Before You Were Born: The Hardware Edition

I increasingly deal with vintage hardware. Why? Because we have vintage media in our collections that we need to read to make preservation and access copies of the files stored on them.

I spend a lot of time thinking about hardware that I have interacted with and managed over the years. Some of it was innovative and exhibited remarkable adaptive uses, yet is sadly forgotten.

Original shipping box for a CueCat from Wired Magazine in 2000, photo by Leslie Johnston

Original shipping box for a CueCat from Wired Magazine in 2000, photo by Leslie Johnston

I cannot leave out the Telex, one of the earliest technologies to have a lasting effect on our practices today. Telex was networked telecommunications and teleprinting from 1933.

In the same vein, I think every archival professional knows something about the Memex, proposed by Vannevar Bush in his article “As We May Think” in The Atlantic in July, 1945. While this posited the use of early hypertext navigation, it was an interface to static microfilm.

The compact cassette – yes the cassette tape of our youthful mix tapes – was used for data storage on home computers in the 1970s and 80s.  I most vividly remember friends in high school seeking out cassettes with clear leaders for the loading of software and data on TRS-80 home computers.  Interestingly, cassettes may be coming back in a revived form as a storage medium.

I remember some of the early word processors, but one of the most interesting appears to be the DECmate from 1977, a PDP-8 compatible _desktop_ computer running word processing software, meant, according to its advertising, for “office workers.”

My colleague Jimi Jones quipped that any technology that ends in the word “-vision” should be on my list.  Catrivision analog video cassettes for consumer film distribution and for recording from 1972.  The Polavision instant movie camera from 1977. The Magnavox Magnavision laserdisc player from 1978.  The Selectavision Capacitance Electronic Disk video disc player from 1981.   The Fisher-Price PixelVision camera (with cassette storage) from 1987.

While writing this post I was introduced by my colleague Jerry McDonough to the short-lived Vectrex. A color, true 3D vector graphics display for home gaming in 1982. And gone from the market in 1984.

How about the GRiD Compass laptop from 1982? Rugged, with a graphical interface. It used bubble memory, very high capacity non-volatile memory for its day. And it was the first laptop to go into space. In 1991 GRiD introduced the GRiDPad SL, one of the first pen-based Tablets.

While writing this, a friend introduced me to the DECtalk, a text-to-speech synthesizer from 1984. It could work as an interface to an email system and had the capability to function as an alerting system by interacting with phone systems via touch tones.

While I never used one, I was fascinated by the description of the development of the Thunderscan, a hardware adapter with accompanying software to turn an Apple ImageWriter into a scanner, which hit the market in 1984.

I worked with a Sony Mavica digital camera in the mid-1980s. Yes, digital. While the first version was an analog signal, later versions, such as the one I worked with, were digital, and wrote onto floppy disks.

How many people remember the NeXT, introduced in 1988?  Perhaps it’s not fair to list this under hardware, because its OS, OpenStep object-oriented development tool, and WebObjects web application development framework were just as influential as the hardware, if not more. It was one of the earliest high-end workstations aimed at the scientific and higher education computer simulation market with fast chips and a lot of memory for the time, and magneto-optical storage, and it was truly WYSIWYG for layout and printing. You might remember that the first web browser was written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee on a NeXT and used it as the first web server…

The QuickCam was one of the first widespread consumer webcam devices in 1994, although neither the web nor videoconferencing were ubiquitous yet.  (Tangentially, my first real experience with videoconferencing was a job interview in late 1995).

In 1996 the Palm personal digital assistant appeared in the market. I had four different models over the years. It was one of the earliest devices to support syncing between email and calendars on both Windows and Mac systems, and had a touchscreen for gestural writing capture using its Graffiti writing system.  Of course it owed a huge debt to the Apple Newton from 1987, with its Notes, Names, and Dates applications and other productivity tools, and its true handwriting recognition.  I was also reminded by a colleague about the Sharp Wizard from 1989, with a memo pad, calendar and scheduling with alarms and repeating events, and a calculator.  I had completely forgotten that I once had one of these in my household when they were new.

I will end with one of my sentimental favorites. In 2000 I received an odd little box in the mail as part of my Wired magazine subscription. That box contained a CueCat, a home barcode scanner. It was meant to plug into home computers to read barcodes in print magazines to take you to targeted web sites.  It was described by PC World in 2006 as “One of the 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.” Now of course we all have barcode readers in our phones to interact with barcodes and QR codes everywhere.  I still have my CueCat and the Wired box. And there are home library cataloging tools to this day that can still work with them.

What are your favorite forgotten innovations in hardware?