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Living In Olden Days January 22, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Recently, a friend was kind enough to share with me an unusual book: the 1924 Ford Model T parts catalog.  This beautiful book includes detailed drawings of most major parts, along with descriptions and pricing for every component of a Model T.

For each part, the catalog includes part numbers and the appropriate model year, as you might expect.  But it also includes an odd item: a “code word.”  What on earth is a code word, and why would you need one for car parts?

It turns out that back in 1924, people would often send their orders to Ford via telegram, a very early precursor to shopping on the web. Given that you paid by the word to send a telegram and that errors could be costly, you could specify your part using its code word instead of its part number and description.

Thus, if you were in need of a crankcase lower cover (part number 3101) you would send the code word “Closure.”  This ensured that you would not wind up with a complete crankcase (part 3100), whose code word was “Closet.”  That’s a big difference, since a crankcase lower cover would run you $0.35 while the whole crankcase would set you back $11.00.

There were also code words for shipping, so that the terse message “Closure Topersteen” would order one crankcase lower cover and ship it to you via standard freight.  If you want to upgrade to express shipping, you’d use “Closure Toperig” instead.

We live in an age of glorious technology, which leads us to believe that previous eras were backwards and hopeless.  In fact, people have always been clever and creative; they simply had different tools at their disposal.  Using those tools, they crafted the best possible technical world, one that seemed glorious and amazing compared to previous times.  Imagine how they lived in the olden days, when they ordered car parts by mail and had to wait three extra days as a result! Code words and telegrams were an amazing improvement.

As we struggle to build, deploy, and exploit all the new technology that comes our way, both personally and professionally, we would do well to remember that we will be seen as living in a hopelessly backward time.  “Imagine,” they will say, “how people lived with such primitive tools.  They must have been miserable!”

Not at all.  We are always living in the best of all possible worlds, in the best of all possible times.  And with luck, determination, and perseverance, we’ll continue to make it better and better.

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