Tools: Extending Our Reach
Exhibition TextWe all use tools—from the moment we wake up until we go to bed. Designed to overcome the limitations and fulfill the desires of the human body, tools are extensions of ourselves and surrogates where humans fall short. Although often equated with technology and engineering, some tools are seemingly simple, poetic gestures; others save time and alleviate the burdens of daily life; still others are game changers that allow us to achieve amazing feats. Offering moments of surprise and connections between seemingly diverse cultures, time periods, and places, the works shown here provide an opportunity to consider tools as quintessential examples of design, and reveal the fundamental role they play in shaping our lives.
Ranging from a 1.85 million-year old stone core chopper to real-time data of the Sun’s surface, the tools in this exhibition span much of human experience and tell a unique story of design. This exhibition is a cross-disciplinary collaboration between Cooper Hewitt and eleven Smithsonian Institution museums and research centers, which generously lent most of the objects, as well as expertise. Their loans are augmented with several contemporary tools that illustrate new areas of research.
Tools: Extending Our Reach is made possible by major support from GE. Generous support is also provided by Newell Rubbermaid, Dorit and Avi Reichental, and Esme Usdan. Additional funding is provided by the August Heckscher Exhibition Fund, Facebook, the Ehrenkranz Fund, and Smithsonian Institution funds from the Grand Challenges Consortia.
See all the objects in this exhibition.
Make TextTinkering, sketching, modeling, prototyping, and playing are all vital to the design process. These processes are tools themselves, expressing the creativity that comes with making things. For designers, sketching and prototyping help them think through ideas and aid in developing projects; for inventors, they stake a claim to a concept that may result in a patent.
New technologies, such as 3D printing, are changing what is possible, transforming the way products are conceived and fabricated. It is an ideal process for creating unique or limited production objects such as prototypes and prosthetic devices or for empowering the average person to design and customize items at home. And as the physical and virtual become increasingly seamless, touch-free gestural control systems will soon allow users to push and pull shapes to create, explore and build, redefining how we "make" in the future.
Models, Patents, Prototypes:
Nineteenth-century patent models served a variety of purposes, from demonstrating design and function, to inspiring inventors, to understanding what was possible. Similarly with these examples of 21st-century technology that make portraits, print tools, or translate hand gestures into form and mass—they are statements about and visual wonders of our digital age.
Sketching is an effective tool to help people imagine, define, refine, and realize ideas. Inventors and designers sketch to explore concepts and document their creative methods, leading some to patents and manufactured products. On backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, or in notebooks just for this purpose, these sketches are as diverse as the creative minds that made them.
See all the objects in the Make section.
Communicate TextWe are social creatures. Our natural need to connect with one another, to record and pass on knowledge, has informed the design of many tools of communication. The Internet is today's most powerful example, altering our sense of geography and distance and forming new kinds of communities through social networking, with a constant flow of knowledge, data, and images at our fingertips. Its roots are in the myriad symbols and codes humans have created to remember, convey, and exchange information—from writing, pictures, knots, lines, and dots, to electrical impulses. A knotted time ball or Intelligent Mail Barcode, for example, is a compilation of many details, from a life story to a house address, amplifying ideas and data forr people to understand, transmit, recall—or sometimes conceal.
Codes and symbols are shorthand for simple and complex information that may be understood by one person or multitudes. Patterns formed by knots, lines, colors, and 1s and 0s distill data, transmitting it through touch, sight, or hearing. Memory aid, accounting register, or calorie counter, these objects act as physical and virtual messengers of information.
These devices generate and enhance communication, resulting in expanded networks. As bridges between people, images and symbols inform in ways that other modes of communication cannot. A booklet of eye tests aids communication between doctor and patient and also captures assumptions about people and their cultural competencies, from card playing to singing.
Objects of adornment are communication tools. Prestige objects are often designed to dazzle and to signify hierarchy, project power to others—think business suits—and at times indicate relationships to the divine, like the Raven, the mythical creator depicted on the rattle.
See all the objects in the Communicate section.
Survive TextHumans are hardwired to survive. The first human tools were used to hunt, butcher, forage, and defend. Protection continues to preoccupy us today, whether finding ways to survive in extreme or inhospitable environments, like outer space, or enduring potentially dangerous situations, like raids and riots.
Our quest to detect diseases before they become life-threatening gave rise to the invention of the "lab-on-a-chip"—a phenomenon unimaginable even a generation ago. These devices identify key health information and instantly transmit the results, allowing for real-time diagnoses. While not all survival design is a matter of life or death, these tools demonstrate how the will to survive continues to inspire us to seek ever-smarter solutions.
Designing for inhospitable, even extreme conditions often includes using materials from nature, such as sea-mammal intestine, and inventing new ones, such as Kevlar®. These “second skins” rely on the maker’s skills and understanding of performance needs, which can mean the difference between life and death for the wearer.
Finding cures for illnesses, protecting against negative forces, and increasing quality of life with prosthetics and pain-prevention all result from our desire to live longer and healthier. Managing pain in the operating room was complicated and mostly ineffective until ether was introduced in 1846. Within a year of its introduction, anesthesia was employed in every surgery where it was available.
See all the objects in the Survive section.
Observe TextTools of observation allow us to see what was previously invisible and to hear sounds where once there was silence. They enhance our five senses and address our insatiable curiosity to learn more about ourselves and the worlds around and within us. Experimentation with magnification, shape, and position of lenses has resulted in a variety of scopes—opthalmoscopes, microscopes, telescopes—showing us micro- and macro-universes in real time without leaving our chair. Other forms of virtual observation, such as flying robots and drones, incorporate sensors that respond directly to their surroundings, further extending our reach into the new and unknown.
We augment our senses with tools to see farther into the micro and macro worlds and to enhance our reception of conditions around us. Different scopes utilize the same tool—a lens—for magnification. The discreet Zon hearing aid amplifies sound for the hearing impaired, while a white cane and its tip enable the user to “see” with sound and touch.
Traveling to environments impossible for us to physically enter requires surrogates such as satellites, aerial surveillance, and even ingestible cameras. Electronics, miniaturized technology, and specialized manufacturing processes have helped designers and engineers to make tools that can now reach remote locations and deliver results in real time and with previously unimaginable clarity.
See all the objects in the Observe section.
Measure TextHow much? How far? How long? These questions have driven scientific inquiry and the desire for greater accuracy through the creation and use of measuring tools. Navigation, time, and quantifying tools chart our path, mark our time, and regulate our lives.
We create maps and charts to visualize data obtained from these instruments. As the volume of information to analyze increases exponentially, designers, like mapmakers, are working to distill it into accessible formats such as enlarged microchip diagrams that reveal many layers and circuits or a "live" map of celestial bodies that poetically visualizes one's music collection.
Maps help us visualize information: data, circuits on microchips or ocean currents. To determine their location, navigators historically relied on angle-finding tools like the sextant and astrolabe. They gave real-time calculations just like today’s GPS or its next generation, the T-IMU.
An abacus, a calculator, and a slide rule answer the question HOW MUCH? by means of very different techniques. The construction of some of our greatest modern buildings was calculated using slide rules. For surveying complex sites and surfaces, 3D laser scanners achieve such high precision that the interior of an entire building can be represented in minute detail.
By the 19th century, affordable timepieces became available to a growing American middle class because they could be factory made. More than tools to keep time, pocket watches served as status symbols and fashion accessories, and achieved unexpected success during the Civil War, when they became a fad among Union soldiers.
See all the objects in the Measure section.
Work TextPounding herbs, grasping out-of-reach objects, and performing surgery all require tools that fit into our hands. How we hold them and use them often determines the form and material that the designer chooses. Braided fiber and silicone rubber, for example, provide secure and even pleasing surfaces for gripping, yet each are chosen carefully for the intended task.
Some hand tools have been created for a single use, while others are multipurpose from the beginning. The classic teardrop shaped handaxe, which persisted for more than 1.5 million years, is an elegant example. Today's digital counterpart, the iPhone, with its multitude of applications, continues to expand its capabilities without physically changing size.
Hand tools extend our physical capability to reach, throw, and catch, as well as to perform actions that are difficult if not impossible with bare hands and fingers. Specialized tasks—tonsil removal, halibut fishing—require unique shapes, distinct materials, and the maker’s personal touch to create an appropriate tool for the task.
How a tool fits the hand affects the quality and quantity of work. Spacesuit gloves protect, while allowing astronauts to perform manual activity in a vacuum: steel tips help prevent finger numbness—providing sensory feedback through the nail beds. The glove’s sharkskin improves grip sensation like the elastomer on Studio AmiDov’s flint tools or the silicon sleeve on the computer mouse.
A sharpened blade or honed point helps to make farming more efficient, perform surgery with extra precision, or enable hunting with greater success. Carved (bird dart), forged (throwing knives), or fractured (obsidian scalpel) to be razor-sharp, these tools also show how good design is found in the shape and at the edge.
There is a long tradition of technical economy, of individual tools performing multiple tasks—the ancient handaxe is an elegant example. It shares design features with the Victorinox@work and iPhone: portability, tactility, and good fit for the hand, yet each of their many functions reflects the particular needs and technology of its era.
See all the objects in the Work section.
Tool Boxes TextA toolbox is as unique and personal as its owner. The tools inside indicate the profession, but the container personifies the character, status, and skill of its owner. Ornamentation may conceal the box’s functional purpose, and some indigenous cultures even pay homage to the resources used to make it.
See all the objects in the Tool Boxes section.