Max the Magnificent asks: Is this really important? Does it really matter? Well, actually I think it does, although I find it difficult to articulate why (I'd appreciate any help you would care to give here).
Isaac Asimov shows why this matters in his brilliant story The Feeling of Power" (1958), which probably seemed preposterous when it was first published and people were still being taught the "long division" method of doing square roots in elementary school. It's still under copyright, and probably won't reach the public domain for a few hundred years, if ever.
Dover Publications is still going strong, specializing in printing books and clip art that have long been in the public domain, including Lewis Carroll's Symbolic Logic and the Game of Logic (1897/1887) and George Boole's An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854). [*]
On the other hand, maybe we are simply entering Douglas Adams' "sophistication" stage of civlilization, where we don't care "why" any more and just wonder "where shall we have lunch?"
[*] Prof. Boole's book is categorized as "Western Philosophy and Religion" chez Dover, rather than mathematics. But then, Boolean logic is a form of Applied Philosophy, n'est-ce pas?
Hey Max, never mind arcane old mechanical do-it-yourself manuals, or retaining the fine art of lighting fires without matches. What about Radio Shack? What about Heathkit? Remember when you could browse through a Radio Shack store for opamps, timers, resistors and caps, transistors, speaker drivers, crossover networks, etc? Where did all this go?
It's pervasive. If you want to keep the do-it-yourself interest of kids alive these days, it would have to involve building their own smartphones or tablets. That's essentially impossible to do by hand, for a hobbyist. That's what happens with progress!
There are many of us who are working to preserve our national technical heritage. One of the things that really needs to be done is to do oral histories of the early age of silicon valley, the time when Varian, Ampex, Fairchild, and Ford Aerospace were the coin of the realm.
In the aerospace industry we have an active effort in this area but I see little effort to do this in Silicon Valley. I recently met an amazing 85 year old man by the name of Steve Allen. He was a valley whiz kid in the early 1950's. His specialty was filters and his technology underpins much of the early success of the valley and I doubt very much anyone knows who he is.
This could be a project of EE Times, to preserve the lives and the technolgies that made this valley great!
If you don't manufacture anything, you will lose those skills. Also you lose the hardware that accompanies that production. Here in the Valley, Halted Specialties is now down to just the one store off of Central. That leaves Weird Stuff, Excess Solutions and Advanced Component Electronics (ACE) for any used or salvage hardware to experiment with.
Enjoyed seeing all the mechanism in the old reference. It is now online at http://507movements.com/. The Audel reference handbooks from 1917 on electricity is an interesting read. It's first volume is dedicated to Edison, and covered in some 10 volumes covering everything known from wiring, batteries and hardware. The map of the old DC wiring of Manhatten is included. The Edison plant was on the other side of the East River, and the return current path was supposed to be through the "ground". Instead, the bridge next to the plant carried the current, and massive corrosion of the bridge resulted.
That Tesla guy? Let him go to Westinghouse and show how dangerous AC power is by building the first electric chair.
Betajet beat me to mentioning Asimov's "The Feeling of Power" (and it's widely available online.)
But the underlying process has been going on for a long time. The issue becomes one Hal Draper explored in a story called "MS Fnd in a Lbry", in which there was simply so much information that it was buried under multiple levels of indexes, and a civilization fell into ruin because no one could get to the underlying data.
The issue isn't whether we know how to do something - it's whether we can find out. A lot of old skills are no longer practiced because we simply don't need to do things that way now. Ity might well be difficult to find people who can still do it the old way, by why would you have to?
But records exist of the way we used to do them, so it ought to be possible to relearn them should we have to. An awful lot of those old tomes are being made available on line. Project Gutenberg has an increasing number of them.
Remember when you could browse through a Radio Shack store for opamps, timers, resistors and caps, transistors, speaker drivers, crossover networks, etc? Where did all this go?
You can still find some of those parts in the pull-out drawers. They don't have a huge selection like Digi-Key, but sometimes you can find something workable. They also have some kits, like Arduino-based projects.
I've often wondered about this kind of thing. How much use would I be in a post apocaplyptic world? If they were still lying around, I could string a few transistors and ICs together to do something useful. But if not, I couldn't even make a transistor. I might make a crystal diode. Going back even further, could I make a steam engine from the start of the industrial revolution? Or even beyond that, could I smelt Iron out of rocks to make spearheads? I doubt it. So I'd be less use than someone from the Iron Age.
In my experience, it depends on the Radio Shack store. There are several within walking distance of me. One still has a good parts selection, and someone who actually knows something about them. The rest just want to sell you a cell phone, and haven't a clue about what they stock.