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Extinct: the things that become obsolete before we do

As most of us alive today are destined to live longer than ever before thanks to advances in medical science, one of the unforeseen consequences of such longevity is that many of the familiar manufactured things around us are likely to disappear before we do. In other words, objects and artefacts that have formed the backdrop of our lives become extinct before their users have themselves expired.

I’m reminded of this under-examined dimension of ageing on reading a new anthology of essays by design historians, Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects. Its cover is adorned by a colourful drawing of a cassette tape – an essential and evocative item of my youth – and its contents present erudite obituaries for a dazzling array of artefacts no longer with us.  These range from the ashtray and the all-plastic house to the telephone table, minidisc and slide rule.

Why do objects tend to become obsolete before we do? Changes in technology, social attitudes and material science are clearly part of the story – paper dress or paper aeroplane ticket, anyone? Some innovations may be perceived to be too ahead of their time, such as the Concorde supersonic jet, which made its maiden flight in 1969 but was lost to our skies in 2003, or the Hummingbird electric taxi of 1897 (the humming was the battery), or Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House of 1927, which conjured up a false dawn of prefabricated housing.  

The editors of the Extinct compendium say they are interested not just in why familiar things have disappeared but ‘in what their disappearance tells us about the world we have created for ourselves’. This is the true mission of design history as an academic discipline. Even so, one can’t help wondering if obsolescence is inevitable for some objects while survival is guaranteed for others. What exactly happened to the Kodak Flashcube or the flying boat? Why was the warm glow of the incandescent light bulb superseded by the cool progress of the LED lamp?

In the interests of transparency, I must share that I was one of the design writers invited to contribute. I chose the Zeppelin, which I can hardly claim has been a feature of my own life, even if my parents might have conceivably seen one floating gracefully across the sky. I did, however, once interview Victor Papanek, the designer, social activist and environment campaigner, who told me that his first childhood memory was travelling from Vienna to Berlin on a Zeppelin with his father and cycling the entire length of the structure on a tricycle.

The Zeppelin was a short-lived innovation. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s pioneering rigid framed airship, the LZ-1, made its maiden flight in 1900; less than 40 years later, this spectacular, slow and silent mode of transatlantic travel became obsolete literally overnight, when the German airship Hindenburg abruptly fell from the sky in an explosion of smoke and fire over Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6 May 1937.

That’s really why I chose the Zeppelin – for its unusual and controversial ‘big bang’ extinction event. Most objects slip slowly and almost imperceptibly from view over a long period of time, their obsolescence a gentle and rueful process. Our emotional attachment to them is often more important than their functional value to us. As we age, they act as a kind of memento mori for what will become of us all. 

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson is Professor Emeritus in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, edited by Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner and Miranda Critchley, is published by Reaktion Books.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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