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A staple of both fantasy and science fiction literature is the long-vanished Ancients, who left nothing but their buildings (or devices) behind. Somehow, these (usually) decrepit structures still work to some extent when discovered and activated by the protagonists. Doors open when their mechanisms are triggered, power sources still have a bit of juice, sometimes mechanical and/or triggered guardians are still active, and so on. Rarely is it in perfect working order, but there's usually still some functionality left.

On the flip side, our modern technology is so fragile that very little of is expected to last a lifetime, let alone hundreds or thousands of years un-cared-for...

How can these two be reconciled? What practical features would a device or building need in order to survive a long period of disuse and still be able to function?

I'm primarily interested in complex machinery, rather than computers and other electronics, but since so many of our machines are "smart" these days, I don't know if they can be separated.

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    $\begingroup$ How much of not expected to last a lifetime is a matter of the device breaking down or wearing out, and how much is due to technical/cultural/fashion obsolescence? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 26 '14 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - There is that, which is part of why I'm looking for mechanical rather than electronic answers. But even things as simple as the auto-open doors at a supermarket (or other store) aren't expected to last forever without regular maintenance. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Dec 26 '14 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ Remember, that if we wanted, we could produce devices which would last much longer than commercial ones do today, but it would be so expensive that nobody would buy it. While probably not for tens of thousands of years without maintenance, but still significantly longer than the devices you can buy right now. In our society we only produce tings if there is a demand for it. $\endgroup$ – vsz Dec 26 '14 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz: A good example of that is the Long Now Clock (longnow.org/clock), designed to run for 10,000 years without maintenance. Perhaps the Hoover Dam won't be the last distinguishable human artifact on Earth after all? $\endgroup$ – user243 Dec 26 '14 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ Also worth bearing in mind that much of what you own is something you want to replace within "a few" years anyway as technology advances, as styles change, as your personal style changes, as your family grows (or shrinks), etc. I do not want to pay the overhead for a 5,000 year mattress when I'm not even married and don't have the space to store my Twin bed until I have kids! $\endgroup$ – Smithers Dec 26 '14 at 20:02

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Two important points need to be made about the sort of technology usually being left behind in these settings. The first is the type of technology: for the most part, this is stuff that was important before it was abandoned, like space ships or military defense systems, and thus is built to a higher standard than a computer or cell phone. The second is the level of technology: these devices are usually built by civilizations with far greater technical development than we currently have, meaning that they would have more options for constructing lasting devices, especially if they knew there was a potential for them needing to be used thousands of years later.

Military systems are already much more resilient and long-lasting than common, general-purpose technology. For example, the Atlantis space shuttle was used from 1985 to 2011, which is substantially longer than most people consider car life to extend. Many command and control systems for nuclear missiles have been in operation for long periods, one specific example of which is Dead Hand, which may or may not still be in use. Further, it’s no secret the technology used by the military is generally outdated, but reliable.

That leads into the other point, that a civilization with greater technology can accomplish more. It depends specifically on the setting how much that applies, but being able to FTL travel is definitely a huge advance over our current state of technology, and would certainly carry with it technological advances we lack, like control over gravity and reliable fusion power. At the extreme, a group like Mass Effect’s Protheans would presumably be advanced enough that even their tried-and-true technology would be enough to get what needed to be done done.

There are some technologies we have now that are more likely to survive long periods of time, and ways that others can have their life extended. Standard chemical batteries tend to not last long due to the corrosive nature of the acids within them, but lithium ion batteries and capacitors can last effectively forever. While capacitors are prone to losing charge over long periods of time, if extended life were a goal, they could be housed and insulated in such a way that they could likely hold enough power to get a ship started. Either of these could serve now as a means to power something long after it was abandoned. Some sources of power could even be run without much involvement, and often in science fiction fusion is posed as one of these. How likely it is for a fusion reactor to be able to run constantly for thousands of years I cannot say; it is doubtful, but it is occasionally given as the reason for the extended life of the technology.

For the general components of a ship, it’s more complicated. The inside could be sealed, considering a space-going vessel needs to be completely air-tight, meaning that moisture could be totally removed. That would go a long way towards keeping things working for long periods of time. On the other hand, anything on the outside, like engines, would be a much bigger issue. Indeed, I’m not convinced that without extremely large technological advances, an engine on the outside of a ship, no matter the type of engine, would still work after more than 30 years. That would be even less for hostile environments. This would be less an issue if the ship/station were in space, where there would be little to harm the outside of the ship.

To summarize, it has a lot to do with having more advanced technology and higher standards for its construction. I’m not entirely convinced by some of the portrayals in media, but it could be done to some degree given the level of technology common in science fiction, and more would naturally be possible with the extremes of technology sometimes shown. To summarize what I think would help make something last: reliable power source capable of running startup (LiIon/capacitors); air-tight hull and dry interior; being able to retract external parts of the ship like engines inside, where they could be protected by the hull itself. Of course, nothing is ever a guarantee, but it isn't too far off to assume that the people building this technology would know how to keep it running if they chose to, much like we do with our level of technology.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not too sure about your claims of Li-ion lifetime. Current Li-ion cells have significant self-discharge, enough that they're pretty much guaranteed dead after ten years (probably far less, I see quoted self-discharge rates of at least 1% per month). Even more: once a Li-ion cell has discharged below a minimum safe level, they are considered permanently damaged and unsafe to recharge. It's possible that future battery tech will resolve these issues, but modern Li-ion certainly does not. $\endgroup$ – Bob Dec 26 '14 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ Re "...the Atlantis space shuttle was used from 1985 to 2011, which is substantially longer than most people consider car life to extend" - but that "most people" is a measure of planned/marketing obsolescence, not inherent failures of the machine. There are still, for example, plenty of '80s Toyota pickups running around these parts. I have an '88 myself, and fully expect to be running it for several more decades. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised to discover that it outlasts me :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 26 '14 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Bob, that's probably true, I don't deal that much with the batteries directly in terms of use, but I do have some experience with the theoretical side of them. What I will say is that there will be a change very soon in their quality, with a shift from just plain graphite to graphene. I also expect that if intended to run for long periods of time, there is room for improvement in their practical design. Combine both of those, and I expect that absurdly long lifetimes aren't that unrealistic. $\endgroup$ – user5083 Dec 26 '14 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ The Space Shuttle is a poor example, it required huge amounts of maintenance between flights, and specialized spare parts. The B-52 would be a better example, still our main strategic bomber with production having stopped in 1962 and will likely serve for another 25 years. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Dec 27 '14 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Bobson Depends on what you mean by "ready". If you mean ready to have its archaic computers programmed for the flight, be moved to the giant assembly building, hoisted by a special crane, attached to its enormous fuel tank and boosters, very slowly rolled out to the launch pad on an enormous tractor (all of which was purpose built), and loaded with 500,000 gallons of fuel which must be held at cryogenic temperatures... does it matter? As a consolation prize, here is an incredible time lapse of that process. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Dec 28 '14 at 4:18
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First of all, the comparison with consumer-grade products is flawed: consumers want the most complex systems at the best prices; that gives little room for manufacturers to provide ruggedized, durable hardware $^1$. The exception would be with vehicles, but those are subject to heavier workloads.

Second, intent. Even if a civilization is very advanced, making hardware that lasts so long without maintenance is a effort that needs to be justified. They would need to have a reason to design hardware that way. In other words, I would not expect everything from such a civilization to be still working after hundreds of years; only items designed and stored for that purpose. For example, the office kitchen will not work, but the bunch of robots that were being prepared and packed for a transtellar expedition could have survived.

As to how it could be achieved, two ways:

  • Some items could be packaged/sealed off to maximize their endurance (powered down, no oxidizers)
  • Robotic maintenance. Of course, this will mean that the system would need the ability to repair and ever recycle robots. Also, it requires a functional power supply.
  • A mix of both (robotic maintenance of a small core that is always active, packaged hardware ready to be activated).

As for the energy issue, two ways:

  • For "packaged" units, thermoelectric nuclear. Store radioactive materials with long half-lives isolated one from the others. When you activate the unit, put those materials in the power unit of the hardware. The increased amount of radioactive nuclear would increase the rate of nuclear disintegration, increasing the power output (try to avoid a runaway chain reaction, though).
  • For robotic-maintained systems, you can use nuclear fusion. The combustible (let's say Hydrogen $^2$) does not decay, so you could just have a BIG tank of it and just spend it little by little. Additionally, you could filter it off from the environment.

$^1$ Would you buy nowadays a Nokia 6110 for US$200, even if it was guaranteed to work for 50 years?

$^2$ We would have issues storing Hydrogen for so long because it leaks, but maybe an advanced technology would not have such issue. Or you can use other elements like Helium.

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    $\begingroup$ A problem with a big tank of hydrogen is that hydrogen tends to leak out of any tank... storing it long term is actually easier said than done. However, if it is in some other molecule it gets a lot easier, so a little chemistry makes it plausible enough for sci fi at least. $\endgroup$ – Adam D. Ruppe Sep 8 '16 at 17:18
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Something to keep in mind: Those long-working things in the stories are almost inevitably sealed away somewhere where they are shielded from the elements. Generally no water, almost always minimal temperature changes, no UV from the sun eating things. Very often the power source is gravity--a weight on a pulley doesn't lose power over time.

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    $\begingroup$ However, gravity doesn't yield a lot of energy. Even a Boeing 777 falling 100 meters produces just 67 kW h $\endgroup$ – abcde Dec 28 '14 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ It loses power when it hits the ground and it produces very little energy on the way down. The potential energy of an object is mass * height * G. 1 kg hanging 1m off the ground on Earth gives you 9.8 Joules. A Macbook Pro at idle uses 45 watts or 45 Joules per second. Let's say you want to power this for 100 years or 3.153 billion seconds. That's 142 billion Joules. If you sucked the air out of the Kola Superdeep Borehole (12,262 meters deep) and dropped your weight down it you'd need 1.2 million kg. Three Saturn V rockets would do it. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Dec 30 '14 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern The things that have been sitting there for ages usually only do one thing. Gravity can provide the power to do that. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Dec 30 '14 at 2:38
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel A laptop sitting on idle is one thing. But ok, I think you're trying to say the device will be so low power you can do it with a weight on a pulley. Consider powering a single LED consuming 45 mW for a year, 1/1000th the power of a laptop. Now we'd "merely" need to drop a 11,480 kg weight (a few Hummers would do it) down a hole 1,262 meters deep. As you can see, powering anything for 100 years with gravity isn't feasible. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Dec 30 '14 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern Yeah, gravity won't power a LED. Most ancient devices don't have status lights, though. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Dec 30 '14 at 19:37
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The Ancient Sons of Merk had used their knowledge of Pshysik and the Dark Arts of peering into the bodies of dead men to extend their lives to unnatural length. While lesser Merkans could live for ten times the span of a normal man and remain unwearied, the higher among them, the sons of Buffet and Walton, could live for untold Aeons without showing outward signs of age.

However, the weight of the ages grew on their weary shoulders, some among these princes would build massive complexes and undergo a dreaded ritual called Uthenera where they would lay down to sleep for an age. Others, wrought with wanderlust, took to traveling the untold distances in the skies, seeking the homes of the angels, to places so far away that Earthen-time lost all meaning to them.

Thus it was that for them, a thousand years was but the blink of an eye, and husband and wife would plan to meet millenia in the future like us mere mortals would plan meeting for a cup of nesqiq in the long red evenings. Their dwellings were great and lasting, on the earth and their Great Depots in the sky, where the Cargo came from, and many became great temples of worship for us, the sons of Moroni, Amesh and Hassid and for the other men of the world.

After age upon age, their weariness grew, and many never awoke from Uthenera or never returned from their wanderings. No more Cargo arrived, and the great Spaceports of old were slowly overrun with weeds and age. It is said that the Buffeti princes waged a great war against the Angels in the sky, and were crushed, and the Angles laid down the Kessler Curse, a sword of flame in the skies to prevent men from ever rising to the heavens and challenging them again. Every now and then, on dark and clear nights you can see the sword slashing across the sky over and over again.


TLDR:

So, the Precurors engage in relativistic travel, and want to make sure the idiots they left behind don't run out of hot chocolate in 20,000 years when they'll come back, 10 or so of their subjective years later, due to silly things like nuclear war, the occasional dark age or ecological collapse.

Solution: build Great Depots in space (stuff them full of cocoa, and glass beads for the prols), where there is no weathering aside from micrometeors. Planetside, go for monolithic style bulk diamond or somesuch material. With Zero-point-energy drives, you can have powered nanites going around eating dust and healing microcracks. Electromagnetic fields keep away dirt and maintain a good seal inside. Might get a little stuffy, but hopefully you've vacuumed it first. That still leaves you vulnerable to 9.0+ Earthquakes, but with a proper reactive foundation and heliotropic gyros for stabilization, you can probably get a decent life expectancy. Coco powder will be waiting patiently.

Eventually, enough junk accumulates in LEO (low earth orbit) that coming back becomes such a bother, and the Precursors simply move on to bigger better things. Or die off of boredom. Big hulking relics (with surprising amounts of cocoa powder) litter then landscape. See, easy.

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In the book Sphere by Michael Crichton, there was a spaceship which survived crashing into an ocean and was there for centuries. It was in deep water, and had little signs of decay. The majority of the systems inside operated just about flawlessly.

This scenario is pretty believable because objects can survive deep underwater for a very long time because the environment has very little oxygen in it which tends to break down anything metallic fairly quickly in the water. There are also few organisms at extreme depths which will attack the exterior. If the hull remained in tact, then something like this could survive in tact for thousands of years.

The problem with having technology like this above ground is that it has a high likelihood of being tampered with. Nearly every metal object made by humans in deep antiquity no longer exists, regardless of the type of metal they are made with. Most of these objects are destroyed by natural decay, etc. If you study ancient stone buildings, there is evidence of them being held together with metal rods and clamps. The only thing remaining is the holes that were left behind. There are some objects that still exist which are made out of gold and other precious metals. However, there is a high likelihood that the objects will be stolen by treasure hunters and melted down, or removed from the context sufficiently that people would not be able to recognize these objects as technology.

There are two main things you would need to keep in mind when designing something that will last for centuries. The first is make sure that the material itself is durable enough to survive the wear and tear of time. The second is to conceal it to avoid tampering by people who aren't yet ready to use or understand the technology.

I think the best way the preserve technology for the distant future is to encode all the information needed to recreate it in the future on objects which have very little value in them such as clay or stone tablets. These materials can survive for many thousands of years.

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  • $\begingroup$ I did not find Sphere to be believable, or more than a trope. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 27 '14 at 1:51
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First a background on our disposable society

http://www.investopedia.com/articles/pf/07/disposablesociety.asp

...Creating products that aren't meant to last is a very viable business strategy as this means that consumers will need to buy replacement products.

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/made-to-break-are-we-sinking-under-the-weight-of-our-disposable-society/ Long before factories across the globe began churning out disposable razors, diapers, and soda cans, American businessmen worried about overstocked warehouses and strategized ways to keep people buying. America’s “throwaway ethic” began in the mid-19th century

...American business actively resisted the Treasury Department’s national frugality campaign during World War I, with stores across the nation displaying signs that read, “Business as Usual. Beware of Thrift and Unwise Economy.” Local newspapers, eager to coddle their largest advertisers, wrote editorials in support of shopping, while in 1921, New York retailers launched the National Prosperity Committee to combat thrift. Articles written about thriftiness from this time period, Slade found, were combative in their language: “Miserliness is despicable, hoarding is vulgar; both are selfish, fatal to character and a danger to the community and the nation,” wrote C.W. Taber, author of The Business of the Household.

Fortunately some things still last:

calculators from the 1970's one year warranty but still working after thirty years (as long as it is stored long term without batteries)

How about products old and new with attached 25year or 50 year warranties to them. http://www.reddit.com/r/BuyItForLife/comments/1tgx37/new_lifetime_warranty_thread_post_any_items_you/

Simple items

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  • $\begingroup$ Re "calculators from the 1970's", I have an HP-12c calculator on my desk which I still use. It was given me (used) in the early '90s, but the manual is dated 1982. I change the batteries maybe once a decade. And per Wikipedia, it's still made and accepted as an accounting standard: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HP-12C $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 26 '14 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Yup, I have my 30-year-old calculator from college still around. While I rarely use it it's always worked when I asked it to, albeit with a couple of battery changes over the years. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Dec 27 '14 at 11:34
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I will enforce other's answers that what you're looking for is military grade equipment, or an equivalent. Per unit cost is high and it is made in relatively small numbers (hundreds or thousands compared to millions for consumer models). It must take a beating in harsh environments: hot, cold, wet or dry. It must be rugged and easy to maintain in the field, critical components such as engines must be accessible without special parts or jacks. Parts should be interchangeable from left side to right, and from one unit to the other (no custom built vehicles). The A-10 is an excellent example of this design philosophy.

Military equipment has another advantage, its technology can plateau. Consumer equipment is continuously pressured to be better and cheaper. Military equipment only has to be better than your enemy's. If, as happened at the end of the Cold War, your enemy can no longer sustain their military, there's little pressure to spend the excessive amounts of money for an upgrade. Much of the standard US equipment was designed in the 60s to 80s: the M16 rifle, the M2 heavy machine gun, the M1 tank, the M2 fighting vehicle, the F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighter-bombers, the B-52 bomber, the A-10 attack aircraft... with help from a small number of more advanced weapons, they're all good enough to provide the bulk of the armed forces to take on their expected enemies and will continue to serve with upgrades for decades to come.

As it becomes too expensive, and as opponents fall behind in the arms race, military technology can also backslide. An example is the 60s race for faster and faster aircraft, culminating in the Mach 3+ XB-70 Valkyrie Bomber. The incredible cost of this bomber, and its vulnerability compared to cheaper ballistic missiles, lead to its cancellation. Modern military aircraft fly at a more sedate and affordable Mach 1.5 and our defenses are tuned to match. I could see a future where a old Mach 3 aircraft could prove untouchable, at least for a little while.

I will also enforce storage. If the equipment is properly drained of fluids, sealed and stored in a controlled environment it could last for centuries. One such example are aircraft boneyards usually located in very dry deserts. In addition to being specially sealed, the dry conditions and hard ground protect aircraft from decay. Some are cannibalized for spare parts. Some are meant to be ready to fly in a few days.

Another element is an explanation why nobody else has already plundered this cache. It could be hidden or obscured. As in the case of the boneyards, it could be in a very remote or hostile area. It could be protected. It could be made out of materials worthless as scrap, such as the Clock of the Long Now.

Batteries are a problem. You can hand wave this away with advanced technology. You could require your discoverers to give it a jump start. You could provide a trickle power source such as solar, or an RTG. An RTG using a fuel such as Plutonium or Americium, with no moving parts to wear out, could provide a basic power source for centuries.

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  • $\begingroup$ Really good point about military equipment. I'd also never heard about aircraft boneyards before, but that's a really good example. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Dec 28 '14 at 3:29
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In modern society, we design a vast majority of our products to do well within a small range of operation, with little care to how well it operates outside that range. Compare that with organic life, which to this day astounds us by its ability to operate outside of "spec range."

If a society ceases to focus so much on the narrow capabilities, and begins considering the broader operating range, it would begin designing things which can continue functioning much longer.

Interestingly enough, in many Sci Fi books, this jump from "do what I say really well" to "do the right thing" often occurs near the cusp of a society being annihilated by its creations

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It is a sad fact that no ancient ruins have ever been found full of working traps and with good reason. However, if you did want to leave something somewhere that it might endure for a long period, there is one place that you could be reasonably confident that things will last: Space.

There is some risk of damage from meteorite collisions but space is very big and so the chances are relatively small. With no atmosphere to provoke destructive chemical reactions and no sources of dust or other solids to jam up workings, there are few reasons that anything that could successfully be put in space - assuming it is far enough out to avoid falling out of orbit or colliding with another body - could not stay there indefinitely.

If you are on a planetary surface you might be able to preserve equipment well by taking something from this philosophy and sealing it in an artificial vacuum. Whatever you had sealed away should stay in good condition until the seal failed at least, which could be a very long time if you made it from durable materials ( maybe a glass-lined bubble of granite? ) and they were not exposed to erosion. Eventually the vacuum would fail, but it would take a very long time and even once it did, the environment might be sufficiently protected to preserve it for a long time anyway.

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Also, Ancients might just added General AI with goal maintain that system, build robots to fix any problems and mine resources to provide energy and necessary raw materials.

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  • $\begingroup$ You mean like living things already do? $\endgroup$ – Hayden Dec 27 '14 at 21:21
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First of all, current technology's fragileness is a bad reference, as the technology is now designed to break after some chosen period, to let people buy a new phone / car / whatever, unless it is really designed to last.

The old pieces of technology don't last so long because 'they did it better once'. They simply didn't got the idea of making things which had to break: they simpy had to work. And I think that some ancients won't leave mechanical guardians, etc. which would break after guarantee period. :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Planned obsolescence (as a phrase) has been around since the 1930s. What makes you think that the concept isn't older? “They simply didn't got the idea of making things which had to break” is quite a bold statement: can you back it up? $\endgroup$ – Gilles Dec 27 '14 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ Firstly, does it really matter in this topic? Secondly, was around doesn't mean that it was used in practice. As you may read in wiki article you posted, at first it was just advertising / marketing thing and then, with development of technology it became a part of design of new products. And became easier with time: as easy as updating its software. Anyway, my point is that it is not so hard to make things which will last, although its no longer a point for industry. But still, do you think that Ancients would design their megalithic machinery to break after few years to have it replaced? $\endgroup$ – talonkingvskg Dec 28 '14 at 9:55

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