High Tech, Bye Tech

     Once upon a time, when I was young, I was given a digital watch.  Digital wristwatches were a VBD (Very Big Deal), as this technology was still very new and seen only on the arms of those who were AOTC (Ahead of the Curve).  It was such a new technology that, like most new things, it was exceedingly expensive.  Sears Roebuck, the source of my watch, in fact offered a cheaper and more reliable alternative, which is what I received.  It was actually an analog wristwatch where the gears inside had been designed so that instead of turning hands on a face, they turned discs under a face.  At 8:99, these discs pulled the eight, a zero, and another zero under the openings for hours and minutes, and, as sixty seconds ticked away, gradually pulled up a 1 to replace to the second zero.  It was ingenious, intricate, and obsolete within a few weeks.  The LEWD display was refined to a point at which it appears on most of our devices (Digital watches were for a short time available for a dollar in vending machines, but this was still in the day when putting four quarters into a vending machine spoke of Conspicuous Consumption.)  All the work which went into producing an analog digital watch was pushed aside as the world moved on.

     History is filled with such examples of high tech wonders which are now utterly, utterly consigned to the back shelves of closets.  I never owned a beeper, nor yet a Blackberry, but I did own a portable word processor.  Word Processing goes way back to the nineteenth century: businesses desperately wanted devices which could produce copies of letters without someone having to copy them longhand.  (Yes, for years people filed letters by putting them under tracing paper in a ledger and tracing the entire letter.  If you have an Abraham Lincoln letter which is on transparent paper with a big blue number up in the corner, you may, er, want to reconsider your retirement plans.)

     You may check the history of word processing devices elsewhere, how the word processing typewriter was supposed to be an essential for any high-tech office (t was a typewriter which could record keystrokes on magnetic tape, so a letter someone else had been written could be called up and edited).  The glory days of the word processor, as far as retail stores are concerned, was the period between the invention of the personal computer and the realization that a personal computer would be useful to someone who was NOT a techno-geek.  My word processor was a device about the size of a three-ring binder, with a screen which showed about 600 characters at a time (you scrolled to see longer documents) and could store nearly a hundred pages of material in its memory.  It was ideal for people who wanted to write letters or short stories on the go.  It could be connected to someone’s computer printer and print pages, too (otherwise, why bother?)

     You know what happened.  The personal computer took over the market, with its word processing software.  The portable word processor lingered a while, for people to use on a bus or airplane (the battery was good for a whole hour) until phones and tablets took their place.  (My word processor would NOT, for example, hook up to the Internet so I could send my prose elsewhere.  The Internet as we know it hadn’t been invented yet.)

     But the greatest niche invention of my youth is one so thoroughly forgotten now that a quick Internet search turned up no references to it whatsoever.  It was an educational product which was so fascinating in itself that I remember not one second of the content, though I remember the technology very well.

    Those of my generation will remember what watching an educational film in class meant.  The shades would be pulled, the lights would be switched off, and then the teacher, or some tech savvy kid, would thread the film through the sprockets, fit it into the take-up reel, and switch on the projector.  If everything worked, the sound would blare, the picture would appear on the screen, and the film would collect on that all-important take-up reel (and not coil into piles on the floor,.)  Afterward, the whole thing would need to be done backward so the movie would be on its original reel.  (Some of you from the generation which did this on videocassette, at least, will remember rewinding.)

     This was a LOT of work, and, of course, so a technology was sought which would avoid all this.  Different kinds of film loops were used, which at least obviated the necessity for rewinding, but few of these caught on until some genius came up with the film loop cartridge.  Suddenly, just about any moron could show a film: you took the cartridge, jammed it into the back of the projector, and pressed “PLAY”.  The cartridges were not big: about one minute’s worth of movie was all that could be easily stored in a cartridge.  But that was enough for some purposes: in shop class or a science lab, one process could be shown over and over (since the loop would repeat until switched off.)  It could be viewed in limited space: no longer did that tech-savvy student also have to set up a screen.  One could sit in a cubicle and watch instructions on how to light a Bunsen burner a hundred times in a row, if that amused you.

     The other niche market for this technology weas, of course, pornography, where watching the same procedure over and over…okay, I thought you’d get it.

     Less than three years after this appeared in my chemistry class, the videocassette came to my school.  Now up to eight hours of material could be slid into a slot on a device and, provided your tech-savvy kid hooked up the TV properly, could be watched straight through.  The ability to watch one minute of film over and over seemed suddenly less magic. The loop cartridge projector joined the analog digital watch and the laptop word processor in the hall of Great Forgotten Inventions.  (Maybe some time we’ll discuss wire recordings, or that chap who invented a way of recording sound long before Edison played his first phonograph.  If the chap had just thought of a way to play back his recordings….)

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