By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 12:59 am
Astonishing breakthrough. Household object. Funny anachronism. Such is the journey that nearly every great gadget travels. (Sometimes it takes several generations; sometimes it takes just a few years.) And then it happens all over again with whatever hot new gizmo rendered the old one obsolete.
While rummaging through the endlessly fascinating Google Patents recently, I was moved to compare some significant devices of the past with their modern-day counterparts. In some cases, old and new are connected by seamless evolution (the cell phone, for instance). And in some cases, they’re separated by seismic technological shifts (like the one that replaced silver-halide film with tiny slivers of silicon).
After the jump, a dozen comparisons of past (in the form of patent drawings) and new.
Then: George Eastman’s visionary original camera
Now: Kodak’s M1033 digital camera
By any measure I can imagine, the Kodak camera is easily the single consumer-electronics product with the longest, most distinguished direct corporate lineage, Kodak founder George Eastman having patented dry, rolled photo film and the cameras that used it in 1888, the same year he trademarked the name “Kodak.” In the 1880s, the very notion that an amateur could take photos without technical training or fancy equipment was a revelation; today, Kodak, like all digital camera companies, competes on factors like megapixels, zoom lenses, and pocketability. Yet the overarching goals of Eastman’s first camera–make photography fast, simple, affordable, and portable–are as relevant as ever, as is his original slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.”
Then: Leimer and Kempf’s inventive 1879 compass knife
Now: Tom Tom’s ONE XL
GPS handhelds are among the most recent of consumer-electronics innovations, the global-positioning satellites that guide them having only become fully operational in 1993. But that doesn’t mean that gadget-loving mankind hasn’t searched for ways to simplify navigation for a long, long time. In 1879, a couple of inventors patented a handy-dandy pocket knife with a compass built into the handle; it also boasted a ruler, a pencil, and a magnifying glass. It was a clever idea then, and similar knives are available today. Good thing, too: As impressive as current GPS devices from Tom Tom and its competitors are, I don’t know of a single model that will help you clean a dead fish.
Then: Philco’s futuristic 1950s Predicta
Now: Sony’s XEL-1 OLED TV
The aptly-named Predicta was an remarkably forward-looking TV for its time: In an era when most sets were apologetically bulky pieces of furniture, it stripped the cathode-ray tube out of the cabinet in the interest of compactness and modern design. Eisenhower-era consumers weren’t ready–the Predicta was a flop. Today, however, they’re highly collectible and a company called Telstar even makes new ones. The Predicta’s pedestal design is also echoed–intentionally or not–in the case styling of sexy Sony’s 11-inch OLED TV. Which consumers would probably buy by the carload if it weren’t for the pricetag: $2499.