We fall in love with the new, but not everything old is obsolete

3rd September, 2020

The Boeing 747 took another step towards retirement recently. British Airways, the operator of the largest fleet of passenger 747s, announced that the distinctive aeroplane would not be returning to service after the pandemic. For all the rightful concern about the environmental cost of long-haul travel, the plane will be missed by passengers and pilots alike.

Mark Vanhoenacker, pilot and writer, describes the plane as “370 tonnes of aviation legend”. The first time I rode on the top deck of a 747, my own excitement was more childlike — but still surely justified. Modified 747s carried the Space Shuttle around on their backs, and have served as the official plane for US presidents since the time of George HW Bush. It is an iconic design.

But what is often overlooked is the sheer longevity of the 747. The plane first flew before the 1969 Moon landing, and the British Airways announcement is hardly the end. The travel downturn caused by coronavirus may have accelerated its phasing out but new 747s are still being made as freight hauliers. That may soon stop but today’s planes are likely to still be flying in 2040 — and perhaps the 747 will even fly as an octogenarian in 2050.

We are used to replacing laptops after three or four years, and phones even more frequently. A computer first used in 1969 would be a museum piece now. Yet many technologies last much longer, as another museum piece attests. London’s Science Museum boasts a vast red steam engine that one might assume dated to the industrial revolution. In fact, it was built in the 20th century and powered a Lancashire cotton mill well into the space age.

As David Edgerton argues in his splendid book The Shock of the Old, we persistently conflate the technological frontier with the workhorse technologies we actually use. Long after the cutting edge of warfare seemed to be tanks and aeroplanes, horses remained a military essential. The German Wehrmacht began the second world war with more than 500,000 horses and doubled that number by 1945. Workhorse technologies indeed.

Old technologies remain relevant for several reasons. Sometimes they work as well as anything newer. For their intended purposes, bricks, condoms, forks, paper and shipping containers are all hard to beat. Old tools can long thrive alongside newer tricks.

Even once an approach seems thoroughly obsolete, it can be catapulted back to the technological frontier. Electric cars may be the vehicles of the future, but they are the vehicles of the past, too: the first land speed record, of nearly 40 miles an hour, was set in 1898 in an electric car.

The cutting edge can also be prohibitively expensive. Concorde, a plane of similar vintage to the Boeing 747, was a technological miracle — and a commercial catastrophe. Even inventions that are economically viable for some may not reach everyone. Professor Edgerton notes that cars, planes and television all spread rapidly around the world but not so rapidly from rich to poor. It may take a long time before today’s hot new thing is available to the typical citizen of the planet. Indeed, as with Concorde, that technological trickle-down may never happen.

A technology may also thrive because it offers advantages that the supposedly superior approach does not. A phone call is a lot cheaper and faster than a transatlantic flight. And while I ride a bike most days, that is not because I cannot afford a car: it is because in a city the bike is fun to ride, effortless to park and a much faster way to get around.

It seems that I am not alone. Globally, bicycle production has exceeded car production for decades. Yet thanks to pandemic-induced demand, there is now a worldwide shortage of bikes. If self-driving electric cars catch on, cyclists may flourish further on safer streets. Conscientious robots driving zero-emission vehicles beat erratic humans driving diesel cars.

One reason all this matters is that old technology adds inertia to our economic system. If we want to take action on climate change — and I sometimes despairingly wonder if that is true — then we must recognise how long it takes to change the old way of doing things.

The problem is sometimes described as “carbon lock-in”, as the typical house, or car, or power generator, falls far short of the cleanest, most efficient option. This is not just about clean energy: from vaccines to the internet, it can take too long for everyone to gain access to the benefits of innovation.

But in the scramble to get to what is new, we shouldn’t overlook the value of what is old. Many cities are so perfectly suited to bicycles, buses and trams that it is hard to understand quite why anyone let the cars in to them in the first place. Perhaps we fell so in love with what was new that we forgot to ask whether it was also the best technology we had.

So, as we say a long goodbye to the 747, let’s think hard about what we choose to replace it. No doubt that will partly be newer, fancier airliners. But let’s not forget the long-distance telephone call: 105 years old and still going strong.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 July 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out – and full of under-appreciated (and occasionally archaic) inventions.

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