Sunday, December 07, 2008


This we all know: As time passes, new technologies replace old.

When I was of Snot-Nose age, I would watch “Lassie” on TV and marvel at the old-fashioned telephones. Why, they didn’t even have a dial! Now, the only evidence that telephones even had dials once upon a time is the verb we use: We still talk of dialing a telephone even though dials have gone the way of the buggy-whip.

What astonishes me - when I bother to think about it - is the number of technologies that were the Next New ’n’ Exciting Thing when they appeared within my lifetime, and that are now dusty relics. Some examples:

The Instamatic camera. Before Kodak’s easy-to-load Instamatic cameras appeared were unveiled in 1964, you loaded a camera by sticking a roll of film or a 35mm cassette in the back and threading the film through the camera and onto a take-up roll. But with the Instamatic, you just dropped a cartridge in and snapped the camera back closed. No switching rolls from spindle to spindle, no rewinding, no manual dexterity or thinking required. So what if the cameras were cheap pieces of crap that took blurry snapshots? They were easy to use. Now, the Instamatic is as obsolete as any other film camera in the Digital Age.

Flashcubes and flashbars. If you wanted to take flash pictures back in the day, you’d stick a flashbulb into the socket of your flashgun, then try not to burn the crap out of your fingers removing the hot, burnt-out bulb. One bulb was good for one shot...and once in a while, a bulb would explode, showering hot glass on your Aunt Tillie. Electronic flashes were expensive, the provenance of the Serious Photographer. And then along came the flashcube, four bulbs mounted in a cube that plugged into a socket atop your (what else?) Instamatic camera. You could take four shots in quick succession before having to change out the cube...and later, the flashbar would give you a half-dozen shots. Now, who uses flashbulbs? Who remembers flashbulbs?

Videodiscs. Pioneer’s Laservision discs made their debut in 1980, followed by RCA’s CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) system a year later. The Laserdisc was an LP-size platter (the audio LP being yet another obsolete technology, albeit one that was around before I was born) that eventually evolved into today’s DVD; the RCA discs were analog platters that, like audio LP’s, were played with a needle, but that had video encoded in them. The extremely delicate discs were encased in a plastic sleeve so that you never touched (or even saw) the actual disc itself when inserting it into the player. We owned an RCA system back in the early 1980’s, along with a pile of movies. Videocassettes killed off the RCA discs by 1986...and now they, too, are on their way out.

Eight-track audio cassettes. Need I say more?

Digital watches with red LED readouts. When these came out - in the early 1970’s, I believe, they seemed hella cool. But you had to push a button to make the numbers appear. Liquid-crystal displays killed this technology off.

Floppy discs. Remember them? I still have a pile of them, but there’s no point in keeping them because not a single computer in the house is equipped with a floppy disc reader. The hard-case 3½" floppy - the most popular format - appeared in 1984 and originally could hold 720 kB of data when formatted. One modern double-layer DVD can hold 8.55 GB - equivalent to 11,875 of those floppies. Of course, the entire field of Electronic Computational Engines is strewn with technologies that appeared, blossomed, withered, and crumbled to dust, seemingly within moments.

Beepers. I knew a guy who used to carry not just one, but two beepers...he had Beep Waiting. (Harh.) With cellphones and PDA’s as ubiquitous as they are today, there’s not much point in owning a device that someone would call in order to tell you to call him back. But that is exactly what the pocket pager is for. Of course, finding a pay telephone (another technology that is rapidly becoming obsolescent) with which to make that call may be problematic. Pagers are still around as they are more reliable than cell phones, especially in times of disaster...but their use is increasingly confined to emergency personnel.

I could go on and on. So many New Things have come along, only to end up on the dust-heap of history. You probably remember a few of your own. But who knew that we would see so many of them...and years later, wonder what happened to them?

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