Technological Nostalgia: The Manual Transmission

Recently I need to buy a new car, so I searched online for some inexpensive entry-level automobile. Somewhat to my surprise, I found some models with manual transmission. These are not old models that were made in the 90’s, but ones made this year. Technologically, there are no reasons for making cars with manual transmissions anymore. A few decades ago, automatic transmissions were expensive, fragile and impractical for consumer-level cars. But now the technology has improved to the point where automatic is inexpensive and reliable.

I have never driven a car with manual transmission, but I understand that it takes some skill to do it. Understanding when to shift gears is not something a novice can get a hang of easily, and doing it inappropriately can kill the engine and put you in danger. Some claim that shifting manually is more efficient than shifting automatically, but such gains in efficiency are so small that it can be easily overcome by getting a more powerful engine. Automatic transmission makes driving much easier, yet manual transmissions continue to be produced today.

The reasons that some people still prefer manual transmission are mostly psychological. People who drive manual feel a greater sense of control. Perhaps the word “control” is inappropriate, perhaps a better term is that they “feel at one with the car.” I know this sounds quasi-mystical, but learning to drive a car isn’t learning how to control a machine, but to accustom oneself to the workings of a vehicle so one feels that the car is a part of one’s own body. This is quite a powerful feeling, since it makes the person feel they have appropriated the power of the car for him or herself. Having such fine control over the gears of the car enhances this feeling of power.

Many Americans have an image of themselves as ridiculously macho figures who are powerful both physically and psychologically. Sometimes they express this image through their choice of vehicles, which is seen in the plague of SUVs, pickup-trucks and sports car in our streets. The manual transmission is another version of it. We shouldn’t underestimate this factor in our choice of cars.

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Technological Nostalgia: The Steam Locomotive

When the steam-powered locomotive was invented, it was the most advanced technology ever developed. In the 19th century, there were all sorts of concerns about the technology, such as what would happen if the locomotive travels faster than 30 miles-per-hour. Doctors of the time thought that it would create a vacuum inside the carriage, causing the lungs of the passengers to explode. Fortunately the doctors were wrong, people can travel faster than 30mph without suffering any ill effects. But it goes to show what people’s attitudes were towards the locomotive. The poet Wordsworth didn’t like them, and had a train track in front of his house rerouted because he thought it ruined his view of nature.

Nowadays we have almost the exact opposite attitude towards steam-powered locomotives. People nowadays enjoy seeing the beauty of nature on steam-powered trains. Today when we see a steam-powered train going through a beautiful rural landscape, we think of the train as a symbol of the quaint countryside. The reason for this is because steam-power is now seen as old-fashioned. Since the 19th century we have developed far more advanced forms of transportation. Electric trolleys, the automobile, diesel locomotives and airplanes all make steam-power rail look outdated. It would be shocking if we see a Boeing 747 in the middle of a flowering meadow, but completely normal if we see a steam-powered train in the same scene.

Part of the romance of the railroad has to do with its macho connotations. In the past, men were worked on the rails were quite tough, and had to deal with the dirt and grime of the smoke of coal-burning engines. Of course, there was the entire hobo tradition of sneaking onto cattle cars for those who don’t have enough money to ride in the passenger compartment.

Ultimately, what steam-powered train represent is an “old-fashioned” world that is lost to us. Most steam-powered trains have shut down operations, and those that are still running cater mostly to tourists. It is a technology that is a bridge between modern and ancient times. The steam engine is not something so ancient that we cannot understand, yet it is clearly an old technology that has become obsolete. Riding on a steam-powered vehicle, we are traveling fast enough to feel like we are traveling on a modern vehicle, yet it still feels like we are participating in a ritual from the past.

Technological Nostalgia: The Typewriter

There is no writing implement that symbolizes the profession of writing quite like the typewriter. In classic movies, journalists often write their assignments on a typewriter. The movie “The Shining” has the main character, a frustrated writer, type the words “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again. Event in recent works such as “The Simpsons”, when Homer became a food critic he writes his articles on a typewriter. Even after the invention of the word processor, the typewriter is still recognized by almost everyone despite being obsolete.

Even though the typewriter is almost synonymous with the profession of writing, it is a recent invention. The first commercially available typewriter was put on the market in 1873 by the Remington company, which up until that point was an firearms manufacturer. It was originally intended to be used by clerks to dictate or transcribe documents, not for creative writing purposes. Early on, people did not use a typewriter themselves, but hired a typist to type for them. The reason was that learning to type is an arduous task, something most people would avoid if they can pay someone else to do it for them. Eventually many people saw the value in being able to write quickly and legibly and started learning how to type themselves. Mark Twain was the first to write a book on a typewriter, and it caught on from there.

With advances in technology, the typewriter is no longer the fastest way to get an idea from the mind onto the page. Computer keyboards, because they are not as limited by the physics of mechanical gears and linkages, can be much faster. With computers, you can have predictive text. Chorded keyboards, which are used by clerks in courts, can be even faster. Finally, all this might eventually be replaced by speech-to-text software, or some kind of advanced brain-to-computer interface that can literally read your mind by detecting brain waves.

However, there is something romantic about the physicality of using a typewriter. In order to type a letter, you have to press down hard on the key, and you feel the strain in your fingers every time you type a letter. There is also something special about the sound the machine makes. When you write on a computer your work is accomplished in silence, but working with a typewriter you are almost announcing to the world that you are accomplishing something creative. Each time the typebar hits the paper make it makes a very loud clacking sound, each time you reach the end of a line a bell rings. Also, there is some satisfaction in knowing that you are writing a book the same way many great writers before you did, like Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway.

In recent years there has been a revival in typewriters, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster, I was participating in this trend even before it was a trend. In around the year 2006, I bought a typewriter off eBay. It is a Smith-Corona, and it is not in very good condition. The machine has this yellow tint that comes from age, the platen (the roller that feeds the paper into the machine) is severely dented after years of use, parts of the return carriage keep falling off, some of the letters on the typebars had been intentionally damaged, and none of the capital letters align correctly with the platen when I engage the caps lock. But the machine cost $30, which is a bargain. Despite all these problems all the mechanisms in the machine work smoothly, therefore I decided to keep it.

The problem with using a typewriter in a modern environment is that your work does not immediately get born into a digital environment. You can’t simply copy and paste your typewritten document onto your website, but have to go through an elaborate process of scanning it and then using software to turn it into text. This is somewhat more challenging than what I am used to.

But there are advantages. When you are typing on a typewriter, you do not get distracted easily. You can’t open YouTube on a browser and forget to write your book, or if you do the sound of the typewriter will drown out YouTube. Also, since you know it is difficult to delete text, you are forced to think about what you will type more carefully before you commit your words to paper, so you will make fewer mistakes. All these benefits are at the cost of having sore fingers when you are done.

Technological Nostalgia: The Fountain Pen

Many people nowadays do not know what a fountain pen is, so let me explain for the uninitiated. It is a pen with a tip that is a piece of steel,or some other metal, with a small slit cut into it. The slit allows ink to flow into the tip and onto the page. It uses a principle pioneered by the quill pen, which is what I love about it. Whenever I use a fountain pen to write I feel a historical connection to medieval monks sitting in a monastery transcribing ancient manuscripts. I find this feeling very empowering. Unfortunately I no longer use fountain pen for many of my works, because it is a hassle to transcribe a handwritten manuscript into a computer, which is much more convenient to work with.

The problem with the quill pen is that you have to constantly dip it in ink, which was very inconvenient. After you write a few words (or even a few letters), the pen will run out of ink and you need to dip it in ink. So when William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens wrote their works, they need to have a bottle of ink, which is called an inkwell, on their desks. I had a teacher who remembers using inkwells when he went to school. A common prank he played was if he was sitting behind a girl, he would sneak up on her, take the tip of her hair and dip it in ink. Needless to say, having to a pen that needs to be constantly dipped in ink was very messy, so eventually people invented the technology to put the ink inside the barrel of the pen. This technology had already existed in the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until the development of better materials such as steel and better inks that it was technically possible to manufacture these pens on a large scale.

Almost immediately after the invention of the fountain pen, manufacturers began making high-end versions of their products. They would make the nib out of a gold alloy instead of plain steel, add intricate inlays onto the barrel, and even encrust the pen in gemstones. One of the best marketing campaigns was the “iridium-tipped” pens. Iridium is an extremely hard precious metal that is usually found in meteorites, and perfectly suited to be used as tips for fountain pens. It is rarer and more expensive than gold, which made it a good marketing point. Early fountain pens from the 1920s sometimes did use iridium alloys, but the metal was so expensive that only a few manufacturers can afford it. Other manufacturers started calling their pens as “iridium-tipped” as well, even though they often contained no iridium. By the end of World War II almost no manufacturers used iridium alloys to tip their pens, but the name still persists.

When ballpoint and other types of pen became common, fountain pens fell out of use. At that point, the marketing focused more on presenting fountain pens as a luxury item and class symbol rather than a utilitarian tool. Today, writing with a fountain pen contain certain notions of class and prestige, as well as a sense of nostalgia. Despite being an obsolete technology, it continues to be a symbol of the writing profession, along with the typewriter. Artists still sometime depict writers holding a fountain pen in their hand, and it is recognized by many people who have not seen one first-hand. Perhaps it is due to the distinctive shape of the pen ma The pentagon shape of the nib is immediately recognizable in a way the tip of a ballpoint pen isn’t.

There is an advantage to fountain pens that ballpoint pens don’t have, it takes a lot less pressure to write. I can’t imagine what it would be like to write an entire novel with a ballpoint pen. The smooth gliding of the tip of the fountain pen over the paper made writing very easy. Modern roller ball pens write much smoother than ballpoint pens, but they are not refillable the way most fountain pens are, which puts them at a disadvantage.

Technological Nostalgia: The Vinyl Record

In our modern-day world, technology moves at a pace that escapes our imagination. Things that were considered cutting edge a few decades ago now appear as dinosaurs, dead-ends in the evolution of technology. The steam engine was very advanced tech for its time, but now evoke a retro-nostalgic feeling. An entire genre of science-fiction called “steam-punk” is dedicated to re-imagining how the world would look like if steam never lost its dominance.

No one misses the telegraph after it disappeared, in fact it was only a few years ago that Western Union ceased its telegraphic service, but nobody cared or even noticed. A plethora of technologies died without anybody missing their passing, such as the Franklin stove, the clothes wringer, non-electric irons, ticker tape, the incandescent light bulb and the cathode-ray tube display.

Yet there are technologies that are obsolete and but have not died or have seen a revival in recent years. Amongst these are the vinyl record, the typewriter, the fountain pen, manual transmission and steam-powered locomotives. I will go through and try to explain the popularity of these technologies in the face of their obsolescence.

The Vinyl Record

Modern phonographic records function almost the same way Edison invented them more than a hundred years ago. There have been minor changes, such as the use of vinyl instead of shellac, and the use of electronic circuitry used to amplify the signals from the records. But it still uses the basic principle of grooves to record sound waves that was invented in the 19th century. But the phonographic record, along with other physical formats for music, is obsolete. Music nowadays is often stored in the cloud, or on a file sharing network, constantly ready to be deployed over the Internet to our ears when necessary.

It is much more convenient to listen to music in this way, but something went missing when we transitioned from physical formats to streaming music. Back in the days when music was analog, we can own music in a physical format. Be it vinyl, cassette tape or CD, we have a physical object that we own. But with digital music, we no longer have a sense of ownership. Digital music can be easily streamed over the Internet, and when music comes from anonymous servers on the cloud, we ceased to have a sense of ownership over our music. It is this sense of ownership over music that many people give for buying vinyl record. Most people feel like their identities are defined by the material objects they own, therefore ownership of music in a physical format is a way for people to express their identity.

Another reason for the continuing popularity of the phonographic record is its powerful symbolic value. When a record goes platinum, the RIAA does not send an audio file to the artist, but a gold-plated record instead. Despite all these years, the phonographic record remains a potent symbol of music that it continues to be used in stores, advertising and even computer programs. I think this cultural significance is what keeps vinyl records alive in such a technologically advanced world.

Are there any other reason vinyl is still popular? Some have said that it has a warmer and softer sound. Unfortunately this is a purely aesthetic judgment, so I cannot decide whether this is valid. However, some people noted that the sleeves of vinyl records provide more space for cover art, which is important. In our digital world where we are often forced to pare all art down to simple icons, it is excellent to see the possibility of incredibly rich graphic art.