A while back, in one of my posts, I mentioned in passing the old film projectors (and the reel-type movies that came in the big old metal cannisters) that we had back when I was in school. In a comment to that post, my friend Lime, who is probably 12 or 13 years my junior, noted that they still had those projectors when she was in school. Which got me to wondering just when VCRs drove the old-style film projectors out of the schools. Any of you young whippersnappers care to enlighten me?
Those little 'background technologies' are, for me, a fascinating glimpse of history, sort-of a more 'mundane' version of 'Where Were You When. . .?'. I'm not even really talking about the big 'foreground stuff', like how my grandparents were born into a world in which horses were the main engines of transportation and work, and before they died, they saw men walking on the moon. Rather, I have in mind the more 'background' stuff that you don't particularly think about, but that significantly color the day-to-day ways that you live your life. Like my grandma's old wringer-style washing machine, and stuff like that. . .
My dad is old enough to remember when Rural Electrification (one of FDR's Alphabet Agencies) came to his dad's farm. Which, conversely, means that he's old enough to remember what life was like before his dad's house had electricity - the gas-light spigots on the walls, doing chores by lantern-light, and stuff like that. . . I remember as a kid, being aghast that they didn't have TVs when my dad was a kid (my dad's speech is still full of little idioms like, "Holy mackerel, Andy!" that I found out much later were relics of the radio shows he listened to in his childhood).
This all came rushing back to my mind when my kids were similarly aghast that, when I was a kid, we didn't have VCRs. And how do I explain to them the trips we took to the store when I was a kid, with an armload of vacuum tubes to check on the drug-store's Tube Tester, to find the one that was fritzed, so we could replace it, and get our TV working again?
Jen and I have tended to be a tad 'behind the curve' when it comes to 'technological innovations' (which at least had the beneficial effect of sparing us from 8-track tapes). It was well into the 90s when, in the space of a year or two, we got our first microwave oven, our first VCR, and our first cordless phone. Most of which was driven by our in-house population boom - microwave ovens meant that we could heat an after-school snack in 30 seconds or so (which becomes more critical when you need four or five of them in quick succession); a VCR meant that we weren't held captive to network TV programming, and a cordless phone meant that Jen could conduct her daily business on the phone without being tethered to within 25 feet of the phone (before we 'went cordless', we bought an extra-long 25-foot cord for the handset, so Jen could reach about half of the main floor of our house). The cordless phone also eliminated the coiled cord snaking through the house for the kids to 'clothesline' themselves on. Although we have found that it's handy to keep an old cord-style phone tucked away, in case the power ever goes out. . .
I still have, stashed away in my attic, boxes of 12-inch black-vinyl discs (and a turntable to play them on, although I'm not sure it would be compatible with my stereo anymore) which constituted my collection of recorded music from my college days. By the early 80s, the market was well on its way over to casette tapes, which were in turn driven out by CDs in the 90s. So, I've rolled over my music collection a couple times. By now, I've got most of my favorite old vinyl albums on CD, but there are a few that haven't been issued on CD yet, and probably never will be. . .
Likewise, my library of VHS movies has mostly been converted to DVDs by now, but there are a few that never will be. We bought a combo VCR/DVD a couple years ago, with the intention of converting some of the old VHS tapes to DVDs, but I think you need at least a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering to program that stuff. But at least the combo unit will still play the old VHS tapes, so as long as it lives, we've still got access to them. . .
With phones, we're already to the point where cell phones are ingrained in our daily lives, and we can't quite imagine how we ever got by without them. I got my first cell phone on a promotional deal from my car-insurance company, when I started commuting an hour one-way to work, figuring that I would be glad to have it if I ever had car trouble 50 miles from home (which I did, and I was). I made maybe a half-dozen 'emergency' calls a year on it, and that was fine. Then, some years back, 4M talked us into getting a 'family plan' so we could all be in closer touch. Of course, he had other things in mind beyond simply keeping in touch with his parents, and we quickly learned that he could receive calls from other people than just us, so we entered into a whole new realm of trying to manage our kids' cell-phone usage. Which I'm not sure we've managed yet; at least, not terribly effectively. Some of our friends have dispensed with their 'land lines' altogether; we're not quite to that point, but it's not an exotic concept to us anymore. . .
It's funny, but I remember when fax machines were this gee-whiz new technology (maybe 15-20 years ago?), and now hardly anybody faxes anything anymore. Mostly because of e-mail. And you can all congratulate Jen, who got her first e-mail account about six months ago, and has finally decided that she really ought to check it, maybe even as often as daily (I think the other day she had something like 75 items in her in-box; so she's getting some rudimentary 'training' just reading and deleting them)
Here's a kinda cool one - I'm 54 years old; I graduated from high school in 1973. I think that my class was within a year or two of being the last one that was actually taught how to use a slide rule. When I was a college freshman, electronic calculators were still fairly exotic - a high-end 'scientific calculator' still cost something like $750. The Engineering College had one in the library that they kept locked to a heavy table, and you had to sign up for time on it. So you'd systematically work through your homework to get the problems to where they were finished except for the last few calculations that you needed the calculator for.
The college bookstore still carried a full line of slide rules when I arrived as a freshman; by my junior year, they were gone. My freshman roommate had a very basic 'four-function' calculator (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), and we would have a steady stream of guys on our floor, coming to our room to use my roommate's calculator. Until one of the other guys on the floor came back from Christmas break with one that had a square-root key; then everybody (including us, when we needed to calculate a square-root) wore out the path to his door. My junior year, my folks got me a 'scientific calculator' for Christmas (which cost around $60; which shows how the 'market' had changed in just a couple years). And of course, now banks give away calculators - the size and thickness of a credit card - as a 'bonus' for opening a new account (or was that a few years ago, and utterly lame by now?). . .
My dad retired in the late '80s. One Christmas, a couple years after that, we were down at my parents' house for Christmas. All the gifts were handed out, and we were all sort-of sitting back, watching the grandkids play with their presents. My dad stood up, excused himself, and walked back down the hall. He returned a couple minutes later with an oblong black rectangular package. "You might as well have this," he said. "I don't suppose I'll be needing it much anymore." I immediately recognized it to be the leather case containing his slide rule. It was like an old warrior handing down his sword. I didn't know what to say; I was incredibly touched. Jen was in tears at the 'symbolic significance' of it. I still have my dad's slide rule; in fact, I've made a few minor repairs to the black-leather case. I still know how to use it; I suppose I should teach my own kids, if any of them are interested.
I know that, even now, it's mostly a museum-piece. But it wasn't that long ago - within my own lifetime, much less my dad's - that those little sticks of wood-and-ivory were the work-horses of scientific and engineering calculation. . .
So - what about you all? What 'gadgets' do you remember that were common-as-air, once-upon-a-time, but have long-since gone by the board?