Sometimes, these weekly essays are difficult to write, because so much has been said already by many, and we’re otherwise engaged in slogging through the rest of life like everyone else.
This past week, however, something really struck me, as a group of folks who I work with bought some old equipment from an old military contractor. We wanted more of the furniture (old lab benches, chairs, cabinets, and bins), but along with some of that came a few bits and pieces of hardware and stock that was in those cabinets.
For one, the quality of some of the equipment was very high end, and incredibly documented. The contractor in question was one who must have done a bit of work with the Air Force or Navy, and the level of organization (or bureaucracy) was very much in force. Part numbers on everything, inventory forms, zip-lock baggies with expiration dates – it reminded me of the days of my first job of helping put together fighter aircraft parts. If you are familiar with the story of the $600 toilet seat, you will understand the microcosm of what we discovered in salvaging these old pieces of equipment. From what I understand, we got a lot of this stuff for pennies on the dollar, but in some sense, we were just getting paid back (as taxpayers), on all the government money that must have been shoveled into this beast, when it was running full tilt. Yes, some pretty technological baubles came out of this company (and others like it), but the cost must have been incredible, both in resources, manpower, and money. To think what could have been done with those things, instead of building weapons that were so arcane (and that might not even have an adversary). Look no further than criticism of the F-35 program for a breakdown of how expensive these programs have gotten, and how much money can be spread around. Perhaps the real element that surprised me was the level of carelessness that had been given to some of the parts and equipment we picked up; bags of high-end fasteners, expensive cable; all of which may have not had any value to the company (and was too difficult to sell off properly, or in time), but still, was very high end, but left as an afterthought.
The second element of a related salvage/used machinery operation, was that we also got a used Bridgeport, a ubiquitous vertical milling machine; something like this (attribution):
These machines are found everywhere, and are the backbone of any machine shop. What really made it interesting was that the one we got was configured with 1980s-era computer-numerically controlled (CNC) equipment. The mill was fine, and probably could have been operated by anyone from even the 19th century (they first started making them around 1938, however). The 1980s CNC technology, however – that was a bit scary. Essentially, that part of the machine is incredibly dead to us – nobody has the parts anymore, nobody has the manuals, and even the software and interfaces that connect to them are generations old. One of a related machine we’ve got in our shop even has paper tape for feeding instructions into it, along with circuit boards where you can practically see the bits being twiddled as the machines moves.
This isn’t new, of course – on a related topic, the digital Dark Age has been discussed by many in the library and archive worlds, and perhaps you’ve got a bunch of 8″, 5.25″, or 3.5″ floppies around in your own life. What this means, of course, is that we’ve got two options in dealing with these machines; upgrading them to use the latest and greatest CNC tools (which will be obsolete themselves in N years), or, to configure them for fully manual control.
We’ll probably configure them with more up-to-date technologies, but there may be a point when going manual is the smarter choice, in light of future shortages, supply chain problems, communications brownouts, or if the role of technology in society gets rethought . JMG delved into this topic in his Retrotopia series, and being around one of these old workhorses of the 20th century makes me think that the world of Retrotopia might be closer than we think. The recycling logo, as pictured above, is therefore more of a loop-the-loop. We came in with a suite of technologies post-WW2, and we might wind up right back there.
The salvage of the United States, with all of its industrial and computational might will be an interesting experience. Raw materials, basic electronics bits and relays, simple machine tools, and motors that can be easily worked on will still be useful, but my gut feeling here is that we will be abandoning a lot of the uber-high tech stuff that we’ve got now. As JHK talks about in Too Much Magic, we may be in a world a bit too complex for our own good.
Questions for the audience:
- What level of technology do you think we’ll want to keep going forward? In JMG’s Retrotopia world, at best, it seems that 1950s technology is the highest level you can reasonably get, without getting overly complex. Is this a valid point?
- Are there any technologies we might be able to keep past the 1950s? CNC technology is great for optimizing cuts in things like plywood (for things such as the Quidnon), but still requires some sort of control system. We might get a CNC controlled setup with paper tape and 1950s technology, but it could be tricky to maintain. Could we live with (and manufacture) 7400 series TTL chips for such things, or have to stay with discrete tubes and/or transistors?
- What are some of the most egregious wastes of resources you’ve seen? Millions (and billions) spent on software systems that don’t work; military hardware that doesn’t do anything; roads to nowhere?
- What level of technology is salvageable or maintainable anyway? Even solar panels don’t last forever, although they do last a good long time.
- When do you think we’ll get our first Ruinmen’s Guild?