Friday, February 04, 2011

Inventions, Ideas, and Imagination

Hand toolsEarlier this week, there was a bit on NPR that suggested that no invention ever completely becomes extinct.  This led to a humorous bit of back-and-forth as the NPR interviewer tried to come up with tools or inventions that he considered so obsolete that surely no one makes them anymore.  He was unable to come up with anything definitive (depending on how you set your terms.  There was one five-hole tool that he was only able to find a modern three-hole version, but the basic intent was clearly the same thing).  For emphasis, I should make clear that I don't mean that they were just looking to ensure that no antique sample of the tool could be found.  They were looking for tools that may have been made any number of years ago, and looking to see if someone, anyone, was still making them new today.  In every single case they could come up with, a modern version was found.

Besides the difficulty of trying to prove a negative, it occurs to me that this exercise is doomed to failure.  Not so much because I agree with the premise that no invention ever disappears entirely (although I do find that idea intriguing), but because unlike a species of animal or plant (the kind of thing we usually talk about when we discuss "extinction"), an invention is less a physical object and more of an idea.  So long as someone remembers the idea of a tool, someone can "recreate" the tool, even if it had been the case that no modern version of it had been constructed in recent times.  Indeed, this was implicitly (if not quite explicitly) illustrated in the NPR report through the example of that three-hole tool vs. the five-hole tool.  Because the three-hole tool maker said that they do custom jobs, it was considered a "close enough" match.  If custom jobs are allowed, then clearly any tool that can still be remembered can be remade, even if no one actually does so at the present.

The comments section over at the NPR link suggests also that perhaps a clearer definition needs to be made between "tools" and "machines" (does anyone make rigid airships, as opposed to blimps, anymore?), but even there, someone could make a new Zeppelin if they really wanted to. Frankly, as I read the terms of the article, a Zeppelin would count if no one is currently making one.  It seems to refer to technology in general, and thus both "tools" and "machines" would be fair game.  But just how closely does one have to duplicate, say, the original formula of Polaroid instant film to meet the terms?  If I use one type of chemical instead of another, yet get the same results, does that count?  I don't know.

They say that "necessity of the mother of invention."  Tools were invented because, at one point or another, someone needed something done and needed to figure out a way to do it.  Although tools may become less practical than more modern equipment that has come along to supplant it, that doesn't mean that the original idea has died.  An old-style push-lawnmower will still get the job of cutting grass done.  It just does so more slowly and with more effort on the part of the user than a modern riding lawnmower would do.  But what if you live in an area that doesn't have easy access to gas or electricity?  That old-style mower suddenly is good to have around, isn't it?  So long as we can remember the old idea, we can also still find reasons why the old idea might be useful.  But suppose that something happened that meant we no longer remembered the old-style mower, and a subsequent apocalypse robbed us of the means of using the more advanced version, as well.  Would a newly created invention that mowed grass, but bore little to no resemblance to the push-mower, be the same thing?

Perhaps not.  Perhaps it doesn't matter.  It seems to me that the point of the article is less about the absolute truth of the claim that no invention is ever extinct, and more about the fact that even items we consider obsolete still find use elsewhere in the world through hobbyists, perhaps in less-developed societies, or for cultural reasons.  We human beings still find use for a great many things that many of us had considered useless.  Perhaps that can be a sign of hope for us, and an encouragement to look at the resources we have more carefully.  We have access to any number of tools that can help us get things done that we may have forgotten about.  We just need the imagination to pick them up and put them to use again.

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