Friday, August 6, 2010

Panis Ex Machina

Encountering primitive technology is a visceral experience for me. The real meaning and intention of tools can still be seen in the early stages of human invention - before they're wrapped in metal shielding and anonymous plastic curves.

The replica vacuum tube computer on display at Iowa State is a great example. I rarely think about how my laptop actually works, but being confronted with a bunch of vacuum tubes screwed into a table really forces you to acknowledge that it's more than magic. It's the same with early veterinary tools.* The Cornell Veterinary building has a great hallway lined with framed displays of all manner of antique syringes, saws and rubber tubes. It's clear that earlier generations of vets worked on animals the way mechanics work on cars. I can't imagine having a job this gruesome, but I can appreciate the lengths that farmers would go to to keep their livelihoods alive.

This is all inspired by Edible Geography, which currently has a pretty fascinating illustration of the evolution of agricultural and food processing machinery. The first attempts at mechanization of common tasks such as threshing seem almost whimsical, though the technological march eventually twists to the macabre as tasks such as butchering and insemination were adapted to the assembly line.

It's amazing how inhuman the quest to emancipate people from drudgery can be!

*Although my urologist friend likes to remind me how much "modern" surgery still relies on elbow grease and the same tools many of us have in our garages
**Want to hear something else awful? A serious fly-fisherman friend of mine once told me that the dramatic hackle feathers prized for fly-tying come from castrated roosters - which supposedly are subjected to bare-handed un-anesthetized surgery by entrepreneurs in Southeast Asian villages...


  1. Sort of off-topic, but I had to laugh at your post script about the roosters. It's not limited to distant third world countries. There are instructions over at on raising capons (castrated roosters). In addition to the more dramatic feathers, they are supposedly more docile, and become heavier with a more tender meat even as they pass slaughter age. Personally, I think DIY internal surgery on a 4 week old chick is probably pushing the bounds of the whole "backyard" poultry trend, but hey, to each his own, I suppose.




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