10 Technological Marvels from the 20th Century that Today's Kids Don't Know What to Do With
Technology has made our lives so much easier, hasn’t it? We don’t have to worry about getting lost or not having a way to get in touch with loved ones in an emergency. We can store data for access from anywhere and can acquire knowledge and information in an instant.
Those of us who grew up in the last half of the 20th century know that we haven’t always been so spoiled. In fact, plenty of technology that we grew up with has become obsolete and foreign to younger generations.
10. Atlases and printed directions
These days, there’s precious little excuse for getting lost. Our cellphones – and in many cases our cars – give us access to directions just about anywhere we need to go. But that wasn’t always the case, and we had to rely on printed maps.
Now, I’ll admit that I love looking at maps (on paper or on Google Maps), and up until not long ago I still kept an atlas in my car. There was a time when an atlas or map was a necessity, and the joke about one spouse or another being unable to read maps rang true.
Then came the internet, and we could look up directions on our computer and print them out. But if you were driving around by yourself and needed to look at your printed directions, it could get dangerous, not to mention easy to miss a turn.
The notion of not having our directions announced to us from a phone or other device sounds quaint nowadays. You have to admit that it’s nice that we’re past those days when we needed to look at a map or printed directions to know where we were going.
9. Dial-up internet
Oh, the days of dial-up. Who didn’t love waiting for the modem to connect to the web, listening to the dialing and data screaming? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Dial-up wasn’t the most reliable way of getting online by any stretch of the imagination. The line could be busy, or someone could pick up the phone to make a call, knocking you off the service. Speeds were slow, and there was no guarantee a page would load at all.
But dial-up was the introduction to the internet for a generation of people. Those AOL and Compuserve disks were all over the place, promising a certain number of hours of free internet before charging the customer.
Then high-speed internet invaded the country, and I bet too few of us realize just how spoiled we are to be able to access the internet at this kind of speed. I’m sure none of us want to go back in time to remember.
8. Floppy disks and other assorted storage
We haven’t always had it so easy when it comes to data storage. We couldn’t store stuff “in the cloud” or on USB drives that allow us to hold an entire computer’s worth of information in our pockets. We used to have to rely on floppy disks.
Back in the '80s, floppy disks lived up to their name. They were soft and fragile, and inserting them into a drive wasn’t always easy. These disks didn’t hold much data either, but then again the data we were saving wasn’t as large as what we’re used to these days.
Then came the smaller and more rigid disks of the '90s. We still called them “floppy disks” even though they were sturdier and held more information – but not by much. (Anybody remember zip drives? I used to love those, though they weren’t necessarily any better than floppies.) Writeable CDs came along not long after that, and they were the next big step in storage.
We’ve come a long way, and I don’t imagine many of us would want to go back to the floppy disk days.
7. Directory assistance and phone books
It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have the ability to look up any phone number we needed. We had to call a directory assistance operator to find out information – or look it up in a phone book.
Nowadays, the idea of having to call somebody other than a friend or family member to get a phone number seems insane. So does pulling out a book of phone numbers. But that’s how it was done for decades before the internet invaded our lives.
(I worked at the local library when I was in high school, and I remember a book called the Criss-Cross Directory. It was a sort of reverse lookup for phone numbers, and employees were absolutely prohibited from giving information from the Criss-Cross Directory out over the phone.)
I still see phone book deliveries every year, and I make the same “remember these” joke when I do. But does Directory Assistance still exist? Can we call operators from our mobile phones? And do we need to?
The advent of home video revolutionized the way we entertained ourselves. Movie rental places popped up everywhere, and you didn’t have to be at home to watch your favorite programs, provided you knew how to program your VCR.
My VHS memories include my mom popping a tape in the VCR and recording all the news reports the day of the Challenger explosion. I remember the first camcorder my family bought too; it was a full-size one, and I’ll never forget holding it up until my shoulder ached.
Plenty of people amassed huge collections of VHS movies and television series until the format went out of fashion. I imagine some people still have them. Will we say the same about DVDs and Blu-ray in the era of streaming and digital purchases?
Remember when a few classmates started getting “beepers” back in high school? If your parents were like mine, they would tell you that only drug dealers and doctors needed them. By the time I got to college, they had become ubiquitous.
How convenient was it to get a message from a phone number, right there in your pocket? All you had to do was find the nearest phone and call them back! If it was an emergency, the person paging you could add “911” just to let you know how urgently you needed to get back to them, or you could send your girlfriend or boyfriend a “143 (I love you)” just to share your affection.
As technology, um, advanced, the displays got bigger, and pagers came in a frightening array of fashion colors. There were even options for receiving audio messages or greeting those paging you with an audio greeting.
Let’s be honest: looking back, the pager was one of the most ridiculous inventions, but it did pave the way for the pervasiveness of the cell phone.
For all our carping about online life, the internet has made so many areas of our life easier. It’s nice to have pretty much all the information in the world just a few clicks away. Because there was a time when we had to look through books to find out what we wanted to know.
I remember the World Book Encyclopedias my parents used to have. They took up an entire bookshelf! But I was a bit of a nerd as a kid, and I loved digging into them and learning about anything I wanted to. I also loved the World Book Year Books that came in the mail every year recapping the previous year.
I suppose there’s no need to wax too nostalgic over encyclopedias, since we can find even more information online than we ever could in a whole shelf full of informational books. But they were a massive part of my childhood (and even my teenage years, once I started having to do research papers). At least we don’t have to worry about millennials bringing encyclopedias back.
3. Film cameras
Believe it or not, there was a time when people didn’t take selfies. Or portraits of every meal they ate. That was the time when you couldn’t see instantly how any photo looked. It was always a gamble to find out what the finished product looked like, and there was no turning back once the roll of film ran out. Taking pictures with Polaroids and other instant film cameras were just as big a gamble, even without having to wait.
Film cameras really are a thing of the past in the days of digital. Remember when a one-hour photo was a luxury? I recall my mom sending rolls of film off for the cheapest development and waiting over a week for them to come back in the mail.
The ability to print your own photos at home or online is such a big deal these days that I’ve seen many stores drastically reducing the size of their one-hour photo centers or phasing them out altogether.
I have to admit, I don’t miss film cameras that much. I don’t even use my digital camera that much anymore, although when I do, it’s nice to be able to delete the shots that I don’t want without having to pay for them first.
2. Audio cassettes
I’m old enough to remember when cassette tapes began to overtake record albums in popularity. It was revolutionary to be able to carry your music around with you – even in the car! Sure, it took some getting used to when you had to rewind or fast-forward to get to the song you wanted to hear, but the cassette made music so much more accessible for everyone.
It was fun to fold out the inserts and read the lyrics and credits to the songs (and I can remember being disappointed if the record company didn’t include the words). Don’t forget recording songs off the radio with a tape recorder; I can hear some older songs today and still remember the DJ introduction from when I taped the song off the radio back in the day.
And it was nice to be able to share music with friends by copying the tape onto a blank tape or creating mix tapes. Let’s face it: Spotify doesn’t have anything on the care it took to create that mix tape for that special someone.
These days, hipsters have ruined yet another old thing with their ironic discovery of cassettes. But when they were the great new thing, there really wasn’t anything better.
1. Landline Phones
Even for those of us who grew up with landline phones, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have some way to communicate 24/7. It’s that much more difficult for today’s young people to wrap their heads around having to wait until you got home to use a phone – or to even stop at a payphone!
Think about how inconvenient our lives were when a phone was just a phone. Remember how inconvenient it was not to have caller ID showing who was on the line wanting to talk to you? Or how you couldn’t just send a text message to avoid speaking to somebody? And don’t get me started on rotary dialing.
Let’s face it: mobile phone technology has made our lives exponentially more convenient, but there’s something about seeing a landline phone that triggers nostalgia for anyone who grew up with them.
Can you think of any more obsolete technology that you couldn't live without growing up? Let us know in the comments below.