50 old-school tech products
Do you know what these 50 old-school tech products were used for?
The most sophisticated, miraculous, mind-blowing, advanced device you own right now will likely be laughed at by the next generation and may even be unrecognizable to the generation after that. From buggy whips to Blockbuster, entire industries have been built around specific tech products. They thrived and, unless they evolved, they inevitably died. That's because when it comes to technological innovation, the goal line is always moving. As soon as someone develops a groundbreaking new technology, someone else begins working on a way to improve upon or replace it.
From movies to music, telephones to typewriters, no technology is as it was. Even the original tech product, the humble wheel, has now evolved to include aggressive tread patterns laser-etched into synthetic rubber to allow for multi-season, all-weather performance traction—all of which probably will soon be replaced by something better.
Younger generations mock and marvel at the primitive tech their parents used while reveling in the incredible form and function of their own amazing gadgets, only to watch them eventually age into obsolescence just like everything that came before. Technology is now evolving so rapidly that the latest and newest products have painfully short shelf lives, and the 2.0 version of everything you own soon will command your attention and your dollars. Sometimes, however, you have to step back to see how far you've come.
Here's a look at the technology of years past. These old-school tech products changed industries, improved lives, set trends, connected people, and, like everything that came before or since, died drawn-out deaths as newer and better solutions emerged to take their place. Most of them you've probably heard of and, if you're of a certain age, you may have even used some of them yourself. Either way, the tech products that drive the world we live in today would never have been possible without the now-obsolete relics that came before.
Read on to see if you know what these 50 old-school tech products were used for.
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In 2011, the world's last typewriter manufacturer closed its doors and stopped producing the big, clunky, heavy machines once and for all. It was the end of an era that was doomed with the arrival of the personal computer. The first typewriter was patented on June 23, 1868, and by 1915, the Underwood Typewriter Co. produced 500 a day. Mark Twain was the first author to submit a manuscript typed on one and Ernest Hemingway's typewriter is preserved at his estate.
First invented in the 1820s, carbon paper is a thin, tissue-like film that allows people to make multiple identical copies of a document without having to write or type it more than once. In 1998, The New York Times reported that a handful of companies were still producing carbon paper, mostly for export to poor countries that were not yet flush with the laser and ink-jet printers that rendered the technology all but obsolete. "All but obsolete" might have been a fitting term at the time of the report, but 21 years later, carbon paper is little more than a distant memory.
Credit card imprinters
If you have a credit or debit card, chances are good you've recently graduated from swiping a magnetic strip to inserting a security chip. The youngest adults, however, have likely never watched a clerk rack their cards through paper-based imprinters. Believe it or not, credit-card imprinters are still being made and sold, which means some people somewhere are still using a manual press to copy the raised letters and numbers from credit cards onto sales slips.
Before there was the cloud, there were floppy disks. The portable, flat, media storage items came in several sizes, the most popular being the rigid 3.5-inch disks and the even older—and genuinely floppy—8.5-inch versions. In 2010—a full 12 years after the original G3 iMac first stopped supporting them—Sony announced it was stopping production of floppy disks. By the end of their run, floppy disks, which first debuted in 1981, could hold 1.44 MB of data.
Floppy disks are not the most nostalgic incarnation of dated portable media storage. That title would likely go to cassette tapes, thanks to the countless mixtapes that were dubbed onto them. That nostalgia, however, probably would be short-lived for anyone who remembers using a butter knife to manually turn back the wheels when the cassette player snagged the ribbon inside and spun it into a tangled mess. Portable tape player sales peaked at 18 million in 1994 but—due to CDs and, later, digital music—were down to under 500,000 by 2007, and by 2012, sales were in the five figures.
Before cell phones rendered them obsolete, doctors, executive, teenagers, and drug dealers used beepers to achieve semi-instant communication. About 3.2 million of the little belt-worn boxes were in use in the early 1980s. By 1994, that number had skyrocketed to 64 million, but the writing was on the wall. The mainstreaming of cell phones in the late 1990s forced Motorola, which long dominated the pager market, to stop making and selling pagers in 2001.
Portable media players
On July 1, 1979, Sony unveiled one of the most iconic and successful tech products in history: the Walkman, which would go on to sell 400 million units if you count the Discman that came later. Although they're cartoonishly clumsy by today's standards, the Walkman was truly groundbreaking—it was the first device to make music both portable and personal. With a Walkman, you no longer had to lug a radio around with you that everyone else could hear. The players would start a revolution leading to MP3 players like the iPod, but in the end, they became just another external device that in the age of smartphones proved to be one device too many.
Kodak invented the first film camera in the 1880s, and in 1913, the first 35mm cameras became available to the public. Generations of amateur photographers used film cameras to take pictures, but they farmed out the hard part to film developing services. Eventually, one-hour photo processing allowed impatient shutterbugs to drop off their film, run some errands, and pick up processed photos on the way home. As the price of digital cameras dropped in the early 2000s, however, film became a relic, and today, high-end cameras with HD video capability are standard features on virtually every smartphone.
Recording sound and playing it back were two different processes before magnetic tape was invented in Germany and the first modern tape recorders were introduced in the United States after World War II. The little devices kicked off huge changes in not just radio and film, but in business, politics, law enforcement, and virtually every other segment of society. The digital age, however, spelled doom for tape recorders as today's smartphones offer free recording apps that make separate tape recorders feel primitive.
Many people in the United States are now compulsive videographers thanks to smartphones, which put instantly shareable, high-definition video cameras in the pockets of everyone who owns one. Camera & Imaging Products Association analog video cameras dominated the market for home movie aficionados until compact digital video cameras arrived in the late 1990s. Although the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) and mirrorless formats enjoyed a brief moment in the sun in the 2000s and 2010s, smartphones changed the game and sent camcorders the way of the dodo bird—by 2016, a full 98.4% of cameras produced were built into phones, and only 0.8%, 0.5%, and 0.2% were compact, DSLR, and mirrorless, respectively.
In 1995, a group of competing media giants and tech companies agreed on a format for a new technology that would eventually spell the end for VHS—the digital versatile disk, or DVD. Much smaller and lighter than VHS tapes, DVDs had no moving parts or tape, they produced better sound and audio, and they eliminated mechanical rewinding and fast-forwarding. Giant retail stores like Blockbuster were dedicated to renting and selling DVDs and by 1998, DVD players were in 1.4 million homes. In 2016, however, the inevitable happened when digital media and streaming video finally overtook physical media like DVDs.
In 2018, Best Buy began phasing out all compact disc sales—the move signaled the end of an era that had been in decline for more than a decade. Like DVDs, the physical buying, selling, trading, and copying of music was rendered obsolete by the arrival of digital media. First developed in 1979, compact disks—known for excessive and painfully prohibitive packaging—eclipsed vinyl in terms of sales in 1988 and cassette tapes in 1991. The advent of the CD-ROM was both a milestone and a death knell—the ability to "rip" CD-based music onto computers was the beginning of online music sharing and the end of the compact disc.
In 2019, a viral video portrayed two teenagers trying in vain to place a call on a rotary phone while they pondered the strange sounds of dial tones and busy signals. The first rotary phones were extraordinary innovations when the American Bell Telephone Co. developed them in 1919 because the 10-hole pulse system represented the first direct-dial phones that allowed people to place their own calls without the aid of an operator. In the 1970s, push-button phones first appeared and rotary phones were on their way to extinction by the 1980s.
Like rotary phones, VHS technology was revolutionary in the way it changed society—with a VCR, the movies could come to you instead of you going to them and television could be taped and watched on your own time. The arrival of DVDs would spell the end of VHS, which debuted in the late 1970s, although 95 million Americans still owned a VCR in 2005. In 2016, however, a Japanese company that was probably the last VCR manufacturer in the world closed its doors.
For generations, amateur gearheads knew they had made it to the DIY big time when they were able to rebuild their own carburetors. The fuel- and air-regulating devices spoke volumes about the cars they served, like the vaunted four-barrel carburetor that delivered fuel to muscle cars. The arrival of direct fuel injection and enhanced emissions regulations, however, put the carburetor out to pasture in the 1980s. The 1990 Subaru Justy was likely the last car sold to contain one.
In 1935, a man named Willy Müller developed a 3-foot device designed to record calls for Orthodox Jews who couldn't answer their phones on the Sabbath. The first commercially viable answering machine, however, debuted in 1971 when PhoneMate introduced the Model 400, a 10-pound, reel-to-reel unit that's now on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Answering machines would soon become standard pieces of home and business tech. Digital answering machines would soon replace tape, voicemail would soon replace answering machines altogether, and smartphones would eventually land answering machines where they are today—in the museum.
Handheld gaming systems
By 1989, the Nintendo Entertainment System had far outclassed the much simpler platforms that came before, most notably Atari, but video game consoles were about to get a whole lot smaller. That year, Nintendo released Gameboy, every single unit of which was bundled with the intensely addictive "Tetris." Nintendo would go on to ship 100 million units of Gameboy and its successor while compelling Sega and Atari to develop handhelds of their own. Eventually, Gameboy would become yet another victim of smartphones, which rendered single-use media devices irrelevant.
In 1989, the U.S. Air Force launched the first GPS satellite into space and the Magellan Corp. soon released the world's first handheld GPS device. It wasn't until 2001, however, that prices dropped enough for companies like Garmin and TomTom to unveil navigation devices to the masses. They were a giant leap forward from foldable maps, but the devices were clunky, buggy, and required frequent updates. Their run was short-lived as GPS-enabled smartphones paired with apps like Google Maps, which rendered the standalone devices unnecessary and irrelevant.
Even incredibly simple mobile phones have calculators today. That incredible convenience doomed dedicated calculators to the junk heap of tech history, like so many other electronic victims of the smartphone. Scientists and inventors had previously developed a long series of primitive tabulation machines, but the invention of the microchip in 1959 allowed calculators to become reliable devices you could hold in your hand. Generations of students, scientists, business owners, and everyone in between would rely on calculators to do the math that they couldn't or chose not to, eventually leading to the more complex graphing calculators that would follow.
Handheld computers called personal digital assistants (PDAs) were marketed as a revolution in the making, but the revolution never quite caught on. Companies like Dell, Nokia, IBM, Palm, Sony, and HP all developed their own PDAs starting in the mid-1990s, but by the time of their arrival, laptops were already getting smaller and more portable. The death knell came in 2007, when Apple's iPhone ushered in the era of smartphones, which can do everything PDAs can do plus a whole lot more.
In 2015, the University of Colorado collected its remaining 225 overhead projectors and sent them to wherever electronics go to die. Like offices, schools, and boardrooms across the country, the campus was trading in the huge, clunky boxes for "smart" tech like digital projectors and modern presentation software. For generations past, however, overhead projectors turned walls into movie screens. The image-projecting machines first appeared in their modern form as training tools for soldiers during World War II and quickly became standard supplementary educational tools.
Cathode ray tube televisions
Big, heavy and inefficient, cathode ray tubes dominated televisions from the dawn of TV in the 1930s through the turn of the millennium. Although so-called "ultra-slim" tube TVs—with tubes as "thin" as 15 inches—tried to compete, the arrival of true, hangable flat screens based on plasma and LCD technology rendered CRT televisions a thing of the past.
In the mid-1990s, there were 2.6 million public payphones in the United States—the phrase "drop a dime" referred to a snitch putting 10 cents in a pay phone and calling the police. Convenient, but grossly unhygienic, pay phones were a staple of U.S. communication in the era before mobile phones. In 2007, AT&T exited the no-longer-profitable pay phone market. Verizon did the same in 2011.
Dot matrix printers
The Digital Equipment Corporation unveiled the first dot matrix printer in 1970, starting a home-and-office printing revolution. Unlike typewriters, they could manage multiple fonts and special characters. They worked by punching holes through ink-soaked ribbons, a technology that was no longer revolutionary—or necessary—once inkjet and laser printers hit the market.
Although record players were sold in the 1930s and '40s, the technology wouldn't peak until the 1960s and '70s. Such media as cassette tapes and CDs rendered the easy-to-scratch, skip-prone vinyl discs obsolete, but there has always been and still remains a large contingent of music lovers who insist everything simply sounds better on vinyl.
Before there was the record player, there was the phonograph, the granddaddy of all personal music players. First patented by Edouard-Leon Scott in 1857, it was originally called the phonautograph, a device not designed to play pre-recorded sound, but to enhance acoustics. Thomas Edison coined the term "phonograph" when he improved upon the device and made it practical for playing music two years later in 1877. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell improved upon it even further, adding a floating stylus and switching from tin foil to wax for making and playing recordings.
In 1996, Motorola unveiled the StarTAC, the world's first clamshell, or flip phone. Unlike the bulky boxes that came before, flip phones allowed users to fold their phones in half and store them in their pockets or purses, a true revolution in making mobile devices more mobile. The arrival of touch-screen smartphones doomed the technology.
Telegraphs and telegrams
Samuel Morse of Morse Code-fame developed telegraphy in the 1830s and 1840s, sparking a historic revolution in long-distance communication. Morse, who invented both the code and the telegraph, sent his first coded message in 1844, and by 1866, an undersea telegraph line connected Europe to the United States. When messages were sent in written form instead of in Morse Code, they were called telegrams, and both forms of communication made instant, real-time communication across vast distances a reality for the first time in human history.
The first trackballs were developed in the late 1940s, but they didn't emerge as household items until the digital age. While they still exist in computer mouses, trackballs briefly appeared on the precursors to modern smartphones, allowing users to manipulate an on-screen cursor with the swipe of a finger. In 2007, however, the iPhone's touchscreen was instant death for the trackball.
Telex machines were giant text-messaging devices that were rendered irrelevant in the mid-2000s by the comparatively tiny text-messaging machines most of us now carry in our pockets. An international connected network of monitors and printers, Telex was a modern incarnation of the older telegraph.
During World War II, audiences flocked to theaters to get updates from so-called newsreels. The format got its name from the cameras and projectors used to create and play them. Consisting of light, circular frames that passed 35mm film from one reel to the other, reel-to-reel technology dates back to the dawn of Hollywood. In movie theaters, projectionists had to change reels, often in the middle of the film.
The late William Bradford Shockley won a Nobel Prize for his role in creating the transistor. The technology made tiny, hand-held transistor radios possible, and the devices changed the world of music forever. First developed in 1954, transistor radios became history's most popular electronic communication device, with literally billions of them produced and sold in the 1960s and 1970s. Portable music devices like the Walkman would signal the end of the transistor radio era.
There was a time when people bought bags of popcorn kernels to pour into standalone countertop popcorn makers. Those were later replaced by portioned, self-contained stovetop poppers popularized by Jiffy Pop. The arrival of microwave ovens, however, quickly led to the familiar expanding bags still used today—most microwaves actually have a popcorn button.
Few tech products epitomize 1980s urban youth more completely than the boombox. Portable, but much bigger and louder than transistor radios, boomboxes came first with tape players—often two for dubbing purposes—and later with CD payers. Although they were equipped with briefcase-style handles, everyone in the know carried them propped atop one shoulder.
Before the eighth century, time was an abstract concept that was measured by the position of the sun. However, the hourglass allowed people to measure, track, and "tell" time. The controlled descent of sand from one bulb to the next allowed users to track exactly how much time had elapsed, and hourglasses were perfect for ocean travel because the motion of waves didn't interfere with their accuracy.
In 2012, Gizmodo referred to the Sony Watchman as "the iPhone of 1986." While that's not exactly a fair comparison, the devices did what none had ever done before—made watching television something you could do on the go. Introduced in 1982, the Watchman made it all the way to 2000, and it wasn't the only game in town. The Realistic Pocketvision was among Watchman competitors.
In the days of VHS rental stores, Blockbuster asked renters to "be kind, rewind" and issued a $1 fine to anyone who returned their videos without rewinding them first. The act could be a chore, so companies invested in VHS technology and developed dedicated rewinders, which only performed that single function, but at a higher rate of speed. Believe it or not, you can still score one on Amazon today.
Before cassettes' 15 minutes of fame, 8-track tapes and players were an important and promising development in the world of personal media. Ford brought the technology into U.S. consciousness when in 1966 it offered 8-track players in cars for the first time. Although expensive and problem-prone, 8-tracks became hugely successful because they allowed people for the first time to listen to their own music while they drove. They would soon become standard in every Ford car and in 1967–'68, 8-tracks became available for home use.
Cartridge-based video games
In 2016, Nintendo released the throwback NES Classic, a miniaturized version of the beloved yesteryear game console—with one omission: there were no cartridges to insert, blow on, and tap in frustration when the game froze or otherwise failed. Like all of today's consoles, the NES Classic's game software is built right into the machine, but that wasn't always the case. More than 70 different consoles have emerged since the first in 1967, and the early ones—including Atari, Sega, Nintendo, Intellivision, and Coleco—all required the user to purchase each game individually in cartridge form.
If you want to set an alarm today, all it takes is a simple command on your smartphone. For the previous 2,000 years, however, waking up required an alarm clock for many people. Although attempts at alarm clocks spanned two millennia, the first modern clock that could be programmed to make a jarring sound at a certain time was invented by an American named Levi Hutchins in 1787. Over the decades and centuries alarm clocks became smaller, more affordable, more reliable, and eventually went digital and were built into radios. The snooze button remains an iconic procrastination tool.
The first digital watch debuted in 1970, and by the 1980s, watchmakers were cramming everything they could into the wrist-worn devices. Among the most popular were calculator watches, which featured buttons so tiny you had to use a pencil to press them individually. They stand out as the first incarnation of the modern wearable tech revolution.
Few technologies are as magical as instant photos. The Polaroid company developed technology that removed the need for traditional film and, most importantly, the need to get that film developed. When the Polaroid Land Model 95 debuted in 1948, it sparked a photography revolution, as the world could now point, shoot, and shake their way to photographs that developed in seconds, not days.
Like overhead projectors, slide projectors were doomed by the digital age, but they were once a powerful educational and recreational tool. Although primitive versions existed in the 1800s, the first modern 35mm film slide projectors emerged in the 1930s. After returning from a family vacation, it was common practice to invite the neighbors over for a slideshow depicting the adventures you photographed along the way.
Daisy wheel printers
Like dot matrix printers, laser and inkjet technology spelled doom for daisy wheel printers, but they were ahead of their time when they first emerged. Invented in 1969, daisy wheel printers used metal or plastic disks fitted with each letter, number, and symbol. The printer would rotate the disk to the right character and then depress it with a hammer onto an ink ribbon to cast the image onto paper.
Betamax was the clear loser in the bitter format wars that raged in the 1970s as technology began to change the way people watched television. Sony's Betamax format was believed to be better in terms of picture and sound quality, but VHS would win the day, in large part because its format enabled users to fit entire movies onto a single tape.
Home movies changed forever in 1965 when Kodak unveiled the Super 8 format, a game-changer. Cheaper and far more convenient than the previous Normal 8 format, Super 8 required the user only to pop in a cassette, shoot their film, and send it off to get developed. It launched the home movie craze that culminated in today's smartphone-based video cameras.
The country's photography obsession combined with its throwaway culture when disposable cameras arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. Once a staple in gift shops at tourist traps around the world, disposable cameras contained everything you needed—a camera, film, and a little wheel to cycle to the next picture while you were shooting. When it came time to develop the film, you simply dropped the entire disposable camera off at the store, never to see it again.
Corded remote controls
In 1950, the Zenith Radio Corp. unveiled the Lazy Bone, the world's first remote control. It could change channels and turn the television on and off, but it was tethered to the TV via a physical cord. One saving grace was that corded remotes were hard to misplace.
Bunny ear TV antennas
It's hard to imagine now, but getting up to fiddle with the antennae was part of the television-watching experience until fairly recently. Known as bunny ears for their dual extending rods, users manipulated their TV's antennae to get the picture to come in clear and, hopefully, stay that way.
One of the earliest pieces of technology was also one of the most important and most consequential. The abacus was an ingenious calculator used in China, Europe, and Russia centuries before the modern numerical system emerged. It was, essentially, the world's first computer.