Wednesday, February 27, 2008


A post over at verbatim caught my eye the other day.

There’s a website out there that lists an inventory of Obsolete inventory that is growing daily.

Many of the skills or activities listed have been obsolete for lifetimes. Centuries, in some cases. Knapping flint? That one went out with the Iron Age in most places. Swordfighting? Modern projectile weapons have pretty much reduced the role of swords to that of pure ceremonial decoration, even if you can still use one to disembowel an unruly neighbor in a pinch.

Plenty of other items have to do with information technology, recent advances in which make numerous tasks obsolete within a short span of years. Such things as “Tweaking your AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files” or “FORTRAN programming” may be obsolete today, but we expect technological advances to sweep this sort of geekery away pretty be replaced, of course, by fresh, new geekery.

But there are plenty of other activities, formerly routine, that truly have become least, as long as you live outside of historical preserves such as Old Sturbridge and Plimoth Plantation. Here’re a few:
  • Crewing a muzzle loading cannon
  • Carving a nib into a quill or pen (what a penknife is for!)
  • Casting lead bullets
  • Starting a fire with a wood drill and block
OK, sure - these activities have been obsolete for a long time. But here are some others that died out within my lifetime:
  • Adjusting a television's horizontal and vertical holds
  • Extracting a square root using pencil and paper
  • Changing a typewriter ribbon (or using a typewriter, for that matter)
  • Calling collect on a pay phone (try to find a pay phone these days!)
  • Replacing burned out vacuum tubes in your radio or TV
  • Counting out change (a useful talent killed off by electronic cash registers)
  • Darkroom photography
  • Dialing a rotary phone (strangely enough, we still use the verb)
  • Editing audio tape with a razor blade and splicing block
  • Laying out magazines using wax and bromides (I’ve done this)
  • Loading film into a 35mm camera
  • Opening a can of beer or soda with a church key
  • Placing a coin on a tonearm to prevent skipping (What’s a tonearm, Grandpa?)
  • Using a slide rule
  • Setting the choke or pumping the accelerator when starting a car
  • Making copies using a mimeograph or a ditto stencil (mmmm, ditto smell)
  • Using carbon paper to make copies
  • Using correction fluid to fix typos (and huffing it to get wasted...)
  • Using a party-line telephone
  • Using paper tape for programming
  • Typing and sending a telex (it’s what people used to send written stuff overseas before the Internet...and faxes)
  • Using Hollerith punch cards
  • Doing calculations using a Table of Logarithms
  • Using an Odhner pin-wheel mechanical calculator (for those occasions when a slide rule wouldn’t be precise enough)
  • Using telephone exchange names
  • Watching a slide show with a slide projector
  • Taking photographs with flash bulbs or flashcubes
  • Applying the coating to a Polaroid photo
There are plenty of others...but what’s bizarre is that I remember many of these activities as being pretty commonplace. Yet, can you remember the last time you used a Logarithm Table...or an old-fashioned slide projector and screen...or a church key?

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