After reading an article on NPR about how the abacus—a counting device that ancient Romans relied on to collect taxes—is still widely used in preschool classrooms to teach math, I was curious as to what other technologies from another era are still in use today. With The Institute covering augmented reality and eye-tracking technology for this month’s special issue on consumer electronics, this post looks back at devices from decades ago that still hold their luster and their place in modern society.
Invented in 1868 by three American innovators from Milwaukee, typewriters quickly became the prominent tool for writing letters and filling out forms, and were widely used by writers, secretaries, and other office workers. Although personal computers had largely replaced them by the 1980s, typewriters remain prominent in countries like India, where access to computers and electricity is scarce. Typewriters are still used by many police stations and prisons around the world as well as by government agencies for privacy and security reasons.
And although it’s questionable which machine authors like Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain would prefer if they were alive today, many writers have returned to moveable type so they can focus on the only function the machine can help them do: write. (Plus, typewriters don’t crash.)
The first reported public telephone in the United States was installed in New Haven, Conn., on 1 June 1880, which required the fee to be handed to a nearby attendant. Nine years later, the state was the first to install a coin-operated version, in nearby Hartford, whereby callers would pay at the end of the conversation. By 1901, there were 81,000 payphones throughout the country and by 1925, 25,000 could be found in New York City alone. Although the peak number is estimated to be about 2.6 million, there are still some 500,000 in use throughout the country in airports, shopping malls, and street corners.
More commonly referred to as a record player, the device was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 as a way to log telephone conversations. He was the first to reproduce a recorded sound and did so using a strip of paper coated with wax and a recording stylus, which he attached to a telephone receiver to let the vibrations carve a groove into the wax. This technique made it possible to play back the original sounds. A few years later, researchers at Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory, in Washington, D.C., made improvements to it by using wax-coated cardboard cylinders and a cutting stylus that moved from side to side across the record. The phonograph was the dominant audio device until the rise of the compact disc in the 1980s, but record players are once again in demand.
They’re now being sold in retail stores like Best Buy, Target, and Urban Outfitters. (And sales of vinyl albums in the United States alone have increased by 50 percent in 2014 from the previous year, surpassing 9 million records sold for the first time in 20 years.)
The Instant Film Camera
Although smartphones make it possible to snap unlimited photographs and send them digitally to family and friends, many of those photos never make it into a picture frame or a photo album. Which is in part why instant pictures are making a comeback. Polaroid, one of the first makers of instant film cameras, recently returned to manufacturing them after stopping production in 2008 to focus on digital. (In the 1960s half of U.S. households owned one.)
Polaroid started manufacturing again because the instant camera is once again being used at events, such as weddings for guests to capture special moments, and celebrities are also using it to avoid their photos being leaked to the press. And despite growing up in the digital age, teenagers are jumping on the trend for photographs that are more tangible and nostalgic. (It doesn’t hurt that Taylor Swift’s album cover was a photograph taken with an instant camera.)
The Fax Machine
Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received a patent on 27 May 1843 for his fac-simile machine, Latin for “make similar.” The machine was able to reproduce images using a scanner, transmitter, and a recorder (pretty much the same as today). Although several improvements have been made since, it wasn’t until 1924 that AT&T came up with a new process of transmitting images by electricity. And that same year RCA invented the wireless photoradiogram, which made it possible to also transmit documents across the ocean.
In November of that year, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge used the RCA machine to fax a photograph from New York City to London, which became the first image to be reproduced electronically across the sea. (Read about an IEEE Milestone recognizing a standard that led to speedier transmission of data by fax.)
While scanners and computers now offer a digital solution for transmitting documents and images, many organizations still use a fax machine to send sensitive materials. In Japan, nearly 100 percent of businesses and 45 percent of private homes still have one. In fact, one takeout restaurant’s sales plummeted after replacing the machine with an online ordering service. Now it’s back to taking thousands of handwritten lunch orders over a fax machine each day.
What other technologies from another era belong on this list? Tell us in the comments section below.