Do you have any favorite stories of older technology that has gone by the board? Do you hanker for things that are no longer available, having been overtaken by new technology?
My wife had a birthday recently. Knowing how much she loves her dogs (they are her children, and she loves them as much as, if not more than, me), I thought of getting her something to remind her of all of the dogs we’ve had during our 30-year marriage. A digital photo frame (DPF) came to mind. My wife is not overly fond of technology, so this would be ideal because it would just sit around, trotting out photos.
These devices were all the rage not too long ago. In fact, I have a very early version knocking around somewhere, but it probably has a resolution of only 320 × 200 pixels, which means it looks gruesomely grainy.
So I did the rounds of our local technology shops, only to hear things like, “No, we haven’t had those for years” and “You want WHAT??!!” and “Just get a USB stick and plug it into your TV.”
By some strange quirk of fate, we purchased a smart TV only the other day, but my wife always manages to get it stuck on YouTube, so scratch that idea and proceed to Plan B. A quick internet search revealed that eBay has a good variety of DPFs, many of them quite large and advertised as brand-new, but they are typically up at about the $100 mark. I did find some smaller ones — about 7 inches, which was about the size I wanted — for a little under 50 bucks.
Some technologies have been lost in the mists of time.（Source: pixabay.com）
I was going to go for one of these smaller devices when I happened to take my wife into a second-hand shop in town. There, in the original box, was a Philips Digital Photo Frame with an 8-inch, 800 × 600-pixel display (which is quite adequate at that size). “How much do you want for that?” I surreptitiously asked the proprietor when my wife was looking at some table lamps at the other end of the shop. “Oh, $10 and it’s yours,” he replied, with the result that my wife is now the proud owner of this prime piece of antique technology.
I tried it with a USB stick, but that stuck out of the side, looking very ugly, so I got a 16-GB SD card and used that for the photos. I loaded about 100 photos, which consumed only 129 MB, so total overkill. I know what reactions I’d get if I went to the local computer shops asking for a 1-GB SD card, so I reckon that the 16-GB card can stay in there unless I happen across a smaller one. My wife loves seeing a different picture of her “babies” every time she looks at it, so I’m glad that DPFs haven’t quite gone away.
But this got me thinking about all of the high-tech ideas and gadgets that are now gone… passé… history. The obvious ones will spring to mind fairly easily — VHS and Betamax video recorders being probably the standout examples here. They’re at least two generations out of date now. At first, they were overtaken by DVD recorders, and now — as mentioned above — you can simply plug a USB stick into your TV and record onto that. As an alternative, you can record to “the cloud.” No moving parts, no belt replacements, no head cleaning, and no unwinding tape from the inside of your machine and trying to rewind it into the cassette.
One point in favor of VHS recorders was that you just pressed one button on your remote to record — beat that, smart TVs! Which brings me to another dinosaur — the audio cassette tape. Actually, I am one of the lucky people to have dealt with an even older technology — reel to reel. With a bit of ingenuity, you could have a lot of fun with that technology, including playing things backwards, at half speed, at double speed, and so on. Anyone who has listened to the old BBC Goon Shows will have a good understanding of the effects that could be achieved. And I think that, in his collection, Max has an even older technology in the form of a wire recorder, but I digress…
Cassettes — and the older 8-track recorders — gave way to CDs and then to MP3 files; once again, no moving parts. And I haven’t even mentioned vinyl records. Now THERE is a can of worms. They’re back in production for those who think they have a “warmer” sound than digital formats. I’m not convinced. On the other hand, although I do like the clean sound of CDs, there was a certain amount of fun involved in cleaning your LPs, taking them lovingly out of their plastic sleeves, getting your stylus pressure to just on one gram… clicking open a CD case is just not the same.
Furthermore, with modern services like Spotify, you don’t even need to store the audio files yourself, let alone the hardware. When I do my back exercises these days, I am more likely to put YouTube on to play music than to select files from my MP3 collection.
Back to computer stuff. When I started playing around with computers, LCDs were just a gleam in someone’s eye. TVs and computers used CRTs (in fact, the first couple of computers that I owned used a TV as the monitor). And those TVs and monitors stuck out the back about the same amount as the width of the screen or more. Our first TV when I was a kid was a 17-inch black-and-white clunker that I got pretty good at adjusting. Years later, my folks got a Sony 26-inch color TV. This was still a CRT, and it was far too bulky and heavy to be mounted on a wall, but we thought it was amazing.
I remember touting my wares at a show once and my computer supplier lent me a 17-inch CRT monitor. At that time, when the standard computer monitor was 12 or 13 inches, this was awesome (as would have been the cost, if I’d had to buy one). Today, my PC has two 24-inch LCD monitors, both given to me as gifts, as the donor had acquired even bigger ones, so they are a bit old and fairly heavy, but they are wonderful compared to what I used to use.
We bought a new 40-inch LCD smart TV not long ago (the same one that my wife keeps getting stuck on YouTube) and it was light enough to lift with one hand. And even that is small potatoes — if you want to keep up with the Joneses, you need the latest 75- or 80-inch 4K TV. Even our thrift shops won’t take CRTs anymore. A few years ago, they would take CRT TVs as long as they had a set-top box with them. RIP CRTs. “Sic Transit Gloria,” as they say. Even oscilloscopes, the last bastion of the CRT, have succumbed to the LCD screen. Admittedly, these modern devices take up a lot less bench space, although I still have a fondness for my old clunker with its wiggly green lines, along with very fond memories of my first computer monitors with the squiggly green writing.
Getting right back to basics, the vacuum tube — or valve, as I knew it — gave way to the transistor, then to the integrated circuit, which went through SSI, MSI, LSI, and VLSI incarnations and then to the multi-billion-transistor nanometer technologies by which we categorize them today. In the space of one 12AX7 (ECC83) vacuum tube, you can now fit tens of billions of transistors. At least tubes had a nice warm glow to show you they were working (they also offered an easy way of finding out if the HT/high-tension supply was present).
I am diabetic, and I’m lucky enough to have a palm-sized blood glucose monitor that needs only a tiny drop of blood to tell me how good my control is. This device is a fraction of the size, needs less blood, and works in a quarter of the time of the first one I got 20 years ago. Also, it’s a quarter of the price. I read a book not long ago by a guy who lived long before any of this was possible, and he begged and borrowed one of the old machines that needed a whole desk. This is one instance in which I DON’T miss the old technology.
And the list goes on… phones have gone from something big and black that worked through an operator to tiny enough to fit in your pocket and call anywhere in the world (assuming that you’ve worked out how to use them). Watches have gone from a bunch of springs and gears, through quartz-controlled movements and then digital displays, to something that monitors your health and body function as well.
Cars have gone from having a basic electrical system requiring only a few switches to having far more electronics in them than the Apollo moon modules, but don’t try and fix them yourself without a bunch more electronics. I knew my first car, a 1958 VW beetle only two years younger than me, inside out. My current car is nearly 20 years old, but I’d still not be keen to do things on the engine. And today’s cars are getting nearer and nearer to full “fly by wire” systems.
The pace of technological change in my lifetime — 60 years or so — is pretty awesome, sometimes scarily so. The technology that we have these days would have been inconceivable only a few years ago, but I sometimes hanker for the older stuff, and I know I’m not alone. Do you have any favorite stories of older technology that has gone by the board? Do you hanker for things that are no longer available, having been overtaken by new technology? Please comment below.