Printing Lost Tech

30 November, 2011 at 12:25 pm

I was recently doing some research on a story idea I had, and I came across this list of the “top 10″ lost technologies. Number 10 on the list is the world-famous Stradivari violin, the secret of which died with the Stradivari family in the 18th century.

One lost technology of the 1700s is the process through which the famed Stradivari violins and other stringed instruments were built. The violins, along with assorted violas, cellos, and guitars, were constructed by the Stradivari family in Italy from roughly 1650-1750. The violinswere prized in their day, but they’ve since become world famous for having an unparalleled—and impossible to reproduce—sound quality. Today there are only around 600 of the instruments left, and most are worth several hundred thousand dollars. In fact, the name Stradivari has become so synonymous with quality that it has come to serve as a descriptive term for anything considered to be the best in its field.

The technique for building Stradivari instruments was a family secret known only by patriarch Antonio Stradivari and his sons, Omobono and Francesco. Once they died, the process died with them, but this hasn’t stopped some from trying to reproduce it. Researchers have studied everything from fungi in the wood that was used to the unique shaping of the bodies in order to describe the famous resonance achieved by the Stradivarius collection. The leading hypothesis seems to be that the density of the particular wood used accounts for the sound.

 

Coincidentally (it’s a small Web after all!) I came across another post today about a process that has been devised that might help reveal the secret of the Stradivarius and allow it (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) to be produced again after centuries:

 

We’ve seen all kinds of crazy things being printed — from bones to blood vessels — and now you can add antique violins to that list. Music loving Radiologist Steven Sirr popped his into a CAT scanner to see what it was made of, then showed the results to a violin-making friend. Curiosity soon led them to scan everything from guitars to mandolins, so when the chance to take a peek inside a 307-year-old Stradivarius came up, how could they resist? 1000 scans later, the files were converted to 3D CAD format and another violin maker enlisted. Crucially, the images show the density of the wood all the way through, allowing a CNC machine to carve out copies of each section, with different woods used to match the differing densities. With all the parts in place and a lick of varnish, the replicas were complete. Sirr claims the copies sound “amazingly similar” to the original, but we are unsure if he plans to make it open-source.

 

I fully believe that the ability to scan, print, precision cut, and reproduce materials is going to be one of the breakthrough technological developments of the next two decades. We’ll see more and more things reproduced, Star Trek replicator-style (perhaps not “Earl Grey, Hot” though) and the very concepts of intellectual property boundaries and supply chain logistics will be forever transformed. Right now, a guy with a MakerBot can whip up his own board game pieces, toys, and parts based on open source online models. An astronaut on Mars ten years from now might be able to print needed tools or materials using a combination of Martian dust and a bonding agent brought with him on the space ship, thus reducing the total payload of the mission and making room for other essential stuff. A molecular gastronomist will print food using an extruder and edible printer goop, infusing protein gels and carbohydrate pastes with the essence of foi gras or pumpkin souffle. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter.

 

Cool things will be done, and they will be done increasingly on the cheap. By printing stuff.

 

I remember when I read about the first rapid prototyping machines in Wired back when I was in high school. Or maybe it was college. Either way, what sounded like the kind of thing only universities with research grants or multinational corporations could afford back in the day is now becoming quasi-ubiquitous. You can buy a 3D printer for home use for about the cost of a fancy Laser Jet. I’ve seen them for under $1000. You can DIY one for cheaper, no doubt, if you’re good at that sort of thing.

 

Many cool things are afoot. I’m adding a 3D printer to my long-term wish list.