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If you are interested in technology, you will know that a single tool is rarely enough to get the job done. Ruth Schwartz Cowan from the University of Pennsylvania makes this clear in her book on the history of technology, published twenty years ago. Instead, we have arrays of technologies which she defines as technical systems. These can become large and complex; think of what is needed to make a computer work from keyboard, through software, hard drives, Internet connection and cloud back-ups.
One of the first technical systems in North America was when Native Americans started fishing in the Arctic. They needed spears to turn into harpoons, an ability to build shelters out of ice blocks, sleds, and knowledge of how to liquefy the body fat of their catch to provide fuel to cook: and the boats they used were made of the hides of animals they had previously caught.
As she explains other Native Americans started to live a nomadic life further south living with and hunting buffalo. She describes how leather work was integrated fully into their lives. Their clothes, dwellings and footwear were all leather. These people learned how to tie a hide out on the ground stretched between stakes. They could then clean off the flesh and dress it with some of the earliest biotechnology - brain tanning.
Later, some of these nomadic people learned how to clear land, plant crops and harvest them, thus, adding a skill set allowed them to be less nomadic. It was over time that we saw early culture as well as the cultural development towards the more modern society we have today.
We as tanners often feel like an isolated group, living in a secret world of special science and complex economics, with demand and supply disconnected since our raw material can never grow to meet our requirements for leather. Yet, we make a component that others use and for which they have additional technological systems, and we depend on farmers who have another set of systems. Even more, for all we are a “big” industry alongside coffee and other agricultural commodities we are not big enough to support huge amounts of original research. So, for our dyestuffs, fireproofing and waterproofing materials, among many others, our chemical suppliers join forces with other industries to borrow and adapt what might work well in the leather technical system.
Recognising that the leather making technical system is not just one among many but that its success depends on how well it integrates with others is vital. Just as is looking at alternate systems which offer alternate or additional ways of doing things is an essential part of innovation and moving forward.
30th November 2016
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