Book Review: Extinct, A Compendium of Obsolete Objects

Book Review: Extinct, A Compendium of Obsolete Objects

Thumbnail image by lil_foot_ from Pixabay

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

Remember audio cassettes, paper airline tickets, fountain pens, telephone tables, slotted screwdrivers, slide rulers, wax mannequins, Polaroid SX-70 cameras, player pianos, paper dresses and sanitary belts? As a pack rat, I still have most of these, and I haven’t really ever thought of them as “extinct” but I have to admit that they are now unused, superseded, replaced, left behind, unfashionable or forgotten.

About “Extinct”

This amazing compendium from Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner and Miranda Critchley gathers together items from architecture, design and technology and takes us on a visual tour of objects that are now “extinct.”  The contributors range from artists, curators, architects, critics and academics, and they examine how these artifacts changed our way of thinking and interacting with the world but fostered further improvements and the newer products that took their places. 

Image from Amazon

These “deceased inventions” are now floating on beyond the grave but the authors use their evolution as an analogy to the birth, death, mutation and rebirth of objects that once were so useful and necessary but are now obsolete and extinct. 

Readers will no doubt become nostalgic but then wonder what objects we use today that will suffer the same fate and become the subjects of a similar book in the future.  Because we’re obsessed with relentless upgrades and product improvements, we know a multitude of objects in today’s world will meet the same fate. Never before have all these upgrades and new models evolved with such speed and on such a grand scale as in our digital age, particularly as we want functions to be faster, more appealing, more economical, more efficient, more attractive and certainly more sustainable or ecological. 

But in this book, the four editors analyze and pay tribute to some of the most profound, intriguing and eccentric objects we’ve lost.  Thanks to this book, their ghosts live on, and we honor the many that were prototypes for improved functions in use today.  Princeton University Professor Beatriza Colomina who teaches the history of architecture says, “This brilliant book is a survey of the future rather than of the past.” 

And the four editors have made their selections wisely.  Barbara Penner and Adrian Forty are professors at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London, as is Miranda Critchley who’s completing her PhD there on the colonial narrative of progress.  And Olivia Horsfall Turner is a historian of architecture and design at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  But what is most shocking to me is that these now “extinct” and obsolete items were part of my life not really that long ago. 

My dad regularly used ashtrays, and I purchased Kodak’s flashcubes to take photos with in junior high school.  My husband’s co-worker flew on the elite Concorde supersonic jetliner from New York to London in a little under three hours in 1979. And whenever I see the Concorde now on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar Hazy Museum next to Dulles Airport in Washington, DC, I ask myself what went wrong, but thanks to this book, I now know and just to share one of the most fascinating examples from this book, let me retell the story of the Concorde’s demise. 

The plane’s capacity was 100 people, the aircraft gulped jet fuel at a rate of one ton per seat, and the average round-trip ticket price was $1,500 in the first year and $12,000 on the last flight. It flew 1,354 mpg, twice the speed of sound and faster than a rifle bullet at 60,000 feet elevation, much higher than the usual 38,000 feet so there was no weather or turbulence and the earth’s curvature was visible from one’s window.  Its sonic boom when it broke the sound barrier was intensely loud even from the ground and caused environmental and cultural disturbances. 

But on board, there was even a special closet to store the mink and sable coats that passengers wore on the plane and the stewardesses couldn’t help but secretly try them on.  Flight attendant Sally Armstrong, author of ‘Vintage Champagne on the Edge of Space,” wrote, “If a really beautiful coat came through, we occasionally slipped it on before placing it on the hanger. It was getting in touch with how the super-rich lived.  If money had a smell, you could smell it on the Concorde.” 

Image from Wikipedia

Jet setters like Princess Diana, Steven Spielberg, Henry Kissinger, Sting, model Christie Brinkley, Henry Kravis, Calvin Klein, Andy Warhol, George Soros, Joan Rivers, Dolly Parton and Mick Jagger ate lobster on board during a seven-course meal and drank Dom Perignon to brag that they drank better on the Concorde than they did on the ground.  One said, “It was like a flying board room where everyone was happy.”  The mile high club became the 11-mile high club.  Michael Jackson signed autographs and Whitney Houston’s father handed out free tickets to her shows. 

Passengers had expedited check-ins and private lounges with champagne and secretarial services and designer furniture with Eames lounge chairs.  Passengers were addressed by name and escorted to their seats, the most coveted being A-1 and D-1 which were farthest from the plane’s engines and nearest to exit doors for boarding and exiting first.  That’s where royalty sat.  Cuban cigars and Iranian caviar were distributed and gifts of Waterford crystal paperweights, leather-bound flasks and Smythson stationery were given as souvenirs.

Only the best French wines were served in dozens of bottles per flight as the passengers “liked to sample them.”  The chef had a budget of $90 per person for menus of steak, truffles, grouse and peaches in champagne, not easy to serve on short flights and at supersonic speed, but lower oxygen and humidity in the plane changed the way people smelled and tasted but with thin air, stewardesses could balance trays holding 15 glasses as there was no turbulence. 

And it all started back in 1947 when future astronaut Chuck Yeager flew an experimental plane that broke the speed of sound and the French and British government gave it commercial application, but it took 14 years for the project to become certified for air worthiness and in 1976, 14 were complete with the most powerful pure jet engines ever used in commercial aviation at a cost of $50 million each. 

So what happened?  Two disasters: in 2000, during take-off, the Air France Concorde’s tire struck a piece of metal debris and caused a wing full of fuel to explode as the plane was bound for JFK. It burst into flame and all 100 passengers and 9 crew members died, and 4 people on the ground were killed. Afterwards, the tanks were lined with Kevlar to make them “bulletproof.” 

But then in 2003, Airbus, the manufacturer of Concorde replacement parts, said operations became unprofitable unless it raised prices, and since the World Trade Center in NYC housed some of the Concorde’s best customers, that would eventually disappear in 2011. Wide-bodied jets and private jet aircraft forced the slim supersonic out of the market.  Only 20 had ever been built and no more were planned. Today, they are all in museums. 

Photographer Christopher Makos compared the Concorde’s demise to the close of New York City’s Studio 54 and the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and said, “It was one more element from the world of chic exclusivity coming to an end.”  That one crash, 9/11, exorbitant maintenance costs, and budget travel changed the Concorde’s flight path and burning tons of jet fuel for the travel of the rich and famous ended, especially since now the elite among us have their own planes while the rest of us sit at crowded airports waiting for cancelled flights and looking for lost luggage. 

If you enjoyed that one example from “Extinct,” there are 84 more curious, wondrous, half-remembered objects profiled, each one foretelling a future that never materialized but that portends other, more exciting artifacts that lie ahead for us and our descendants to explore.