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

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


Pocket Radios

Then: Zenith’s stylish, svelte circa-1959 transistor model

Now: Pioneer’s on-the-go XMP3 satellite receiver

Apple may have captured the world’s imagination with a product that offered “1000 songs in your pocket,” but the idea of a whole lotta tunes in a tiny package dates to the mid-1950s and the Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio. It was soon joined on the market by rivals such as the Zenith above–which, like the Regency, sported an industrial design that remains striking. (And dig the Zenith’s handle–it doubles as a kickstand.) Today, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a cool terrestrial pocket radio (though you can still buy ’em, of course). And even pocket satellite radios such as the Pioneer above feel like a endangered species over the long term, given Sirius XM’s shaky condition and the profusion of free services that turn phones into radios.

Video Recorders

Video Recorders

Then: Sony’s not-yet-laughable Betamax as shown in a patent filing from 1977–I wish my family owned one when I was a kid

Now: TiVo’s TiVo HD digital video recorder, like the one I do have right now

Yes, there was a time when “Betamax” was synonymous with “new and cool” rather than “old and obsolete.” That time would be the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, before it was clear that VHS would win the format wars. The drawing above dates from the days when programming a VCR was a particularly intricate job that involved turning knobs and flipping switches. It got easier eventually, but remained less than effortless, which is why TiVo (and one-time rival ReplayTV) appeared in 1999. A decade later, TiVo is more comfortably familiar than cutting-edge; the day will come when it feels as retro as VHS does now. But I’m sentimental enough that I hope it doesn’t arrive too soon.

Polaroid Cameras

Instant Cameras

Then: Polaroid’s remarkable SX-70, introduced in 1972

Now (well, soon): Polaroid’s PoGo, due in the spring

Until recently, I wouldn’t have included instant cameras in this story, since they seemed to be one of those rare technologies that were declared obsolete despite remaining unique and useful. The latter-day Polaroid company, however, has recently announced a PoGo camera that incorporates Zink’s inkless printing technology to produce small prints on its own–no printer required. I’m glad to see Polaroid making a true instant camera again. But let’s just say it: The SX-70 isn’t just niftier than the PoGo, it’s one of the most transcendent consumer-electronics products ever. It was an SLR; it collapsed for easy portability it was trimmed with leather (!); it produced much larger prints than the PoGo with far less work than any Polaroid camera that preceded it. You gotta wonder if the engineers behind the PoGo gave any thought to building the Zink technology into a camera that replicated the SX-70’s industrial design. I’d snap up one in a nanosecond, anyhow.

Okay, I’m feeling thoroughly nostalgic. What gadgets of yore do you miss? Which new ones do you feel luckiest to have?



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

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