The increasing speed of innovation was aptly summed up by John Lithgow’s character from Interstellar: “…[I]t felt like they made something new everyday. Some gadget or idea. Like every day was Christmas.”
The tireless march of progress has certainly endowed us with an abundance of technological goodies. It has also fostered a general tendency toward temporal bias–or chronological snobbery, if you prefer–the false assumption that whatever’s newer is automatically better.
In the interest of showing that technological advancement is never as total as many believe, here are some examples of seemingly obsolete industries that are still alive and kicking.
Developments in heating systems, such as natural gas, electrical, and heating oil appliances, have actually made more work for modern chimney sweeps. These beloved fixtures of Dickensian yarns still ply their venerable trade armed with the classic chimney brush–plus vacuums and digital cameras. Not only can you still hire a professionally licensed sweep to clean your flue, he can also handle minor chimney repairs and tuckpointing.
Chimney sweeps boast a number of professional organizations, including the NCSG.
Horse Buggy Whip Manufacturers
A long-invoked byword for dead industries, applying the label “horse buggy whips” to everything from 8-track tapes to typewriters is actually a false analogy. Not because typewriters are still in production (they’re not), but because carriage whips still are.
Westfield Whip is the last of 40 whip factories left in the “Whip City” of Westfield, Mass. The boom times are definitely over, but still, park carriage drivers, dressage riders, and traditionally minded hunters have to get their whips from somewhere.
Incandescent Light Bulbs
These little marvels are so taken for granted that people hardly ever stop to think that their basic design is over 130 years old. Exemplars of why newer isn’t always better, incandescent bulbs are only now being forcibly phased out by government fiat. Apart from having an edge in energy efficiency, the compact fluorescent bulbs favored to replace them are inferior in numerous ways. Which is why the state needs legislative action to kill the incandescent bulb market.
Left to their own devices, old-style bulbs are still selling–for now.
Rivaling light bulbs for ubiquity (and enjoying a comfy symbiotic relationship with them), printed books have been around since the 15th century. And that’s just modern printing. The codex (a book made of individual pages bound between two covers) hails from Roman times.
Traditional publishers are making record profits. True, their unprecedented earnings are due in part to ebook sales, but in some sectors (like cookbooks), print is still outselling digital.
That’s not to say that ebooks haven’t seen explosive growth in the last few years. In genre fiction, reliable evidence suggests that digital books are already overtaking print versions. It seems safe to predict that, while they’ll eventually achieve dominance, ebooks will never completely replace print codices.
Still, if any industry in this post could use some innovation, it’s print publishers–especially in regard to the century-or-more-old boilerplate in their book contracts.