Oh, a storm is threat’ning / My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter / Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
— “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.
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How long have tents been around? They get a mention in the Old Testament, where “forefather of all shepherds” Jabal is a noted tent-dweller. Portable lodgings found in Russia date to 40,000 BC, but the earliest tent ruins I’ve seen mention of—apparently uncovered in France—are thought to be ten times older than that. Consisting of animal hides draped over wooden frames and pinned down by stones, these prehistoric pads have been estimated to go back a cool half-million years.
Should this come as any surprise? We probably all learned in primary school that the three human necessities are food, clothing, and shelter (and if the shelter’s good enough, do you even need the clothing?), so it makes sense that portable sanctuaries trace back to the beginnings of human history.
In many ways the tent hasn’t changed much in the interim. Sure we’ve got UV-resistant polyurethane instead of mammoth hide, lightweight aluminium pegs instead of stones, but it’s not hard to draw a direct line between the description of those French ruins and something you’d find in an outdoor sports shop.
Even so, I’d argue the humble tent is a good example of a particular type of technological development: the iterative kind, comprised of many incremental advancements. I like to imagine that the compact and comparatively lightweight tents of today are the cumulative result of countless hours of human effort and invention, with engineers, designers, hobbyists, campers, focus groups, and researchers all contributing.
Take the frame—the bones of the tent, if you will. From the wooden frameworks of those archeological remnants, to the heavy, rigid steel poles I remember battling to assemble as a kid, to the flexible, interlocking components common now—there’s a slow-but-steady stream of enhancements to be traced. These days tent frames are often comprised of articulated joints made of light, durable alloys linked by a central elastic cord, making for quick and easy assembly while preventing the always-annoying loss of crucial parts.
In other words, the tent is an exemplar of evolutionary development. At the other end of the scale, though, there’s revolutionary design, radical innovation, and the much-touted disruptive technologies. For a number of years now, a research team based at the University of Southern California (USC) has investigated the feasibility of 3D printing an entire house from scratch, developing a robotic construction system, Contour Crafting, to do so. Led by Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis, the project has prototyped a new layered fabrication technology that promises a number of future applications, including the automated manufacturing of modular apartments—pre-built with all the right nooks and crannies for electrical and plumbing components, and suitable for everything from low income housing to extraterrestrial colony construction.
A few hours up the road from USC, at the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, an “experimental pavilion” known as Bloom was unveiled last month. Consisting of 840 customised blocks 3d-printed using powdered cement, it’s purported to represent a “new paradigm in building construction methods.” It’s not going to be that helpful in a storm, but it’s well worth a visit to emergingobjects.com to check out for yourself.
At this site, and others like it, you’ll see plenty to suggest this is indeed a new age in manufacturing and construction (and one in which the traditional distinctions between these two fields seem increasingly blurred). As Ross Steven from Victoria’s own School of Design points out in his “Ask a Researcher” YouTube clip: “Fundamentally, 3D printing is quite a different technology to anything that’s been used before for manufacturing. In the past, if we wanted to make something we might start with a big piece of aluminium and subtract the parts we didn’t want—that’s called subtractive manufacturing. But with additive manufacturing we can put down exactly the piece we want.”
A decade ago, the idea that a house could be printed would’ve been laughable to most. And yet here we are, not just in the age of viable 3D-printed dwellings, but also one-click mortgages (check out US-Based Quicken Loans) and automated, interconnected household devices (AKA AKA The Internet of Things’ domestic branch). Cynics might rightly predict that at least some of these novel developments will be passing fads. Even so, it’s worth pausing to consider all the designs and devices we take for granted in this digital world we call home, and to ponder the evolution, revolution and no doubt frustration that lie behind them. Perhaps set aside some time on your next camping trip.