15 July 2012

The Good Old Days, When They Knew How to Make Stuff

It is a common observation that the work of the past is more durable and finely crafted than what we get today. We see hand made furniture, robust, made of solid wood, often decorated by hand, a work of art which is functional for perhaps centuries, and then we see particle board mass produced units bought for a few hours wages (at highest) of even a below average paying job, which are made in some country where labour is cheaper, with cheaply printed assembly instructions, and one is lucky if all the pegs fit and there are the right number of screws (and be careful about knocking it over!). Likewise, typewriters very visibly change as we move into the modern day. The quality of typewriters commonly available to the masses very visibly lose quality in the 60s onward.

Now, we have "cheap electronics" and mass produced junk, which works, but won't last. It is easier to get a new printer than to get one repaired most of the time. Computer models come and go, and nobody misses them except for a few models in the past which are iconic (and none are today...people see what is out today, and look forward to tomorrow immediately).

What changed?

Nothing, I fundamentally think. It is easier to look back on the past and sigh than to realise the reality. For example, this Smith-Corona Silent bought in 1950 cost what would today be $800. I have the original typed receipt/letter. The buyer made payments on it. While this typewriter cost me $10 (plus shipping), which is $1.12 then, it is in perfect condition, clean, with a perfect case and key. It works wonderfully. Sixty-two years and nothing has changed. No consumer product of this kind (modern typewriters, printers, computers, etc) have this sort of quality now and I think that can be said with some certainty. However, I still think nothing has truly changed.

The issue is that the typewriter does what it does and its purpose has not changed. The written language has not changed enough at all to make the typewriter useless. In fact, it is good for English through ever since they started using the printing press for English (before that, English used several letters which are not on typewriters (or the German/Italian printing presses, which is why we no longer have รพ in English...it is a shame it was lost)). Most old things were made with the intention that they be used for a long time for a purpose which was not new. Nothing really changed much. The children lived in the same world as their parents and grandparents with very minor changes throughout history for many centuries. Things were made robustly because they were intended to be used for a very long time for a very common purpose using very common materials and means.

Now, in our day, technology changes rapidly. People who use and create technology know this. The person who bought the Smith-Corona Silent I use now probably thought it would last for a long time and be worth the high cost. It did in fact last. It lasted longer than she did. But on the other hand, her telephone, if she owned one, from that same time is now obsolete. It may be able to be used now, but it would be incapable of doing many things phones need to do now for navigating automated menus. But I'm sure her phone would be worth the cost it was. It probably lasted for many years. However, would one pay a premium for a device which would be known to be obsolete quickly? Most things made now are a trade off between value and longevity. Why make something built to last when people do not care about it lasting?

One example is computer keyboards. People who use computers use computer keyboards for input generally. If you are at a computer with a keyboard, look at the keyboard. How much did it cost? How does it work? How long will it last? If you type a lot, and you cannot answer those questions, you are the cause of modern day poor quality. You don't care...so they do not care. You wouldn't buy a $130 keyboard if you would be satisfied with a $2 one. So they make the $2 keyboards because that is what people buy. They do though make keyboards of high quality. They last for decades and are a joy to type on. It is also very hard to make a profit on them because they last so long and most people do not buy them. For the record, modern keyboards are made with rubber dome switches. It is basically an array of rubber bubbles which are used to allow one to press down and have the key pop back up after making contact. It is a cheap and effect way to make a keyboard. It also results in a keyboard which will wear out, is mushy for typing, and generally provides poor tactile and audible feedback. One has to press firmly on the key to know it worked. A better design is a switch which is mechanical, provides tactile feedback when it is actuated and possibly audible feedback. This would allow the key to be pressed with bottoming it out (essentially pressing into a solid surface) and it would allow the finger to feel the key actuate. Every key would need such a switch and those switches would have to made precisely so they worked for many key presses over their lives. Such a keyboard would last a long time, be sturdy, and it would be expensive. It would be worth it though for those who type...but most people do not know or care because they only use what they know.

For those interested about mechanical keyboards, read this guide. I personally use Das Keyboard Model S Ultimate, which can be bought directly from the makers: Das Keyboard. It costs $130, but it is worth it. If you do not think it is, then stop complaining about things being cheaply made. You are the reason why they are because you won't buy things which are well made if something cheaper exists. The classical IBM keyboard (Model M) is still made from the original makers (under different names, same technology though): Buckling Spring Keyboards like the IBM Model M. I have not bought one of these yet. Expensive keyboards are not something one can buy on a whim. However, I will someday when I have the extra money or a need for another keyboard. They are less expensive, but have fewer features.

That is what I think. Things made now are just as good as those made in the past. Things can be made more precisely and with better quality using technology which is unimaginable for those in the past. However, most people do not buy such things, so cheap things flood the market. It has always been like that. All the good old craftsmanship went away when the people who bought it stopped buying it. Also, technology advances fast enough to make individual items not worth a high investment. One can question whether this sort of "progress" is a good thing, but most people seem to think it is. Backwards compatibility can only be maintained for so long.

But the good news is that all the old stuff can be used if people want to. Nobody will be using the iPhone 4S in 50 years, but I'm sure somebody will be using my old typewriters as long as they still work. English won't change that much.

Maybe PS/2 (connector I use for my keyboard) will be maintained in 50 years, but I do not pretend to be able to say that it will. PS/2 is technologically sufficient, which is why it is used for 25 years (it was introduced in 1987...a year before I was born!). Most old connector standards do not last. I see computers without VGA ports now (starting with portable computers) and it is only a matter of time before it is not standard on motherboards just like the old parallel printer ports which we do not see any more. I hope they make an adapter for it though...I want to be able to use my keyboard in 50 years if I'm around. It will last that long in all probability. Maybe I can use adapters for PS/2 to USB 2.0 to whatever we are using then. Good old craftsmanship of our modern day.


  1. Excellent points. It's hard to be sure of quality these days - you can't just go by price or even brand anymore. It can be problematic to make such a choice. In my case most of my typing is at work, where I either have to settle for what they will spring for or provide my own, which I mightily resent. I feel it's letting them off the hook for my working needs to provide my own. Not to mention theft or loss. At home, such as with this one, I'll look into these options for a small one but the point of a netbook is saving space/weight/baggage. I do hate the keys I'm using however.

  2. I think at some point the fluidity of technology - as it is now - will have to break out of the 'cool tool' stage. The idea that a device is superior because it has X advertised function - is not sustainable. Computer technology will effectively hit a technological wall, whereby the variations of things it can do to make life better, will end at what technology is exterior to that computer.

    For example" People have been predicting the death of email for years. Has it died? Has video conferencing really taken off? There are actually few technologies that are new (less than 10 years old) that we are using now, it is just implementation has improved, along with speed.

    Typewriters themselves have gone through a similar stage in their first 40 years. As have other technologies. We still use hammers, fry pans, toilets. etc. The current technology mindset is limited my implementation. Already the computer is becoming a secondary device - a 'piece' that makes up an implementation. Who sees their iPhone 4S as a computer? It is a more powerful computer than the one I had 5 years ago...

    Things will always find their place.

  3. I think the obvious difference between good quality in the past and good quality today is that good quality (i.e., built to last) in the past was par for the course and commanded an average price. Whereas, today, "built to last" commands exorbitant prices, either because of the cost of manpower, materials, or perceived exclusivity. Today, cheaply made goods exist to satisfy consumer demand for inexpensive goods, because of planned obsolescence, or both. Consider that even early 20th century "cheap" typewriters were built to last. Their low cost was due to a reduction of features, not poor workmanship or shoddy materials. Today, however, "cheap" means more than just "inexpensive". More often than not, it's synonymous with poor quality. I do think we've largely brought this on ourselves. Those who complain about outsourcing would probably complain the loudest if they had to pay for the cost of goods produced in this country, under our current wage situation. Unfortunately, the toothpaste can never be put back into the tube. Is anyone really willing to buy an American-made iPhone which would cost over a thousand dollars because of the cost of labor? Frankly, I see no solution for this problem. We've reached a point where we can't even afford to pay each other for goods and/or services. It's not that we don't want to pay for well-made goods. It's that we've come to a place where most of us can simply no longer afford it. It's a sad place to be.

    1. Actually, I think the main difference is that we have more "stuff" now.

      I do not think an American made iPhone would cost that much more. The issue is more labour regulations. Apple cannot take advantage of exploitation of poorer people so easily in the USA. That is the facts. When in China, they have to comply with Chinese regulations. In the USA, they have to comply with USA law and they could not exploit workers to the same degree. This is by their own admission.

      Low cost items in the past were often because of lower quality materials and workmanship. However, for mechanical items, there is a baseline of having to perform some function which is hard to compromise. Either it works, or it does not. By nature of the device, it will last.

      Many things now, like the iPhone, are also designed to not last because it is merely in a product line. The next version will use the profits and supply chains and economies of scale to develop it further. It is going to be replaced next year with some incremental upgrade (like Apple always does) and they want people to get that new one. The nature of their design (software, hardware capability, etc) will not last even if it technically does function. That does not really happen with typewriters, simple tools, and the basics of the life because they fulfill a simple function.

    2. Unfortunately, outsourcing isn't always a matter of intentionally exploiting anyone. I used to work in the giftware industry and had some insight into production in China. I'm well aware that if one choses to compete in that industry, one would be forced to outsource if one wants to remain in business. It's just a matter of surviving. Consumers will simply not buy a product for the cost of producing it here, when they could buy an imported product for a tenth of the cost. One can feel good about manufacturing something here, but that good felling will disappear rather quickly when the shelves are full of unsold inventory and the company has to shut its doors because it cannot compete with the prices of imported goods. And note that I'm not championing outsourcing. I'm merely stating the reality of doing business in certain industries. People all too often have a distorted view of business based on political talking points; points which have no correspondence to reality. Yes, the ideal would be to manufacture at home when possible, but the situation has arisen where that's not always feasible. It's not about corporate greed or any such nonsense. It's about actually surviving as a business. Nothing would please me more than to see industry return here.
      With respect to the cost of manufacturing iPhones here, I would beg to differ. Obviously the cost of manufacturing here would be far more expensive where labor is concerned (and not just assembly line labor, but the labor to build manufacturing facilities, the labor to acquire the materials which go into building facilities, and so forth. Labor is required at every step of the way). That difference in overhead cost has to be accounted for, and it would likely be passed on to consumers. The only way around the added cost, as far as I can see, is to move to automation, which wouldn't solve the problem of unemployment for domestic workers.
      I also don't think that basic tools are necessarily built better. I've handled plenty of cheap tools, and the fact that later model typewriters were largely made of plastic is sufficient to demonstrate that even such a basic tool as a typewriter can be manufactured without an eye to longevity. After all, who hasn't encountered a typewriter somewhere that wasn't a hunk of junk?

    3. That is true about the need for outsourcing. However, it is not justification.

      Basically, it says "To make lots of money, I need to exploit poor people otherwise, I cannot stay in business to make lots of money.". If the business cannot make its product ethically, it shouldn't make it at all.

      Essentially, slavery and violations of human rights are "ok" only when economically necessary. that is hardly justification.

      It is not a matter of "surviving", but remaining in business. That is not surviving. One does not need to run a highly profitable business to survive. People work in those plants where they may be injured or killed and they have no prospects of advancing to survive. People in better situations are exploiting their need to obtain money because they own the means of making the money. That is not ethical.

      The gangsters of the Prohibition era used violence and engaged in illegal activity to get booze to the people. People said there is no harm in a drink. People turned a blind eye to death and destruction so they could get their drink. People say that now. Marijuana is harmless, so why can't I smoke? Never mind that the cartels in Central and South America and the gang violence locally results in much mayhem. (Note: not all marijuana plants are from those sources, but enough is for it to be a big business worth fighting for.)

      It is not ethical.

      It relies on luck for those who suffer and those who do not. People born in a certain area, are stuck with these jobs so people born in other areas can be entertained. I think those who are in prosperous areas should be a little more mindful of their fortune and how other people are fundamentally the same. We are not better or more human because we happen to have more...in fact, if anything, we should have more responsibility.

  4. I won't dive into the Made in the USA vs. outsourcing discussion that emerged in the comments other than to say I am glad people are talking about it. I heartily wish more people would care about where something is made. I work in the manufacturing sector and recently completed a partial audit on one of our primary products. Beyond the fact that it was designed and manufactured in the U.S., the 95% of the raw materials I could readily find information on were made in the U.S. as well.

    I absolutely agree with your comments on the difference between a good keyboard and a bad one. I use a Rosewill Mechanical Keyboard with spring loaded mechanical keys. Every visitor that uses my home computer comments on how much they love my "clicky keyboard". It is rated at a 50 million click life expectancy. As my primary HMI, it is absolutely worth the $90 I paid during one of Newegg's sales.

    I find it interesting that some makers are using the throwaway CPUs of today to create lasting, crafted and thoughtful objects. This is one of my favorite recent TED talks. An industrial designer decided that there was no reason for amputees to have artificial limbs that lack form. He took off the shelf digital imaging equipment and a commercial 3D printer and started building aesthetically pleasing fairings that are mechanically sound and reflect the personality of the wearer.

    1. As a small comment about countries of origin, I do not care about imports. However, it is the motivation for outsourcing which concerns me. The moral obligation comes before all others. China is just as capable of high quality as low quality. It just costs more in terms of materials and labour and skill.

      I work in manufacturing too.

      That Rosewill keyboard probably uses Cherry MX Blue switches. That is what Das Keyboard Ultimate uses. It is a very good switch. Das Keyboard is more expensive than the Rosewill keyboard because it has more in the body of the keyboard. But the switches are the same.

  5. Very well said and the comments leave little to be said. One thing I find is that even the high priced items are made in China and are junk. I have Carver audio gear, expensive. One time it was made in the USA. Now it is as expensive as if it were made in the USA and it is cheap Chinese junk. I can go on and on with pro audio and broadcast equipment, photography equipment, and all kinds of electronics. Apple is the worst offender. They charge what the product should cost if it were made in in the USA, and it is made my the next thing to slave labor in China.

    I use old things because they are better made and made to last (not made to be obsolete), Altec-Lansing speakers, tube amplifiers, IBM M keyboards, fully mechanical cameras from Leica, Minolta, Bronica and Mamiya, Graflex and Kodak. The list goes on and on. Why? Because the products were made to be good, high quality made to last products with no planned obsolescence.

    Kind of contradictory since I also work in electronics, and no matter what one wants to design, ever since the introduction of the transistor the device chosen for the final product will be obsolete in a year simply because the manufacture of it will quit producing it.

    BTW many Cherry switches are rated at 100 million cycles or more. That is a lot of keyboarding.

  6. I agree with *nearly* everything you say... however, I don't think that a phone from 50 years ago is obsolete. I have many of them, and, like manual typewriters, they help me concentrate on the action of communicating.

    They don't have things to distract, they just enable a human to speak to another human. I appreciate that it isn't possible to navigate electronic systems - but just as I wouldn't use a manual typewriter to surf the web, I wouldn't use an old phone to ring my Bank.

  7. There's one other factor: the old things that have survived are not necessarily representative of all old things. They are the subset of things that were built well. Anything that was made poorly in 1900 is gone.

    In 50 years, all the stuff from today that is made poorly will be gone and the well-built things will still be around (provided they still have any utility) and people will bemoan how their new stuff isn't as good as the stuff that lingers from today.

    Not that this counters your general argument, but I think there's a bit of romanticism surrounding craftsmanship of yore. Not all of it (nor even the majority of it) likely lives up to the samples we have left over.