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Do Tools Ever 'Die?' 615

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the situation-is-immortal dept.
An anonymous reader writes "NPR recently ran a debate between two commenters regarding the perpetual lifespan of tools... in other words, that no tool ever goes completely out of use. This debate wasn't focused just on mechanical tools based on simple machines, but included electronics as well (vinyl record players, for example). Did you know you can still buy 8-inch floppy drives online? NPR is looking for examples of tools that have gone entirely out of use... any ideas, Slashdot?"
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Do Tools Ever 'Die?'

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  • by A nonymous Coward (7548) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:46AM (#35068728)

    How many times have we read about NASA tapes and such from early missions where the hardware to read them has long since disappeared, and no one is even sure what format the tapes are in?

    • by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:50AM (#35068776) Homepage
      TFA is about cherishing biases of our memory... We don't remember, we are hardly aware of those types of artifacts which disappeared.
      • Libraries have this problem building faster and faster. Instead of just books, they have rapidly growing archives of media in oddball, forgotten formats and rooms full of old equipment to read it.
    • by gurps_npc (621217)
      I was going to ask about the tools used to make the space shuttle, but this is the same idea.
    • How many times have we read about NASA tapes...

      Therein lies the problem. Any invention that we have heard of or read about is probably because somewhere, somehow it is still in use. Unless you happen to be a historian specializing in weird inventions you probably have never heard of inventions which are no longer made or used.

    • The parent comment was marked insightful with very little research.

      Exhibit A: http://science.slashdot.org/story/08/11/10/0641226/Drive-From-Sydney-Museum-Could-Unlock-NASA-Moon-Data [slashdot.org]

      Some helpful Australians are using the drives found in Perth in attempt to recover the data on moon dust.

      Exhibit B: http://lunarscience.arc.nasa.gov/articles/la-times-article-features-newest-lunar-images [nasa.gov]

      Nancy Evans recovering lunar images from the FR-900 Ampex tapes.

      Myth Busted.

      Apparently those tools still exist, just had

  • kdawson? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I'm pretty sure he's still sucking in oxygen

  • Hitler died (Score:2, Funny)

    by ObitMan (550793)

    Hitler Died, He was a tool.

    • by maroberts (15852)

      Hitler Died, He was a tool.

      Yes, but he's still used frequently as a tool in Internet conversations.(/godwin)

  • Tools for Encryption (Score:4, Informative)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:48AM (#35068748) Journal
    Aside from learning venues (which you could argue every tool has to offer), there's a whole range of tools of encryption that no longer function as they were intended when they were created. From Rome's Scytale [wikipedia.org] to Germany's Enigma Machine [wikipedia.org], none of those tools are useful today on account of how easily they are cracked.
    • by xednieht (1117791)
      They are still useful if they are repurposed they simply may not be useful for the original objective for which they were designed. Think the original apple computer selling for $200K+ recently.
    • by KeithIrwin (243301) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:51PM (#35069772)

      A scytale was a club carried by every Spartan (not Roman) officer. It was used as a bludgeon first and possibly a cryptographic tool second, but the historical records of its cryptographic use weren't written until a couple hundred years after the claimed use. None of the historical accounts which were contemporary to the time make any mention of them being used for any purpose other than hitting people (Sparta was known more for military might than for its intellect). So it's quite likely that their cryptographic use was invented after-the-fact by some historian and then repeated by others rather than an actual use.

      I also disagree with the idea that either the hypothetical scytale or the cryptographic rotor have really gone out of use. People still, unfortunately, roll their own cryptographic schemes and one of the things that this implies is that they reinvent the wheel or sometimes randomly copy ideas from history. Hardware versions of the cryptographic rotor and the scytale are probably extinct, but the software implementations undoubtedly live on and are in use, even though they shouldn't be.

      • A scytale was a club carried by every Spartan (not Roman) officer. It was used as a bludgeon first and possibly a cryptographic tool second

        So, more of a codebreaking tool? http://xkcd.com/538/ [xkcd.com]

  • and for anyone who doubts that, I have two words: Harbor Freight [harborfreight.com].
    • by alta (1263)

      Are you commenting on how this place is where good tools go to die...

      Or how they sell such crappy tools, that they will inevitably die.

      I've bought a good many tools from harbor freight, and yes, I know what you're talking about. Everything is crap, so only buy things you'll rarely use or they can't hardly screw up.

      Bad tools to get at Harbor Freight:
      cordless drill
      sawsall
      anything electrical
      anything precision

      Good tools to get at harbor freight
      hex wrenches
      rubber hammer
      traffic cones
      C clamp

      • I'd stay away from the hex wrenches. Most likely they are made out of that cheap stuff that strips easily under moderate usage. Same with socket sets.

        Unless one is using them for hobby/very light home use, one is better off with Sears Craftsman tools - at least in the US.

  • Here are some Tools [vh1.com] that need to receive a Darwin award [google.com].

  • Radioactive tools (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rednip (186217) <rednip&gmail,com> on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:51AM (#35068794) Journal
    Some time ago radiation wasn't well understood, and a number of tools were built to take advantage of it for personal use. The radioactive shoe sizer came to mind right off the bat, but a searching for it I found a number of tools that were certainly ill advised. http://www.thingamababy.com/baby/2006/05/fun_with_radiat.html [thingamababy.com] http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/offbeat-news/10-radioactive-products-that-people-actually-used/1388 [environmen...affiti.com]
    • Holy crap, that stuff is sick... somebody call NPR because those things are definitely the nail in this topic's coffin.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by rarel (697734)
      I guess technically they're just half-dead, being radioactive and all... :p
  • I'm guessing that technologies used in the past to accomplish feats that are difficult to replicate in modern times would be a fruitful area to find examples. Sadly, identifying the tool itself would not be possible since they are "lost". Examples that come to mind: tools used to build the pyramids.

    This probably isn't what TFA really is after, though.

  • First thing that came to mind was a party line. But from wikipedia -

    "One example of a community linked by party line is in Big Santa Anita Canyon high in the mountains above Los Angeles, near Sierra Madre, California, where 81 cabins, a group camp and a pack station all communicate by magneto-type crank phones. One ring is for the pack station, two rings for the camp and three rings means all cabins pick up."

  • This just in - people still make vinyl records, and people buy them because (they think) vinyl records sound better than any other recording medium.

    Also, all those 386 processors that are still in active use need to be replaced occasionally.

    • Unlike vinyl, nobody ever really loved 8-track.

    • Re:/. News Network (Score:5, Interesting)

      by imakemusic (1164993) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:03PM (#35069000)

      People also buy vinyl because it is easier to mix with. You have direct physical control over the movement of the disc and therefore the speed of the music which gives you more control for beat-matching and makes scratching possible/easier. Obviously, it has it's disadvantages. Your bags are heavier, vinyl can get damaged, it takes longer to find a piece of vinyl than search a digital disk etc. but as a tool for this specific job, many still (rightly, in my opinion) consider it superior.

    • by BitterOak (537666)

      This just in - people still make vinyl records, and people buy them because (they think) vinyl records sound better than any other recording medium.

      Also, all those 386 processors that are still in active use need to be replaced occasionally.

      Have any of those people compared vinyl to super audio CD's (SACD)? I agree that vinyl can carry details that conventional CDs lack (at the expense of dynamic range and some distortion), but I always understood SACD to be the best of both words: the low amplitude detail of vinyl (which adds warmth, spacial definition, detail, and good blending of orchestral instruments (especially in classical music)), and the clarity, low noise floor, dynamic range, and consistency of CDs. Has anyone seriously claimed v

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      This just in - people still make vinyl records, and people buy them because (they think) vinyl records sound better than any other recording medium.

      You may scoff, but while it was highly debatable in the 80s and mid-90s, these days it's likely to be on the truer side than it was ever before. It's not that CDs are "clinical" or "sterile", but that CDs enable a whole range of audio abuse, the most common one being, well, LOUDER IS BETTER!!!! In no medium until the CD has it been possible to store a dynamic ra

  • Cotton fishing lines (Score:4, Interesting)

    by XanC (644172) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:52AM (#35068820)

    I heard someplace that the quickest ever total replacement of a technology was cotton fishing lines. Cotton lines must be replaced every season. When nylon came out, it was cheaper than cotton, and lasted forever. Is there any use for cotton fishing lines anymore?

  • Not sure if that counts as a "tool", but I really don't think anyone uses them anymore. The Blue Pill and the Corrosive Sublimate are pretty much gone.
  • Very easy answer (Score:5, Informative)

    by HappyCycling (565803) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:53AM (#35068838)
    The shoe-fitting fluoroscope.

    Basically a box that you put your feet into where x-rays are fired upon your feet and you can look into the viewing ports on the top and see the bones in your feet for the purpose of getting correctly sized shoes.

    It was used during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and was subsequently discontinued after employees experienced radiation burns from the constant exposure.

    http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/shoefittingfluor/shoe.htm [orau.org]
  • by Lev13than (581686) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:53AM (#35068844) Homepage

    Too easy - I just took a bunch of pictures of obsolete technology to include in my response (and to make it authentic I shot it on film). Now, if you can please hold on a bit I just need to send the roll off to get processed into Kodachrome slides. Shouldn't take more than a few days, so please check back.

  • I am sure (and afraid) I'll be corrected, but I'm sure I haven't heard of any modern usage of the rack [wikipedia.org].

  • by EMB Numbers (934125) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:57AM (#35068904)

    The Antikythera mechanism is a 'tool; that is no longer in use. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism [wikipedia.org]

    How about Henges ? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henge [wikipedia.org]

  • Does anyone actually use Stonehenge for its intended purposes?

    • by Minwee (522556)

      You mean making it 10" tall and putting it on a stage?

      Yes, I'm pretty sure that happened at least once.

  • Papyrus for writing (as opposed to other uses). You can still buy it as a souvenir in Egypt, but paper superseded it for any other form of writing. Coming to think of it, I haven't seen many clay tablets used lately. Note that parchment is not quite dead - it is still used by Jews for Torah Scrolls [wikipedia.org].

    If we include software as well as hardware, Hieroglyphs [wikipedia.org] and Cuniform [wikipedia.org] are not in use anymore. Neither are a bunch of ancient languages - people still use Latin, ancient Greek, and Hebrew - but most languages used

  • Newspapers... well for reading anyway. I guess people may still use them for "proof of life" photos and ransom notes, but not reading.

  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:03PM (#35069002) Homepage
    Someone already mentioned the pyramids. The key thing about tools we no longer make is that we lose the NAMES for around the time we lose the tool. Because once we stop making them, we stop talking about them. Here is another example, from less than 200 years The original 'phonograph' used a wax cylinder instead of a vinyl LP disk. They had a 'mechanism' that would shave the cylinders, erasing the current recording and allowing you craft a new one. We don't make this tool anymore and no longer even have a name for it, siumply because we would NEVER under any circumstances, shave an existing 200 year old musical cylinder.
    • by rickb928 (945187)

      There are several groups gathering and transcribing these old wax cylinders to digital media. so they are indeed playing them to this day. I suspect at least one of these machines will record, and so it can still be done.

      And many of the tools used to build the pyarmids are in regular use today. levers, incline planes, etc. We think of them as ramps and teeter-totters.

      • by gurps_npc (621217)
        Read the entire comment. I was not talking about tools to record them, I am talking about tools to ERASE the old wax, so you can record a new one on top of the old one. Like I said earlier, generally you forget the name when you stop making the tool. The tools used to make the cylinders were called ediphones. As for tools used to make the pyramids, you need to prove that ALL of them are still in use, not simply the ones we know about. Again, we forget the tools we no longer make. The fact that we no lo
    • by shawb (16347)
      I have seen a wax cylinder shaved and recorded over in a demonstration in a class, although I can not recall if it was music or science. The cylinder was a replica made by a hobbyist, and I recall that a phonograph horn was made from paper and a straight pin to demonstrate how simply the technology is. However, this would qualify as far as the NPR article is concerned. Although I may be old enough that this isn't done in schools anymore so only qualifies as anecdotal evidence rather than proof.
  • Dead and buried:

    Elcaset - giant higher quality analog cassettes
    DCC - digital cassettes backwards-compatible with analog cassettes.
    D-VHS - digital home movie format killed by DVD, though it carried a higher quality picture

    • Elcaset - giant higher quality analog cassettes

      I *almost* bought one of those when they were around. Convienience of a cassette, fidelity of a reel to reel.
    • D-VHS - digital home movie format killed by DVD, though it carried a higher quality picture

      oh the irony of A VHS format being beaten by a format with worse picture quality...

  • I have not seen paper tape used in a long time.

  • Marriage (Score:3, Funny)

    by bigpistol (1311191) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:09PM (#35069084) Homepage
    My tool hasn't been in use since I got married.
  • by Steauengeglase (512315) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:10PM (#35069094)

    Just look at the textile industry. There are lot of odd tools they used from the early 1900s that today, we honestly have no idea what they are even used for. That doesn't even include the mountains of wood bobbins, loom repair devices, etc.

  • the stones. (Score:4, Funny)

    by mevets (322601) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:12PM (#35069122)

    I saw a documentary about stone-age families. Apparently they used baby wooly mammoths to wash their dishes, and adult wooly mammoths to shower themselves. The woolly mammoth is quite extinct, so it is unlikely that it is still in use.

  • Well, I work with the most cutting edge technology in my day job but in the evenings when I go to write fiction, I use a 1917 manual typewriter. It works today as well as it did in 1917, which is perfectly. Granted, I eventually have to type it into my computer for further rewriting but nothing beats the manual typewriter for writing fiction. A computer just does not serve the task as well.
  • Buggy whips- no, wait, my dominatrix has a whole set of those. Never mind.

  • ... Now that should die!
  • When the last holder of an idea dies, the idea dies, unless someone discovers it again, or find some documentation. Has happened many times in history. Concrete, or other liquid stone, is thought to have some forms in the past which are no longer known. It was also used in Rome but largely forgotten for about 1000 years.
  • Nothing to see... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dzfoo (772245) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:24PM (#35069326)

    I heard the story on NPR this morning and I think it's overrated. In my opinion, by including in the report tools and inventions that are custom made for leisure or passion and not necessity or practical use, the scope of invention "death" is reduced artificially.

    The report included some examples of old farming implements that are still in use in some developing countries, ostensibly because they cannot afford the newer technology and the old tools are certainly effective. These surely are examples of old technology that is still "alive."

    However, the problem is that, while the authors concentrated on the advertisements shown on a late-19th Century Farmer's Almanac, and offer these as proof; they extrapolated their observations to apply to the entire breadth of all human civilizations.

    I disagree with this. Obviously some inventions have become obsolete when newer and better technology superseded it. The fact that some fringe group or individual continues to manufacture ancient items for study or pleasure (with no intention to apply or use it in practice), does not mean that the technology is still "alive". Such technology is obsolete and out of circulation for practical use. Understanding or knowledge of it may still remain, but it is effectively dead.

    Their thesis then can be rephrased as such: Knowledge acquired by humanity throughout the course of history is accumulated and seldom lost. This is a much more intuitive and obvious assertion than the original one, but also a much less interesting one.

              -dZ.

  • by mpieters (149981) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:32PM (#35069416) Homepage

    Due to changes in medical knowledge, plenty of 'tools' used in medical practices have fallen into disuse because the underlying medical theory has been dis-proven.

    As an example, I present to you the Tobacco smoke enema device [wikipedia.org]. How many of these do you think are still in use today? Do you really want tobacco smoke blown up your backside when you just have been pulled out of the water with a set of bellows and a pipe? Yet in the 17th and 18th centuries they hung these things all along the river Thames to help 'warm' people just pulled out of the water.

  • by jlusk4 (2831) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:38PM (#35069520)

    I understand the technologies for both of those things have been lost. (Apparently, the Romans had some trick they did with oxhairs or sinews or something that gave their ballistas a lot more power than the competition.)

  • Regrettably (Score:4, Funny)

    by reboot246 (623534) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @12:59PM (#35069940) Homepage
    I don't use my tool as often as I did when I was younger. There may come a day in a few years when I won't use it at all, except for draining the bladder.

"If that makes any sense to you, you have a big problem." -- C. Durance, Computer Science 234

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