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Distributed for Reaktion Books


A Compendium of Obsolete Objects

Distributed for Reaktion Books


A Compendium of Obsolete Objects

Blending architecture, design, and technology, a visual tour through futures past via the objects we have replaced, left behind, and forgotten.
So-called extinct objects are those that were imagined but were never in use, or that existed but are now unused—superseded, unfashionable, or simply forgotten. Extinct gathers together an exceptional range of artists, curators, architects, critics, and academics, including Hal Foster, Barry Bergdoll, Deyan Sudjic, Tacita Dean, Emily Orr, Richard Wentworth, and many more. In eighty-five essays, contributors nominate “extinct” objects and address them in a series of short, vivid, sometimes personal accounts, speaking not only of obsolete technologies, but of other ways of thinking, making, and interacting with the world. Extinct is filled with curious, half-remembered objects, each one evoking a future that never came to pass. It is also a visual treat, full of interest and delight.

400 pages | 74 color plates, 46 halftones | 6 3/4 x 8 3/4


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"A fascinating and curious read. It is host to accounts, conclusions, and warnings from the ghosts of deceased inventions and their often-haunting lives that float on beyond the grave. The authors use natural selection and evolution as an analogy to the birth, death, mutation, and rebirth of designed or ideated objects as they cycle through their usefulness and ultimate obsolescence."

"Remember audio cassettes, paper airline tickets, Polaroid cameras and fountain pens? Extinct is a wonderful compendium of objects that are past their prime, but evoke nostalgia not derision. The four editors discuss eighty-five objects and the visions that drove them. The book leaves you wondering which of the objects we use today will be part of a book like this in the near future."

The Hard Copy

"The Clapper, literal snail mail, anti-gravity underwear—there are reasons why all of these objects are extinct. But now, a new book is exhuming them from the trash heap of history. In Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, a team of professors, historians, artists, and curators seeks to understand why various objects became 'obsolete,' and what this tells us about the worlds they existed in. Modern technology now moves at a lightning pace, with endless updates to phones, cameras, and other gadgets. But the book's authors hope to challenge the assumption that things disappear due to 'inadequacy' or 'unsuitedness to their conditions.' From the defunct to the superseded, from the failed to the visionary, there can be many reasons why an invention no longer serves a purpose."

CNN Style

"An innovation that seemed life changing in one era might seem ridiculous or useless—or even deadly—in another. This illustrated cavalcade of inventions highlights the rise (and fall) of such things as the Concorde, arsenic wallpaper, pneumatic tubes, and flying cars."

MIT Technology Review

“A truly fascinating and consistently unexpected account of a forgotten landscape of lost futures. This richly original work chronicles the designed world of the undead and, at the same time, challenges today’s easy consensus of progress and modernization. Entertaining, jolting, and scholarly, it is a superb counterblast to our own age of relentless upgrades and product improvements.”

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Objects have come and gone from our lives throughout history, mostly because something new has been designed to fulfill their functions more efficiently, appealingly, economically, or sustainably. Never before has this happened with such speed or on the same scale as in the digital age. Extinct is both a thoughtful and incisive analysis of the phenomenon and an engaging tribute to some of the intriguing or eccentric objects we have lost in design’s equivalent of natural selection.”

Alice Rawsthorn, author of "Design as an Attitude"

“This is a wonderfully curious book about how the ghosts of extinct inventions live on, not just in our minds but in the world around us. It is strangely addictive to discover how the epitaphs of these technologies form the blueprints of our future.”

Mark Miodownik, author of "Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World"

"Extinct is an intoxicating exploration of a host of objects, systems, and protocols that are no longer in use or never made it. They are design ghosts, actively haunting the present and conjuring up alternative nested futures. Each short story becomes epic. This brilliant book is a survey of the future rather than of the past."

Beatriz Colomina, Howard Crosby Butler Professor of the History of Architecture, Princeton University, and author of "Are We Human?: Notes on an Archaeology of Design"


This book is a collection of objects that once populated the world, but do so no longer. Some of the artefacts and technology it contains were once ubiquitous; others barely made it into existence, not much more than an idea or a prototype. We are interested not simply in why these things—some of them once very familiar—disappeared, but in what their disappearance tells us about the world we have created for ourselves.

The process of the disappearance of objects and technology is sometimes referred to as obsolescence, and sometimes—and this is the description we have chosen to focus on—extinction. Both terms contain certain assumptions about how and why things disappear, while neglecting other, no less pertinent, possibilities. ‘Extinction’ is explicitly a borrowing from theories of natural selection and evolution, and, like all analogies, makes certain things clearer, while obscuring others. The economist Amartya Sen warns, ‘Darwin’s general idea of progress . . . can have the effect of misdirecting our attention, in ways that are crucial in the contemporary world.’

One particular obfuscation that arises when Darwin’s ideas of evolution are applied to artefacts is the assumption that it is only the fittest, the best or the most appropriate objects and technology that survive. In this model, design, like nature, is thought to be an optimization machine always pushing forward – progressing towards perfection. When things disappear, they do so, it is implied, because of their own inadequacy or their unsuitedness to their conditions. Part of the purpose of this book is to probe and question this seeming inevitability.

Its other purpose is to use extinct objects to recall other ways and possibilities of engaging with the world. Why are extinct objects suited for this task? We suggest that, at the moment of their invention, technology and products must all project forward in some way. The act of design and manufacturing is anticipatory; to be conceived of and made, a thing is necessarily imprinted with an idea of future needs, demands or ways of living which it may then help to bring about. As the architectural theorists Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley also observe, ‘Design is a form of projection, to shape something rather than find it, to invent something and think about the possible outcomes of that invention.’ This projected vision of the future may not be heroic or utopian; indeed, it is more often mundane and humble. But the result is that even the most insignificant design’s extinction speaks of a road not taken, a future rerouted or unrealized.

As we will discover through the 85 examples gathered in this book, there are countless practical explanations for and reasons why things become extinct. But in considering their purpose and rationale, we encounter the ghosts of futures that never came to pass, their projections having proved unfounded, short-lived, misguided—or, as in the case of William Gaddis’s account of the player piano, all too prescient of the worst of what was to come. Extinct though they may be, these objects retain the imprint of possible futures, some of which we may be glad to have left behind and others whose relevance is recovered today.

We believe that a study of extinct objects has much to oer here and now. Narratives of technology tend to be innovation-focused and do not pay much attention to cast-offs or dead ends; they emphasize novelty and vision and are infused with a sense of destiny. But this book argues that the history of objects becomes far richer when we also consider the underside of progress: the conflicts, obsolescence, accidents, destruction and failures that are an integral part of modernization. Considering these can open up fresh perspectives on modernization’s modes of operation, which is our particular concern.

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, eight years after the Great Exhibition in London. More than any other single event, the Great Exhibition serves as an index to the material transformations that accompanied industrialization, the shift to factory production and the harnessing of new power sources. Not only did the exhibition showcase the technological advances and goods of the previous two decades (for an example, see Angus Patterson’s entry on Electrotypes), but it also presaged developments to come, most memorably through the Crystal Palace’s own construction, a revolutionary demonstration of the potential of iron, glass and prefabrication.

Many of the contradictions and paradoxes of industrial capitalism were fully on display at the Great Exhibition as well. With its list of international exhibitors, it promoted a liberal ideology of free trade and open markets; yet, with its strong colonial presence, it signalled its dependence on commodities, captive markets and cheap labour. From the start, it was obvious that the fruits of prosperity at the Great Exhibition would never be equally distributed. And, for those who cared to see it, the terrible human and environmental cost of the new methods of manufacture and urbanization were already evident, if not in the Palace itself, then in its immediate environs, the streets of London.

In the light of these contradictions, we begin to understand that evolutionary theory and narratives of progress had a crucial role to play in modernization: they were required to naturalize the impact of capitalism and to ensure its continued spread. This was certainly the view of the cultural historian Lewis Mumford, who, in his monumental Technics and Civilization (1934), argued that the function of evolutionary theory in industrial society was not to explain technical change, but to normalize the inequities produced by capitalism. In the Darwinian model, the enrichment of the bourgeoisie became proof of their strength and their right to exploit the labour of those supposedly weaker than themselves. Observing that the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ was a tautology—‘for survival was taken as the proof of fitness’—Mumford notes sardonically, ‘that did not decrease its usefulness.’

But, for the most part, narratives of progress were able to sweep such concerns aside. Against what Mumford called ‘tooth and claw’ accounts of Victorian social order, a more benign account of capitalism emerged that held—and largely continues to hold—that it lifts up those places where it settles, rippling out to bring jobs and improve basic living conditions for all. In particular, technical innovations and infrastructural improvements are positioned as the mechanism by which capitalism’s benefits are delivered; as they bring about greater ease of movement and more rapid communication, so the theory goes, they help to create a better-informed, more equal and less restive populace.

When set against such advantages, resisting progress can easily be positioned as dangerous and perverse. One of those who believed absolutely that mechanical invention would underwrite the general advance of humankind, the philosophe Denis Diderot, wrote in bewilderment at those who stood in progress’s way: ‘How bizarre is the working of the human mind! . . . The mind distrusts its powers. It stumbles in self-created difficulties.’ Diderot justied his own epic Encyclopédie, which from 1752 onwards compiled hundreds of engravings of manufacturing technology, with the claim that ‘our descendants, by becoming better instructed, may as a consequence be more virtuous and happier.’4 Even though most of the trades and industries that Diderot captured so painstakingly would be transformed or rendered obsolete with the coming of the steam age, the faith in progress that he articulated helped to lay the ground for it.

We find faith in progress everywhere by the mid-nineteenth century. It was a staple of boosterish mass-market publications such as the Illustrated London News, which were firmly pro-development and represented vast metropolitan improvements with unwavering enthusiasm. (Its images, latterly, have helped to fix the idea of the visionary Victorian engineering age in our minds.) When applied to the field of what Diderot called ‘the mechanical arts’—a broad category that included everything from agriculture to iron founding—the emergent idea of extinction, and the corresponding belief in perfectibility, portrayed technological development as a kind of internally propelled, irresistible and positive force.

We see the idea at work in the writing of the influential modernist design historian Sigfried Giedion. In Mechanization Takes Command (1948), one of the few accounts of the industrial arts that approaches the Encyclopédie in its ambition, Giedion discusses the formal and stylistic evolution of everyday designs in implicitly Darwinian terms. In one typical passage, he uses heroic language to describe the washbasin’s struggle to achieve its right form: ‘Like a kernel emerging from its shell, the washbasin through the decades breaks loose from its envelope of furniture.’ Giedion sees abandonment of the Victorian ‘weakness for adornment’ as proper and inevitable given the advance of industrial improvements. ‘Only with the advent of mass-produced enamel and earthenware’, he explains, ‘could natural forms truly pierce through.’

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