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You may regret tossing that old, broken stuff.
September 9, 2010 5:24 AM   Subscribe

Feeling nostalgic for all that old, broken "junk" you tossed out? "The wizards of obsolete" can help you to not make the same mistake again.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere (28 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
These guys don't just fix obsolete machines. The fact that they fix anything is itself obsolete, sadly.
posted by DU at 5:38 AM on September 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ah, Wang computers. I remember a hard disk drive we had in the 80s: the size of a washing machine, with a removable platter stack as big as a cheesecake that exposed the disk surfaces when loading and unloading. Capacity: 20 megabytes.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:47 AM on September 9, 2010


Sony kept making Betamax machines until 2002? Crazy.

(and yea I know they are used in broadcast places but still)
posted by ShawnString at 5:48 AM on September 9, 2010


Found a pic: Wang Disk Drive
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:52 AM on September 9, 2010


Sometimes, it's just nice to have a community of people around who don't instinctively sniff at your pleasure in using tools that evolved over time into superbly functional machines. I enjoy the manual typewriter forums for this reason, and though there are more than a few cranks in the ranks of sustaining typists, it's a real delight to communicate with people who get it.

On the other hand, I recently ran into trouble on boingboing for having the temerity to suggest that crappy jewelry made out of typewriter keys (a process that destroys an entire typewriter for a handful of "recycled" baubles) was a bad thing, and nothing brings out the Salem witch trials cries of "luddite!" and "fetishist!" like saying that there's something specific and good about using an older piece of technology. Sheeesh, you'd think I'd knocked off their retro black plastic glasses, slapped their big-eyed faux Japanese art toys out of their hands, and made fun of their steampunk accessories.

Sitting in my office right now, which I equipped myself to reflect the 1911 splendor of the building, I've got a thirties R&M electric fan, which works great, is quiet, and which I can strip and renovate in about an hour, every six or seven years or so. I've got a late-sixties 500-series rotary phone that sounds great, feels marvelous to hold, and which I used for everything but dialing voicemail (I've got a little touchtone under the desk for that). Behind me, there's a massive Hermes Ambassador office standard typewriter that I use at least once or twice a day, and has an action that is like magical unicorn butter. I've got a thirties desk lamp, a forties Swingline (still standard staples after sixty some years), and a crazy vacuum tube display Panasonic "hand-held" calculator that I used to carry to school with me a million years ago.

You could call me a collector, except I only seek out and keep things that I can actually use. There's something wonderful about solid, well-designed, functional gear like this that makes it worth having to become your own Mr. Fix-It. In fact, I've gotten to be such a good Mr. Fix-It that I'm sad that it's almost impossible to sustain a good old Fix-It Shop anymore without being a specialist, because everything sold lately is just disposable, designed for the kind of precious metal "recycling" done by Chinese peasants in toxic waste dump nightmare landscapes.
posted by sonascope at 6:01 AM on September 9, 2010 [15 favorites]


...crappy jewelry made out of typewriter keys (a process that destroys an entire typewriter for a handful of "recycled" baubles) was a bad thing...

I just ordered some typewriter earrings for my wife and now I'm hoping they came from a broken machine.
posted by DU at 6:07 AM on September 9, 2010


sonascope, I want to know where you shop!

Back at school, we had one machine in the metal shop that the instructor loved showing off. It's a horizontal mill, circa 1910, still running perfectly. He oiled it and sharpened the cutting wheels occasionally, but otherwise it almost never needed maintenance. Good thing, too, since the manuals for it were long gone and he couldn't find any information on it anywhere.

While showing off this beast, he would tell a story about visiting the Sikorsky helicopter factory in Connecticut, seeing a very similar machine "chewing through a twenty foot bar of [titanium?], making rotor blades." He asked his guide why they didn't upgrade to something newer and computer controlled, and the answer was, "This one works just fine!"
posted by backseatpilot at 6:43 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


to suggest that crappy jewelry made out of typewriter keys (a process that destroys an entire typewriter for a handful of "recycled" baubles) was a bad thing,

Words cannot express how angry those ...things make me.
posted by The Whelk at 6:56 AM on September 9, 2010


...says Mister Betamax, who asked us not to use his real name to maintain privacy

Mr. Betamax of Lyman, S.C... Good he hides his name, as I'm sure there are literally hundreds of betamax specialists in Lyman, S.C.

cool stuff though. My parents are still on a rotary phone, and regularly "dial" 1 over their phone to computerized operators for instructions English. That phone is built like a tank though, it will never die.
posted by mcstayinskool at 7:38 AM on September 9, 2010


The fact that they fix anything is itself obsolete, sadly.

Oh, I'm not so sure about that. The only difference I see is that our tools have changed from specialty machines (typewriters, televisions, phones, etc) to general purpose machines (computers). In fact, I'm writing this message, not on a piece of paper attached to a physical cork board that requires replacement every 12 months, but on a magical machine connected to millions of other machines!

I doubt most people would be interested in reading an article on maintaining legacy IT infrastructure, but its pretty much the same thing. The fetishizing of hand tools and physical machines is an odd thing, but I guess nostalgia usually is. Humans will always be a tool using species, its just our tools have become more and more abstract. Car guys have become computer guys, painters have become multimedia artists, etc. If anything, there's more fixing going on than ever, considering how error and malware prone consumer PCs and software tend to be. In 2029 we'll be reading articles about guys who run Windows9 computers because its a shame to throw away something that still works. We'll be looking at legacy interfaces like mice and keyboards with the same nostalgia.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:38 AM on September 9, 2010


I walked out of (name of stupid big box store I regret patronizing) the other day to this (well, another individual obv) gorgeous Datsun 810 wagon. Last year of manufacture 1977.

I stopped to take a picture with my phone and MrDoodley drooled. The car was neglected - windows left down while the owners were shopping, probably left down all the time (in Florida!); big bubble of rust by the back window. Owners came out, saw us goggling at their car, thought we were making fun of them. They'd have swapped it in an instant for a Grand Cherokee. We exchanged howdys and then parted, all of us scratching our heads.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:42 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fetishizing of hand tools and physical machines is an odd thing

I don't know if I perceive this interest in "fixing" things as a fetish for physical machines. As someone who often has opened up an old appliance to fix or maintain it, or who has restored 40 wood double hung windows/12 steam radiators/(insert old house-related technology here), I know that my celebration of people who fix things instead of replacing things has its origins in a few different perspectives:

1) I hate disposable technology because I feel that it is extremely wasteful and bad for the environment to keep filling up landfills because we can't make a house phone which lasts more than 3 years anymore.

2) I appreciate a product designer who has just made a useful and beautiful product, but who ALSO put in the extra (and often complicated) effort to make it easy to maintain and fix. This type of holistic design is elegant and unappreciated, and I believe that companies who make things that cannot easily be maintained or fixed are stupid or lazy or both.

3) While I appreciate well-designed new technology and improvements in technology, I also appreciate well-made sustainable technology that can be reused and recycled. Having helped send a few freight containers of old hand tools to the Congo over the last few years so that they could be used to build a hospital, schools and houses, I have experienced first hand the extended life cycle of well-made, simple tools.

4) When I finally break down and pay for a shiny, new laser level, I think it is ridiculous and wasteful that the thing would quit working within months and happy that I am able to grab my decades old traditional level since I couldn't quite give it away. So, it isn't so much a "festish" for things that work, but an appreciation for well-manufactured things instead of cr*p.
posted by jeanmari at 7:59 AM on September 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


While I appreciate well-designed new technology and improvements in technology, I also appreciate well-made sustainable technology that can be reused and recycled. Having helped send a few freight containers of old hand tools to the Congo over the last few years so that they could be used to build a hospital, schools and houses, I have experienced first hand the extended life cycle of well-made, simple tools.

Ditto, my heart goes out to well-made things that are cared for and can last for decades.

A few weeks ago I was in a cabin in Maine. The cabin was built sometime in the late 50s by a carpenter from the ground-up. He also the bulk of the furniture. While some of the appeal was the time-travel aspect (seriously, it had not changed in half a century - the A frame, the stone fireplace, room-dividing floating bookshelves- the cantilevered porch - It was like a scaled down version of James Mason's place in North By Northwest) a lot of appeal of the place was how thoughtfully and carefully it had been designed. Round wooden door locks, drying racks near the water heater, the placement skylights and windows, the multi-purpose shelves and hidden storage - every inch of the place was considered and worked into a whole, like being on a wooden submarine. I had an engineer with me who explained some of the more invisible features, the way the roof was constructed so it was soundproof but still let in a ton of light and air, making the place seem bigger and brighter on the inside - and I noticed how a lot of the things that bug me about mid-century design go away when the materials are sturdy wood and wool.

The overwhelming feeling was of love. A love for materials and construction and a respect for that these things can do. Everything had been carefully, lovingly considered, from the cabinets to the placement of the cabin on the hill. It looked like it belonged there, and apparently the owner used to joke that the only thing he couldn't fix on site where the glass windows.

One day we took a walk to a neighboring property that was for sale. It was much bigger than our cabin, more modern too. Very tasteful. very Martha Stewart Living. But it didn't look loved. it looked like someone just plopped their condo in the middle of the woods. It was a big beige box surrounded by pines. It didn't belong there.

There's a Japanese concept that I think applies there. Tsukumogami - An artifact spirit, tsukumogami originate from items or artifacts that have reached their 100th birthday and thus become alive and aware. Our tiny wooden cabin was easy to imagine having a spirit in it, something created as a result of hours and hours of careful consideration and respect. The other cabin ...did not have that feeling.
posted by The Whelk at 8:28 AM on September 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


As someone who has owned (and will continue to own) a series of beater vehicles, I find that DU's comment is all to true.

Every time I go to fix something on my beloved Volvo station wagon (which is probably more than I care to admit) I'm always amazed at how workable it is. Every part that wear or needs adjustment is just there. I don't have to take anything off, the parts are spaced far enough apart that I can get my gigantic mitts down around them, and rarely do I have to remove one thing, just to get to something else. Compared to my old Honda (I'm convinced every engineer at Honda has hands one-third the size of mine) or my friend's Pontiac Gran Prix (you have to pull the engine to replace the last two spark plugs!) the Volvo is a breeze to work on, and actually inviting in it's simplicity. You're not afraid of what's under the big plastic covers or hidden away in the little black boxes. For this reason plus it's overengineered durability, it's a car I'm pretty sure I'll just drive to the junkyard one day when the doors eventually fall off.

In a similar vein is the machine I'm typing on now, my old Apple PowerPook, known popularly as the Pismo. To work on this computer, you undo two screws on the keyboard and the processor, memory, drive and networking cards are all right there. The battery slides out of the side, with a small latch. Replacing parts is easier than building a Lego castle. I've worked on it myself many times in the past ten years, and that's why I still use it as a netbook to this day, ten years after its initial purchase.

So it's not archaic technology I fetishize, it's the ability to repair my own stuff that I idolize, and things that make it easy for me to do so are my preferred tools. Sadly the "repair" ethic has long since fallen out of favor, and increasingly the only items that still allow me to pull aside the kimono and repair them myself are aging relics.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:46 AM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know, everyone loves to blame builders and manufacturers for the current state of things, but in reality the blame lies squarely on us, the ones doing the buying. If there were enough people willing to pay e.g. 2X - 4X the price for an all metal oscillating-type fan that was easy to take down and clean and lubricate, rather than the kind that are made out of plastic and whose main rotating/oscillating pivot breaks if you look at it wrong then I'm sure we'd see them at Walmart. But there aren't that many people that care enough to pay the premium, they'd rather have the $20 fan today even if it means it will be broken in a few years, and at the end of the day that's all that manufacturers can go on. The only difference is that in the old days we didn't have the luxury of choice -- everything included the premium of quality out of necessity because we didn't have the materials and industrial knowledge yet to know how to make it cheap.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:47 AM on September 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


I need my wang fixed but it doesn't look like he has the right equipment.
posted by spicynuts at 8:48 AM on September 9, 2010


I'm an amateur blacksmith (hence Blackanvil), and a lot of my tools are old, but fixed up. I have a 1929 50-lb-helve Little Giant power hammer, with a new 3hp motor, adjustable arms, and I've repaired the babbit bearings. My heat treat furnace is an old cast iron monstrosity from 1906, rejetted for propane and with a modern thermocouple. Both my anvils are more than 150 years old, one of which I keep polished, the beat-up other I have people I'm teaching use so they don't mess up the good one. Hammers, saw frames, odd bits of tooling -- lots of old stuff can be kept going indefinitely with a little tlc.
posted by Blackanvil at 9:01 AM on September 9, 2010


crappy jewelry made out of typewriter keys (a process that destroys an entire typewriter for a handful of "recycled" baubles)

Why, in my day, we used the WHOLE typewriter! Throwing away anything was a waste. Sure, the keys make you a couple dozen cufflinks, but the gears and guts were plenty useful for making steamie-robot sculpture! The case? Give it a new paint job and that's some Warhammer 40k terrain!
posted by FatherDagon at 9:03 AM on September 9, 2010


DU: These guys don't just fix obsolete machines. The fact that they fix anything is itself obsolete, sadly.
I was about to offer a correction to your comment, but then I figured "What the hell, I can just get myself a whole shiny new one."
posted by Western Infidels at 9:21 AM on September 9, 2010


Not fixing things is going out of style. Give me a Haynes manual and a toolbox big enough and I will fix the world.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:27 AM on September 9, 2010


You know, everyone loves to blame builders and manufacturers for the current state of things, but in reality the blame lies squarely on us, the ones doing the buying.

Some of the blame lies with the purchasers, yes, AND some of the blame lies with the designers, the MBA's, the manufacturers, the whole supply chain.

I teach human-centered design to industrial designers and engineers. When I require them, in their junior or senior year, to make works-like prototypes that are easy/intuitive to use AND maintain/repair, some of them are hearing that requirement for the first (and sadly, the last) time. The problem with our migration from a "repair/reuse" to "throw away/buy new" culture is systemic and can't be easily summed up with "it's (insert one person here) fault."

Don't even get me started about schools that have eradicated shop and home economics classes that taught practical skills for how to understand and fix small systems. Or financial managers who have a short term quarterly profits perspective. Or the lack of incentives present for people to keep things OUT of landfills. Or the lack of incentives present for corporations to use more sustainable materials/design. Or the fetishizing of marketing and advertising driving fashion over substance. Or...yeah, I need to stop for lunch now.
posted by jeanmari at 10:30 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


If anything, there's more fixing going on than ever, considering how error and malware prone consumer PCs and software tend to be. In 2029 we'll be reading articles about guys who run Windows9 computers because its a shame to throw away something that still works. We'll be looking at legacy interfaces like mice and keyboards with the same nostalgia.

People already do.

This message was typed on a 20 year old keyboard, the post comment button pressed with an 11 year old optical mouse.
posted by inthe80s at 11:42 AM on September 9, 2010


Like politics, which I was just writing about in another thread, I've largely given up on publicly celebrating great old objects, because it invariably triggers one or both of these responses in one form or another:

Those things are fetishy. You're fetishy for liking them. Fetishy!

Get off my lawn! You kids these days! In my day, we had to walk ten miles to school!

One man's fetish is another man's "this tool is durable, useful, and works very, very well for me." The sexual titillation I get from seeing two attractive red-headed men speaking ASL is a fetish, but the former is just a satisfaction found in the ownership of a well-made and useful thing. I despise talking on cell phones, not out of a fetish for old telephones, but rather because a cell phone is too small, too fidgety, and gets hotter and hotter and hotter the longer you talk.

On my old phone, I don't have to pick out the numbers with a magnifying glass and press the weirdly-shaped, microscopic buttons with a pencil eraser as if the cell phone was designed to be used by someone with amorphous pseudopodia. The handset on a 500-series telephone was pretty much perfect, has a nice weight, and is comfortable in the hand, and you can clamp it between your shoulder and ear if you need to go into the freezer and dish out some ice cream while you're dishing out some gossip. Plus, it's heavy and solid enough that you could beat someone unconscious with it if a cat burglar was to sneak into your house in the dead of night.

I can't say "in my day" very often, because my day was pretty much the seventies and eighties, when design was not particularly great and things were not particularly functional, but there are many things that have surrendered design to commercial gimmickry and aesthetic fads.

There's some great, wonderfully ergonomic modern stuff out there that leaves the sharp-edged formality of some of my older tools in the dust, and certain standard old tools just suck, in spite of often being beautifully-crafted, like traditional hand saws. They look great, make great music, but when I discovered the modern variants on the old Japanese ryoba, I found a joy in unpowered carpentry. Heck, I have a small stack of Macs I've used over the years, and I'm not remotely nostalgic over their mice--they're awkward to hold, tendon-ravaging to click, and the invention of the optical sensor freed me up from billions of hours spent using a toothpick to scrape the gummy wheel goo off those awful tiny steel wheels under the mouse ball.

It's not the retro that does it--it's the function.

My iPod Touch, for instance, is a wonderful device that I use in a lot of different ways, or netbooks, and there's really nothing old that does what they do as well. That said, for me, there's nothing like a manual typewriter for a first draft, and though it make seem similar to a computer and a word processor, it's really a whole other ballgame.
posted by sonascope at 12:44 PM on September 9, 2010


Those things are fetishy. You're fetishy for liking them. Fetishy!

I always wonder what people who say this expect to happen.

"That's just a fetish! Fetishy!"

"Oh god you're ..you're RIGHT!" *drops object to the ground* "I never realized it before! How could I have been so BLIND?! Thank you! Thank you so much!"
posted by The Whelk at 12:53 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The same thing carries over from generation to generation.
A few weeks ago I bought a Defender machine. While I'm not an electrical engineer, I have most of the tools/parts to rebuild it, if needed. However, the way the Defender case is put together is fairly bad compared with the cases used in Stargate (and later Robotron, Joust, Moon Patrol and Sinistar). Notably, when the case is open on the back, the monitor is mounted on a panel that can slide when some wing nuts are loosened. At that point, you can see a small hidden mirror that reflects the monitor, allowing you to see how it changes when you adjust it. This is a little thing to be sure, but it makes working on the machines less arduous. The control panels on both machines are easily released with cabinet latches to make cleaning/maintaining them very easy.

And therein lies the key - these machines (like Williams' pinball machines) was built to be maintained, so it's no surprise that it runs and runs well 29 years later.
posted by plinth at 1:00 PM on September 9, 2010


I still use a 1940s-era rotary phone and when that sumbitch rings right beside you it sounds like an old elementary-school firebell just went off in your ear. THAT'S a ringtone.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 2:51 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Plus, it's heavy and solid enough that you could beat someone unconscious with it if a cat burglar was to sneak into your house in the dead of night.

Now this??? THIS is an affordance!
posted by jeanmari at 4:05 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wang! My dad worked for them right up until they died. I remember when the US head office informed Australia that the new year's marketing slogan would be "Wang cares". For obvious reasons they ended up not using it in Australia.
Is there a repairman for 25 year old promotional Wang jumpers? Cause my dad needs one. That or the ability to throw things away when they are more hole than fabric.
posted by Wantok at 7:26 PM on September 9, 2010


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