While the 1970s are known for some terrifying fashions and the human indignity of the Disco Era, the decade (with some assists from the previous generation) also gave us some amazing technological advancements that many of us take for granted today. Here are ten that changed the world:
1. Microwave Ovens
Before the 1970s, our only option for heating up leftover pizza was the conventional oven and we didn’t have the luxury of 4-minute microwave popcorn (gross as it is). Though the “Radarange” was first sold in the United States in 1947, it wasn’t until the ovens became affordable for the average family that “microwaves” became common in American homes (even if they didn’t live up to their promises of delicious layer cakes and scrumptious roasts in 30 minutes). In addition to the high prices, many Americans were afraid of radiation associated with microwave ovens. I remember my dad refusing to purchase what he called a “radar burger” at a concession stand in the early ’70s. In 1971, only 1% of households in the U.S. owned a microwave. By 1986, roughly 25% of households in the U.S. owned a microwave oven, with the number soaring to 90% of American households by 1997.
2. Hair Dryers
The first American handheld hair dryer was patented in 1911, but they were heavy, weighing several pounds, and were often dangerous to use. Improvements in plastics and better electric motors in the 1960s led to more widespread use, and regulations by the Consumer Product Safety Commission made the dryers safer. Before handheld hair dryers were common in American homes, we sat under bonnet-style or rigid-helmet dryers — usually with our hair slathered with Dippity Do and wrapped around curlers.
3. Cell Phones
Not only did pre-millennials live without cell phones, we lived without basic necessities like push-button phones. Ohio Bell (before the giant AT&T merger) used to charge more for “touchtone” phones than they did for the rotaries. If your friends had phone numbers with a lot of 8s or 9s you hoped you reached them on the first try so you wouldn’t have to go through that Herculean dialing effort again (no voice mail back then, either). We also didn’t have cordless phones and most families had one shared phone, usually located in the kitchen. If you were lucky, you had a super-long phone cord that would reach into another room (or the back porch) so you could have a modicum of privacy. After a few months of abuse, the stretched-out cord lay in a heap on the floor beneath the phone. Some families had “party lines” which means they shared a phone line with a neighbor. Of course, this meant that there was always a possibility that the neighbors would pick up when you were in the middle of an important call — or worse, that they were listening in the whole time. Nevertheless, it saved money and discouraged teenagers from loitering on the phone all day.
4. TV Remote Controls
Believe it or not, there was a time when human beings had to stand up and walk across an entire room to change the channel or adjust the volume on a TV set. Of course, there were only three channels for us to choose from back then (unless we used that funny round antenna that would add two additional stations on UHF— the ones that offered Godzilla and other B-movies on Saturday afternoons). There were very primitive TV remote controls as far back as the 1950s, but they were usually limited to turning the TV on and off and they were not common — most TVs still had knobs for changing channels and adjusting volume. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the advent of cable TV made them a necessity, that remote controls were included with every TV set and we were finally able to say goodbye to changing channels by turning the clunky knobs.
A legitimate case could be made that children were less obese back then because of those frequent walks back and forth from the TV.
5. Personal Computers
In 1977, 48,000 computers were sold to Americans. That jumped to 125 million in 2001 and skyrocketed to 500 million personal computers in use in the United States in 2002. Prior to the common use of personal computers in the home, we labored away on typewriters, correcting errors with Wite-Out or by using mysterious erasable typing paper that relied on some sort of dark magic. Those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have an IBM Selectric electric typewriter banged out our high school papers on keys that required fingers of steel (and frequent breaks) and we fought with the inky Cloth Ribbons of Misery. The piles of crumpled-up papers under our desks testified to the hours of frustration that went into creating a presentable paper.
6. Video Games
Home video games did not achieve widespread popularity until the release of a home version of Pong sold by Sears during the Christmas of 1975. Those of us who were lucky enough to receive one for Christmas that year hooked the primitive consoles up to our TV sets (often black and white TVs) and wasted entire days mesmerized by the back and forth ping pong action. We imagined that we were famous tennis stars chasing balls across the court while lying on the floor munching on bowls of Quisp and Cap’n Crunch. The success of Pong sparked hundreds of clones and eventually launched the modern video game industry.
7. Digital Music
Not only did we not have digital music, we didn’t even have CDs. In order to listen to the music we wanted to hear we had two choices: we could drive (or get our parents to take us) to a record store to buy a record or a cassette (or an 8-track!), or we could sit in front of our transistor radios hoping to hear our favorite songs. Radio stations would often take requests, so we would spend hours trying to call our favorite stations hoping to get our songs some air time. The pre-millennial version of illegally downloading music was using a cassette recorder to tape songs from the radio. It was a tricky proposition, to be sure, never knowing when the song we wanted was going to come on, but we persevered and sometimes ended up with pretty good compilations of our favorite songs (until that blasted tape got all twisted up in the cassette casing and then required surgical intervention with pencils, screwdrivers, and, sometimes, Scotch Tape).
8. Lead-free Paint
Prior to 1977 when the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned it in residential and commercial properties, most paint contained lead. Though lead can cause nervous system damage, stunted growth, kidney damage, and delayed development in children, we ate the toxic paint chips because they tasted sweet and some kids couldn’t resist gnawing on window sills and picking up stray chips that peeled off of the porch railing.
9. Pocket Calculators
In the mid-1960s calculators were large, heavy desktop machines that used hundreds of transistors on several circuit boards and required an AC power supply. By 1970, a calculator could be made using just a few microprocessor chips, opening the way for portable models powered with rechargeable batteries. The first portable calculator appeared in Japan in 1970 with integrated circuits that made the price and the size drop. They were soon marketed around the world. By the end of the 1970s the prices of calculators had reduced to a point where they were affordable to most Americans and we all began to use them regularly in our homes and schools.
10. Video Cassette Recorders
In the 1970s and early 1980s we could have never imagined the concept of the DVD, let alone something as complex (and convenient) as streaming video. We went to movie theaters or waited for the movie of the week on ABC, NBC, or CBS if we wanted to see something other than a sitcom or a game show. The “modern” VCR did not begin to gain mass market traction until 1975 when the systems were standardized and movies became available to consumers. Of course, the “format war” between VHS and Betamax threatened to derail the whole thing, but VHS ultimately prevailed (the die hard Betamax fans eventually fell in line) and remained the top dog in the world of home entertainment until the technology was toppled by the success of DVDs. In addition to giving us the ability to watch movies we had rented or purchased, we suddenly had the ability to record television shows so we were no longer at the mercy of the programmers — and for the first time we could fast forward through the commercials, freeing us from having to sit through the unwelcomed messages in our homes.
What other technological advancements do you appreciate?