“Simple” Old Technology

It only looks simple in hindsight, when compared to modern technology. But at one time “simple” technology was state-of-the-art, the most sophisticated equipment available. And however simple it seems to us now, it was generally more complex to operate than the machines we use to do the same jobs. The parallel trends throughout recent human history have been of machinery becoming simultaneously simpler to use and more complex in design.

Here’s an account by a railroad enthusiast of the many tasks he must perform to get an antique steam locomotive up and running. I’m sure professional crews did it faster, back in the day, but the point is that a lot of work has to be done — and done in precisely the correct way and in the correct sequence — before the locomotive will move. How long does it take to start a Boeing 757? A few minutes? And compare the modern Boeing, which can be flown by two people, to large piston airliners of sixty years ago, whose power, fuel, electronic and navigational systems were so complex to operate as to require an additional one or two dedicated crew members. The same trend is evident in automobiles, which are easier than ever to drive, and extremely reliable by historical standards, while being tremendously complex under the hood (and in the computer).

To paraphrase Saint-Exupery, the steam train was once as radical as space ships are now; one day our modern Boeing will be as much an antique as that old locomotive seems to us. Life in the old days was not simpler. People had fewer options than they do now, and task-for-task many of the things they did required more work, often much more work, for the same results.

Related: More “Simple” Old Technology

9 thoughts on ““Simple” Old Technology”

  1. One of the great disservices that the current lack of historical literacy in education commits is the inability of many people to comprehend the enormous sea change that technology has produced in just about every aspect of modern society. There is this foggy notion that things were more primitive, but no real appreciation of the substantial differences that contemporary science makes in everyday life, from the minor task to the large, complex project.

    Far too many people think of and speak about technology as if it were some alien, seperate entity, remote and scary, lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the unwary and cause all sorts of disasters. Indeed, there are concerted efforts in many areas such as nuclear power, GM foods, nanotechnology, computerization, etc., to portray every development as a form of threat, a budding “Frankenstein”, menacing and dangerous.

    It is oddly humorous to find the same anti-tech, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist types who complain that the evil west is contaminating other cultures with our mechanistic processes of agriculture and industrial labor turn around and further complain that, while doing so, we are not also delivering wages, benefits, and lifestyles commensurate with our own. Apparently, our modern social structures are evil and corrupt, but requiring the under-developed parts of the world to recapitulate the journey from agrarian through industrial to post industrial without somehow leapfrogging them up to our present level of soulless modernity is wrong also.

    The simple fact is that everything depends on technology now, and the idea that we could ever return to the mythical simplicity of some pastoral golden era is always carefully dreamt of without mentioning the painful requirement that several billion people would have to disappear because they couldn’t be fed, housed, or cared for in most of the basic ways we now consider absolutely necessary.

  2. Younger people are hardly able to imagine what life was like in 1850 – that’s why they keep talking about patriarchal types forcing women to stay at home and only letting them be homemakers. They have no conceptions of farming, of the difficult of domestic tasks, of the way businesses were family affairs as was agricultural work. This isn’t all that surprising considering the changes have become ones we take for granted and are fully integrated into the way we live.

    On the other hand, they seem to think that human nature has changed. The sense of the universality of human nature – so central to appreciating the natural rights arguments that are so important to us – is something they also have trouble understanding. Often they speak of women’s inability to speak out in earlier times, of a lack of interest in politics before cable news, etc. This attitude I find less understandable. We may take for granted technology we use every day, but what makes them feel that they aren’t connected to humans of a hundred or a thousand or a few thousand years ago?

  3. “what makes them feel that they aren’t connected to humans of a hundred or a thousand or a few thousand years ago?”…the attitude is often expressed that “there is so much more knowledge now,” leading to arrogance and belief that we have nothing to learn from people of earlier times…see my post on temporal bigotry.

    Regarding the steam locomotive, one common difference between older and newer technologies is that the older technologies are more transparent. You can watch a steam locomotive and get a pretty good idea how it works; this is less true of its diesel-electric equivalent. A punched card is a more tangible representation of data than a series of magnetized spots on a disk.

  4. I could go on on the “temporal bigotry” bit all day, especially when the average citizen of today would be at a loss to describe the theories behind the operations of both the locomotive and the jet aircraft.

    Also keep in mind a lot of the complexity and maintenance requirements of the modern aircraft are “hidden;” the guys on the flightline might have less to do today than they did back in the days of propellor aircraft, but they’re shipping the turbine cores back to a depot somewhere if they actually need maintenance.

  5. Hidden maintenance reflects increased division of labor, which is a good thing as increased technological sophistication makes higher productivity possible. Nothing prevents airlines from requiring their pilots also to be electronics technicians and engine mechanics, so the fact that airlines do not have such requirements implies productivity is higher when roles are separated. In the old days there was no choice: the equipment was simpler but also less reliable, so an individual might have to fill multiple roles, and much maintenance would have been done at the airfield that is now done elsewhere. Also, while modern aircraft require substantial maintenance, and probably more maintenance by specialists, they require less maintenance per passenger/mile flown.

    It is no different with cars. Given a choice between 1) a modern automobile that anyone can drive but that only a specialist can repair and 2) an old automobile that is mechanically much simpler and more transparent in design, but also slower, and much less reliable and more complicated to drive, everyone opts for the modern vehicle.

  6. …and task-for-task many of the things they did required more work, often much more work, for the same results.

    I’m currently reading a book on flintknapping, arguably the oldest technology in existence. Its strangely complex in theory and people who study it say it takes years to become skilled at it. If we had to train flintknappers from scratch, we might find it takes as long as it does to train an engineer.

    The technology of the past looks simpler in part because the totality of it can be viewed by the human senses unaided. A human can see with their own eyes what is going on in a windmill or steam engine. Modern technology by contrast, often operates invisibly. No human can actually watch a jet engine work. A logic board looks like an inert slab.

    I suspect a lot of fear of technology actually results from the fear of social competition from people who make, maintain and manage technology. Being a master of technology grants real, immediate physical power. People who make their way in the world with mere words fear that raw power.

  7. People, in general, have always been extremely ignorant, in a very real sense, about most of what was happening around them. It was true thousands of years ago, when most knowledge concerned the very practical and specific requirements of life in that era—when do the animals migrate and where do they travel, which plants are edible, where are there caves or other suitable shelters, where do we cross the streams we will encounter, what materials are available for weapons, etc.—and it is true now.

    Our current culture has amassed an enormous storehouse of empirical knowledge about many aspects of life previously understood only through myths and fairy tales, whether folk tales or supernatural creation stories, but far too much of this knowledge is only superficially taught in the schools, and the great majority of people have a very faulty grasp of how things actually work.

    Fortunately, the more complex and difficult issues do attract people who absolutely fall in love with such things as planetary orbits or weather formation or what’s going on thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, and the scientific emphasis on evidence and logical proof somewhat prevents the promulgation of fairy tales disguised as “ancient wisdom” or holy revelation.

    It is troubling, therefore, to observe a growing movement which denigrates the scientific method as just another “cultural bias” which is non-transferable, and inferior to other, traditional methods of assessing claims of knowledge.

    This was glaringly apparent in a recent program I watched on the science channel dealing with genetic surveys, which tracked human population movements by DNA analysis. In the segment on Australia, the science guide very carefully discounted the western scientific approach as he pandered to an Aboriginal spokesman who was insisitng that the mystical tales of creation in his culture were superior to, and superceded, any facts that scientific analysis might reveal about the origins of the native population.

    At that point, I turned the program off in disgust.

    The story of the technical progress of western culture, already under assault from PC post-modernism, which attempts to deny any values underlying or derived from that history, is now also being devalued in the multi-culti “sensitivity” to any other non-western cultures’ discomfort at discovering that their traditional myths don’t hold up to analysis by empirical methods.

    As I have mentioned many times, the bankruptcy of western educational philosophy and scholarly disengagement from the realities of everyday life are much more threatening problems than the pathetic illusions of a bunch of religious fanatics living in the hills of Pakistan, and their murderous folowers around the world. They may be able to explode a bomb here or there, but their futile efforts do not endanger the structure of western civilization nearly as much as those who deny its primary philosophical premises and delegitimize its basic values.

    Science is the art of the rational mind, every bit as elegant and moving as the most evocative paintings or sculptures or poems of traditional artistic achievement. The movement against empiricism and the scientific method does not have the well being of humanity as a goal.

    As someone once said in a book I read a long time ago, the anti-mind is the anti-life.

  8. Well, I was just told I might be spam, so I guess we’ll see if my comment comes through or not. I imagine the sun will come up tomorrow regardless of whether I get filtered or not.

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