The Conundrum of “Old Technology”

A brief reflection on the value of studying the way things worked “back then”. 

On a hot August day this past summer I stood in a crowded second-floor barracks room of the old fort that is my workplace. I was on duty in our military tailor’s post; sweating into my gown, and drinking water from a redware jug to keep myself from stumbling over my words as I spoke to a constant stream of late-summer tourists. I paused my banter for another drink of water, and a man piped up with a question about my scissors, dubious of the quality of tools available to an eighteenth-century craftsperson. I smiled, this being a topic I am fond of, and responded that, in the grand scheme of things, 1777 wasn’t really all that long ago; technologies such as eighteenth-century tailors’ shears were quite similar to their modern equivalents.

I heard a voice from the doorway and turned, seeing a twelve-year-old girl step into the room. As she snapped my photo on her phone, she stated with youthful self-assurance that “they didn’t have technology in history”.

Original 18th-century shears in the personal collection of David Niescior. Much thanks to David for allowing me to use the image. 

I understood the meaning behind her words, and yet I was startled by the scope of her statement. It was hard to know where to start: with the idea that the word “history” could be used so broadly, or “technology” so narrowly.

Her comment stayed with me long after she left the conversation and the museum. Technology is manifestation of the ancient Greek concept of techne: the realm of human art or skill. To this end, every tool we use and every invention created today, or last week, or millennia ago is, in truth, technology. Both antique sewing shears and the iPhone 6 qualify. Through the eyes of my young visitor though, technology encompassed only new ideas, and so could not exist in the past.

I saw a flaw in this logic, for there is a first time for everything: the first knife, the first stained glass window, the first computer. At that moment in time, each is cutting-edge. Many antiquated objects have since evolved almost beyond the point of recognition, but many others survive still in nearly their original form – tailors’ shears for example: so functional that they need no re-design, but so familiar that we cannot conceive of them as technology, until we think back to an era when they did not yet exist. In the study of material culture, we cannot afford to let the word “technology” be relegated to modern times. An object which was the first of its kind might at once be very old and entirely new – the foremost technology of another era. Not only does an understanding of this allow us to explore that age, it also helps us excavate the foundations of our contemporary material lives as we follow the story of that once-new idea on its evolutionary journey through time.

My conversation with this young tourist caused me to appreciate that there is value in understanding the full life cycle of a design, as it gestates in the mind of its inventor, is born imperfectly into the world, and is then remade many times over, remaining much the same or evolving almost beyond recognition. It remains a function of techne – the artfulness of humanity – be it old or new, useful or obsolete. In either case, when viewed through the lens of technological innovation, the study of material culture teaches us not just about the material lives of ages past, but also about how people went about the process of improving their lives. To study material culture is to step inside the inventive human mind.

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