Extinct: the work objects that become obsolete before we do

Longer working lives will mean that many of the familiar tools and designs around us in the workplace will be retired long before we are. A new anthology explores the process of product obsolescence

We enjoy longer working lives today due to advances in medical science, diet, education and so on, but one of the unforeseen consequences of such longevity is that many familiar objects and artefacts around us in the workplace will most likely disappear before we do.

In other words, the tools and designs that form the backdrop of business life become extinct before their users have themselves retired from the workplace.

Erudite obituaries

I’m reminded of this under-examined dimension of an ageing workforce on reading a new anthology of essays by design historians, Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects. Its cover is adorned by a colourful drawing of a cassette tape – an essential and evocative item of my own youth – and its contents present erudite obituaries for a dazzling array of workplace artefacts no longer with us. These range from the ashtray and the air-curtain roof to the minidisc, memo and slide rule.

‘Changes in technology, social attitudes and material science are part of the story…’

Why do workplace objects and systems tend to become obsolete before the workers do? Changes in technology, social attitudes and material science are clearly part of the story – paper dress or paper aeroplane ticket, anyone? Or how about a pneumatic postal system?

Some innovations may be perceived to be too ahead of their time, such as the Concorde supersonic jet, which made its maiden flight in 1969 but was lost to our skies in 2003, or the Hummingbird electric taxi of 1897 (the humming was the battery), or the Chilean Project Cybersyn Operations Room of 1973, which conjured up a false dawn of a computer-controlled economy. Others, like Letraset, were made redundant by the new age of the Apple Macintosh.

What disappearances tell us

The editors of the Extinct compendium say they are interested not just in why familiar things have disappeared but ‘in what their disappearance tells us about the world we have created for ourselves’. This is the true mission of design history as an academic discipline. Even so, one can’t help wondering if obsolescence is inevitable for some objects while survival is guaranteed for others. What exactly happened to the Kodak Flashcube or the flying boat? Why was the warm glow of the incandescent light bulb superseded by the cool progress of the LED lamp?

In the interests of transparency, I must share that I was one of the design writers invited to contribute. I chose the Zeppelin, which I can hardly claim has been a feature of my own working life, even if my parents might have conceivably seen one floating gracefully across the sky. Neither is it strictly speaking a work environment – it was adopted by the leisured classes with money to burn and time on their hands.

Obsolete overnight

The Zeppelin was a short-lived innovation. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s pioneering rigid framed airship, the LZ-1, made its maiden flight in 1900; less than 40 years later, this spectacular, slow and silent mode of transatlantic travel became obsolete literally overnight, when the German airship Hindenburg abruptly fell from the sky in an explosion of smoke and fire over Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6 May 1937.

That’s why I chose the Zeppelin for the book – for its unusual and controversial ‘big bang’ extinction event. Most objects slip slowly and almost imperceptibly from view over a long period of time, their obsolescence a gentle and rueful process. Even in the workplace, with its thirst for the shiniest and newest innovation, the artefacts of the workplace usually don’t fall from favour so far, so fast and so irreversibly.

Jeremy Myerson is Director of WORKTECH Academy and Professor Emeritus in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art. Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, edited by Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner and Miranda Critchley, is published by Reaktion Books.
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