Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Low-Tech Toys

We don't have to go back very far (or better put we could back thousands of years) to find some pretty high-tech/low-tech solutions to our energy problems. We have this image of people living in caves and scratching in the dirt to eek out an existence, but that image couldn't be further from the truth.

With regard to technology, we're not as advanced as we like to think. A battery-like contraption was found in an achealogical dig of a 2000 year old village in Baghdad. With regard to a knowledge of the natural world and how it works, we are as dim as a candle by comparison. Many ancient cultures had an intimate relationship with the sun and knew how to use it for heating and cooling and lighting, even cooking and preserving food - things we think are so innovative these days. They also knew how to time their plantings with nature so that there was less of a loss, and they knew how to use the resources around them, in their local area, to live a comfortable and sustainable life, having an intimate knowledge of both edible and medicinal plants from which our modern pharmacology is derived, but which even the developers of many of our modern drugs simply don't know or understand.

The ancients also had some pretty cool gadgets ... like the Samovar, which is a metal container used to boil water for making tea. According to the linked wikipedia article, a 1989 archealogical dig found a samovar that's believed to be over three thousand years old.

Modern samovars are usually electric, but traditionally, the water was boiled using coal or charcoal, and since the device was designed to make tea, there was often a resevoir on top to hold the tea. They sound similar to our teapots or perhaps one of those coffee percolators, but they are so very different. The difference is in the design, and the samovar is actually a beautiful, intricately designed piece of functional art.

And that would be where the key difference between our modern society and ancient cultures lies. We like to think that we're more advanced, and if by advanced, we mean that we can be almost completely sedentary while machines do all of the work, then I would agree, but if we mean that we are smarter or more creative, then I would have to staunchly disagree. Ancient socieities were rife with incredibly impressive beauty and art and culture, and feats of engineering that make our modern attempts seem rather sad by comparison. Further, they gave us knowledge of our world that has not been proved false over the centuries. The Roman aqueduct system, for instance, is the model for our modern sewer system. In thousands of years, we haven't found a better way than the Romans developed in the 312 B.C.

We would do well to look to those cultures for two reasons: to figure out why they failed and not repeat those mistakes (and it may be too late for that now); and to understand how they managed to survive ... and "thrive" ... without the massive inputs of energy that we rely on today.

As for me, someone on freecycle has offered a "Russian samovar", and I'm thinking I might ask for it. The only hitch is that it's a European device designed for a different electrical system (220 as opposed to 110), and it has a "funny plug." If I wanted to actually use it, I'd need to get someone who is an electrical engineer to make some changes ;).

I wonder if I know anyone like that ... hmmm ....


  1. Actually, they make 220-110V adapters, so you could use it as-is. If you're not using your dryer circuit, that's 220V.

    One minor quibble: the aqueducts were to bring water in, not take sewage out. The cloacae (literally "sewers" in Latin) were purpose built.

    In White Pickups, Cody tells Kelly as they're about to start their own water project, "they had lots of slaves to build [aqueducts]." Those old societies were built and sustained on slavery. I don't think that's a model we want to emulate. Using machinery should always be our second choice for things we don't want to do ourselves (first choice being, leave it undone).

  2. Unfortunately, I missed getting the Samovar. Too slow. Oh, well.

    Thanks for the clarification on terminology re: the aqueduct vs. cloacae system in ancient Rome. And, no, we do not want to emulate a slave-labor based society, which was what I was trying to say in a previous post about saving our suburbs - that if we're all land owners, then we're on equal footing. As Jeff Vail said in his talk, our suburban culture is the first, true egalitarian society in history.

    Actually, you know, the community they build in your White Pick-ups series is pretty close to what I believe our suburbs can/should become ... well, except for the pick-up trucks ;).

  3. I would recommend Scot Huler's recent book On the Grid. He runs around Raleigh, NC and takes a hands-on looke at how our modern infrasture works. It is not so technical as to loose everyone.

    It also tends to show how almost everything (including sewers, but not storm drains) need electricity.

  4. Thanks for the book recommendation russell1200. It sounds like a great book to check out.

    It is kind of sad and ironic that everything we do is so energy intensive. We actually have a septic tank at my house, but even that requires electricity for pumping the water into the leach field (because we didn't have enough of a grade in our yard to make the system gravity fed).

    Worstcase scenario, though, if we didn't want to try composting our humanure, we could disconnect all of the sinks, the tub, and the shower drains so that no excess water went into the tank, and then, just manually dump our "waste" buckets into the tank. It would take a REALLY long time for the tank to fill up, and my guess is that it wouldn't ever, but rather, without so much water, the "waste" would just turn to dust.

  5. Yup, I remember that post. I think there will be lots of leftovers laying around for building useful things, simply because people during the transition phase will be too busy worrying about food to bother construction materials.

    BTW, we already redirect our kitchen & laundry drains into the back yard. I really want to put a small garden out there, especially since tomato seeds washed down the drain volunteer anyway. I'd like to add the shower drains as well, and that would just leave the toilets.

    I'm surprised you don't have much slope there. Here at the other end of the Appalachians, level ground is something you have to make yourself with a bulldozer. :-P

  6. @ FARf - I remember that you have rerouted your gray water. You've talked about it on your blog before, and I thought it was very clever ;).

    Parts of Maine have a lot of slope, but the lack of slope is really peculiar to our yard, and not necessarily typical of the State or even our area. That said, however, my neighborhood is only about 70 feet above sea level ;). So, I guess, best case, we'd have about 70 feet of grade ;).

  7. I have an Iranian samovar (somewhere in a box, probably the garage) which is non-electric. It's a squat little thing, nothing like the fancy Russian types, designed to sit on a burner which would be left on the lowest setting all day, basically. But there's nothing preventing it from sitting on top of a woodstove all day. This one has a water chamber on the bottom with a little spigot, but also a cradle directly over that chamber which is designed to hold a teapot. In fact, the teapot would be the lid of the chamber. Thus, you can replenish the pot from the chamber, and keep the pot warm above the water at the same time. I'll have to dig it out one of these days when/if we ever get ourselves a little woodstove for space heating.