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

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



Then: Samuel Ross’s ear-enveloping model of 1967

Now: Shure’s sound-isolating buds, which are enveloped by one’s ears

With the exception of oddities like the 1970s Bone Fone, headphones old and new share the same basic concept: Use tiny speakers nestled close to the listener’s ears to pump audio directly from music source to eardrum. The cup design sported by Ross’s earphones isn’t obsolete–there are still plenty of models that leave you looking like you’re wearing oversized earmuffs. But when gadget historians look back at personal audio in the early 21st century, they’ll think first of much smaller headphones that sit in the ear (like the iPod’s iconic earbuds) and sound-isolating models like these Shures, which seal up your ear canal so the music gets in and ambient noise stays out. Bonus: Unlike old-style headphones, new designs don’t dwarf the gadgets you plug them into.

Movie Cameras

Movie Cameras

Then: RCA’s behemoth of a camera, patented in 1932

Now: Pure Digital’s pocketable powerhouse, the Flip Mino HD

Judging from the patent drawings, the most interesting thing about RCA’s 1930s motion-picture camera may be that the engineers who invented it almost came up with the Segway seventy years before Dean Kamen did. The thing may have been a technological wonder in its day, but it has almost nothing in common with today’s affordable and portable HD cameras. Pure Digital’s Flips do excellent images and decent sound, and even help you edit your masterpieces, no film processing required. And there’s no possible scenario in which one can topple over and crush you to death.



Then: Wurlitzer’s gorgeous automatic phonograph, patented in 1939

Now: Apple’s omnipresent iPod

Social media? It may be the tiresome buzzword de jour, but it’s nothing new. Actually, the good old-fashioned jukebox may be the most inherently social entertainment gadget ever invented:  Every time you dropped a nickel in the slot and chose a song, you shared it with both friends and utter strangers. By contrast, there’s nothing unavoidably social about the personal jukebox known as the iPod–for many folks, it’s a downright anti-social device, as anyone who’s ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone who’s listening to one can attest. But the iPod and its rivals are among the most profound examples of miniaturization ever: The pocketable Classic shown above can hold 30,000 songs, 1250 times the capacity of the towering, classic Wurlitzer to its left.



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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.

  6. neoseikan Says:

    Hi. Harry. Would you like to write an article about a flashlight?

    I am neoseikan, the producer of Neofab Legion II, the brightest single LED flashlight. It has 742~748 real torch lumens.
    Would you like to write an article about these kind of strong light LED flashlights?
    If you are interested, here is the link:
    Thank you!

  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? 😀 I sure for one wouldnt wanna trade away my xbox 360 😀

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