Big Story 2

Technology is very much an everyday 21st Century construct. Rewind 50 years or more, and technology was for people in white coats, for nerds, for people whom you’d be fascinated by and scared of in the pub.  By Alan Wares


Today, given its omnipresence, technology is for everyone, and – in the western world, at least – is unavoidable. While the world of centuries past made use of tools, gadgets, implements and machinery that worked and lasted for years, decades or even centuries, there are so many artefacts in modern living that have a shelf life of virtually no time at all.

For example, what could your mobile phone of 15 years ago do?

Does this rapid evolution mean anything? There must a reasons why advancing (and is every technological breakthrough or discovery an ‘advancement’?) technology is increasing in pace. Human achievement is one motivator, although financial reward is never far behind. Money can be quite the inspiration, but is that the sole driver?

Today, the white coats have gone, but the innovators still often revel in the ‘nerd’ tag, and they probably still scare and fascinate down the craft ale pub.

One source of inspiration for technological advances - mostly for domestic communications and everyday life – is science fiction, both in literature and on screen. The connection between them isn’t always metaphorical.

The classic Star Trek series features several everyday technologies that seemed far-fetched in the 1960s: video calls, automatic sliding doors and flip phones. These last are already becoming a thing of the past, but the rise of foldable smart phones evokes the folding screens found in other sci-fi films such as Minority Report, Total Recall or Blade Runner; films not un-coincidentally based on books by American author Philip K Dick.

Not everything has a vital function. Certain gadgets have been specifically designed to replicate fictional technology. In 2016, Nike produced a limited run of self-lacing shoes modelled after those featured in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. This product wasn’t just a fun gimmick: Nike partnered with Michael J. Fox, who played Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy, to raise money for his foundation to fight Parkinson’s.

While necessity may be argued as being the mother of invention, how many advances have been ‘necessary’, and how many have been purely commercial?

Platinum takes a look at just a small number of recent – i.e. post-war –household and everyday items, some of which have gone through generational upgrades into something quite unrecognisable from the original ‘v1’. It also looks at those which crashed and burned upon delivery into the world, and are now held up as a future warning to innovators everywhere.



If anything represents technological advances, it’s what was once called a telephone, and now referred to as – somewhat euphemistically, given its broad versatility – a mobile phone.

Making its public appearance in 1876, the telephone has seen many interpretive changes in its 147-year history. The flat, black plastic and glass item you have in your hand is about as far removed technology-wise from its 1876 version as it can get. And yet its core concept, allowing two people a considerable distance apart to verbally communicate via a series of electric pulses, has remained largely unchanged.

The claim to be the telephone’s inventor is somewhat controversial, and surrounded in a foggy mystery. History dictates that Alexander Graham Bell ‘invented’ it. However, his claim to fame was that he was the person who took out the successful patent. A revision, or rather a re-appraisal, of the facts would point to Elisha Gray being the real inventor, with him having done most of the heavy lifting in making his system work.

But such was the pace of technology – even in the 1870s – that Bell was so enthused by this contraption that he confidently predicted that, “one day, every city in America will have a telephone.”

Fast forward 100 years, Michael Rodd demonstrated a prototype ‘mobile phone’ on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in 1979. It was merely a handset, connected to a radio walkie-talkie. The technology worked well – albeit for the limited Home Office allowance the test undertook. However, seeing as the communication took up valuable radio wavelengths bands, the Post Office, which ran communications on behalf of the Home Office at the time, were less than enthusiastic to release those bandwidths. Even CB radios, which operated on the same wavelengths, were still outlawed.

It took a different technology about 10 years later, and pioneered overseas, for the first commercially successful mobile phones to become available. Bricks for phones and suitcases for batteries, anyone?

Today, your mobile phone is, depending on the configuration

• a telephone
• Clock / stopwatch / timer
• Camera - video and stills
• Dictionary
• Library
• Music centre
• Encyclopedia
• Train timetable
• Atlas / map
• GPS / SatNav (a military invention which they finally let the public have)
• Gaming console
• Shopping device
• Ticket
• Calculator
• Document scanner
• Torch
• Language translator

We are going to run out of pages if we attempt to list everything else it can do. These are just some of the basics.

What will the mobile phone of the future look like? Given that if there is anything left to add to your hand held computer (which is what it is, really), delegates at Sussex Tech Week may well be looking into that now.


Computer miniaturisation

When one thinks of early electronic computers, one is probably drawn to the images of Alan Turing’s ‘bombe’ decoding machine, the huge leviathan that helped cracked encoded German messages sent via the Enigma machine during World War II. Each ‘bombe’ was about 7’ (2.1m) wide, 6’6” (1.98 m) tall, 2‘ (0.61m) deep and weighed just over a ton.

As the decades passed, computers became more and more physically miniaturised, without losing their power.

Number crunchers have long sought to compare the power of the NASA’s computer in the 1960s to the power of a modern day iPhone. So... we are going to do the same.

On board Apollo XI – the programme that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969 – was a computer which had 2,048 words of memory – or RAM. Each word comprised 16 binary digits (bits), meaning the Apollo computer had 32,768 bits of RAM memory. In addition, it had 72KB of Read Only Memory (ROM) – memory that is programmed, and cannot be changed once it is finalised – which is equivalent to 589,824 bits.

By contrast, today’s mobile phones typically have 4GB of RAM. This is more than one million times more RAM than the Apollo computer had. The iPhone also has up to 512GB of ROM, or 4,398,046,511,104 bits, which is more seven million times more than that of the guidance computer.

In short, you wouldn’t have been able to get this article into the Apollo XI’s computer. If NASA had placed a 2020s home computer into Apollo XI, the computing times and user interface would have been easier and quicker. However, what it would not have done is sped up communications with Earth. The time it takes to communicate is the same today as it was in 1969; the speed of light.


Games consoles

It may look horribly dated now, but Pong, released by the then-new company Atari, was the first electronic game that really caught the public imagination. Originally released as a video arcade game, this two-dimensional simulation of table tennis was the very first arcade game that could be played on home electronic equipment.

First released in November 1972, such was its success that, despite Atari struggling with its lack of resources to fulfil its order books, it immediately started working on a home console prototype, one that plugged directly into a television. Home Pong was released in November 1975, and became the standard for home electronic and computer games.

It set the scene for all home electronic games systems, including the likes of Nintendo and PlayStation which followed later, and – especially by retro-lovers – is still played years since its first launch.


50 years of illuminated dashboards

Read any motoring reviews, including those by Maarten Hoffmann in this magazine and, much as reviewers love comfort, performance, speed, handling and so on, many get distracted by excessive electronic gismos. To the discerning motorist, engineering is King.

However, many pieces of electronic hardware have been placed in the car for safety, and therefore have their place.

For example, science correspondent James Burke filmed a piece for BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in 1971 where he is driving a Triumph Dolomite which cost £55,000 (about £958,000 today). What justified the twenty-fold increase in cost? The car was bedecked with warning hazards that informed the driver if there was something wrong with the car.

Today, of course, every car has dashboard warning lights, albeit far more appropriately sized, and it hasn’t increased the cost of the car by a factor of 20.

So what is excessive? Hopefully, Sussex Tech Week may touch on finding some answers for what future transport may hold. Why, for instance, are electronics so mesmerising for so many car drivers, yet virtually non-existent on, say, public transport?


Sinclair C5

We can’t have a rundown of gadgets from yesteryear without mentioning the Daddy of all marketing gaffes; the turkey that got stuffed; the epic hero of all-time failures…

Despite the C5 being the prototype for current (no pun intended) electric vehicles, and all of the possibilities that has since entailed, it failed on almost every level. For a start, the design was horrendous; a go-kart without much ‘go’. Its range was 20 miles, if the embarrassment hadn’t got to you before you got that far. Its low-slung body made it seriously dangerous, especially as it was marketed as a car.

Who would ever feel safe on the road, on an electric tricycle, doing a maximum of 15mph while your backside is a mere five inches off the ground?

Worst of all, Sir Clive Sinclair, its otherwise brilliant inventor, was hardly the epitome of cool when marketing his three-wheeled glorified mobile potty. Still, sales of college scarves remained buoyant.



Betamax was first released in May 1975 by the Sony Corporation of Japan. While many considered this video cassette player and recorder superior to its VHS competitor (which came along a year later), it came with a higher price tag. In the end, consumers chose the cheaper VHS model, and the movie industry followed suit, leaving Betamax in the technology dustbin.

What Sony did not take into account was what consumers wanted. While Betamax was believed to be the superior format in the minds of the public and press (due to excellent marketing by Sony), consumers wanted an affordable VCR (which often cost less than a Betamax player).

As a result, other manufacturers were allowed licences to make VHS machines, and in very little time, it was beating the Betamax format hands down. Despite losing out to the VHS format, Sony carried on producing Betamax machines until 2002, and sell Betamax cassettes until 2016.

Subscription services to myriad TV channels now seems to be winning the home entertainment war; VCRs - mostly down to obsolete technology and quality - have gone, as for the most part have their successor, the DVD.

Where will home entertainment go next? Popping along to Sussex Tech Week may provide the next clues.


Yesterday's future

In 1989, Tomorrow’s World made a series of home life predictions of how we would be living in 2020. Given the increasing pace of technology, this was bold. However, many of their predictions were unerringly accurate.

David Button from Pilkington Glass let us know about the new innovations in glass, including diffusion, light-emitting and touch screens; again fairly widespread now.

Voice controlled heating or sound are commonplace. Smart heating and lighting systems, which turn off and on when you enter or leave a room, and controlled from a remote panel (your mobile, for instance), as well as highlighting clutter-free living from music, entertainment and wiring.

The programme also foresaw changes in lifestyle we would need to make in terms of the climate and fossil fuels
use. While it didn’t offer an alternative – wind, tide and solar energy production were still in their infancy then – it’s striking that, over three decades since that broadcast, we are still having to argue the point over the necessity of renewable energy, with too many refusing to accept the evidence.


Going forward

Is there any point in predicting how we will live our lives in 2053 – 30 years from now? On the current path much of society is taking, there would be little point. But assuming politicians do actually bother to wake up, smell the coffins, humanity can turn its own corner and repair much of the damage.

This isn’t intended as a warning against a dystopian future in the J.G. Ballard mould. If we wanted to, we could all mitigate against future problems, and use technology in more imaginative and altruistic ways. If we wanted to.

The next technological issue under discussion off the taxi rank is Artificial Intelligence. Many column inches have been written on AI, and not just in scientific publications; such is its immediate importance, this business magazine has carried several articles on this subject.

There is even an AI creation – ‘Hope Sogni’ – looking to stand as the next President of FIFA, the world’s football governing body. And ‘she’ couldn’t do any worse than the current incumbent.

AI has the potential for good, while it is also a cause for concern. Friend or foe? Embrace it or deny it? Sussex Tech Week in June 2024 will seek to tackle, debate and clarify many concerns, issues and opportunities – preferably for the collective good.

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