From 8-Tracks to Grave Torpedoes: The Quest for an Extinct Technology

By Patrick Morgan | February 2, 2011 6:09 pm

NPR’s Robert Krulwich has a challenge for you: Can you name an invention or tool from the dawn of humanity until now that has become entirely extinct?

The question is based on a bet that he made with the founding editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly. In a recent NPR conversation with Krulwich, Kelly said, “I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.”

That’s a bold assertion, but try as he might, Krulwich couldn’t find an example to prove him wrong. As Krulwich explains on his blog:

If you listen to our Morning Edition debate, I tried carbon paper (still being made), steam powered car engine parts (still being made), Paleolithic hammers (still being made), 6 pages of agricultural tools from an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue (every one of them still being made), and to my utter astonishment, I couldn’t find a provable example of an technology that has disappeared completely.

So Krulwich has enlisted the help of his readers, asking for suggestions in the comment section that could help him win his bet.

The 640 comments that have accumulated thus far include everything from 8-track players to shoe store x-ray machines to horse-hair tennis balls, and Krulwich has been putting together a short list of the most promising suggestions. We’ve rounded up our three favorite contenders for technologies that have gone extinct, but can you think of anything better? You can chime in on the comment section here, or head to Krulwich’s blog to help him out.

Bowler Hat Tipper (automatic)

Alex Milton (Amilton) wrote: Tool: What about the automatic (bowler) hat tipper, US Patent 556248? I think Robert was just looking in the wrong place. Catalogs are for useful products. For useless, outdated, and non-functional items, one must look to the Federal Government!;)

Robert Krulwich: I’m sitting here trying to imagine when I would use an “automatic bowler hat tipper.” If I were taken hostage, bound and gagged, but still wished to be polite to my captors, I guess it could be useful. (If I wore a bowler.)

Embalming Tools – Egyptian Brain Remover

Ethan Meleen (eomega59) wrote: The hooks that the Ancient Egyptians used to mash up a dead person’s brain so it would come out of the nose aren’t made anymore.

Mary Varden Thompson wrote: How about the Egyptian brain remover? Do they still use those?

Robert Krulwich: @Ethan Mellen, do you have an example so we can check?

Grave Torpedo

Tim Innes (Ethan12) wrote: In response to the story on “Tools that Never Die”, I have a candidate for one that has. It is the “Grave Torpedo”; Grave Torpedoes were made in the late 19th century to protect the graves of the recently deceased from grave robbers. Grave robbery had become a big problem because the growing number of medical schools could not get cadavers legally. They began to pay top dollar for bodies, no questions asked. A “Grave Torpedo” was a device that was placed in the grave of your loved one upon burial; it was designed to explode if a grave robber opened the coffin lid. I cannot find anyone, anywhere, that still makes this device.

Robert Krulwich: This is a good one. What we’d have to do is ask, are there places on Earth where grave robbery is still a big problem and then ask around to see if they have caskets that blow up on re-opening. I can’t help wondering if this one is a myth. I have read about caskets with bells for not-quite-dead people to ring in case of a Sleeping Beauty Emergency. But blowing up upon opening seems a little excessive.

Related Content:
Discoblog: The Revolution Should Not Be Digitized–Put It on Microfilm Instead
Discoblog: Building an Ancient Greek “Computer” out of Lego
Discoblog: Get Your Steampunk On: This Guy’s Building a Computer From 1837
Science Not Fiction: The Revenge of Paper

Image: flickr /  Randy Son Of Robert

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • Jon Claerbout

    mimeograph machines?

  • Brian Too

    Hollerith machines?

  • Tim Beauchamp

    Carbide head lamps
    Plectron emergency radios
    sparkgap radio
    wire recorders
    wax roll players

  • Awnshegh

    Monacles? Except of course as a prop in a movie (so fake) I can’t think of anyone using them anymore.

  • Fredrik Stj

    I think recording tape, the kind that is mounted on big spools, as used in the Revox recorders, is not manufactured any more.

  • Georg

    There is an internet trader in Germany, offering carbide
    to speleologists (besides other equipment for that business).
    For that reason I think carbide lamps are “alive”.
    As long as the meaning of “technology” or “invention”
    is not defined, such a discussion is silly.

  • Old Rockin’ Dave

    Triplanes. There may be a few replicas around for airshows or World War I movies, but other than that, I have no doubt that triplanes are not being made or used for anything else. I also discount the modern planes that have canard wings that are sometimes referred to as “triplanes” since the canard is a different technology.
    I also believe that wooden horn-style stethoscopes are no longer used. There are horn stethoscopes used in obstetrics but I think they are all made of metal. There also used to be instruments known as pleximeters, usually used along with the horn stethoscope, which were used for percussion of the chest and abdomen, but in medical schools where percussion is taught today, the hands are used.

  • maxheck

    The Inca Quipu (aka Kipu,) a system of encoding information in patterns of knotted strings.

    While some correspondences have been made (researchers have identified decimal numeric information) much of the information in Quipus is unreadable to anyone living.

    So it’s a doubly-lost technology. No one uses the physical system of knotting strings to store information, and no one knows how to read the information on existing ones.

  • David
  • Alyx

    From what I’ve read, the method of making Greek Fire was lost long ago.

  • Seth

    Frustratingly, the monocle may be true. I know a man who is actively trying to find a prescription monocle, with no luck.

  • Mike Wells

    Computer punch cards?
    5 1/4 floppy disks(and drives)?
    W.O.P.R.(After it almost blew up the world in ‘War Games’, I’m pretty sure they destroyed it)
    What about the Enigma coding machine?

    BTW Alyx, I liked the ‘Grek Fire’ thing. Pretty clever…

  • Andy

    Obscure tools from medical history. An example would be those plates that women would need to wear internally because of how tight their corsets were. Or some medical device previously thought useful and later deemed harmful?

  • Nathan

    I think the responders to this thread ar missing the point or have not yet read the original article. The point was to find an extinct “technology” not something that isn’t made anymore.

    Kodachrome for example is not made anymore but the technology of cameras is still being used. 5 1/4 drives are probably no longer being made but digital information storage is still around. Monacles are still being made btw but the point is that the technology to use shaped glass to improve ones vision is still being used.

  • Mike

    Prescription monocles are being made. Google it– at least five Internet-based opticians will make them.

  • Michelle

    The egyptian one won’t work. We’ve recently made replicas to reproduce mummification for museums. Sorry. Technology still in use.

  • peter

    damascus steel!

  • mathman

    curta calculator

  • Chris

    How about greek fire?

    It was legitimate military technology in its day, and now the recipe is unknown so no one could claim to be making authentic greek fire.

    I think you could also argue moon rockets to a certain extent. They were made during the space race, but now no country or any other entity has a functioning moon rocket.

  • Joseph

    I believe the discussion of extinct technology is moot, since knowledge of that technology means that it is really not dead. For every type of object that we know of, there is still at least one person who knows how to make it, or is trying to.

    We may not know the exact recipe for Greek Fire, but we do have napalm and flame throwers, which I would argue is the same technology.

    Antique nuts and geeks make things like wax cylinder records, difference engines, and 8-track tapes. Archeologists even replicate Oldowan hand axes, the oldest technology we know of.

    So if we know of a technology from the past, I bet there is going to be someone out there crazy enough to replicate it. What I’m interested in is the technology we don’t know of.

  • Jonas

    I have that exact 8-track model as my kitchen radio. :)

  • Ben

    Damascus steel has been replicated and is offered by custom makers as is its descendant pattern welded steel.

    Does anyone know if the strigil is still being used to collect olive oil and sweat from athletes to make perfume base? Using human sweat and oil to make perfume would be a lost technology if not. Oddest tool I have ever heard of.

  • rizzo

    Cassette tapes and the Walkman were just recently discontinued, so, while not completely extinct yet, they will be in a short period of time.

  • Ken B

    A leather stretcher for forming shoes. My uncle had one hanging in his barn and it consisted of 2 handles, hinged, like salad forks with a ball on one end that went into the shoe and a loop for the outside that the ball goes into.
    Old time shoes didn’t fit very well and if you got a corn you had to stretch the shoe leather.

  • Brian Too

    Inca penis scarifiers.
    They were used by the monarchy in rituals that required the king’s blood.

  • Dan Lighter

    Today’s medical products are very advance and also useful in saving life of patients. I don’t think it is useful anymore.

    medline products


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