

Mr. SHAD MALLADY (ALMACO): This is Shad Mallady.


Mr. MALLADY: In Nevada, Iowa.

KRULWICH: At what store?

Mr. MALLADY: A company called ALMACO.

KRULWICH: And ALMACO sells farm equipment?

Mr. MALLADY: Yeah.

KRULWICH: And they sell to suppliers in India and Africa, as well as to religious customers like the Amish, who choose old tools. And you're going to help me out here.

Mr. MALLADY: Okay.

KRULWICH: Okay. So do you guys at ALMACO sell - and this is from the 1895 catalogue - do you sell a Corn Bean Seed Planter that you jab into the ground?

Mr. MALLADY: We have what's called our jab planter.

KRULWICH: It's a jabber?

Mr. MALLADY: That's exactly what it is. Yeah.


Mr. MALLADY: We have actually two styles that we make. Yes.

KRULWICH: Okay, well, how about - do you have a Hill Dropping Fertilizer Drill?

Mr. MALLADY: Sorry to disappoint you, but yes, we do.

KRULWICH: How about a Little Giant Broadcast Hand Seeder? This is a hand seeder you roll with a wheel in front?

Mr. MALLADY: We make them.

KRULWICH: Do you make a Tornado Tank Pump?

Mr. MALLADY: I've heard of them.

KRULWICH: Is there any tool you've got that you know of that's gone extinct? I mean, no one makes it all?


KRULWICH: Anywhere in the world?

Mr. MALLADY: That's a good question.


Mr. MALLADY: You know, you got me.

KRULWICH: I can't believe this is so difficult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Kevin, stop laughing, because I'm going to tell you the truth. I asked two really good sleuths, NPR's Jessica Goldstein and Mike Ruocco, to go item by item through six pages of the 1895 catalogue. And I said find me something that isn't being made today. And Mike reported back...

MIKE RUOCCO: We definitely were able to find everything that you listed.

KRULWICH: Everything.


KRULWICH: And then to make matters even worse, Professor Whittaker, back in Grinnell, he said, you know, if you add up your Stone Age tribes that still exist, and poor farmer and modern hobbyists, for different reasons, people do hang onto old tools, which he said kind of likely that they would last and last.

Prof. WHITTAKER: Yeah, that's not an unreasonable proposition. I think the longevity of basic technologies is astounding.

KRULWICH: Carbon paper, by the way, I found at my local stationery store. So that's out. But that's when a Mr. Lehman, who sells farm equipment in Ohio, told us about an obscure item grain drill - whatever that is - that is no longer being made.


KRULWICH: So the five-hole, one box grain drill you think is a completely extinct item?

Mr. LEHMAN: I think so.

KRULWICH: Let me be careful, here, because this would be, for me, bingo.

Mr. LEHMAN: Yeah. Okay, let's go bingo.


Mr. KELLY: So this thing is no longer being made? Is that what you're claiming?

KRULWICH: That's what I'm claiming. It's no longer being made.

Mr. LEHMAN: They have grain drills, but not a small one like that. The grain...

KRULWICH: Okay, I'm going to give Kevin as much time as he needs to get himself out of this suddenly deep hole he finds himself in. And in like no time...


Mr. KELLY: I just spent about two minutes Googling, and I found a place in India...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: ...which I suspected. And it's a three-hole, one box grain drill.

KRULWICH: Is the three-hole, one-box grain drill being made new?

Mr. KELLY: Yes. It's brand new, and they also do custom. So if you really wanted a five-hole one, they would make a five-hole one for you.

KRULWICH: I just - I'm running out of steam, here. I can't...

Mr. KELLY: So the idea is, is that there is basically no extinct technology, that everything we have made in the past is still being made somewhere in the world today.

KRULWICH: I so know you're wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: But I just can't prove it.

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can help him prove it. If there is an invention or tool you're sure is not being made anymore, anywhere, right us at npr.org/Krulwich. He's got his own slash.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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