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Old tools

Amidst the reading I’ve been doing on hackers and network culture, I also came upon the folio in the Jan 05 Harpers, “A Romance of Rust: Nostalgia, progress, and the meaning of tools” by Donovan Hohn. It’s a smart article, raises some interesting points without really going too deep. As it happens I have a few old tools around, so this article hit something–no, actually a couple of things.

First, my interest in old tools is strictly aesthetic, but beneath that there is an unsatisfied and unpursued curiosity about what was done with the odd objects I’ve accumulated and who did those things, what it felt like, etc. It goes along with my interest in history as an attempt to capture the lived experience, the very texture of life, at various times (including our own).


My tool collecting started and stopped a while ago. On a trip to Nova Scotia with my daughter and her mother and family back in the mid-1990s, we stopped at one of those typical antique shacks along many two-lane roads in North America. Somehow Francesca decided she had to have this old screw handle thingy. I still don’t know what it was originally, maybe a device for opening barrels? It’s got a twisting screw base, a wide polished wooden handle (at least 24″ wide) and the metal part that extends from the handle’s middle goes about 2 feet down, halfway until the screw part starts. Later, when I was invited to Liverpool by the dockers to show them Shaping San Francisco and discuss a digital history of that storied burg, I was gifted with a longshoreman’s hook by Jimmy Nolan, a real treasure for a labor history nut like me.

For some years, I had the impression that my daughter, now a teen, was still interested in old tools more generally, and I picked up oddities for her when I found them, once in Hawaii, once outside Lancaster England, etc. And my Swedish grandfather left his set of chisels and I somehow ended up with them. Eventually Francesca went off to college and made it clear that the old tools were of no interest to her!

In our new apartment, they found a place decorating our back porch. But I didn’t realize that the old tool nostalgia was far from mine alone until I saw this article. Of course I do realize that nearly everything I’ve ever found interesting actually interests thousands and millions of others born in the vicinity of 1957, since there are just so damn many of us and our interests have been shaped by the same world. Anyway, this Harpers article was fun to read. Old tools for many, like the people this guy profiles in his article, are an obsessive nostalgia for a world long gone. But there is something too, to the authenticity of old tools and their representation of real skills (that we cyber types tend to attribute to people who can actually fix and/or make things).

From Hohn’s article:
“Many of the galoots [i.e. tool nerds] I have encountered in chat rooms and at auctions fulfill my worst expectations. Unlike other collectors, galoots can at times resemble the members of a fraternal order or a medieval guild, imagining themselves to be latter-day Knights Templar, keepers of the code, “guardians of that which was almost lost.” The Mid-West Tool Collectors Association’s… aging members wonder why so few men of my generation care to learn about the old tools and the old ways.

“Still, uncomfortable as I am in their company, wary as I am of their nostalgia, I have begun to wonder whether they are at least partly right; maybe handiness does matter. Once upon a time, we referred to all forms of manufacturing (a Latinate word for “making by hand”) as “the arts,” and once upon a time all artists, manual as well as fine–masons, blacksmiths, and mechanics as well as poets–could find meaning in their work.”

“There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human being: the need to make,” the poet Frank Bidart observed in a recent sequence of poems devoted to the topic of making. “The culture in which we live honors specific kinds of making (shaping or mis-shaping a business, a family) but does not understand how central making itself is as manifestation and mirror of the self, fundamental as eating or sleeping.” The worship of old tools arises, I have begun to suspect, from the epidemic frustration of this need.”

Like the author of this Harpers article, I’m one of the least handy people I know. I have slowly become able to fix lamps, very small plumbing issues, replace boards and devices in my computers, and I’m probably a bit better than most people I know at troubleshooting Windows problems… But I really admire the guys (and gals) who can grab tools and fix things, or make them better! So I suppose I too am feeling the absence of making in my life, somewhat alleviated by being a book designer and publisher. But to make a machine! That would be something.

On that note, an occasional newsletter landed in my mailbox the other day, from the Knight’s Foundry in Sutter Creek, California, the old gold country of the Sierra foothills. I visited this place once a few years back; it’s become the passion and project of some old friends Andy Fahrenwald and Lora his partner, along with dozens of others. It’s a California Historical monument, and registered with the National Historic Trust. They are embarked on a $1.7 million matching grant campaign to bring this original open hearth iron furnace back into real economic life. Already they’ve gotten some kind of contractual agreement from the city of San Leandro in the east bay to build wrought iron lamp posts to replace the old ones that are falling down after a century of use. It’s a remarkable place, and if you’re in to old tools, brace yourself! This place is like magic. The most amazing thing about it is that it runs on hydropower directly. No electricity powers the machine tools used to make precision parts, just a grandfathered water supply pouring out of the mountains, dedicated to driving the belts and pulleys that make this place go. If you haven’t seen it, make it a point to visit sometime. It’s really breathtaking.

The Knight’s Foundry project is ultimately dedicated to preserving the skills of open hearth steel making, as a crucial intermediate step in industrialization. The Society for Industrial Archeology is the overarching group working on this, and naturally it’s the Samuel Knight chapter that is focused on the Knight’s Foundry. From an old tool point of view, this group has gone ALL the way!

As we barrel along into the 21st century, there are hundreds of lost arts that are truly disappearing forever with the passing of the oldtimers who still know how to do things the old-fashioned way. Maybe it doesn’t matter, if you believe that everything is done more efficiently and ecologically and sensibly today than it was ever done before; that the old ways have been deservedly superceded. But from a historical point of view, even if you believe all that, maintaining a good record of how things were done, knowing the steps that technologies went through to arrive at the present day, seems like basic common sense.

To have a working real-life version (not a mere model) of a 19th century early California steel mill, still able to produce unique tools and parts, is an exciting and worthy goal. Of course they are soliciting donations, so if you’re feeling flush this new year, send ’em a check!

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