Maintenance, a theory
Of Teasmades and aqueducts
One of my favourite novels growing up was Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. One of my favourite parts is a portion near the beginning where Hari Seldon predicts the downfall of Trantor, the most powerful and richest city in the galaxy, center of the most powerful empire that ever existed.
And part of the evidence for him doing so involved the breakdown in order. Of fragility in supply chains from ends of the galaxy. Of maintenance issues within the infrastructure of the city, like power generation and usage. Of the blockers to immigration and inability to keep the wonders of the world running.
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We seem to be in a similar spot.
Maintenance of things has always been a problem. Because you have to pay people to just make sure things don't break, a pretty hard job considering the skillsets needed.
In the early centuries of the first millennium, Rome faced a decline due to continuous attacks from various invading tribes such as the Visigoths, Barbarians, Vandals, and Goths. To protect the city, strong walls and trenches were constructed and some of the ornate structures, such as the Colosseum, Baths of Caracalla, and Circus Maximus, were dismantled to provide bricks.
However, this resulted in the malfunction of the city's water supply system, which was supplied through seven aquifers and long aqueducts. Additionally, piracy made it difficult to transport raw materials from distant farms, causing the mills to stop functioning. Besides buildings, precious artefacts, works of art, and sculptures were also looted from the city.
The Pax Romana, a time of peace and stability in the Roman Empire, came to an end and with it, the fragile connections within the empire were also broken.
The enormous weight of the Empire, with its 20 billion sesterces GDP and the administrative heft, to help ensure clean water, building maintenance, shipping routes, mills for grains, these all required huge ongoing efforts to maintain. And without the ability to maintain them on an ongoing basis, that entire world disintegrated.
Or in 19th century Britain, there was a big social problem. The middle-class homes who used to rely on servants to make them tea were seeing servants became unaffordable. Which meant that they needed to find another way to get their morning tea.
Not having tea made for them was, of course, impossible. And thus was invented, the wonderfully named Teasmade.
When the kettle boiled, it would tilt forward and pour into a waiting cup
For the next fifty years it ruled, and caused a huge number of burns. Because the way it worked was that it had a pilot light, struck with a match, which lit the spirit beneath the kettle.
It was then made even more accessible, and less dangerous, through the magic of electricity, which was new and exciting by the 1920s and 30s and meant you didn’t need to sleep next to an open flame. And a few decades before the Teasmade was the motorised vacuum cleaner, giant machines driven by horses that would put huge sucking machines into the windows of homes and just suck up all the dust. And we also got the electric toaster, for good measure.
Did this save much labour, since the servants were gone? Not particularly, since you still needed to make the tea, just the night before. And you needed to clean the contraption. And make sure you didn’t burn something sleeping next to it.
So what was the major benefit, if its not just the cumulative small benefits in the actual usage. I wonder if its not actually in reducing the maintenance afterwards.
For much of history if you wanted to fix anything you created, you needed craftsmen with equal knowhow to be able to undo and skilfully manipulate that which was created. The ancient roman concrete structures were made of lime and volcanic ash, requiring far more maintenance than modern concrete, but the very knowledge was lost over the years. Any of you who have had a modern car break down will understand the difficulty of trading off maintainability against immediate utility.
And then, in the 18th century, interchangeable parts were introduced to simplify the production and repair of firearms, leading to many of the things we know now, from mass production to assembly lines. Then in the 19th century we standardised railway gauges to enable interoperability. We even standardised timezones so we could all talk to each other easily about what “when” meant.
In each of these areas the benefits extended from the fact that you had (eventually) lower costs and higher volume, but also that in the short term you could easily understand, repair and replace parts without needing as much craftsmanship!
Standardisation makes building things on top of it easier. Standing on shoulders of giants is easier when the shoulders are level. And it removes edge cases. In white collar professions for instance that is also the problem which creates so much resentment, because things that require individual thought and judgement were standardised such that actual humans got turned into cogs.
Maintenance is hard, but essential, which is why standardisation is the answer. Until then the Teasmades we make are neat, but how we’re actually making them feels the bigger innovation.
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