When I was a boy, my father gave me an old clock and a screwdriver. This act, and what I subsequently did to that clock, began within me a lifelong fascination with machines and tools that are (now) from a bygone era. In recent years, I have taught myself the ins and outs of all sorts of objects that were, in their time, cutting-edge technology, but that now are deemed quaint or even backward.
In my office and in most every room in our house you’re likely to find a pocket watch, a dollar watch, a pendulum clock, a fountain pen, a hand-cranked coffee mill (made by Peugeot, as it happens). Such items intrigue me because, despite their age, they still work and usually work well. The level of craftsmanship is usually exceptional, but even if it isn’t, these machines still perform the function for which they were designed.
Take for example the “dollar watch.” A dollar watch was an inexpensive pocket watch targeted for purchase by your Average Joe. They weren’t fancy, didn’t have jewels like high-end watches, and the “crystal” was almost always plastic. The movements were made of stamped brass, not engraved steel, and the faces were often pasted paper, not hand-painted porcelain. The cases, too, were cheaply made, punched out of thin metal, easily bent, never fancy. They were made in the first half of the last century, and filled a real need. They kept time well enough for the men of the period, though you certainly wouldn’t want to time your train by one.
I’ve bought dozens of these watches, pulled them apart, cleaned decades of gunk and grit from their pinions, brushed the teeth of their gears, applied a few dabs of oil to the arbors, wound them up, and voila! Off they run.
Think of that for a moment. This is a cheap, spring-driven machine, often up to 80 years old, and with just some cleaning and oiling, it will run and accurately tell you the time of day down to the hour, minute, and second.
What—what—have you purchased brand-new in your lifetime that will still be working, 80 years from the day you brought it home? Anything?
If it sounds like I admire these machines, I do, and no, I’m not above anthropomorphizing them. They’re tough little troopers, brave and eager to do the job they were designed to do, sometimes for centuries. They are artifacts of a different age, evidence of how different the mindset was in that day and age, when even an inexpensive item was built to work, to work well, and to last.