30 August 2003

Obsolescent technology

I have long had a certain affection for obsolescent technology, particularly those implements that so marked the industrial age of the 19th and into the late 20th centuries.

First and foremost, this has made me a railfan. I like all trains but particularly the electric railways that crisscrossed much of North America during the first quarter of the 20th century. Today our family made the annual pilgrimage to the Halton County Radial Railway, located nearly an hour from here south of Guelph. It's a wonderful place to spend a summer saturday, and it's ideal for picnic lunches.

This is the second such trolley museum we managed to visit this summer, the first being the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin (pronounced "EL-jin" by the locals), Illinois. Both are tributes to an era when a clean and efficient form of public transportation had not yet been overtaken by the now ubiquitous (and air-polluting) internal combustion engine.

In Canada these railways were called "radials," because they radiated out of Toronto in several directions. In the States they were called "interurbans," and they often connected small towns in addition to the large urban centres. Most of these railways went under in the years immediately following the Great War, when the automobile was becoming more affordable for ordinary people.

However, some held on for much longer if they connected with a large city, such as Chicago. For example, the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee (the North Shore Line), the Chicago Aurora and Elgin, and the Chicago South Shore and South Bend (the South Shore Line) lasted into the post-World War II era and were able to take advantage of the population shift into the suburbs. The North Shore Line ceased operating in 1963. The CA&E suspended passenger service in 1957 and folded completely in 1961. Only the South Shore is still running today. I used to ride it on occasion between South Bend, Indiana, and Chicago while a grad student at Notre Dame.

Second, I have long liked to listen to shortwave radio, by which one can hear distant programmes broadcast from all over the world. I began listening to shortwave when I was around 12 years old. This hobby became a near obsession around 1989 when communism was in the process of collapsing. Listening to Radio Moscow during the attempted coup d'état in August 1991 gave one an early sense that it was not going as its plotters intended. I even brought in a radio for my students to listen to on more than one occasion.

Needless to say, as a means of keeping up with developments around the globe, shortwave radio has been far outpaced by the internet, where information is available instantaneously and where one needn't wait until 2 hours UTC for, say, Radio Deutsche Welle to begin its nightly broadcast in English.

Third, there are the old watches. Nearly 20 years ago I became fascinated by the old Elgin National Watch Company, which made watches for a full century between the 1860s and the 1960s in their factory on the banks of the Fox River on National Street in Elgin, Illinois. I especially like the pocket watches with their beautifully crafted movements. To be sure, quartz watches are more accurate, but the old Elgin pocket watches have an enduring quality that keeps them running, often more than a century after their production.

Fourth and finally, I still have an old phonograph, along with my collection of vinyl records that it took me so many years to acquire. (I sometimes wonder whether younger people still understand what it means if someone tells them they sound like a "broken record." Somehow "defective CD" just doesn't cut it as a colourful metaphor.)

Do bow ties qualify as obsolescent technology? A piece of cloth around the neck probably doesn't fit anyone's definition of technology. It certainly isn't a time-saving device, particularly if you use the tie-it-yourself variety. Nor is it exactly on the cutting edge of fashion. But it is a personal idiosyncracy, so in that respect it would probably go along with some of the other items listed above.

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