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

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


Cell Phones

Then: Motorola’s “portable radio telephone”, shown in a 1986 patent drawing

Now (almost!): Palm’s upcoming, highly promising Pre

Was it really only a quarter-century ago that cell phones were such a luxury that most of us didn’t know anyone well-heeled enough to shell out several thousand dollars for one? Or that they were so hefty that calling them “bricks” was erring on the side of understatement? Yes indeed. Cell phones got cheap and compact and omnipresent in the 1990s, and have spent the past decade transforming themselves into powerful, connected computers that happen to fit in your pocket. Contemporary phones like the Pre–I know it’s not for sale yet, but showing an iPhone here would have been a painful cliché –would have blown the mind of even the most future-minded gadget nerd in the mid-1980s. Even by current standards, they’re pretty darn amazing.



Then: Kodak’s convenient film cartridges, such as this model from 1905

Now: The stuff that replaced film–memory cards such as this SD one from SanDisk

The sizes and shapes may have changed, but for more than a hundred years, film was basically…film. But its days were numbered from the moment that consumer digital cameras hit the scene in the mid-1990s. At first, memory cards were small and pricey (I remember paying $100 for a 32MB one a decade or so ago). Today, you can pick up an SD card for not much more than you would have paid for a roll of 35mm film and processing back in the day. Except the memory card holds thousands of images rather than two or three dozen. And is far smaller. And eliminates the need for photofinishing. And can be used again and again and again and again and again and again…



Then: Carousel slide projectors like the one in this 1961 Kodak patent-filing drawing

Now: Pocket-sized projectors such as Optoma’s Pico

Some gadgets double as instant sight gags. In the old days, any reference to a slide projector was incomplete without a quip about using it to bore friends and family with vacation photos. The demise of film photography left the world with a lot fewer tedious slide shows, but the recent advent of teeny-tiny projectors using technology from TI and Microvision is a happy excuse to revive the old jokes. And as this technology gets better, cheaper, and more compact, projection could become a standard, built-in feature in gadgets such as phones and media players. Pretty cool–even if it can’t match the cozy “kerchunk” of a slide carousel advancing to the next image.



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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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