In the world of constants
Despite modern innovations, some objects have remained unchanged over centuries.
As they say, never reinvent the wheel. Well, we haven't in the millennia. It is ironical that some of the oldest inventions of man have remained unaltered for centuries. In an age where mobile phones, cars and even aeroplanes get an upgrade every few months, some products and services remain unaltered except for cosmetic changes.
Let's look at some examples. One of the earliest inventions still in use is the plain and simple wheel. It may have been adapted and changed to suit everything from a "thela" to a modern jet, but its basic design remains the same. Take the bullock cart, or tonga, which you can still spot on Indian roads – it is what it was 5,000 years ago during the Vedic times. Did you know that the rubber tyre on your bike or car has not changed substantially since John Dunlop invented the first rubber tyre in the late 19th century?
Although 10 million people flew in India last year, over 100 million still travel by railways annually. Since 1804, when the first locomotive hauled a train over the rails in Wales, we have almost similar trains running on almost similar tracks and sleepers even as we are constructing (and in many countries running) bullet trains. Till a few years ago, we also had vintage steam locomotives of the 19th century in use in many parts of the world. In India, 150 years after trains were introduced, we still use a hole in the floor of a small lavatory to defecate. And people still travel on train roofs! By the way, though aeroplanes have evolved a lot, their loos are still what they were many decades ago (and the seats have actually become smaller).
That reminds me, you must have noticed High Transmission Cables strung across tall pylons racing past you as you travel on railroads or highways. In spite of rapid advancements in materials, this is the way electricity has been transmitted since its invention 150 years ago. A few years ago, when super-conductivity was discovered, it was predicted that power transmission would become several times more efficient and easy. Nothing happened. Nor have the plugs, switches, meters or fuses altered much.
Typewriters (the QWERTY keyboard invented in 1868 remains the same even on post-modern comps and devices), telegraph and telex may have disappeared, but the good old landline is still very much around. As are the cables strung across poles for all these services and, in fact, now for even the likes of cable TV and broadband.
We have all seen the neighbourhood "dhobi" ironing clothes with a rusty coal iron. Clothes have been pressed in this way for centuries. Even the steam iron is more than 120 years old. Did you realise that the ubiquitous glass bottle has been around in some form or the other since 1,500 BC? Dry-cleaning of clothes was first done almost a hundred years ago. Kerosene may have given way to benzene and other newer solvents, but the process remains the same. The bespoke tailor even today uses the same tools of the trade as his forefathers did centuries ago. As do other artisans: cobblers, weavers, metal workers, embroiders, masons, carpenters, butchers and even bootleggers.
All this talk of fancy guns and revolvers and other sophisticated firearms would imply the basic rifle has disappeared. No sir, the modern, bolt-action rifle and chamber-firing revolver are essentially unchanged from their predecessors and operate in exactly the same way that they did for our great-grandfather. In fact, other than the advent of the semi- and fully-automatic mechanisms, and vast improvements in sighting (i.e. telescopes), a hunter or a police constable from 100 years ago would have no trouble using a modern rifle.
The axe, saw, nails, hammer, screw-driver and spanner are still the same as they were 100 years ago. A fisherman would use a boat in the late 19th century as his counterpart does today. The bicycle has hardly evolved in 100 years, nor has the motorcycle. Vacuum cleaners, toasters, mixers, ovens and grinders have remained almost the same for years. Let's look around the kitchen and pantry. Baked beans still come in cans and tomato ketchup in a bottle. The bread is baked the way it was 200 years ago. The pressure cooker is the same since 1864. The mixer-grinder has been around for 100 years. The best pizzas are still baked in wood-fired ovens and the best tandoori chicken is made not on a rotisserie but a clay tandoor. You still use frozen peas, vegetables, sausages, pate and cheese made the way they were for generations. Bottle openers, knives, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans all go back centuries; as does most of the furniture. Fountain and ball pens were invented in 1884 and 1888, respectively, and are still in use. The list goes on.
Newspapers are edited, printed and distributed as they were 300 years ago save for moving from letterpress to offset and to computer layouts from hand-painted pages. So, from scissors and locks, thermometers and fountain pens to knitted pullovers, patchwork quilts and leather coats and cotton swabs, antiseptics and aspirin, the past continues to cling on to our present with a reluctant obstinacy. The last 10 years have seen technology leap many generations with the microchip and the Internet, but utilities, consumer goods and products remain in the same mould as they were originally imagined. Most services are still dispensed the same way. Lateral thinking, anyone?
(The author is a writer, filmmaker, and media guru. Views expressed are strictly personal.)