In the modern world, technology is all around us. We take it for granted. Because of that, it can be hard to imagine what the world was like before some items came along - even if we somehow managed to live without them in our own lifetimes.
There are some gadgets that, whether it’s because they do a job significantly better or simply because they are cool, make a bigger difference to our lives than others.
Let’s take a look at some of the tech gadgets that have had a major impact.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, if you had a stereo at all, it would have been a big thing in a wood veneered box and you - or more likely your parents - would spend hours positioning the speakers and finding just the right spot in the room to get the full effect. Then in 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman. Suddenly there was a device that gave you high-quality stereo sound anywhere. In the street, on the bus, at home, it didn’t matter. The Walkman also led to a rise in the sale of music on cassette rather than vinyl. And although it now looks rather dated, the Walkman’s legacy lives on in the latest MP3 players and smartphones that still allow us to take music wherever we go.
Mobile phones had been around for 20 years or more before the first generation iPhone launched in 2007. The Apple device wasn’t even the first phone to have a touchscreen interface; that honour goes to the IBM Simon launched in 1993. The iPhone, however, was the first phone to be cool, the first that you would buy for style reasons rather than practical ones. It also changed our perception of the mobile and kick-started a whole new generation of devices such that most phones now are smartphones that can do a whole lot more than just make calls and send texts.
Rather like the Walkman, the PlayStation games console was a success because of Sony’s skill at making an object desirable rather than any technical innovation. It didn’t do anything significantly better than other consoles, but it was an attractive affordable package and, crucially, Sony made sure that developers were able to access its features to create games people wanted to play. Little wonder it was the first console to sell 100 million units.
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The video games business was flagging when the NES was launched in 1983. If a device can be credited with saving an industry then this is it. The NES’ smart looks meant that you weren’t ashamed to have one in your lounge, and it had features like its interface and handheld controllers that still influence today’s consoles.
Home movies used to mean Super 8 film. Shaky, grainy, no sound, and to watch it you had to set up a bulky projector and screen, close the curtains and generally disrupt the whole household. Once VHS had won the format war over Betamax, the video camcorder became more affordable and changed our holiday movies into something you could simply watch on your TV with minimal effort. As the price of the technology fell, more features became available that would previously have been the preserve of the professional. The advent of digital has meant camcorders becoming smaller and still more feature packed, offering better quality footage, yet remaining affordable.
Video Cassette Recorder (VCR)
The idea of recording video on magnetic tape dates back to the 1950s. The first VCRs (the C standing for cassette) for domestic use appearing in the late 1970s. These were seriously chunky machines, the man from Radio Rentals would buckle under the weight as he carried it up your front path from his van, but they brought about a minor domestic revolution. For the first time, you needn’t miss a programme because there was something good on “the other side” or because you needed to go out. You could simply record things to watch later.
There were initially two competing formats, VHS backed by a consortium of companies, and Betamax from Sony. Although Betamax had smaller cassettes and offered higher quality images, it eventually lost out to VHS’s ubiquity. We also saw the rise of a new video rental industry. Technology has now moved on, after a brief flirtation with recording to DVD, most of us now record using a hard disk system that also allows you to pause live broadcasts - that is if we bother to record at all rather than catching up online instead.
Flat Screen TV
Back to the 1970s again, when a large screen TV meant a 26-inch housed in a huge wooden cabinet - pity the poor Radio Rentals man again. The size was because a cathode ray tube (CRT) was needed to produce the picture and that had to stick out at the back of the set. Although it improved and allowed screens to become wider and flatter, we were still stuck with CRT technology into the 21st century which meant that your TV still needed to be a massive box in the corner of the room. Then as we approached the 2010s, LCD and LED technology allowed TVs and computer monitors to be made thin and flat. Your TV took up less space and you could even hang it on the wall.
Today’s screens allow you a cinema-like experience without taking up half your lounge or giving the delivery people a hernia. One good thing about those old CRT sets, however, was the wooden cabinet which allowed the speakers to resonate and give you really good sound quality.
Just as the Walkman revolutionised listening to music, Amazon’s Kindle changed reading. No longer did you have to take bulky books on holiday; you could carry your entire library in a device that would slip into your hand luggage. The screen offered an easy-on-the-eyes, no glare reading experience and a full battery charge would last for weeks. Once you’d finished your book you could simply download another from the web with no need to visit a shop or wait for delivery. There have been competing devices, but the Kindle remains supreme, largely because it’s backed by Amazon’s vast library of content.
Before the iMac came along, desktop computers, even Apple ones like the Macintosh, were largely functional machines. The iMac made computers desirable. By having a smart design and a one-box approach, you could place an iMac in your trendy loft apartment and not be ashamed of it. Apple, without significantly enhancing the technology, had made something people wanted to buy because it looked good. iMacs were cool and without them, we wouldn’t have the huge range of MacBooks that you see in shops today.
Just as the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone and the iMac wasn’t the first computer, the iPad wasn’t the first tablet. But once again Apple had pulled off the trick of making a device that people wanted to buy. Before the iPad, nobody really knew what a tablet was. Once the iPad came along in 2010, everybody wanted one, partly because it was cool and partly because it was easy to use. Apple’s genius here was not so much in the hardware but in the operating system and interface that made it easy and intuitive to use.
Playing video games used to mean slumping on the sofa with a handheld controller or joystick. When the Wii launched in 2006 it was - quite literally - a game changer. Instead of sitting on the sofa controlling sprites on a screen, you played games as you would in real life, standing up, waving your arms around and bumping into the furniture. Gaming was no longer an occupation for couch potatoes. What’s more, the whole family could join in. Nintendo later capitalised on this with the launch of the Wii Fit balance board along with software that allowed you to exercise and have fun.
Remember photography before digital? You had to take your pictures - no more than 36 please - unload the film, take it down to the chemists and wait a week to get your prints back. You would then have a look at them, throw away the blurry one or the ones where you’d chopped grandma’s head off, then stick them in a drawer and ignore them. Digital cameras first appeared in the mid-1980s but, like most new technology, they were expensive and so confined to professionals.
By the late 1990s, however, digital had become the norm and film was on the wane. Now you could take as many pictures as your memory card could hold, instantly delete any bad ones, tweak not quite right ones on the PC, email them to friends or share them on social media. You could then upload them to the cloud and ignore them. See how technology makes things better?