Tools Never Die? Yes They Do. : Krulwich Wonders... Krulwich didn't believe that every technology ever developed is still being made today. And thousands of suggestions later, he thinks he's found a few that have fallen through the cracks.
NPR logo Tools Never Die? Yes They Do.

Tools Never Die? Yes They Do.

If you've been visiting here this week, you know we've been obsessing about writer/technologist Kevin Kelly's bold claim:


He says there is no human invention, no tool that has totally vanished. Once something has been invented, he says, you will find it, or something very much like it, still being made today.

I said: "You're wrong. Inventions, like dinosaurs, can go extinct."
He said: "Prove me wrong."

So I asked you, my readers, to nominate tools/inventions that you think are no longer being made anywhere. We received something like 2,500 suggestions.

Some of them, like the automated bowler hat-tipper (that mechanically tips your hat in a gentle salute) are almost certainly not being made today, but we wondered if they ever got made. The automated hat tipper has a U.S. patent, No. 556,248 (thank you, Alex Milton), but we have no reason to think anyone actually built it, or used it. So inventions that were more fanciful than real, we decided to ignore.

The US Patent and Trademark Office
A Saluting Device.
The US Patent and Trademark Office

But some of your suggestions, we think, survived close scrutiny.
We have three winners.
We will slap them on Kevin Kelly's desk and say: Definitely Dead, Kevin.
Now you prove us wrong.

Oak Ridge Associated Universities
Vita Radium Suppositories
Oak Ridge Associated Universities

So here is our first nominee, the radium suppository. We definitely don't think anyone is making these any more.

There was a time, back at the start of the 20th century, when radioactive products didn't seem dangerous; they seemed life-enhancing. They were picker-uppers. (Thank you Christian Long, for submitting this product, which is literally a picker upper, in the x-rated sense. It's addressed to "Weak, Discouraged Men! Now Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality.")

There is a whole class of products (Radioactive crockery — thx, James Neil Reeder; Radium toothpaste — thx, Lockhart Beecham) that were manufactured before people, including Pierre and Marie Curie, realized radiation can harm or kill. Ditto for any number of asbestos products, not to mention lead cups and dishes. So here is a whole class of extinct inventions: Invented in innocence but now too dangerous to make any more. Can Kevin find us radium suppositories, made new?

Adam Cole/NPR
A Roman Corvus.
Adam Cole/NPR

Next come ancient technologies that stayed ancient: Bronze weapons, Greek Fire, Antikythera Mechanisms, Damascus Steel...we sorted through those and (thanks to Melissa Feimster Lido) came up with one that was crucial in its day, but too boat-specific to be made today, anywhere. It is the Roman "corvus," a military boarding device used in naval warfare in the First Punic War against Carthage.

Basically, this was a little bridge that would drop onto a neighboring enemy ship with a kind of ker-plunk. That way, you could dash across instead of swinging through the air like Johnny Depp in the Pirate movies. Not as flashy, but very effective. We don't think anybody is still making these contraptions. Why would they? Prove us wrong, Kevin.


The third category is something that was once part of a famous product, like the on/off switch in a Commodore Computer, or the casing inside a hydrogen bomb. When that product was improved, discontinued or changed, the little part inside went extinct. Nobody makes it any more. Nobody needs to. In that spirit, (thank you, Gregory Vincent), we nominate the "ferrite core" of a Seeburg Jukebox, circa 1950's. This gizmo, made of little ferrite rings threaded with wire, stored data inside the jukebox so that when you dropped a dime into the slot and punched B6, The Everly Brothers would automatically sing "Bye Bye Love." Core memory devices got replaced with semiconductor memory. So who would make a juke box ferrite core now? We say...nobody.

So that's our answer to Kevin Kelly: if Kevin says human inventions never disappear, let's see if he can find us a radium suppository, a Roman Corvus and a ferrite core fit for a Juke Box — all being made today.

Good luck, Kevin. (And, I should add, thanks for letting me subject you to a tornado of happy abuse.)

Kevin Kelly's new book is What Technology Wants, (Viking/Penguin 2010).