From IBM Selectrics to Books
If you are amused by history that you just think of as being part of your own life experience there are museums that cater to you. The Royal BC Museum (in Victoria, BC) has a few large display cabinets, for example, that reinforce that theme. There are so many items there that were part of my childhood and the cabinets from 1940 onwards evoke vivid memories. You have to wonder how an engineer can also be such a Luddite…
When I was working at EMI on a large project for the 1980 Moscow Olympics my company vehicle was a Rover 3500 S (sold for a very short time before updating as the 3500 SE) which my Russian visitors were in awe of; they were particularly surprised that I did not remove the windshield wipers every time I parked the car (a big theft item from any vehicle in Moscow at the time). The V8 in the Rover was a delight but the live axle on the rear suspension and the rear drum brakes made it a real challenge to throw around the no-speed-restriction roads of Britain at that time. The infotainment system – not that we called it that, of course – consisted of a stereo Philips AM/FM radio with a cassette deck: really unusual because it also had recording functionality included.
Even then, even with Dolby noise reduction, the future of mobile cassette players was clearly going to be short-lived. The manual on the radio was careful to exhort the user not to use 90 minute cassettes and even on pre-recorded commercial tapes of a much shorter duration I sometimes had problems which required careful extrication of tape that got twisted because of road bumps. In that vein I was certainly not one to even consider owning a Sony Walkman and it was surprising to me how long that product lasted in the marketplace. The iPod, when it was introduced in 2001, killed analog recording systems pretty quickly. And despite two Popes owning such an MP3 device I was never tempted by Apple in that respect either.
I was, however, an early adopter of telephones in a vehicle. My first was in the UK with a General Post Office radiotelephone system. This used a six 25 kHz-channel AM system at about 71 MHz for the basestation and 85 MHz for the mobile. My telephone number was 13616 and with 30 W from the Pye Westminster transceiver in the trunk I could regularly make calls over 60 miles from a basestation. I also had an early cell bag phone in the trunk of my car in Oregon before progressing to an analog handheld in California. I haven’t got much further – yes, I now have a digital phone (are there any analog systems left in service?) but it is as basic as I could get it: no smartphone for me. That has to make me an odd man out in technology and when I look at the phone offerings from my carrier, they have just two simple phones: one a Samsung Rugby, which is a ruggedized flip-phone, and the other a Samsung C414 with big keys for the elderly.
There is the same Luddite tendency with videos. Netflix is an absolute no-no service for me because of the years where they threw pop-up advertising at me before browsers could cope with the intrusion. They have driven my local video stores out of business and yet when you look at their New Arrivals listings the latest offering is a January 2012 movie, Air Collision, which rates less than three stars on virtually every critic’s list.
Electronic mail – in both e-mail and various social messaging formats – has driven the postal services of the world into disarray, because they refused to change even with the writing in large print on the wall, and there has to be a fear for those of us who love handling books that their demise is close on the horizon.
In the past year I have made a concentrated effort to avoid the ghastly expense associated with buying every book that I would like and I have come to depend on the local public library. But the moment is close when the inevitable Kindle purchase has to be made. That’s going to be hard for me although I fervently hope that textbooks are going to be paper-based for a whole lot longer.
And like many billions around the world I am using Microsoft Word to enter this Editorial. My first experience with a word processing program – apart from a very strange IBM machine in my workplace that had a mind of its own and which I personally had nothing to do with – was on my Apple IIe. Apple Writer had, by that stage, grown up to have 80 columns and was capable (miraculously) of both upper and lower case letters! Moving to DOS on an IBM PC necessitated a move to WordPerfect and by version 5.1 it was the de facto standard for DOS. But that template over the keys could drive any sane person to drink. It therefore completely surprises me that the present version – now owned by Corel – is still a standard offering for professionals like lawyers.
I’d rather go back to a Selectric.