5 Fascinating Technologies the World Forgot Once They Were Replaced
An icon of a floppy disk represents saving in Word documents. That’s even though floppies have been almost nonexistent for years, and haven’t been the primary place for saving docs in decades. “Kids today,” more than one commentator has speculated, “probably don’t even know what a floppy disk is. They just think that’s the ‘save symbol,’ and it doesn’t stand for anything in real life!”
Whether or not they’re right, our commentator above is no expert on the history of science. They, too, lack any experience with tech from much before their time. If you told them that computers used to store code in loops of rope, they would be shocked, despite the fact that that storage medium was newer when they grew up than floppies are now. As one technology supplants another, the old one falls out of memory. Leaving us with little knowledge of how, once upon a time...
Before Trains, Horses Pulled Goods Through Water
We all know horses pulled carts of stuff before people invented trains. Trains beat horses, we imagine, because engines are mighty compared with horses’ wimpy flesh. But we forget one other factor that makes trains more efficient than any road transport that came before it, as well as any road transport that came after it: friction. A train, with each wheel making a tiny point of contact with the track, has less friction than anything that moves on a road. For the same amount of fuel, a train carries much more cargo than a fleet of trucks.
You know what else works against less resistance than something rolling down a road? Something gliding across water. That’s why we transport stuff on barges (extra points if the water happens to be flowing in the same direction we want to travel). But what happens if no waterway connects the two spots we want to link? Then we had to build a canal, of course. And what happens if you want to move against the flow of the current? With the wind unreliable, and engines not yet invented, barges used horses.
The horses didn’t swim in the water, as that would have ended poorly for everyone. The horses walked on the land alongside the waterway, dragging the boat up or down the canal. This worked superbly well. One horse could pull a ton of coal in a cart but could pull 40 tons in a boat.
In England, people were using these horse barges as far back as Roman times, and the practice came back during the Industrial Revolution, once we finally had a lot to transport. In the 1790s, one single canal eased transport so much that the price of coal halved. The country approved dozens more canals in the years immediately thereafter, and by the middle of the next century, they measured 5,000 miles in length. It was the age of Canal Mania. It worked fine, right up until the rise of the locomotive, which could pull a whole lot more coal than any horse barge.
Today, you can still hunt down some boats pulled by horses, just as a gimmick. Visitors look at the horse and marvel at how it’s able to pull something so heavy. Then (since this is just some small novelty boat rather than a barge loaded with 40 tons), they can get down and grab the rope themselves and find that even they, a measly human, are able to pull the load when it’s on a boat.
Before Plastic, We Mixed Sawdust With Blood
Below is a picture from an 1884 ad for roller skates. “Used exclusively in every prominent Rink in America!” proclaims the ad. Before you can think too closely about whether they’re using “exclusively” correctly, it continues, saying, “Roller skating gets the money at all amusement resorts. Our skates are used and endorsed by every prominent professional skater in America. We do not sacrifice quality for cheapness.” And what premium material are these wheels made from? Steel, says the ad. Steel and hemacite.
Hemacite sounds like some sort of mineral. But as all you vampires and fans of etymology know, hema- means blood. That’s what hemacite was made of. Not human blood (as far as we know), but still. Hemacite combined blood and sawdust. You know that Avengers movie, where Black Panther says, “Thanos will have nothing but dust and blood”? The aliens should have replied, “Oh, hemacite? Cool, we’d heard Wakanda was home to some miracle material.”
People manufactured hemacite to deal with a pressing problem: a surplus of blood. Slaughterhouses produced blood in huge quantities, and people had limited success using the sticky stuff in fertilizer. Mostly, they dumped it into the sewers, inadvertently feeding legions of rats. In New Jersey, where garbage remains a pressing problem to this day, a Dr. W.H. Dibble invented hemacite by pressing blood with sawdust in a hydraulic press. Sawdust, of course, is also a waste product, made from sawing wood, though people have found various uses for it over the years.
Though designed to dispose of a waste product, hemacite was a pretty useful material. You could mold it in a way that you couldn’t with most competing substances, making it quite versatile in manufacturing. You might call it a highly plastic material. Later, however, scientists derived a superior material from oil and literally named it “plastic.” Plastic made hemacite obsolete.
Note: To understand that last paragraph, you should know that “plastic” is an adjective that means pliable, rather than the name of the one substance that we call “plastic” today. This is also why, for example, plastic surgery is called plastic surgery even though it involves no plastic. Plastic surgery has existed for thousands of years and was first named “plastic surgery” in 1839. The material plastic wasn’t called “plastic” till the 20th century.
Pre-Satellites, We Used to Bounce Signals Off the Moon
Scientists first used a satellite to relay human communications in 1954. This milestone will raise some eyebrows from most students of space history, who know that Sputnik didn’t launch until three years later. But Sputnik was merely the first satellite that humans placed in space. Earth also has one rather large natural satellite, called the Moon, and we were using this for communications before we figured out those artificial ones.
We were first reflecting signals of some kind off the Moon as early as 1943. Then the landmark 1954 broadcast transmitted a human voice, which was a big deal and was much more involved than any of the first artificial satellites could manage. Sputnik could send a few beeps, but that was it. America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, sent down space data intermittently but no voices. The first active communications satellite didn’t go up till 1962. It was designed by AT&T.
So, throughout the 1950s, the world experimented with the process known as Earth-Moon-Earth communication, or EME. The Navy could send signals from Mayland to Hawaii and back via the Moon. They moved from here to sending messages back and forth from the land to naval ships far out in the ocean. This required giant receiver dishes on ship decks.
The military stopped using the “Moon bounce” in the 1960s, now that they had communications satellites. But amateur radio operators can still totally try EME themselves today. It’s not easy, but you can do it. May as well get to practicing now, so you’ll be prepared once a catastrophe knocks out all satellite communications and you need to send a message of hope to all survivors worldwide.
Letterlocking: Envelopes Before Envelopes
When you send any kind of message online, you have to make your peace with the fact that it has been intercepted by the government, contrary to all written and unwritten laws. Every nude you have ever sent has been preserved in some data center in Utah, and long after that apocalypse we just mentioned has wiped out the public internet, those seized pics will remain there, to be poked at by future prospectors.
The most secure way to send a message is physically. Seal it in an envelope, and the spies who pursue you will not easily be able to open it without leaving some evidence behind. Before envelopes, people secured messages with wax seals. This was perhaps more reliable than envelopes. You might be able to steam open an envelope then stick it tight again without being detected, but you stood little chance of managing the same trick on a wax seal.
Before wax seals, another method existed. It was called letterlocking. You’d fold up your letter and poke a hole through the many folds. Then you’d take a strip of paper, cut from same page as the letter itself, and draw it through the hole. Unlike tying the paper with string, there was no way to loosen the strip and replace it after rerolling the sheet you just read. Break the paper seal, and the tampering would be plainly visible.
Envelopes existed in some form even before any recorded letterlocking. But envelopes later became much more common, rendering letterlocking a lost art. They didn’t become more common because any brilliant inventor came up with a new design. It was because paper finally became cheap enough that using a separate multilayered sheet, just to cover the actual paper you were sending, suddenly no longer seemed like such an absurd idea.
People Had to Listen Really Closely for Planes
Radar works by sending out radio signals and analyzing how messed up they look when they come back. The changes in the waves reveal where things are and how they’re moving. Before radar? You could wait till the oncoming aircraft was in sight. Or, you could put a hand behind your ear and listen as carefully as you could.
This discipline was called acoustic location, and it used huge devices called sound locators. They were also called war tubas, which ranks right up there with “horse barge” as phrases you can’t say with a straight face. These devices focused sound waves, like a loudspeaker or the mouth of a brass instrument but in reverse. Operators would wear stethoscopes to further magnify the faint sounds. Not only did these predate radar — they predated microphones.
During World War I, the goal was to locate incoming zeppelins. While one person on their own hearing a balloon that sounded German didn’t reveal much, if you detected the sounds from a few different locations, and you compared their strengths, you could identify the source’s location using trigonometry. If you ever hear a math student complaining that they won’t need trig in real life, send them to a trench in Verdun in 1915 and see what they say.
Sound locators ceased being useful once aircraft became too fast. Later, of course, radar rendered them obsolete. Later still, the apocalypse wiped out all aircraft, rendering sound locators unnecessary.