The Thursday Ten: Ten obsolete technologies

The things that make up this list are in various stages of dying out, leaving them as curiosities sold at flea markets and antique stores. In some cases, people are still using them. So some of these aren’t totally obsolete, just not doing all that well.

Rotary phones

I saw an estimate that 14% of telephones currently in use in the United States still have a dial on them, and that, as a result, phone companies still support pulse dialing. In fact, I learned that you can simulate pulse dialing by using the switchhook (the part that gets depressed when you set the receiver on it). Not something that I’m likely to try, but it is something to file away and remember. Most of the rotary phones still in use belong either to people living in rural areas or the elderly. My in-laws had an ancient telephone in their kitchen for years, and it still worked. There are (or were, anyway) those IVR applications that require that you call from a DTMF (touch-tone) phone. Radio Shack used to sell a DTMF tone generator that looked like a touch-tone keypad that would generate the tones if you had a rotary phone and needed to create the tones. Those of us who traveled to smaller towns would often learn, much to our chagrin, that the touch-tone phone in the hotel room actually used pulse dialing, and the Radio Shack appliance came in handy when that was the case.

We had a rotary phone when we lived in Chicago, because Illinois Bell would charge extra for touch-tone service. It wasn’t a lot of money, but there was a principle involved. I mean, they were hyping touch-tone service like crazy, then collecting an extra $2 a month from people that took the bait. Then they’d wonder why we hated them….

Slide rules

I posted something to Facebook a while back that said something to the effect of “be nice to old people, they made it through school without the Internet or Wikipedia.” My brother wrote back and said, “or calculators! You used a slide rule, didn’t you?”

Mine might have been the last generation of students that used the slide rule. The electronic calculator was just coming out, and, as with every new technology at the time, cost a small fortune. I got one when I went into college that cost almost as much as that year in college. Of course, I’m exaggerating (slightly), but the early devices that added, subtracted, multiplied, divided, and calculated squares and square roots would be several thousand dollars in today’s dollars. For that cost, you can buy your kid a fairly deluxe laptop and the software that make it useful, and have money to spare.

Wearing one of these on your belt marked you as a math and science genius, and therefore a geek, when you were in high school. (It was like when the car rental agencies used to proudly display their name all over their vehicles and use license plates that could readily be tied back to the agency. They were like huge signs that said, “HEY, CRIMINALS! I’M FROM OUT OF TOWN!”) You could pretty much count on a “swirlie” when you were wearing a slide rule.

Typewriters

In 1970, the Jesuits at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago required that everyone take typing in one of the semesters of their freshman year (you took speech in the other semester). The idea was, teach them to type and require that all their papers be typewritten from then on, so we don’t have to try and read their handwriting. Quite clever, the company of Ignacio de Loyola…

Typewriters are still around: a woman that I knew from my first writing group typed everything on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and you can still get a typewriter from nearly every office supply store. The Vermont Country Store even sells a manual (not electric) typewriter for $200, if you simply can’t live without one. Most people have found that having a desktop or laptop computer is more useful, but hey, if typing’s your thing, mazel tov.

Typing might have been the most important skill that I learned in high school. That doesn’t mean that I was good at it. I think I made one error per line on just about everything I ever typed. Nevertheless, it prepared me for a lifetime in information technology, where I continued to make typing errors, either on punch cards (more on that later) or on the screen. One of the things that they taught you in typing was how to fix your mistakes: use an eraser, use correction tape, use correction fluid, or retype the whole darn page until you get it right. It’s easier to fix things on the screen, before it’s been committed to paper. I like that.

Word processors

These were similar to typewriters, but better because you could correct your typos without using an eraser. You could make revisions to the document when you needed to, even if it was several years later, because you could save the document to disk (typically the 5 1/4″ floppy disks that were in vogue at the time). Word processors became popular in the late Sixties and Seventies, but as the desktop computer became cheaper and more powerful, companies opted for those instead. Wang, the company most associated with the machines, filed for bankruptcy in 1992, and today exist as a subsidiary of a Dutch company. There still might be a few word processors lying around, but most companies discovered that, with the deesktop computers, they no longer needed a sophisticated piece of hardware just for typing correspondence.

Teletypes

My mother-in-law repaired Teletypes for Western Electric during World War II. At one time, the big users of these were the United States Government and the major wire services (Associated Press, United Press International, etc.). It was basically a typewriter with which you could communicate with a computer. (UNIX, effectively a text-based operating system, still refers to text terminals as Teletypes; for you technical folks, their device files are in /dev/ttyX.) They consisted of a typewriter keyboard and a printer that used continuous-feed paper. Programmers used them in the days before CRT terminals, and used a lot of paper writing BASIC programs.

These machines would go almost nonstop at newspapers and radio and TV stations, delivering news, sports, and weather reports from the wire services. Someone would tear the stories off of the printer, and the newsreader or editor modified the story until it fit the broadcast or the column space alloted to it.

The breakup of AT&T in the Seventies was the beginning of the end for these machines. By 1990, they were no longer being used, as better technology became available.

I found this interesting: there is a reproduction of an ad for Teletype in the Wikipedia article about them. I used to work next door to the location given in the article. Small world.

Keypunches

If typewriters were evil, keypunches were downright Satanic. Their sole purpose was to punch holes in eighty-column cards so computers with card readers could read them. There was no way to correct a mispunched card; you had to throw it out and start all over again. You could spend hours keypunching a program as a result. Most companies dispensed with them as soon as they came up with the key-to-tape and key-to-disk method of inputting data into a computer.

I was interviewing a girl who was graduating from my alma mater for a job with the bank I worked for. When I asked her if the card punches were still there, she told me that everything was being done with TSO and everyone had an online account. This was about three years after I graduated.

Eighty-column cards themselves were nothing but trouble. They didn’t work if you spilled coffee on them, they fell on the floor and got all over the place, and were in general a big pain in the backside. I watched an entire quarter’s worth of programming work fly into Lake Michigan one breezy spring evening when the two boxes (1,000 cards each) containing my final project fell off the rack on my bicycle when I hit a bump. I discovered that all you can do when disasters like that strike is to stand there and watch it happen.

Fax

There are still plenty of fax machines around, and they’re readily available at office supply stores, usually as a combination printer, scanner, and fax. They’re mostly used for sending and receiving legal documents requiring a signature and forms that must be completed by hand, and even then, you can scan the documents into a PDF and email them. All you need then is a scanner. That’s all that a fax machine is, anyway: it scans a document, digitizes it, and sends it to another fax machine over phone lines. That means you need a telephone line to send the fax, preferably one that you use only for the fax machine. I found that, for the amount of faxing that I do, it’s more cost-effective to take the document to The UPS Store and fax it from there, or take it somwhere to be scanned into a PDF and email it. So they make less sense every day.

Image courtesy Fuzzimo.com

Vinyl records

Again, there are still a lot of them around, and some people still play them. The real sound snobs insist that this is the only way to enjoy music. Whether or not they’re right, I don’t know, but I prefer having all my music on my iPod.

Long-playing (LP) records and 45 rpm 7″ singles began replacing 78 rpm records in the 1950’s. The LP format, allowing for multiple songs on a single disk, was an improvement over the old 78’s, because you weren’t getting up every five minutes (the maximum play time on the 78) to play the next song. This was clearly better for symphony lovers, who no longer had to have their listening experience broken up into 5-minute pieces. The 45 rpm record was ideal for the manufacturers of jukeboxes, who made their money one song at a time (ten cents each, three for a quarter).

What the LP and the 45 didn’t do was make music portable. At one time, the Ford Motor Company experimented with placing turntables that turned at a very slow 16 2/3 rpm in their vehicles, but they didn’t go over so well. Nevertheless, vinyl was the way music was bought and played until compact disks took over.

Still, people love the old vinyl, and there are lots of stores specializing in used LP’s and 45’s. Obsolete, maybe, but not going anywhere any time soon.

8-Track tapes

8-track tapes were the answer to making music portable. As far as it went, it wasn’t bad: four programs of stereo music (or two programs of quadrophonic music, another invention that came and went), living on a tape loop, encased in a cartridge that didn’t require much protection under normal use. The cartridges were impervious to heat and cold, making them ideal for use and storage in the car, and there weren’t the skips, scratches, snaps or pops associated with vinyl. The players themselves fit in the car dashboard.

Perfect, right? Well, not exactly. There was the small problem of a slight delay when the program changed. You’d hear a “ka-chunk” while the tape heads re-aligned themselves for the next program. This was okay when a song ended before the change. Unfortunately, as often as not the program change came in the middle of a song, usually the best song on the album. We were right back to the problem of recording symphonies on 78 rpm records. Plus, after a while the tapes would break down, stretch, or get jammed in the player.

Cassette tapes

While cassettes were far from the perfect solution (the quality of the sound was poorer and the playback mechanics were more complicated), they were a better solution for most people than 8-track tapes. And, with the advent of the Sony Walkman in the late Seventies, music was portable everywhere, not just in the car. You could listen to music (or lectures, or books) just about anywhere: at the gym, at work, on the bus, while jogging, or while falling asleep in bed. There was a greater chance that the tape would get jammed in the player, break, or stretch, but basically, they were perfect, and remained popular until digital music on compact discs became the standard. There’s still a market for blank cassettes, but the prerecorded cassettes are pretty much history.

So there you have it: ten obsolete technologies. Your Thursday Ten.

16 thoughts on “The Thursday Ten: Ten obsolete technologies

  1. OMG I remember these. We had a rotary phone and were on a party line when I was a kid. My first job was as a keypunch operator…LOL and yes I had both 8 tracks and cassettes. LOL

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    1. I avoided the 8-tracks. A couple of friends had them, and I decided that having songs split across two programs would make me insane. With the party line, did each house have its own ring? I never had to deal with them, so I’m just going on what I’ve heard.

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      1. yes, each house had it’s own ring. since there were only 2 houses on our ‘line’, it wasn’t so bad. LOL I had lots of 8 tracks and played them in the car all the time.

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  2. I should send Ken of the Many Thousand CDs over here for this post. I’m sure he’d have a lot to say! Ditto/mimeo is still around, for some diehards, I know. And we were talking about four-speed record players on the 4th — one of the people at our party had (when she was a kid) a record player that played all four speeds, including the “one below 33 and a third”.

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    1. By all means, send him. Most modern turntables only play 33 and 45. Most likely anyone who still has 78’s is playing them on a vintage turntable with a stylus made for 78’s. (They’re thicker because the grooves on a 78 were wider.)

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  3. We have a record player that plays 78s. It’s old, obviously, but Bruce likes to break out “Victory at Sea” once in a while. 🙂

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