Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What We Can Learn From Swiss Family Robinson

The story of "ordinary" people stranded in an uncivilized place, who turn their superior knowledge and skills to building a civilized life for themselves, is one we still love.
Unfortunately, it is far more of a fantasy today than it was with Defoe wrote Crusoe and Wyss wrote Swiss Family. In that era, even urban people still lived close enough to farming and animals that they had some idea of what a nature-based life might require.
I can picture a modern American Family Robinson dying as they searched for a place to recharge their cellphones.
I like books like this mainly because it helps me think about what I might do in the same circumstances.

Swiss Family Robinson is set in 1812, so let's look at the technology available. Even most city dwellers had family still on the farm, that wouldn't change until the 20th Century.
Heat was supplied by wood or coal fired stoves. The first gas cooker wouldn't be developed until 1826 and gas lights would wait until 1836.

Cities had running water but it was more often coming out of a fountain in the square rather then in your home, and most of the world got their water from a well or river in buckets. Most bathrooms were still outhouses. Thomas Crapper wouldn't start his company until 1861.

Most transportation was still run be muscle power, either by walking or riding. Steam power was available but were massive and just starting to get "portable" by being put on ships the first commercial steamboat began service in 1807 and the first locomotive was created in 1804 but commercial service wouldn't begin until 1825.

Making textiles would have been a big deal too, but they seemed to have plenty of animals for that, and making the looms and other capital devices would have been easy enough to make from wood.

Actually their biggest challenge is metals: finding, mining, refining and working metals is a lot of hard, energy intensive work and even then the quality won't be all that great, but will be good enough. As long as they have axes, saws, and knives they have the major making technologies they needed for that level of technology, because almost all of their things are made of wood.

The thing of it is that the father would have, as an average person, done things like build an outhouse, dug a well, slaughtered an animal for eating, assist in building a structure, make furniture, and so on. Even if he grew up in the city, he probably spend some time on a farm helping out during the summers, doing those things.

So what can we learn from this story that we can apply today?
The main thing is having some good tools and the knowledge to use them. And the tools aren't big fancy things but simple ones, like pots and pans, knives, axes, and saws. Wood is easy to shape into useful things like tables, chairs and shelter and with the proper tools you can make yourself a better and more comfortable life. It just depends on sorting out the vital from the not important.