10 Old Technologies That Might Make a Comeback


The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” When it comes to technologies from the past believed dead and gone, Ecclesiastes may well be correct. Ships may again cruise the world’s waterways powered by the winds, supplemented by the rays of the sun. Though the use of coal is steadily waning, other sources of power may provide the heat to create steam, allowing trains and other vehicles to again rely on steam as their power source.

The recently revived pleasures of home baking and cooking have already led to an increase in the preservation of foods at home. America’s railroads are in the planning stages for a return to convenient and rapid intercity travel, delivering passengers to city centers, rather than distant airports in the suburbs. From the prevalence of smartphones and other devices one may believe cameras are passe. Yet even the humble Polaroid camera may be poised for a comeback. Here are 10 forgotten technologies which may, and in some cases already have, come back to common use.

10. Sail powered ships

Perhaps no other mode of transportation ever devised by humanity is less damaging to the environment than the sailing ship. The world’s trade routes still follow the winds and currents originally charted by mariners who literally received free power for the entirety of their journey. Of course, ships could not exceed the speed of the wind driving them. Frequently indirect routes between destinations were required to take advantage of the prevailing winds, and to avoid adverse winds. Yet ships released no greenhouse gases, other than those emitted by humans and livestock, while maintaining more or less reliable service for centuries. And now they may again. Experimental vessels powered by wind and solar panels are already being evaluated at sea.

Sails shaped similarly to an airplane’s wing are in development, which when angled vertically to the wind produce what aviators call “lift”. Rather than lifting the ship into the air, the force propels the vessel forward. Covering one side of the sail with solar panels allows for the vessel to charge batteries, which provide power for the ship’s electrical systems, controls, and lighting. Another version of wind powered ships, using a device resembling a giant kite called a sky sail, allows the ship to be pulled along by the wind when the sail is deployed before it. And yet another relies on sails bent to masts and spars. The design allows wind power to provide up to 60% of that needed, reducing the use of the engines whatever their fuel source may be.

9. Steam-powered locomotives

Steam powered the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nowhere was it more visually evident than on the world’s railroads. Steam-powered locomotives, some burning coal and some wood, hauled passengers and freight across plains and deserts, through cities and towns, through mountains and across rivers. Water towers dotted landscapes everywhere, allowing locomotives to replenish their water during their journeys. Gradually, in the 20th century, diesel-electric locomotives began to replace their mighty steam-powered predecessors. Electrified railways eliminated the need for steam engines in more urbanized areas. By the mid-1950s steam-powered commercial trains were all but gone, an image of a bygone era.

While not a steam locomotive in the purest sense, since its power comes from hydrogen cells, a British-French consortium is working on a design which returns steam to rails. Hydrogen powered trains entered service in Germany in 2018, transporting passengers. Other nations are experimenting with hydrogen powered trains, planning to use them in areas where electrification of the railway isn’t feasible. The advantage of the hydrogen-powered locomotive is that it provides adequate power to operate safely and reliably, competing with diesel-electric powered trains. It does so without releasing greenhouse gases or hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Instead, hydrogen cells release water, in the form of steam in their locomotive configuration.

8. Steam-powered automobiles

In the earliest days of the automobile steam cars were popular, in part because so many craftsmen and operators had experience with steam engines. Ransom E. Olds, builder of the famed REO Speedwagon and the founder of Oldsmobile, built early steam cars. Perhaps the most famous steam-powered car was built by the Stanley Brothers, known as the Stanley Steamer. Steamers competed in races with conventionally powered cars, often successfully. But they were inconvenient in many ways, including some of them requiring long start-up periods. The need to build-up steam pressure in the boiler made them ill-advised for use at short notice. Henry Ford’s Model T sounded their death knell, as it did for many other competing automakers. The last commercially marketed American steam car left production in 1930.

Yet steam seems poised for a comeback as automobile manufacturers seek alternatives to the internal combustion engine as their preferred power source. Companies including Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, and smaller research firms have developed steam engines which eliminate the eccentricities of their ancestors. Advances in steam technology take advantage of modern materials to provide better steam condensers, boilers, and throttle control systems. Though as of this writing no serious efforts are underway to produce a modern steam-powered automobile by any major car manufacturer, research into steam powered automobiles continues. As recently as 2009, a British team developed a steam-powered car which attained a speed of 148 miles per hour, a record for a steam engine car.

7. Vinyl records and turntables

Before streaming, before MP3s, and before CDs, people took their music home in the form of vinyl long-playing records called LPs. Musicians recorded them as albums, and in radio in the 1970s a new genre emerged known as album rock. Listening to albums became a ritual, which included cleaning the record before putting the stylus on the tone arm onto the groove in the record. Kits which included the means of cleaning records and styli sat besides turntables, part of the audiophile’s sound system. When compact discs appeared, their convenience and size contributed much to their immediate popularity. Listener’s reported amazement at their clarity of sound, though they weren’t aware that many of the classic analog LPs converted to digital were remastered as part of the process. LP sales plummeted as digital recordings dominated the industry.

A dissident minority disagreed, citing the warmer sound delivered by vinyl LPs through a good turntable. After sales of both dropped for more than two decades a comeback began, which continues to gain momentum. In 2006 sales of turntables and LPs reached their nadir. They have increased every year since, including by over 46% between 2019 and 2020. In the latter year LPs reflected 27% of album sales, indicating they are far from the extinction predicted in the 1990s. While streaming still dominates the manner in which music is obtained by consumers, vinyl records and turntables may well return to the point that they are the preferred source for musical entertainment at home.

6. Convenient intercity rail travel

During the 1950s and ’60s the one-two punch of jet travel and the Interstate Highway System dealt staggering blows to the passenger rail industry. While Europe responded by modernizing its railways, America’s deteriorated rapidly. The names of the great American railroads; the New York Central, the Baltimore and Ohio, Chesapeake and Ohio, Burlington, and many others vanished, their remnants merged into the government-owned private corporation known as Amtrak. Still, ridership dwindled, long-established routes were eliminated, and many smaller American cities lost passenger rail service entirely. Yet there are encouraging signs that convenient passenger rail in the United States is making a comeback, with considerable support from the general public.

In the crowded Eastern Corridor between Washington DC and Boston, Amtrak service continues to expand. That expansion is extending to routes in the Midwest and South, with additional trains to cities already served, and new routes to cities where no service currently exists. Modern, environmentally friendly locomotives and cars are likely to increase ridership to mid-size cities, with more convenient schedules for business travelers under development. Passenger demand continues to increase for expanded intercity-rail, driven in part by the automobile gridlock surrounding American cities on a routine basis. Louisville, Kentucky, Las Vegas, Nevada, Columbus, Ohio, Nashville, Tennessee, and Colorado Springs, Colorado are just a few on the long list of American cities with no passenger rail service at all, as of this writing. All formerly had service, and all are likely to see it return.

5. Road maps

Once upon a time any extended journey by automobile required consultation of road maps as part of the planning process. Many such maps were provided free by gasoline stations. The maps conveniently included notations where the company’s stations could be found. Global Positioning Systems rendered them obsolete to many people, some of whom have likely never seen one. After all, where is the use of a printed map when one’s telephone can announce where to turn, how far to drive in a given direction, and which side of the street on which one’s destination is located? Nonetheless, printed road maps and their companion, the travel guide, may well make a comeback in the near future. Why? Because of the once quaint marketing technique of informing the customer where they may find company brand gasoline stations.

With more and more electric vehicles coming off the assembly lines in the future, trip planning may again become more than simply deciding what to pack. Distance per charge rates on different electric vehicles vary widely, as do the times required to fully charge the battery. Motorists will need to know in advance of setting out where to find charging stations and other amenities to enjoy while their vehicle regains its full charge. Of course, they will also need to know in advance how far they can travel between charges. While finding the information online will be possible, spreading out a road map on a table while planning one’s journey could easily be more convenient. Especially if charging stations are noted on the map.

4. Home canning jars

Recent events have generated several changes in how people obtain and consume their food, many of which are likely here to stay. Some of these are supermarkets delivering both general purchases and the pre-measured ingredients for meals; the delivery of meal kits via outside shipping companies, and many others. Interest in cooking at home, using fresh ingredients, has created a major industry. Interest in and purchases of cooking equipment of all types, including food processors, juicers, convection ovens, pressure cookers, air fryers, and others continues to grow. People with the time, space, and inclination have also returned to growing their own vegetables and fruits, in urban garden spaces, on rooftops, and in suburban gardens.

The likely results will include the return, on a large scale, of interest in home food preservation, including the humble canning jar. Home canning waned for decades, after reaching its peak as a result of the Victory Gardens of the Second World War. During the post-war era, the flight to the suburbs and the convenience of neighborhood supermarkets, with year-round fresh produce of all sorts, helped hasten its near demise. Eat local, farm-to-table, and grow your own initiatives of recent years has helped bring it back. During the summer and fall of 2020 purchases of both canning jars and their non-reusable lids led to shortages of both in stores. While that trend eased more recently, sales of canning jars and associated canning products are likely to remain high, as interest in personal preparation of foods continues in the future.

3. Polaroid cameras

In 1948 Edwin Land marketed the first instant camera of his own invention, which he called the Polaroid Model 95 Instant Camera. By 1956 sales of his cameras surpassed one million units. The idea of viewing one’s photographs instantly (well, almost instantly), drove sales of several different models of Polaroids in the mid-1960s. One model, called the Swinger, was marketed towards the young, selling for less than $20. Other companies produce instant cameras of their own. By the 1990s the boom was over. Cell phones with cameras supplanted the Polaroid, though if one wanted a copy of a photograph printed the process was far from instant. In the early 21st century printers were introduced which allowed pictures from one’s phone to be printed on the spot, though the cost remained high. It seemed the Polaroid was destined for shelves as an antique curiosity.

Through improved instant film technology and other advances, the Polaroid Camera has returned, though in name only, and instant production of photographs on film is likely to remain popular in the foreseeable future. For a generation born and raised in the digital age, instant film cameras are a new technology, something they had never seen before. Combining the desirable features of the digital age with the “retro” ability to produce an immediate print, the cameras appeal to both the tech-minded and those desirous of instant gratification. Numerous manufacturers currently produce instant cameras, and more are joining the bandwagon.

2. Automobile manual transmissions

In 2020 electric vehicles outsold those equipped with manual transmissions. Sales of cars fitted with three pedals, accelerator, brake, and clutch, have declined for over two decades. In 2021 just 27 models are available with a manual transmission. They range from the Aston-Martin Vantage, priced considerably higher than the average buyer’s budget, to the Hyundai Accent, which includes a manual transmission as standard equipment. Automotive enthusiasts and journalists have predicted the demise of the manual transmission for years. However, as long as the internal combustion engine remains in use as the power source for cars, enthusiasts will create a demand for the driver shifting gears as the car covers the road.

Manual transmissions are less fuel efficient, often less friendly to the environment, and require a greater level of concentration from the driver. It is difficult to shift, steer, and text simultaneously, one reason for their declining popularity. And they can often lead to costly repairs due to driver error when downshifting, one reason Ferrari no longer offers them on any of their models. But for automotive purists they are more than just fun, they are an essential part of driving. Unless they are mandated out of existence, they will remain in demand among driving enthusiasts as long as they are coupled to an internal combustion engine.

1. Roman concrete

One reason so much of the Roman Empire remains visible and visitable more than two millennia after being built is the quality of the concrete used by the Romans. Its superiority to modern concrete is readily apparent. Concrete in modern roads and sidewalks cannot resist the salt used in Northern climes to melt ice in the winter months, and they often crumble and crack after just a few years of use. The Roman amphitheater at Pompeii, built of stone and concrete, was the oldest in the Empire (over 150 years old) when it was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius. It has since survived earthquakes and floods, and has hosted concerts in the 20th century by the likes of Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, and King Crimson. Underwater constructions in the ruins of Carthage, using Roman concrete, have resisted the corrosive action of seawater for more than 2,000 years. Clearly Roman concrete is superior to its modern counterpart.

Roman concrete is also cheaper to manufacture since it uses less cement, and has a smaller carbon footprint because it uses volcanic ash, rather than coal fly ash, its modern replacement. Industries around the world have been studying the use of Roman concrete for years, and its durability and longevity makes its return to widespread use a virtual certainty. Modern concrete, using the industry standard Portland Cement mixture, has a life of about 20 years outdoors. Roman concrete has endured for more than 2,000 years, including in the Parthenon of Rome, the oldest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world. Roman concrete is cheaper to produce, less damaging to the environment, more durable, and stronger underwater. It represents an ancient technology of immediate use to societies addressing issues with their infrastructures in the 21st century.

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