Gadgets… Be Gone!

The defining elements of the 1970s included disco music, bell-bottom pants, and really big sunglasses. You had block-long lines at gas stations thanks to the “Energy Crisis”, President Nixon’s resignation because of Watergate, and the long-overdue wrap of the Vietnam War. People preferred their clothes and cars in bright colors, their hair shaggy. I don’t remember much of this stuff, since I was only a budding teenager. But I’ll never forget my very first audio cassette tape deck.

90 minutes of songs in your pocket

You’re seeing obituaries in the news these days for noteworthy people of the 1970s.  Fifty years ago these people were generally in their thirties or forties; a reasonable age to invent something.  So it didn’t surprise me to read about Lou Ottens, who died in March at the age of 94.  Ottens was an engineer for the Philips Corporation.  Never knew him, never heard of him, but I’m forever grateful he invented the compact cassette audiotape.

[Millennials, roll back the clock on music media.  From your digital subscriptions, pass through Blu-Ray and DVD, then compact disc (CDs), until you finally land in the 1970s and the compact cassette audiotape.  If you made it to long-play (LP) vinyl records you went a little too far.]

Cassette tapes were a sensation in the 1970s because not only were they pants-pocket-portable, they were recordable.  Me and my cassette deck spent many an afternoon capturing Top-40 hits off the local FM radio station (Barry Manilow!  Helen Reddy!)  Then I’d store my precious cassettes in their little suitcase, which could hold twenty or thirty inside plastic cases.  Add in the invention of the Sony Walkman at the end of the decade (the first handheld cassette player) and you’ve got a broad overview of 1970s music media.

1970s chic

I did have a Walkman somewhere along the way, but the better memories come with my tabletop cassette deck (like the one shown here).  It lived on the desk in my bedroom, with its square speaker and giant pushbuttons, a precursor to today’s boom box.  It ate the occasional cassette tape with relish, and background noise always accompanied recordings off the radio, but my tape deck was still fairly state-of-the-art for the 1970s.  It only weighed a couple of pounds including the four C batteries.  The pop-out handle made for easy carry.

Lou Otten’s passing speaks to how many inventions, no matter how novel or cutting-edge, are sooner or later kaput.  Like the wax occupants of Madame Tussauds, you know your useful life has passed when you’d be better off in a museum.  So how about a few more inventions from my childhood years – once useful but now “almost gone”?

1960s

  • magnetic stripe card (smartphones are saying, “move over”)
  • plasma display panel (PDP)
  • handheld calculator (just ask Siri now)
  • 8-track cartridge (whoa, that’s ancient history)
  • Liquid Paper
Soon to be kaput

1970s

  • Pong (one of the earliest arcade video games)
  • floppy disk (removable computer file storage)
  • portable GPS device
  • cell phone (audio calls, nothing else)
  • videocassette recorder/player (VCRs)
“Floppy” file storage

I was just as curious to check out the decades of my parents’ childhood.  What inventions from their formative years are no longer?

1930s

  • Polaroid photography (in its original form)
  • IBM electric typewriter
  • coin-operated parking meter (now accepts credit cards)
  • drive-in movie theater (making a COVID-era comeback, perhaps?)
  • twist-tie (now built into your kitchen trash bag)

1940s

  • aerosol spray can (can we at least agree, these need to go?)
  • Slinky and Silly Putty (not today’s child’s toy of choice)
  • atomic bomb (let’s just pretend these are obsolete, shall we?)
  • lp phonograph record
  • jukebox
Early-model boombox

Last summer I went through a few neglected boxes in the garage and found a few of my old audiocassette tapes.  I keep a still-kicking boombox in the garage (for AM radio baseball games), with a dusty cassette tape player in the middle.  One afternoon I popped in one of those old tapes, pressed PLAY, and behold: John Denver was alive and singing again.  The music was as crisp and clear as 1970.

So give it up for Lou Ottens.  Not only did he design audiocassette tapes, he designed those little guys to last!

Some content sourced from the Hackaday.com article, “RIP Lou Ottens, Developer of the Compact Cassette and More”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Media Meltdown

Nope, not that media.

A few weeks ago, I gave Legacybox a try.  Heard of ’em?  Legacy converts old home movies – the ones you may have on VHS or 8mm tapes (or even reel-to-reel) – into clean, digitized formats. I sent Legacy a heaping box of my tapes (reel-to-reel was slightly before my time), and a month later received a single, tiny thumb drive in return. Remarkable really: dozens of hours of precious video memories packed into a bits-n-bytes “box” the size of a fingernail clipper. If I’d chosen a digital download instead of the thumb drive, I wouldn’t have received anything (physical) in return.

We’ve flash-landed into a digital, live-stream, can’t-hold-it-in-your-hands world of multimedia these days.  Phonograph records, celluloid film, audio and video cassettes, and optical media like CD’s and DVD’s spin firmly in the rear-view mirror; collectables reserved for only the most nostalgic.

[It’s not a stretch to say print media – books, newspapers, magazines, and photographs – aren’t far behind, but that’s another post for another day.]

For those of you born in the last century – literally, not figuratively – let’s eulogize some of these once-upon-a-time physical media formats.

The “8-track”

I’m old enough to remember 8-track tapes, are you?  Before I owned my first “LP” or “45” record, I was regularly subjected to my dad’s music choices on his car stereo 8-track player.  In hindsight, there’s something endearing about the bulky, inefficient format of the 8-track tape (except when your only memory is your dad’s music).

The smallish 45 “single”

Before the 8-track tape gave way to the compact cassette, I built up a pretty good collection of 1970’s 45 rpm records (“singles”) – 100 or more.  My older brother – who built a sizeable collection of 1970’s 33 rpm records (“LP’s”), understandably disdained my choices in music.  His flavor was “classic” rock (ex. Rick Wakeman, Emerson, Lake & Palmer) while mine was “bubblegum” (ex. Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow).  Appropriately, I have Olivia’s “Let’s Get Physical” re-running in my head as I cover today’s topic.

The cool thing about compact cassettes was – of course – you could record things (birthing the concept of the “playlist”).  Just as noteworthy, you could play cassettes in your car’s “deck”.  Your records had to stay home.  It wasn’t long before my 45’s were stashed in the closet and I was all-in on “tape”.  I spent countless hours recording and listening as I hugged my very first tape recorder.  I spent countless weekly allowance dollars on the Columbia House Record and Tape Club.  When the ultra-compact Sony Walkman debuted in 1979, cassette-tape music went everywhere you did.

Right about the same time as the Walkman, JVC (VHS) and Sony (Betamax) figured out how to put video on tape.  My early memories of movie rentals at the video store include renting the video player too.  After all, the price tag on first-generation “VCR’s” ran into the thousands of dollars.  I can still picture myself lugging a bulky VCR down the street to my apartment, with a pile of cables, an instruction booklet, and a stack of videotapes to watch.  Then, twenty-four hours later, I’d pack it all up and lug it back to the store.

The colorful “laserdisc”

Compact discs (CD’s) and digital versatile discs (DVD’s) felt like space-age technology in the ’80’s and ’90’s.  But press the Pause button for a moment.  Did you forget laserdiscs (LD)?  LD’s were the first optical disc storage medium, and man did I buy into the hype of those rainbow Frisbees.  By the time I invested in a (bulky) LD player and loaded up on (pricy) LD’s themselves, DVD’s were beginning to take over the home video market.  Sadly, I still have my LD collection today (along with my no-longer-functioning LD player).  I figure the whole setup isn’t even worth the time to advertise on Craigslist.  In hindsight, laserdiscs were the very definition of unwieldy.

Finally (for physical media), I never graduated from DVD’s to Blu-ray discs, but “cinephiles” claim Blu-ray looks and sounds even better than its digital successors.  Regardless, Blu-ray should be considered the final frontier in a history of physical media dating back to the 1800’s.  Check out Wikipedia’s timeline of audio formats (player-piano rolls!) here.

Thanks to companies like Legacybox, Netflix, and Spotify, digital media is here to stay.  But I must concede, there’s little pride in perusing a collection of utterly un-physical files and folders on my laptop.  Maybe Olivia Newton-John knew what she was singing about after all.

Or maybe that’s why I’m still hanging onto my laserdiscs.

Some content sourced from the 10/11/2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Streaming Is Killing Physical Media.  Here’s Why You Won’t Miss It”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.