17 November 2023

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

By Ronald Smith

Remember when you were a kid and the coolest thing in the world was a Nintendo game console or a mobile phone the size of a toolbox? We were easily thrilled back then. But you know what? Those technologies were the building blocks for everything we have today. Without those pioneers and their revolutionary breakthroughs, we wouldn’t be enjoying the gadgets and systems we have now.

Today, let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit the technologies that used to blow our minds (and still do, but for different reasons). Sure, they may have been replaced by more advanced gadgets, but we should never forget the impact they made in their respective fields.

1. Portable Music

The Walkman and Discman, oh boy, they were the OGs of portable music players. I mean, before we had iPods, these bad boys were ruling the streets. But you know what? The Walkman didn’t even last a whole 35 years!

Walkman

Let’s talk about the OG Walkman, the TPS-L2. Now this bad boy was the very first portable audio cassette player ever made, and let me tell you, it caused quite the stir. As soon as Sony dropped this baby in 1979, people went wild. They must have tapped into some kind of magic, because this thing sold like hotcakes. Sony thought they’d sell 5000 units a month, but guess what? They ended up selling a staggering 50,000 units in just two months. I mean, can you even imagine? That’s off the charts.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

Can you believe it? It was the first time we could listen to music on-the-go. No longer were we confined to hearing tunes on the radio at home or in the car. With the Walkman, we could finally bring our favorite songs on the bus, train, or during a jog. The Walkman became so popular in the 1980s that it officially made its way into the dictionary in 1986.

But along came the Discman.

As CDs gained popularity in the early 80s, the Discman emerged as a worthy opponent. Sony introduced the D-50 portable Compact Disc (CD) player in 1984, which offered superior sound quality and the ability to skip tracks. Suddenly, users had the option to enjoy higher quality audio formats. By 1999, Sony had shipped over 10 million Discman units worldwide.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

In 1997, something amazing happened. The MPMan came onto the scene, a device that changed the way we listened to music. It was the first mp3 player, developed by SaeHan Information Systems. This sleek gadget gave music lovers like me the freedom to carry around their favorite tunes in a compact and convenient device. No more lugging around CDs or cassette tapes.

Not long after, in January 2013, the Walkman, that iconic portable cassette player, was discontinued. It was the end of an era. CDs, too, started to fade into obscurity when Apple introduced its cutting-edge music player, the iPod. It was sleek, it was revolutionary, and it quickly became the go-to device for music enthusiasts.

2. Video Home System (VHS) technology

Do you remember VHS tapes? For about 35 years, they were a staple in every household. But oh boy, do I remember how painful it was to “programme a VCR.” It was like solving a complicated puzzle just to record a TV show.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: there was actually a format war between VHS and Betamax. It all started with a collaboration between JVC, Sony Corporation, and Matsushita Electric (also known as Panasonic) to create a standard home video format for the Japanese market. However, things didn’t go as planned. Eventually, JVC came up with VHS in 1973, while Sony developed Betamax in 1975. And well, we all know who won that battle.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

In 1980, I was amazed to see that both VHS and Betamax sold exactly 10 million units. Fast forward 8 years, and VHS took the lead with a whopping 200 million units, while Betamax remained stuck at 25 million since 1984. VHS revolutionized the way we watch movies by bringing them from the big screen to our living rooms.

But then came the downfall of VHS, when it made room for optical disc formats like VCDs in 1993 and DVDs in 1996. Although some manufacturers still make combination DVD+VHS players, the standalone VHS unit was discontinued in October 2008.

But here’s the crazy thing – even though the last Hollywood blockbuster released on VHS was “A History of Violence” in 2005, you can still find blank tapes being sold in many places. It’s because many households still own VHS VCRs and cherish their collections. It’s a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time.

3. LaserDisc (LD) Technology

Did you know that LaserDisc (LD) technology paved the way for the development of CD and DVD? It’s true! But here’s the surprising part: the laser disc had a relatively short lifespan of just 23 years.

Back in 1978, LD technology burst onto the scene. It was introduced by MCA under the name DiscoVision, and the first LD player was created by Phillips. This cutting-edge technology offered superior video and audio quality compared to VHS tapes, but there was a catch – it came with a hefty price tag. Each laser disc was a whopping 30 cm in diameter, making them quite large compared to today’s DVDs, which are only 12 cm in size. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s even a MiniDVD that measures a mere 8 cm across.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

When laser discs were at the height of their popularity in the 1990s, people preferred to rent them instead of buying because it was expensive to own one, costing around $100. It’s not surprising that laser discs became obsolete in 2001, with the last title being “The Cell.” Pioneer stopped making LD players in 2009, leaving the public wanting better audio and video quality for movie releases.

4. Gaming

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in Japan in 1983, but it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1985. It was the best-selling console of its time, selling over 60 million units worldwide by the end of its production in 1995.

Famicom

Ah, the 8-bit video game console. What a marvel it was when it burst onto the scene! Everyone was captivated by its charm and immediately fell in love with it. In the Asian market, this marvelous device went by the name ‘Family Computer’ or ‘Famicom’. It was a big hit! Well, except in South Korea, where it was called the ‘Hyundai Comboy’.

I remember those early days like they were yesterday. By the end of 1984, Nintendo had already sold a whopping 2.5 million units of Famicom in Japan alone! Can you believe it? I’m still in awe of its incredible popularity. It was a true sensation!

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

I must confess, NES was the one who brought us incredible video games like Super Mario Bros. 3 back in 1988. Believe it or not, this game made over $500 million, selling more than 7 million copies in the US and 4 million in Japan. It even snatched the crown for the most successful home video game ever made.

But let’s move forward to the 90s. That’s when the next wave of video game consoles emerged, with the Sega Genesis and Nintendo’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System taking the spotlight. These bad boys inevitably replaced NES, but not before adopting some of its new standards. You know that directional control pad you see on modern controllers? Well, you can thank NES for that awesome invention. It’s still used today on Xbox and Sony PlayStation controllers, and it all started with NES. Cool, right?

When I think back to the 1980s, one of the things that stands out the most is how the NES brought video games back into the spotlight. After the video game crash of the early 1980s, I was starting to wonder if video games were a thing of the past. But then along came the NES, and it changed everything.

Not only did the NES revive interest in video games for both adults and children, but it also turned video games into a multi-billion dollar industry in just five short years. Can you believe that? It’s amazing how something can go from being almost forgotten to being such a big deal.

5. IBM PC & Compatibles

Now, let’s talk about the IBM PC. This computer came out in 1981, and it was a game-changer. In fact, you could say it was the first true ‘PC’ and set the standard for all the PCs that came after it. Pretty cool, huh?

What’s interesting is that the release of the IBM PC didn’t just lead to the creation of more IBM computers. It actually inspired other computer companies to develop their own versions, called IBM Compatibles. These clones copied all the important features of the original IBM PC and even had their own operating system, MS-DOS.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

Many of these clones had problems with software and hardware compatibility. But one clone that really stood out was the Compaq Portable. It wasn’t just 100% IBM PC compatible, it was also portable, about the size of a sewing machine. Something that IBM didn’t offer.

6. Dial-up Internet Access / Modem

We may laugh about how long ago dial-up seems, but it was actually introduced to the public in 1989 by The World. If you’re too young to know what ‘dial-up’ is, click here to find out.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

Ah, the good ol’ days of the internet. It was a mixed bag of emotions, really. On one hand, we were thrilled to be connected and have access to this whole new world of possibilities. On the other hand, we were often left frustrated and impatient as we waited and waited for pages to load. It’s funny how we used to call it the World Wide Wait!

Gotta Go Fast

But hey, times have changed and so has our need for speed. Gone are the days of dial-up internet with those sluggish 28.8k or 56k modems. Now, we have broadband access that allows us to zoom through the online world. Did you know that Singapore has the fastest average peak connection at a blazing 60.39 Mbps? And Sweden is not far behind with 46 Mbps. Talk about lightning fast! And just when we thought things couldn’t get any speedier, along comes Google Fiber with plans to offer speeds up to a mind-boggling 1000 Mbps. Hold onto your hats, folks!

Remembering the Floppy Disk Drive & Diskettes

Are you feeling frustrated because your 4GB pen drive is completely full? I totally get it! It’s crazy to think that back in the day when floppy diskettes were still a thing, we had to make do with less than 3MB of space per diskette. Can you imagine that? Nowadays, you hardly ever see a floppy disk drive in a new PC. Technology has come such a long way!

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

Back in the day, before we had USB flash drives, memory cards, and portable hard drives, we used these things called portable floppy diskettes to store our computer documents. Can you believe it? The first ones came out in 1971 and were a whopping 8 inches in diameter! Over time, they got smaller and smaller, going from 5.25 inches in 1976 to 3.5 inches in 1982.

Remember the Save Icon?

As the floppy diskettes got smaller, they could hold more and more stuff. The storage capacity went from a measly 80KB to a whopping 2.88MB! Even though they didn’t hold much, people still used floppy diskettes all the time to transfer data to their computers. In fact, by 1997, there were 5 billion 3.5″ floppy diskettes being used around the world. That’s a whole lot of floppy disks! Because of their popularity, many personal computers even came with floppy disk drives built in.

As software became larger and required more storage capacity, new storage solutions emerged to meet the demand. One of these solutions was Iomega zip drives, introduced in 1994. These drives, along with recordable CDs (CD-R) and rewritable CDs (CD-RW) that came later, could store hundreds of megabytes of data. While they are no longer widely used, floppy diskettes are still in use in some parts of the world. However, Sony officially stopped producing floppy diskettes in 2009.

8. The Evolution of Screens and Monitors

In the past, televisions and computer screens used Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) technology. These bulky monitors lasted for about a century before being replaced by LCD monitors in 2000.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

I was fascinated to learn that CRT technology dates all the way back to 1897, when the very first cathode-ray tube was created. Can you believe it? That’s over a hundred years ago! Back in the 1930s, this technology made its way into television sets, and eventually found its place in personal computers during the 80s. They were initially called video display terminals and could only display a limited number of colors, ranging from 4 to 16.

A Better Option Emerges

But then, in the late 90s, LCD monitors burst onto the scene. It was a game-changer! These sleek monitors revolutionized the way we used computers, leading to the development of laptops and later, standalone LCD monitors. Unlike their CRT counterparts, LCD monitors offered higher resolutions and could display multiple colors without the bulky size, annoying flickering, and excessive energy consumption. Amazing, right?

And that’s not all. Thanks to LCD flat panel technology, we can now enjoy much larger screens that are incredibly thin and can be mounted on walls. Think about it – display sizes have gone from a few inches to a whopping 50 inches and beyond! It’s truly remarkable how far we’ve come.

Here to Stay

When I think of India, I think of a country where CRT TVs are still widely used. Surprisingly, last year India had just a slightly higher number of LCD TV shipments, at 10 million, compared to 9.3 million shipments of CRT TVs. It’s interesting to note that globally, the numbers are quite different, with 84.2% of TV shipments being LCD TVs and only 9.9% being CRT TVs. It seems like LCD TVs have taken over the world, but there are still some places where CRT TVs are holding on.

The scientific world is one such place. In scientific settings where response speed is crucial, like in the study of the brain’s visual processing or psychophysics, you’ll still find CRT monitors being used. They might be old-fashioned, but they serve a specific purpose.

9. Film-based Cartridge Cameras – Kodak Instamatic Series

Before camera phones and digital point-and-shoots became popular, photographers used film-based cartridge cameras. These cameras were simple and convenient, allowing anyone to capture special moments on film. One of the most well-known series of cartridge cameras was the Kodak Instamatic series.

Unfortunately, as technology advanced, these film-based cameras became less popular. The last Instamatic model sold was the X-15F in 1988. And as we moved into the digital age, the 126 and 110 film formats used in these cameras were eventually discontinued, in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

The Instamatic camera series was a game-changer. It was the first-ever camera that had automatic film loading, advancing, and rewinding capabilities. With this revolutionary technology, capturing moments became easier than ever before.

Kodak, the company behind the Instamatic cameras, introduced two main film formats. The first one was the 126 cartridge film, which was used in the bulkier and older cameras. These cameras were incredibly popular, with over 50 million units sold from 1963 to 1970. The second format was the 110 cartridge film, used in the lightweight and compact Pocket series. In just the first three years, 25 million Pocket cameras were sold.

Thanks to Kodak’s innovative film format and the popularity of the Instamatic cameras, point-and-shoot photography became a phenomenon. People could simply aim, shoot, and capture memories effortlessly. However, this era of analog photography was disrupted by the advent of digital cameras. The digital revolution swept in and completely transformed the industry.

Kodak struggled to keep up with the rise of digital photography and eventually discontinued most of its film production in the mid-90s. It wasn’t until 2009 that the last roll of Kodachrome film was ever produced. If you’re curious, you can take a look at what was captured on that final roll of Kodachrome film.

Moving on to another technological innovation, let’s talk about dot matrix printers.

In the early years of computer printing, we had dot matrix printers. These printers, also known as impact matrix printers, came onto the scene in 1970. But by the mid-1990s, they were replaced by inkjet printers.

The very first dot matrix printer, with its impressive speed of 30 characters per second, was introduced to the world. It quickly became a popular choice for home computers, even though laser printers and inkjet printers were also available. It’s fascinating to think that despite the advancements in printing technology, dot matrix printers still held their ground.

10 Early Technologies That Molded Our Modern Digital World

From Typewriters to Printers

Printers are similar to typewriters in how they function. They work by using impact to press an ink-soaked cloth ribbon against the paper with a print head. However, dot matrix printers went beyond just printing fixed lettering – they could also create different fonts and graphics.

When the patents expired and the printing industry adopted inkjet technology, dot matrix printers faced competition from inkjet printers that were quieter and faster. Inkjet printers were also easier to use and troubleshoot. Nonetheless, dot matrix printers are still commonly used as point-of-sale devices, in cash registers, and in ATM machines, among other applications.