What would da Vinci have paid?

By Philip Brewer on 20 December 2007 (Updated 19 April 2010) 7 comments
Photo: moriza

The first time I drove across the country, my aunt gave me her old highway atlas. My finances were a bit tight at the time, so the gift, worth maybe $12, was very much appreciated. Flipping through the maps, I marveled at how cheap it was, compared to what it was worth. What would Lewis & Clark have paid for it?

What would Leonardo da Vinici have paid for a cheap student set of acrylic paints? Think of the great works of art he could have painted if he hadn't spent hours grinding his own pigments to make paints. He could have painted even more in the time he spent trying experimental paints--some of which turned out to be non-archival; there we lost not only his time, but also his work.

The first time I drove across the country, my aunt gave me her old highway atlas. My finances were a bit tight at the time, so the gift, worth maybe $12, was very much appreciated. Flipping through the maps, I marveled at how cheap it was, compared to what it was worth. What would Lewis & Clark have paid for it?

What would Leonardo da Vinici have paid for a cheap student set of acrylic paints? Think of the great works of art he could have painted if he hadn't spent hours grinding his own pigments to make paints. He could have painted even more in the time he spent trying experimental paints--some of which turned out to be non-archival; there we lost not only his time, but also his work.

Besides maps and art supplies, here are a few more things that today are cheap or free, but that until recently were very expensive.

Digital photographs

Sycamore Near Boulware TrailJust lately I've been taking more photos with my digital camera. (I took this one with the camera that's built into my cell phone.)

When I was a kid, an adequate camera was not too expensive, but the cost of film and developing made photography an expensive hobby.

Nowadays, you don't need film or developing. If you have a digital camera, you can take as many pictures as you want for free.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Long-distance phone calls

When I was a kid, long distance phone calls were for special occasions only. A long distance phone call announced births and deaths, maybe engagements or new jobs. A few major holidays--Christmas, Mother's Day--justified a call to far-off relatives.

Nowadays, most calling plans include virtually unlimited long-distance calling.

Watches

Through much of the 1700s, there was a £20,000 prize for anyone who could make a watch that would keep accurate time. That's real money--adjusted for inflation, that would be well over $5 million today.

Nowadays, a digital watch that keeps vastly better time is so cheap they give them away in cereal boxes.

Pens

A really good fountain pen is an heirloom item costing hundreds of dollars. Like mechanical watches, fountain pens marked a pinnacle of human ingenuity. Like cheap digital watches, cheap ballpoint pens lack a little something in soul, but they make up for it in practicality.

Nowadays, you can buy them in quantity for about a dime apiece, or you can get a really nice gel pen for a few dollars.

Delight yourself

I doubt if any of these are a surprise to you--you know you can get all sorts of prefectly good stuff cheap. But don't just take it for granted. When you think about buying some cool new gizmo, compare it to a digital photo, or a phone call, or a pen, or a watch (worth $5 million). Try to adjust your sense of what things are really worth, using a sense of wonder to calibrate the scale. If da Vinci had the price of that item, would he buy it? Or would he buy a few more tubes of paint?

When you make a purchase, buy what fills you with delight.

 

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Guest's picture
Patrick

This is a thought provoking article. I think you are correct that if Da Vinci had access to modern art supplies he would have been more productive and his works would have been of better quality. But, I also think that the passion and innovation Da Vinci demonstrated may have been somewhat stifled by an easy way out.

This could be the same with your other examples. Having to create your own mediums forces you to innovate and think outside the box. Van Halen is a recent musical example. The guitar from his first major tour was pieced together from a cheap store brand model and many after market parts.

Those with the talent and desire will find a way. Still, I think this is a wonderful article.

Guest's picture
Gary Lee

This particular blog intallment, made me stop and think about how much we take for granted today. i.e., I remember the first time I saw a color TV it was tuned to the Kentucky Derby in the mid 60's at my aunt's house. I was astonished how green the grass was on a tv picture. Today, I can watch the same picture on a computer in my pocket that probably cost less than that color monstrosity did. But I am now less amazed.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's true that when there's a good-enough solution, people tend to just go with that--meaning that they are then less likely to come up with a better solution.

On the other hand, time is the real limited resource. The more time you spend solving problems that already have an adequate solution, the less time you have to solve problems that don't.

Happily, creativity isn't a limited resource--the more creative stuff you do, the more you'll be able to tap into your creativity.

Thanks for the kind words.

Guest's picture

What you're trying to preach is voluntary simplicity? :) want not, waste not?

I find that being a minimalist and cutting back on things, while asking myself if I really need it, tends to help me put things in perspective.

Sometimes, I end up delaying purchases so long that I don't buy them any more, or find a similar substitute for free or cheaper.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, it's the sense of amazement that seems to be missing for so many people today.  I don't really have a strong sense of what other people ought to buy--it's up to them, based on their values.  But whatever they do buy ought to be be either stuff that they absolutely need, or else stuff that amazes them.

Guest's picture
Guest

You might enjoy "I, Pencil," by Leonard Read.

Guest's picture

remember when you went to the doctor - and paid with a chicken?!