Then and Now: A Fast-Forward Tour of Gadget History

By  |  Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 12:59 am

Then and NowAstonishing 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.

Kodak Cameras

Cameras

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.”

Navigation Devices

Navigation Devices

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.

Television Sets

Television Sets

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.

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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Rick Says:

    The word “omnipresent” is used twice, both times incorrectly. Even if it were not the case that I do not own an iPod and I do not own a cell phone (I have a Sansa Sandisk music player, and I consider cell phones to be extremely rude devices), there are lots of places where neither can be found (most obviously in places where there are no people).

  2. hkyson Says:

    Related to the breakthroughs in cameras and television sets are the wasteful planned obsolescence programs of many manufacturers.

    Automobiles are an excellent example. Annual model changes often amount to little more than cosmetic changes like moving sheet metal around. Advertising campaigns say, in effect, that current models are the ultimate in perfection while earlier models are utter crap.

    This keeps money flowing to the companies making the cars, but such trivial changes are extremely wasteful of energy, natural resources, and the money of the consumers who are conned by this bullshit.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  3. diane Says:

    I think it is wonderful-all the new devices out there–I am 66 and help my friends learn how to use the pcs-It is a new world out there. Instead of lugging all that bulky crap around–you just slip your camera, ipod, gps, in your purse–you can even carry your laptop around any where you go–I love it.

  4. arcadata Says:

    That was a cool post – I liked the juxtaposition of the old with the new. I’m really amazed by how fast technology changes – amazing engineers! They really make the world go around!

  5. Mina Says:

    I loved the comparisons. I miss a lot of this old stuff though I’m not old enough to have seen them unless my grandparents had them. I still remember fixing such old things and setting my grandparents’ VCR for them for every recording they ever wanted, even setting the time. Talk about good times. These days, technology has gotten so advanced I can’t tinker with them without destroying them.

    Computers are easier to fix, thank goodness. I liked the funny moment mentioned about the video camera crushing you to death. Gives a new impression of “dying for your art”. I think the Segway is cool, but I don’t like the swaying concept. I would rather have the motion triggered by the handlebars. Oh well.

    I love Polaroid cameras. I still remember my grandparents’ very very old one. I remember my first camera. It was a Polaroid toy camera that used water to create watercolor prints on the hard-plastic cartridges. I would play with that over and over and over, though it only had a 3 colour spectrum to work with. That meant very strange-looking images but I loved it anyway. You’d think they would’ve stuck with black/white or sepia for the toy camera. As far as cameras go, Polaroid were the best value in cameras. Today’s digital cameras are the better value and I wish Polaroid would merge the PoGo with a built-in digital camera. I had a look at the website and descriptions, but can’t find any mention that its a camera. It seems to be a mobile printer since it talks about you transferring photos from your camera phone. One of these days, I want to take a picture on one of the first cameras that ever came out. Yes, I do mean the huge things with the tripod and curtain draped over the camera.

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  7. Andy Says:

    Some impressive product lineage here. Thanks for the article.

    Rick Says:
    February 27th, 2009 at 6:48 am
    The word “omnipresent” is used twice, both times incorrectly. Even if it were not the case that I do not own an iPod and I do not own a cell phone (I have a Sansa Sandisk music player, and I consider cell phones to be extremely rude devices), there are lots of places where neither can be found (most obviously in places where there are no people).

    C’mon Rick. You have better things to do than to proof read internet articles and prove yourself a man with no need for annoying cellphones. Most obviously.

  8. bill Says:

    I used to have something as a kid called a “See-n-say”. It was a boxee like TV set. that was about 6″ high X 6″ long, that had a record player on top of it. You would insert these cartoon strips at the top of the TV, play the record and the cartoon strip would move down, frame by frame, along with the record playing. I got it for Christmas in 1973 and used it a couple of times, for what it was, until I realized that you could play record songs on it.

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  10. Tvspel Says:

    Just read through the article and thought it was amazing. What a long way we as humanity have come. Only thing that it lacked was video games – surely there must have been something like board games? :D I sure for one wouldnt wanna trade away my xbox 360 :D

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