“Did you know they’ve started making guitars that tune themselves?” asked my trainer, who is a serious amateur guitarist.
“That’s so cool,” I replied. (I talk that way at the gym.)
“I dunno,” he said. “Seems kind of redundant to me.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, “but it doesn’t matter–it’s still cool.” And it is, very much so. Like most men, I am a medium-bore neophile who regards labor-saving technology as an absolute boon and expensive gimmickry as self-justifying, and a guitar that tunes itself hits the bull’s-eye on both counts.
But I also have a long memory, and my trainer’s question immediately put me in mind of the recent announcement that Polaroid will stop manufacturing self-developing film later this year. The once-miraculous “instant cameras” that first went on the market in 1948 were rendered irrelevant by the introduction of digital photography, and in a matter of months they will all be museum pieces, henceforth destined not to take snapshots but to gather dust in never-opened closets.
My father, who was a devoted gadget buff, owned two Polaroid cameras and bought me a third, the budget-priced Swinger, whose cheery TV jingle rattles around pointlessly in my head to this day:
It was one of the many shiny pieces of up-to-the-minute stuff that briefly brightened my childhood, then was relegated to the capacious basement of my home in Smalltown, U.S.A., as soon as something newer and better came along. That’s what happened to my first portable phonograph, my first reel-to-reel tape recorder, my first cassette deck…the list goes on and on. Some got carted off to the garbage dump, but most continue to molder in that same basement, unused and unusable, totally forgotten save on the rare occasions when a passing remark brings one of them to mind.
Three years ago I posted a list of “things I no longer use, do, or see.” Thinking about my old Swinger put a different set of memories in my head, and I started drawing up a list of inventions I first encountered when young that are now taken for granted. I’m not talking about cable TV, VCRs, Walkmen, answering machines, or word processors–those came later–but the once-astonishing inventions of my childhood that have since woven themselves into the fabric of American life as securely as a dead metaphor:
• Direct long-distance dialing. Most long-distance calls were still placed through operators well into the Sixties. You could call person-to-person or collect, and neither way was cheap, so my parents figured out a way to finesse the system. As soon as we returned to Smalltown from a midwinter visit to my grandmother’s house, my mother would immediately place a person-to-person call to my grandmother–using a code name instead of her real name. Grandma would then politely decline to accept the call and hang up, knowing that we’d gotten home safely. (How many other small-town folk used the same trick?) Then Direct Distance Dialing arrived in our neck of the woods, at which time the Smalltown telephone exchange, which had previously been known as GRanite-1, became the infinitely less exotic 471, and the romantic days of person-to-person calls and Double-Secret Code Names came to an end.
• Fast food. In southeast Missouri it started with McDonald’s, as it did in most parts of America, but for many years Smalltownians had to go to Cape Girardeau, a half-hour north of us, to buy their Big Macs. The first modern fast-food burger chain to lay down a marker in Smalltown was the now-defunct Burger Chef, which advertised its wares with another idiot jingle that I can still sing: French-fried potatoes/Crisp and fresh/And the greatest fifteen-cent/Hamburger yet. It was, too, as far as I was concerned.
• Electric car windows. I’ll never forget the year that my father bought a car with motorized windows. I must have spent a good half-hour sitting in the driver’s seat, opening and closing them over and over again. They seemed to me to be the very quintessence of industrial magic.
• Color television. We bought our first color TV, a Curtis Mathes set with a round picture tube, in 1964 or 1965. The first shows I remember seeing in color were Batman and (naturally) Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, though even before that I can remember marveling at the animated peacock that introduced all shows broadcast in Living Color on NBC:
• Automobile tape decks. One doesn’t run into them very often these days–the CD has replaced the cassette, and is itself well on the way to being replaced by the iPod and its progeny–but the idea of being able to listen to music of your own choosing in a car remains very much with us. When I was young, though, it was a privilege, not an entitlement. Back then we listened to whatever was playing on the radio, and in Smalltown, U.S.A., we had a grand total of two stations from which to choose.
Then, in 1964, the eight-track tape cartridge was unleashed on an astonished world, and within a year or two my father had bought a new car that contained a factory-installed tape player. He bought the tapes, too, which meant that we mostly listened to Stan Kenton and Frank Sinatra (neither of whom I had yet learned to appreciate) on our Sunday drives to nowhere in particular. But the eight-track player was a great invention all the same, and nowadays I can’t imagine life without its descendants, which have seen me through many a traffic jam. I once listened to all five of Beethoven’s late string quartets while stuck in Labor Day traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw thrown in as an encore.
• Digital clocks. Do you remember learning how to tell time? I do, and I wonder whether children raised in the digital age find the faces of old-fashioned clocks as mysterious and inscrutable as I did when I was a boy.
• Photocopiers. They came to Smalltown, U.S.A., some time in the early Seventies. Before that you used carbon paper, or typed your document on a stencil and ran it through a quaint old machine called a mimeograph that produced moist, strange-smelling copies printed in purple ink.
• Personal calculators. I belong to the last generation of American high-school students that learned how to use a slide rule. In my senior year, the students in my physics class were permitted to check the computation on their exams by using a desk-model calculator that was kept on the teacher’s desk. My father gave me a solar-powered handheld calculator as a going-away-to-college present, back in the days when such devices still cost a fair amount of money.
“The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car,” H.L. Mencken told an interviewer in 1946, ten years before his death. Both, needless to say, are now obsolete. Unlike the self-consciously cranky Mencken, I’ve always embraced technological change, and I couldn’t begin to list the inventions of the past half-century that have improved my life.
Yet I can’t help but ask: how many of the aforementioned devices will have been carted off to the graveyard of superannuated technologies a half-century after I, too, am dead and buried? They were and are wonderful–but so was my little Polaroid Swinger, which cost $19.95, just like the jingle said, and gave me at least a hundred thousand dollars worth of pleasure. Sic transit!