The pace of technology is so fast that many things have come since the fifties and gone. This post is dedicated to a few things we didn’t have then – mainly because they hadn’t been invented – but we don’t have now – because they are already obsolete!
To oldies like me, they were wonderful inventions; to youngsters of today, they are not even memories. Sometimes new methods were invented; sometimes things just got smaller and smaller and became part of something else; sometimes the way we did things changed; and some things just went out of fashion.
For this blog I will exclude methods of recording and playing music, video and television. There’s enough there for another blog! I will start with three devices associated with the telephone.
Long before mobile phones and even before landline phones that unplugged, some businesses could use a machine called an Answerphone. It’s hard to describe sizes but it would have perhaps the size of three or four large laptop computers on top of each other. When the business was unable to answer the telephone, the Answerphone machine would play a short recorded message and ask for the caller to leave a message. This was a useful business tool.
Gradually they became smaller and cheaper – so that they might have been used in ordinary houses. They became more common. Then they merged into the handset. Now most cheap handsets include this function – and if they don’t, the telephone provider will probably do it for you.
Next on my list are Pagers. You have to go back twenty years or so and imagine a world without mobile phones but with some creative use of radio. There is extensive radio bandwidth available. As well as radio broadcasting, there have always been Radio Hams and, in the USA, Citizens Band Radio (CB) – both expensive hobbies used by only a very few people. (King Hussein of Jordan was well known in the amateur radio community.)
Pagers used simple radio signals, when technology was on its way to developing the concept of mobile phones. They were about the size of a modern mobile phone, used at first by those who needed to be available on call for emergencies – doctors and police. They did very little. You could telephone the pager’s control centre and tell the operator there the number of the pager you wanted to call. Using available radio frequencies, they would send a signal to the pager device – which would just ring. The owner of this pager device knew he had been paged (but nothing else) and had to find a landline phone somewhere and phone back to the pager call centre – just to get the message, probably a number to call back. Understandably, they were expensive, needing the support of a primitive call centre to support them (when we didn’t have call centres.)
With touch-tone phones, pagers became slightly more sophisticated – the device might actually display the number to call back. They developed enough to show a very short display but by the time the technology developed far enough for useful communication, the pager had become obsolete. It was replaced by a mobile phone.
My third item used by phone is the Fax machine. Dating from the late sixties, a fax (short for facsimile) machine enabled a black-and-white picture to be sent over a telephone line. It was essentially a photocopying process, scanning a sheet of paper at one end of an established telephone call, and printing a copy at the other end (initially just in black and white.) Although it was a pictorial process, it usually copied a sheet of typed words. It could send several pages so it was like posting a letter but faster and more secure. Sending a fax was a time-consuming, messy process. (Each page had to be fed individually into the machine. An A4 sheet would take a few minutes.)
From the late eighties, fax technology was combined with computers, so that a word-processed document could be sent from computer to computer without the need for printing or stamps or postmen – or any time delay!. As you can image, fax has now effectively been made obsolete with the rise of email.
Long before Satnavs, there was something called GPSS, the Global Positioning Satellite System, now generally just GPS. It still amazes me that such a system can be so accurate. I first used one in 1999 to help me on my way from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It was a big, black, plastic thing much bigger than a mobile phone now, worked by a few switches and using a very small display screen. (Pictured above are some relatively modern versions.)
When you turned it on, you had to wait for it to find at least four satellites, which typically took five minutes or longer. (I remember that I had to hold it by the window or go outside to get good enough reception. Mobile phones used to be a bit like that.) Then it told you where you were – just a Grid Reference or latitude and longitude. It had no maps. If you moved it could also work out your speed and direction.
[I have to explain how it works. Each satellite broadcasts an incredibly accurate time signal. Travelling at the speed of light, these signals are delayed by 0.000 000 001 seconds per foot (30 cm). So signals from different satellites arrive at slightly different time delays. All you need is some very accurate, very quick three-dimensional trigonometry to work out where you are. You have to include the equally complex calculation to work out where the satellites are – as they are moving quite fast!]
You can see why we don’t need these devices anymore. The technology is included in many mobile phones and in Satnav systems for cars. They are now accurate to a few metres.
You will remember from  ’Normal Service will be Resumed …’ all the technical details of television transmission. I pointed out that ‘Ceefax, the text service used the spare bits of the 405-line signal. (Only 377 lines went on the screen. The rest were wasted while the dot moved back up to the top! …)’
Ceefax (deliberately sounding like See Facts) was like a very primitive Internet service, working through television. It started on BBC in 1974, just showing simple text on your television screen, as shown above, accessed by a three digit page number – that was as near as you could get to a URL. (Your remote control was used as a keyboard)
ITV had a similar system called ORACLE, using identical technology. If you wanted Page 527 (Games Reviews above), you pressed 527 and waited for your page to come round. Contents were just simple information such as weather forecasts, football results, Stock Market figures or television programme listings. ITV included some advertising.
It continued its usefulness with the developing Internet but was overtaken by television technology. When television moved from analogue to digital format, Ceefax disappeared. We now have the Red Button services on television instead.
Green Shield Stamps
These were the original loyalty cards! From about 1960, some shops gave Green Shield stamps with every purchase, one stamp for every 6d spent. It was a messy and fiddly process. You had to stick the stamps in a book. (No easy adhesives like today. You licked the back of the stamp.) 40 stamps to a page and about 32 pages to a book.
One or more filled books could be redeemed at a Green Shield shop for all sorts of things – chosen from their catalogue.
They were popular at the time and some chains launched their own versions. With advancing technology, licking stamps went out of fashion. After about ten years Green Shield stamps disappeared and the business became Argos catalogue stores (with some similarities.) Now many shops and chains of shops have their own loyalty schemes with rewards, working through plastic cards …
Carbon Paper Credit Cards
… Plastic cards. We all have them now for all sorts of things. Without giving away anything about credit cards (which will come in another blog,) have you ever wondered why your card number is embossed?
This is how they first worked, with no Internet technology and no microchip in your card. The transaction details were printed on to paper – not just paper, three sheets with interleaved carbon paper to make three copies. You added your signature as confirmation. The person making the sale then put your card into the machine as shown above, then their card also went in, then the triple-sheet paper document. By sharply moving the black bar across, the embossed details from both cards were printed on to the document – the card numbers of both customer and seller. Sheets were then separated – one for you, one for the seller and one to go by post to the credit card company.
You can see why this technology became obsolete. It was slow, difficult and messy and all sorts of things could go wrong. Replacement methods used microchips in the card and instant communication by phone.
Lastly, not much to do with changes in technology, a bit more about fashions.
Back in the fifties, some houses still had bare polished floorboards. They were cold in winter, rough (with splinters if you walked on them with bare feet.) Parquet floors were a higher class sort of thing – in public halls and old houses owned by the posh and rich.
Like most houses we knew, we had lino (linoleum) a cheaper earlier version of vinyl flooring, with a carpet in the middle of the room, maybe three by four yards (or metres). People did not have fitted carpets for the whole room. (We did know one family with the usual decorative square carpet in the middle and plain fitted carpet for the rest of the room. We thought they must be very rich.)
Later, fitted carpets became more fashionable and almost all houses replaced these central rectangle with fully fitted carpet. Either they became cheaper or people were better off – probably both.
Vinyl floors were developed, sometimes replacing lino (but generally just for kitchens and bathrooms) Later still there was a craze for bare floorboards but they had to be sanded and polished to make them comfortable and pretty. Then the new-style wood flooring came in – easy to fit laminated strips that just click in together. Now laminate wood is seen almost everywhere where once we had carpet. It’s comfortable now that we have central heating and warm rooms. Many houses just don’t have carpets anymore.
There are many more things we had never heard of in the sixties that are now already history. I won’t bore you with them all. Dutch Elm Disease, the SDLP, … and on a more positive note Bagpuss and the Magic Roundabout.