But not everything has changed so radically; actually, there are a number of devices we still use today that hasn’t changed all that much in 100 years in basic function and operation. What are these devices? Below are my top ten choices for those things we still use today that wouldn’t have been all that unfamiliar to our fore-bearers in 1912.
10. The Train
We often fail to appreciate just how timeless an invention the locomotive was, nor are many people aware of how much it still operates as it did in olden days. Of course, steam has been replaced by safer, cleaner, and more economical diesel engines, but the fact remains that trains are still doing the same thing they’ve been doing since the mid-nineteenth century, and doing it in much the same way. Even the steel rails they ride on today are indistinguishable from those of a century ago. The one big change has been in payload; a century ago, trains mainly transported people; today, 90 percent of their load is ore or produce. Yet they keep on chuggin’ along.
9. Landline Telephones
Obviously the advent of the cell phone is radically changing the way people contact each other, but the old landline is still alive and well, and hard to match in terms of clarity and reliability (when’s the last time you lost a signal on your land-line or accidentally dropped it into the pool?) The interesting thing is that it still functions precisely the way it did a century ago; the only significant change being the ability to dial the number directly rather than having to go through a switchboard operator. Also, telephone and electrical lines are still attached to wooden poles, just as they have been since the advent of the telegraph during the Civil War, demonstrating that sometimes the old ways of doing things are still the best.
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8. The Rifle
Once the shell cartridge and barrel rifling was perfected in the late nineteenth century, the modern rifle was essentially complete, with few changes, other than increasing the rate of fire, being necessary. As such, the modern, bolt-action rifle and chamber-firing revolver are essentially unchanged from their predecessors, and operate exactly the same way they did for great granddad. In fact, other than the advent of the semi and fully-automatic mechanisms, and vast improvements in sighting (i.e. scopes), a hunter from 1912 would have no trouble using a modern rifle (beyond bemoaning their lower quality construction.)
7. The Iron
Let’s face it—there simply isn’t a way to make ironing wrinkly clothes any easier. Yes, you’ve got electric plug-in irons today rather than stove heated ones, and you have that neat little button on top that shoots out sprits of steam but, beyond that, ironing is still the same tedious art form it has always been. In some ways, it’s even more of a challenge today, with that always-too-short cord getting in the way or failing to reach far enough. Even the professional dry cleaners haven’t changed their methodology all that much; the chemicals they use nowadays may be different but the process—and the results—are still the same.
Many have predicted the demise of books since the advent of the computer, and Kindle and other downloadable reading devices are in the process of changing the publishing industry, but the fact is that nothing beats the good old paperback in terms of portability. Also, you can’t get your favorite author to sign an e-book, nor can you underline important points or scribble stuff in the margins with a Kindle.
And what happens if the power grid goes out or someone steals your reader? You lose your entire library! That’s why the printed book will never entirely die—it’s just too necessary! And the beauty of it is that books haven’t changed much in terms of how they are produced since Gutenberg printed a few dozen bibles way back when.
5. The Automobile
This is a controversial selection since few can argue that the modern automobile is a far cry from the Model T of 1912, but how different is it really? Certainly the basic function of the combustion engine has not changed, nor has the way one operates an automobile. Ford’s rickety cars had transmissions, clutches, brakes, headlights, left-handed steering, and everything else we still see today. Obviously the technology has improved dramatically, and great grandpa never had the luxury of having a radio, a heater, or cup holders, but the basic modus operandi of the automobile itself remains largely indistinguishable from 1912 and probably won’t become truly different until they learn to fly—or at least hover.
4. The Sailboat
Yes, canvas has been replaced with stronger and lighter nylon, and wooden hulls and masts have been supplanted by fiberglass or aluminum, but the basic idea remains the same: harness the wind to move large vessels across the water with minimal effort and cost. Even their sleek lines haven’t changed all that much, nor has their means of operation. Really, there is just no way to improve on a good idea, making the sailboat one of the most timeless inventions in human history.
3. Musical Instruments
Despite the introduction of different materials and electronics to music (i.e. the keyboard and the electric guitar) musical instruments have changed little over the last century, which is why the piano, guitar, mandolin,violin, drums, trumpet, saxophone—you name it—are still made and performed much the way they did in 1912 (or 1812, for that matter). While music itself has changed dramatically (though not always for the better), the raw noise that comes out of these instruments, and the way they are played, remains timeless. Even the way the best hand-made instruments are manufactured is a throwback to an earlier era, when there was no substitute for skill and patience, and people took pride in crafting a quality musical instrument.
2. The Incandescent Light Bulb
Ever since Edison produced his first practical light bulb way back in 1880, not much has changed with the overall construction. It looks the same, functions the same and, allowing for inflation, costs much the same as it did in 1912. Less energy-efficient than the newer fluorescent and LED lights, however, the incandescent may not be around much longer, and is, in fact, slated to be phased out of production in the United States in 2014. Which is too bad because, since the older bulbs often used heavier filaments, they were more robust and therefore long-lasting, making them superior in some ways than their modern counterparts.
1. The Flush Toilet
Perfected in the late-nineteenth century, this hallmark of civilization has remained largely unchanged since its inception (or, one might surmise, its perfection) in roughly 1880. The basic mechanism inside the tank may be made out of plastic instead of rust-prone metal, but one of the great innovators of the modern toilet, Thomas Crapper, would still recognize the thing and appreciate it for the remarkable piece of engineering it remains to this day. One of the few truly indispensable devices they got right the first time, the immortal porcelain throne has stood the test of time very well, thank you.