The Long Lost Burnisher: Do Tools Ever Disappear From Use?

by Paddy Johnson on February 2, 2011 · 13 comments Opinion

The stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral

“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly told NPR yesterday. “I can’t find any [invention, tool, technology] that has disappeared completely from Earth.” It’s a topic Metafilter has taken up in earnest.

Does this mean we should stop worrying about the end of Polaroid film? Finally, the debate over the death of painting can be put to rest! It will never die.

On the other hand, I’d guess that a fair bit of the technology involved in stained glass at its height no longer exists, which is a shame. It’s the type of field where professionals would necessarily be cagey about their pigment recipes — scarcity is their livelihood — and since few people wrote, very little was preserved. I’ve been told that even today there are pigments produced during that time that we can’t reproduce. An analogous example from the music world are the violins of Antonio Stradivarius. What exactly did he put in his varnishes that produced a sound quality that has “defied attempts to explain or reproduce”?

Kelly’s hypothesis might work if we assume that technique and recipes are something that can be lost, but I still wonder if there aren’t tools that have been forgotten from medieval Europe. We know very little about this period because there are so few historical records, which makes me think seems there are at least a few technological advances made during that time that have vanished.


Naturally, the question of whether artistic styles ever disappear came to mind last night while discussing the topic with a friend. This seems like another good question for the art historians in the bunch — my own job description only requires that I track movements currently in practice. For what it’s worth though, I wouldn’t mind if Viennese Actionism eventually bit the dust. It may be closed-minded of me to condone the end of any movement, but I just don’t have the stomach to watch self-mutilation.


Jean February 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Would we know about technology that has been lost for maybe a few centuries? How would we know it ever existed, if we don’t know about it now?

Will Brand February 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm

On the subject of dead art movements, how about Pattern and Decoration? Holland Cotter might be the only person who still cares about them (see , where he calls them “the last genuine art movement of the 20th century”). I mean, doing a bit of research on them just now brought me to the only artnet results I’ve ever seen in the double-digits. They might not be completely irrelevant – I’m willing to listen to the argument that they’re important to Richard Wright, for instance – but you’d have to go a long way.

Saul Chernick February 2, 2011 at 7:39 pm

I would have to concede that no style ever becomes entirely extinct either. They may go out of vogue or lose their utility yet people will always keep exploring and re-exploring them. Prior to offest lithography which enabled the reproduction of photos in newspapers, American newspapers were illustrated with wood engravings. Wood engravings are done with finer tools than typical woodcut scoops. They are carved into the end grain of a slab of wood (end grain is cut at right angles to the grain, for example trimming the end of a plank). Artists can still buy the tools and end grain planks, which means there are enough people out there doing this for companies to bother vending the products. Yet can you name a single artist making wood engravings–not woodcuts–wood engravings? There are programs floating arond the web that allow you to upload images to make your own Magic Eye 3-D posters. They really work Ive tried it. Who’s to say we won’t see a selction of ironic hipster subject matter given the Magic Eye jizz-job treatment hagging in an LES or Chelsea gallery?

Butt February 3, 2011 at 5:24 am

like the magic eye poster idea saul – would be fun to try hand making some and see if we can get them to work

Jason DuMars February 2, 2011 at 9:41 pm

I practice the insanely arcane art of brass musical instrument engraving by hand: My tools are essentially the same as they were back in the 15th century.

kj February 3, 2011 at 2:17 am

holy shit, those are beautiful.

Sven February 3, 2011 at 12:30 am

lol@viennese actionism biting the dust. I applaud the sentiment though i always get a few laughs whenever i see it in person.

tom moody February 3, 2011 at 5:56 am

Wired should read its own writers. Here is Bruce Sterling’s speech on the Dead Media Project:

It’s where I learned about the Incan quipu (“a dead medium which was once the nervous system of a major civilization”).

Matt Roberts February 3, 2011 at 7:38 am

Doubtless there are things, objects, tools, that have been lost. Think of the egyptians and the unknown ways that they built there colossal structures, or even of easter island. How were these things constructed? There is lots that can be speculated of course, but without definitive tools, maps, or diagrams there is no way of knowing. There is too much human busyness and innovation for specific tools, objects, and whole histories not to have been lost over the centuries.

Martin February 4, 2011 at 8:17 pm

i took a 4-day japanese paper making workshop in gifu japan a number of years ago… we did everything from picking, washing, boiling, grinding the plant to drying the final paper in the sun. i remember being told that although there was a dwindling number of people who knew how to do all this well the real problem is that the special bamboo screens used to make the sheets were all coming from like one or two craftsmen.

here is a picture –

and our washi teacher was also a noh master and gave a nighttime fireside performance it was fanatastic –

Ben Braithwaite February 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm

On the 18th of January 2011, the last Kodachrome film was processed.

Sitearm February 9, 2011 at 3:56 am

Re painting technology, I was reminded once how critical the invention of paint-in-a-tube was for enabling outdoor landscape painting. Re art technology limits, I was reminded once (by the same person no less) that art exploits both what’s possible, and what’s not possible, with the tools at hands. I love these insights.

Re no technology is ever lost, I dunno, but I am fascinated by several archeologists’ enthusiasm for rediscovering and mastering the art of flint knapping to make stone-age tools.

Anonymous June 1, 2011 at 8:02 am

Chartres Cathedral is a perfect masterpiece of Gothic architecture. The prominent feature of the Chartres Cathedral is the use of stained windows which are intact till today. There are more than 170 such windows which make interior of the cathedral rich and colorful.

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