The Wyoming | And Other Technological Dinosaurs

While searching for phones online one day, my mind wandered to the Wyoming, because much like the phone I was hoping to buy, it was a technological dinosaur.

By Justin Shatwell

Feb 25 2015


The launching of the Wyoming in 1909.

Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum
The launching of the Wyoming in 1909.
The launching of the Wyoming in 1909.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum

At 6 a.m., I awoke to the harrowing noise of a smart phone clinking off porcelain. This was followed in quick succession by a muffled splash, a giggle from my one-year-old and a somber, “Uh oh,” from my wife. Even before I fished the corpse of my Android out of the toilet, I knew my phone was dead. Much like the Wicked Witch of the West, smart phones wield near infinite magical powers but suffer from the same embarrassingly mundane weakness. Sure enough, it was a brick.

The affair made me question the wisdom of owning such a small, delicate, and expensive gadget while being a parent. Children are a blessing, but they’re also the reason we can’t have nice things. My son is going through an experimental phase where he delights in putting one item into another—stuffed animals into cupboards, car keys into dog bowls, Sippy cups into that hole between the coach cushions. What were the chances he would try “cell phone into toilet again?” I decided it was probably best to downgrade my phone.

While searching online for things like “cheap phones” and “dumbest phone possible” my mind wandered (as I imagine most would in this situation) to our nation’s maritime history. Specifically, I thought of the Wyoming, because much like the phone I was hoping to buy, it was a technological dinosaur.

Depending on how you measure it, the Wyoming was the largest wooden schooner ship ever built. She sported six masts, stretched 444 feet long, and her hold was 3730 gross tons, which is just a fancy nautical way of saying she was the size of an office building. The launching of such a behemoth probably would have been bigger news if it hadn’t happened in December of 1909.

If you’re thinking that sounds a little late to be building a wooden schooner, you’re right. The age of commercial sailing vessels wasn’t quite dead, but the writing was on the wall. To put it into context, the flight at Kitty Hawk occurred in 1903 and the Model T entered mass production in 1908. There had been steam powered vessels reliably crossing the Atlantic since the 1830s, and just five days before the shipwrights in Bath, ME began work on the Wyoming, a yard in Belfast, Ireland set to creating its own behemoth, a little ship called the RMS Titanic.

Old technology has a way of sticking around much longer than most of us are aware. We learn about history in terms of milestones. We read about the introduction of some new technology—electric lights, the television, the Internet—and assume they quickly conquered the world. One era ends and another begins, right? It’s rarely actually that clean. People accept change at different speeds and the old ways linger.

I was counting on that when I visited the AT&T store looking for my replacement. I explained to the clerk what I was looking for, just something that could make a phone call and send a text. He seemed confused at first, then perhaps a little disappointed. He spoke to me the way a priest talks to a lapsed Catholic. I had lost the faith, but perhaps I could be led back into the fold. I held my ground. “I want the dumbest phone you’ve got,” I said.

He told me they didn’t keep that kind of thing on display, but he had something in the back that would fit the bill. A few minutes later he emerged from the storeroom and placed a small box on the counter. He opened it and, with hammer and chisel, carefully removed the fossil from the surrounding bedrock and then began syncing my contacts.

I recently asked Nathan Lipfert, senior curator at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, why the town kept building wooden vessels for so long. He said there was logic to it. A ship like the Wyoming was cheaper to produce than comparable steel vessels and would take fewer sailors to man. With its low overhead, a large schooner could find a niche and compete in the coastal trade industry, which is exactly what the Wyoming did. For most of her career, she turned a profit making bulk coal deliveries to Boston and Portland. She was a technological dinosaur, but she got the job done.

Lipfert also said there was a tradition element to it as well. People stick to what they know and Bath had been making wooden ships since the colonial era. If their way of life wasn’t broken yet, why fix it?

That got me wondering whether or not I ever really needed a smart phone to begin with. I would occasionally get online to read the sports headlines, but beyond that I hated searching the Internet on my old phone. I only ever bought one app for the thing and I rarely used it. I didn’t get into the cell phone gaming scene and I never once used the built-in GPS (because it’s cheating). For two years I had more computing power than the Apollo capsule sitting in my pocket and all I ever did with it was check the Celtics score.

That’s the thing about technology, I guess. Sometimes it fixes a problem in our lives, other times it tries to create a problem to fix. Have our lives really gotten so complicated that we need to be forever tethered to mini-supercomputers? I’m sure some people can honestly answer yes to that question, but I’m discovering that I can’t. My cheap, plastic, 3G-capable Wyoming is performing admirably, and I don’t miss my smart phone at all. Unless my life changes dramatically, I’ll probably hold onto my dinosaur for a long time to come. That is, of course unless my son sinks it first.