The lifetime of things

Going through some old stuff for a few folks that have passed away recently, as well as some of my own old equipment and things, it was interesting to observe a few key elements:

  1. Some things last,
  2. Some things don’t,
  3. Money was spent on some things that were never, ever, used,
  4. Failures could be due to one simple part breaking, and not being able to replace that one element,
  5. The more complicated, the less likely it was operational.

The fact that some things last and some things don’t is obvious.  There is a bit of survivorship bias, of course – the old “they don’t make them like they used to,” is somewhat of a trope, but even accounting for survivorship bias, a good deal of many modern things have surprisingly short lifetimes, due to basic materials such as plastics and rubber not surviving heating/cooling cycles, humidity/dryness, and so on. In going through some old things, any device that was electrical seemed to be almost worthless, as insulation and plastic stopped having their original design features.  insulation cracks; foam disintegrates.

Things that last are generally simple, and way over designed.  Sure that can make them more expensive at the time, but in the long run, they work.  In the modern world, overdesign is generally an engineering no-no, but when time scales are longer, overdesign seems like an obvious choice (this is seen in Roman aqueduct design).

Since our modern world is built on electrical and electronics elements, that’s the interesting bit that we might want to focus on.   The digital dark age may be here a lot sooner than we think, if the machines that can’t be fixed or found aren’t there.


  • What is your oldest working piece of equipment?  Has it survived due to simplicity, good design, over design, or simple preventative care?
  • What is the oldest piece of working electronics you have or use?
  • How long should electrical and electronics machinery last, anyway?
  • How do you handle the possibility of a digital dark age?






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