Thursday, February 15, 2018

Old Things

No, I'm not writing about David or myself, even if we do qualify.

Over the years (this blog had its fourth birthday in January), I've written a lot about old tech and I've gotten some feedback that questions the wisdom of choosing, say, liquid fueled lighting over the latest and greatest LED lantern. Since I own and use both, it's not really an either/or choice for me; it's more like an example of my desire to have more than one option in most things. Besides, old tech that still works tends to be more robust and easier to maintain than new, high-tech replacements.

Look around at the things most preppers collect:
  • Fire starting equipment hasn't changed much in the last century, and the flint and steel set carried by trappers 400 years ago is still usable today. The materials to make a new set are still widely available, and while the skills to use it may take a while to learn, it's a skill that humans have had since before we started to write. Matches have improved from the “Lucifers” and “Congreves” of the 1800's, but the modern safety match works the same way. Sadly, the strike-anywhere matches have been declared hazardous material due to the chemicals used and are getting harder to find in stores because of the extra paperwork and cost of shipping them.
  • If you compare a modern bolt-action rifle to one produced before WW1, you won't find many major differences; most bolt-actions are based on the Mauser designs that date back to the late 1800's. The most common sporting rifle in America today is the AR-15, which was first sold in 1963. The AK-47 rifles were introduced in 1947 and were heavily influenced by German rifles made towards the end of WW2. Only in the last few decades have John Moses Browning's century-old pistol designs been challenged with any new technology -- but they still work. The oldest firearm in my collection is a revolver made in 1914, and it isn't much different than the one I have that was made in 2014.
  • Ammunition is another old technology that hasn't been replaced with anything better, although there have been a few attempts. The ubiquitous 22LR cartridge is based on the .22 Short, which was first sold in 1857. The venerable .30-06 became a standard military cartridge in 1906. Shotgun cartridges haven't changed much in the 140 years they've been around.
  • Knife design is an interesting field of study, but it also boils down to “There's nothing new under the sun”. Most of the patterns and shapes of knives were established when we were still using brass and bronze for our tools because we hadn't figured out iron and steel yet. If you squint your eyes a bit, some of the modern knife profiles look a lot like the stone knives used thousands of years ago.
  • Food prep hasn't changed since we started making fire. We may have better pots and pans, but the cooking varies more by region than by century. We store some of our food by drying it, same as every hunter/gatherer group has for millennia; it's just that we have better control over how dry it is now. Canning food is a technology developed for Napoleon's army, because he needed a way to store and transport food that didn't employ butchers and herdsmen.
  • Textiles have changed, but not for the better. With the exception of Gore-Tex and a few other synthetics like rip-stop nylon, it's hard to beat cotton and wool for everyday wear. Easy to clean and patch, the natural fibers are safer around fires and will outlast acrylics and polyester. Natural fibers are also easier to manufacture on a small scale, making them a renewable item. If you ever get a chance to examine old clothing in a museum, you'll find that they tended to be made of cloth that was a lot thicker than what we use now. When you're limited to only a handful of clothes, you want the ones you have to last a long time, so it makes sense to pick ones that are sturdy.
  • Those kerosene lanterns and lamps that I mentioned earlier? Simple oil- or fat-burning lamps have been around for thousands of years. My oldest hurricane lantern is roughly 80 years old, and it still works and I can still get parts for it. If you have a source of fiber and an Inkle loom, you can make lamp wicks. Plant and animal oils will work if you can't find petroleum oils, and their production is simple.

All of the above do not mean that the old ways are always best. We have made great progress in some fields:
  • Water purification has improved immensely in the last 30 years. Drinking out of whatever puddle or stream you could find was the only option we had for many centuries, but we also had to deal with the pollutants and bacteria present. Even the cheapest water filter on the market today is a huge improvement over drinking unfiltered water.
  • Medicine and the medical arts have made our lives longer and more comfortable than ever before. Diseases that used to kill or disable are now better understood and treatable, and vaccines have largely removed words like polio and tetanus from daily use. Equipment and supplies that weren't available to doctors and hospitals a hundred years ago can be purchased in your local WalMart. Training has also improved and is more wide-spread, which leads to more people knowing how to treat more injuries and improves the patient's chances of recovery.
  • Information is now more readily available than any other time in history. The days of books being rare commodities are gone (never to return, I hope), and even without the internet the average person has more resource available than they can use in their lifetime.

I like to learn and teach about old technology, because it is nice to have a back-up if TSHTF. Knowing how to use and maintain a time-proven system (we recently resurrected a 1974 Ford grain truck at work) that can at least partially replace something lost in a disaster gives me an advantage over someone who thinks that food comes from the grocery store and electricity is a form of magic. I'll be sitting by my wood stove or camp fire, reading a book by kerosene light, while they shiver in the dark trying to figure out why the wi-fi doesn't work any more. 

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