From ‘Clapper’ to arsenic wallpaper, why objects disappear


Written by Megan C. Hills

The « Clapper », the literal snail letter, the anti-gravity underwear – there are reasons why all of these items are missing. But now a new book unearths them from the dustbins of history.

In « Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects », a team of professors, historians, artists and curators seek to understand why various objects became « obsolete » and what this tells us about the worlds in which they existed. .

Modern technology is now evolving at a dazzling pace, with endless updates to phones, cameras and other gadgets. But the book’s authors hope to challenge the assumption that things disappear due to « mismatch » or « unsuitability on their terms ». From defunct to outdated, failed to visionary, there can be many reasons why an invention is no longer useful.

A paper dress from 1966, designed to be thrown away after use. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London (T.30-1992)

« Extinct » features a collection of 75 practical, bizarre, and often hilarious inventions, many of which shed light on our evolving hopes for human progress.

« When we say extinction isn’t inevitable, we’re changing the terrain a bit and opening up different kinds of stories. These stories are less heroic, » said one of the book’s authors, Barbara Penner, a professor of Architectural Humanities at University College London’s Bartlett. School of Architecture.

“A functionalist or overly literal idea of ​​extinction simply fails to capture how objects can live, hidden in drawers and cupboards and endure in habit, memory and imagination,” a- she wrote in an email.

Reframe Extinction

The book argues that material extinction occurs for many reasons. Some objects simply outlive their purpose when new innovations arrive, as was the case with flashcube cameras (replaced by electronic flashes) and water bags (replaced by more practical bottles).

A Flashcube intended for an Instamatic camera, an object that has been supplanted by electronic flashes.

A Flashcube intended for an Instamatic camera, an object that has been supplanted by electronic flashes. Credit: Harriet Harriss Collection

However, the reason an object disappears isn’t always because it’s been replaced by something brighter and newer. Some are relegated to the past because governments or corporations simply feel it’s time to move on.

Take the incandescent light bulb, which has been actively phased out by the US, UK and EU governments in recent years due to energy efficiency concerns. Meanwhile, some countries have started to introduce measures to limit the use of plastic bags for environmental reasons, with countries like Kenya banning them outright and other governments introducing bans or additional charges in supermarkets.

« This category of (forced) objects is interesting to show how the fate of a design is often completely tied to politics and, again, to counter this idea of ​​design failure as ‘natural,' » Penner said. .

There are also wildly inventive creations that were ultimately the architects of their own demise. This was the case with the Chaparral 2J. Nicknamed the « sucker car » or « the vacuum cleaner », the racing vehicle, unveiled in 1970, became a bold contender on the American motorsport scene. Notorious for the deafening noise of its engine fans, the car was plagued with mechanical problems. It was banned by the Sports Car Club of America in 1973, dooming it to obsolescence.

A lithograph of "pasilalinic-sympathetic compass" of 1869, also known as "snail telegraph."

A lithograph of the 1869 « pasilalinic-sympathetic compass », also known as the « snail telegraph ». Credit: Open access image from Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT (photo M. Johnston)

Other inventions never really took off to begin with, such as the widely mocked « snail telegraph » of the 1850s – a wireless messaging system that gave electric shocks to letter-assigned pairs of snails in mistaken belief. that the animals had become telepathically linked after mating.

Unlike extinction in the natural world, material extinction is generally seen as a sign of human progress. Objects replaced by extinction may be a sign of technological innovation, while the phasing out of inventions like arsenic wallpaper (the chemical was used to create vibrant hues) and leucotome (a rudimentary surgical instrument once used to perform lobotomies) helped save lives after their now obvious flaws were discovered.

Arsenic wallpaper with an arabesque pattern, printed with a special pigment called Scheele's Green in the early 19th century.

Arsenic wallpaper with an arabesque pattern, printed with a special pigment called Scheele’s Green in the early 19th century. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, the book challenges us to think more carefully about the forces that shape progress – like traditional Chinese « dougong » roofs, which were made from interlocking wooden supports without nails or screws but, according to the book, « have disappeared in an age of imperialism. »

« Today, with the climate crisis to take just one example, we are faced with the fact that the newest and brightest invention is not always the best fit, » Penner said.

Paving the way for future design

As « Extinct » shows, progress is rarely linear. Several of the missing items included have been resurrected in recent years. The Polaroid, for example, has made a comeback as a new generation falls in love with analog photography while other innovations like the Manchester Pail System, a waste disposal truck, are now found in museums in as monuments of their time.

« We weren’t surprised by a single object (nominated by our authors) so much as by the general pattern that emerged. Many of the nominated objects weren’t really extinct, » Penner explained, adding that some were still used in different parts. of the world, collected or exhibited in museums.

A postcard of children on an artificial UV beach in the late 1930s.

A postcard of children on an artificial UV beach in the late 1930s. Credit: Marc Constandt Collection, Middelkerke

And although it disappears from view, the spirit of certain articles paves the way for new designs. Take the Nikini, an absorbent undergarment designed for menstruation that was created in the late 1950s but, after falling out of fashion, has resurfaced via brands such as Thinx and Modibodi, which create modern versions for women. women today. Penner also added that shortly after the authors included the Zeppelin, an airship made in the early 20th century, a conceptually similar version was « crowd-funded » on CrowdCube – a version that uses helium at the instead of highly flammable hydrogen. which fed its predecessor.

The ConvAirCar, a flying automobile dating from the 1940s, which was never mass-produced.

The ConvAirCar, a flying automobile dating from the 1940s, which was never mass-produced. Credit: Matt Flynn, © Smithsonian Institution

« We found ourselves faced with the fact that to enter the world of extinct objects is to enter the world of the undead. Very few expire completely. And, even if they are functionally extinct, objects very often leave residues: in subsequent conceptions, language, behavior and habits. »

These designs can also remain windows on a precise moment of human innovation. The same goes for ideas like the ConvAirCar (a flying automobile designed for personal use) or Thomas Edison’s anti-gravity underwear (underwear that let you fly), which weren’t produced. but which nevertheless provide valuable information about what the inventors thought might one day be possible.

« Many of our missing objects embody other ways of thinking, creating and interacting with the world. They are in fact stores of memories, potential and provocation. »

Top image credit: The Clapper, a popular light switch from the 2000s that activated with a loud clack.

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