HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
Today's newest, fastest and best technology will soon look like a relic to future shoppers. With each new update, release, and revision, the last version immediately feels primitive. Some products last just a few years, and others endure for centuries, but one thing is certain — obsolescence is often inevitable.
Prior to the year 725, no one was ever on time for anything. But that year in China, Yi Xing invented the first known alarm clock, and the descendants of his contraption have been startling slumberers out of dreams both good and bad ever since. It was actually the rise of the clock radio that spelled the beginning of the end for the standalone alarm clock, but in the end it was cell phones that rendered the single-function timed noisemaker a relic of a bygone era.
In 2010, the Encyclopedia Britannica published its final print edition. It was a massive, 32-edition collection that followed in the footsteps of the seven million similar sets purchased by academics, students and hobbyists throughout the company's 244-year history. The encyclopedia met its demise in the form of the Internet, which offered knowledge at the click of a button.
In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre shocked the world by freezing a moment in time when he snapped the world's first photograph. Film photography would dominate for more than 150 years. Although the first digital camera was created in 1975, the 1999 Kodak DC210 truly signaled the beginning of the digital camera revolution — and the beginning of the end for film. In May 2018, Canon announced it had finally sold its last film camera, eight years after it stopped making them — it took that long to deplete the unsold inventory.
1843 - late 2000s
It's hard to believe that fax machines have clung to the bottom rung of the office tech ladder for as long as they have. Although facsimile machines aren't quite dead, they are certainly a dying breed, at least compared to the technology's peak of popularity in 1997 when 3.6 million of the loud, bulky machines were sold. Faxing was perfected to near-modern standards in the early 1900s, but the technology was so expensive that it was out of reach for most businesses until the 1980s. Today, services like FaxZero, launched in 2006, allow anyone with an email address and an internet connection to send faxes for free, which doesn't bode well for the future of the fax machine. U.S. sales of fax machines fell by more than half from $181 million in 2005 to $70 million in 2010.
Scrolling through photos now requires nothing more than a few flicks of the finger across the smooth glass of a smartphone screen. If you need to turn those shows into a presentation, you have your choice of apps that let anyone create slick and seamless slideshows. There was a time, however, when that ability required actual slides. And those slides had to be projected via massive, loud machines that ran hot and came with little remote controls that were often beyond the understanding of the person running the show.
In 2011, the world's last remaining manual typewriter manufacturer closed for good in Mumbai, India. It was the demise of an office and literary icon. Typewriters met their end, however, thanks to the arrival word processors, followed closely behind by personal computers.
Most Millennials have never rifled through a wooden chest of drawers filled with numbered index cards in their local libraries. But for generations, that's exactly how the Dewey Decimal System and the card catalog made finding books easy. Computers were doing the task by 2000.
Alexander Graham Bell revolutionized human communication when he made the first phone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson. The landline was born and it dominated for more than a century. The mobile era, however, signaled the end for the old-fashioned landline. In 2017, lawmakers in Illinois finally voted to allow AT&T to stop serving the state's 1.2 million remaining landline customers.
Before phones were pocket-sized supercomputers, people had to stop if they wanted to make calls on the go. The places they stopped to make those calls were called phone booths. Once a familiar sight phone booths — like the landlines and phone books contained within — phone booths were dealt a mortal blow by the arrival of cell phones. Just 100,000 pay phones remain compared to 2 million in 1999.
In 2007, Bill Gates predicted that "Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero — near zero — over the next five years." More than a decade later, the 20th century relic refuses to die, with bound white and yellow paper directories of business and residential phone numbers still showing up on doorsteps across the country. But while they are still being produced, how often are they actually used in the era of smartphones and Google? Their biggest users, however, appear to be YouTubers attempting to tear them apart in video stunts.
The punched-card tabulation system was first put into widespread use during the 1890 United States Census, although inventors had previously tinkered with earlier versions. The simple but highly efficient mass data collection system prevailed for nearly a century, when new technologies, like direct-recording electronic voting machines, emerged as replacements.
The first road maps appeared at the dawn of the automotive era to help drivers of "horseless carriages" navigate the few horrendous roads that existed. Around a century later, GPS became available to the masses, which eventually led many states to reduce print runs or even stop printing the traditional American highway map altogether.
BENCH SEATS IN CARS
Chevrolet introduced the bench seat, which was cheaper and allowed more occupants than individual seats. By the mid-1980s, however, cupholders and center consoles arrived, which would signal the downfall of the classic bench seat.
Although Bell developed a primitive version in 1950, it took until 1975 for push button phones to make an impact. Tone-enabled features like call waiting and three-way calling signalled the beginning of the end for the slow, clumsy, rotary dialing system, which had ruled since 1919.
One of the earliest ashtrays ever to be built into a car was found in the 1926 Rolls Royce Phantom limousine. Smokers continued to ash their cigarettes in on-board ashtrays for decades to come, while nonsmokers filled them with coins, garage door openers, and whatever didn't fit in the glove compartment. By 1994, however, smoking was out of vogue and Chrysler became the first automaker to offer ashtrays only as an option.
Near the end of World War II, filmstrips emerged as a practical alternative to clunky 16mm film for educational or training purposes. Easy to store and easy to use, filmstrips were a practical alternative to 35mm films. By the 1980s, however, compact and efficient video players, including VHS, rendered filmstrip projectors obsolete.
Although vinyl records would play for a few more years — mostly in jukeboxes and on DJ turntables — the vinyl album was all but extinct by 1993, thanks to the skyrocketing popularity of the compact disc. Although plenty of music lovers continue to cling to the easily scratchable black disks to this day and vinyl loyalists have helped drive a recent resurgence in production and sales (though still low by past standards), the rise of CD spelled the end for the record, which Columbia Records first introduced in 1948.
The first pager was originally developed for a hospital in 1949. One-way pager use hit its peak in 1998, and then began a rapid downward spiral. The arrival of the two-way cell phone quickly rendered the technology — long a mainstay of drug dealers and doctors — a relic as the digital age drew near.
8-track players emerged in the 1950s, and revolutionized how people listened to music while in the car . No longer at the mercy of the radio, drivers could now cruise and listen to whatever they wanted whenever they wanted — until 1982, that is, when cassette tapes proved to be cheaper, smaller, and better quality.
By the mid-1950s, half of America had a television in the home. For decades starting with the earliest color models, televisions were designed as furniture, partly to make the TV the focal point of the home. Today, televisions are bigger than they've ever been, but the design concept has done a 180 from the days of the so-called console TV. Instead of being a bulky focal point, today's giants are sleek, unassuming, and built to blend.
Big metal boxes with glass tops and protruding upper appendages called overhead projectors once did the heavy lifting at corporate meetings, in classrooms, at weddings and just about anywhere images needed to be displayed for groups of people. They usually worked their magic on makeshift movie screens that pulled down and rolled up from the ceiling like old-fashioned window shades. In 2015, Colorado University-Boulder put its remaining 225 projectors out to pasture, just one of many schools, institutions and facilities that have opted for the countless better, smaller, cheaper and more reliable digital options available at their fingertips.
SUPER 8MM FILM
The advent of 8mm film kicked off the era of amateur filmmaking, but the Super 8mm format was an even bigger hit with inexperienced auteurs, who found it easier to use and more professional-looking. In 1963, it got even better when the addition of a magnetic strip made it possible to record audio along with video. New cassette-based formats would soon render both 8mm and Super 8mm films obsolete.
1971 - mid-2000s
In 1971, the world met the telephone answering machine with the debut of the PhoneMate Model 400. Now that you didn't actually have to be home to know who called and what they wanted, the devices changed telephone communication forever. Then along came voicemail, which instantly made countertop machines with little tapes inside feel primitive. Then came cell phones. Then came smartphones. There are still some answering machines left in service, but they are the last of their kind.
The first known use of the 1-900 number was for the "Ask President Carter" talk radio broadcast, but the exchange became pop culture fodder when Eddie Murphy urged viewers to call one such number in defense of a lobster on "Saturday Night Live." Soon 1-900 became the curse of parents everywhere when commercials featuring child-focused phone lines as well as adult chat lines became almost unavoidable. Thanks to strict blocking laws approved by the Supreme Court and an FTC ban on 1-900 commercials targeting children, the area code all but disappeared by 2002. Verizon dropped the very last one in 2012.
THE POLAROID SX-70
1972 - mid-2000s
The world was introduced to instant photography in 1972, when a Polaroid executive snapped five snapshots in just 10 seconds with the game-changing SX-70. Over the decades, the game changed again, and then yet again. Although you can still pick up an SX-70 brand new from Polaroid, provided you're comfortable with a $400-plus price tag, the iconic devices are living relics. Like other things in the realm of picture taking, these have been made largely obsolete with the advent of smartphones and digital photography.
Long before smartphones put clocks and calculators in our pockets, the calculator watch debuted as the ultimate in geek chic. Wristwatch and number-cruncher all-in-one, the calculator watch soon fell victim to the PDA and early cell phones.
The world met the Video Home System (VHS), and the video cassette recorders that brought them to life in 1977. In one of the greatest rivalries in the history of technology, VHS would eventually spell the death knell for Sony's rival Betamax. Although the VCR and VHS tape were largely rendered obsolete by the turn of the millennium, the once-revolutionary tech limped into the digital age, until the Washington Post officially wrote its obituary on Aug. 28, 2005.
Few devices are as iconic as the vaunted Sony Walkman, which made on-the-go stereo sound possible for the masses long before MP3 players and iPods. The Walkman cassette player debuted in 1979 and sold 220 million units over the course of three decades, even as CDs and other digital technology wiped out classic tapes. Finally, in 2010, Sony announced that it was ceasing production of one of the defining devices of the 1980s — it was the same year Sony stopped making 3.5-inch floppy disks.
Although Sony would continue to sell them in Japan for another 12 years, the floppy disk — with its massive 1.44 MB of storage — received a fatal blow in 1998. That's when Apple unveiled the iMac G3, which introduced the first USB port — and dropped support for the aging floppy disk.
In 1982, Billy Joel's "52nd Street" became the first commercially-available compact disc. MP3s, streaming music services, and the internet would eventually render obsolete the little shiny disc that killed the records and tapes that came before. In 2013, Kanye West released the album "Yeezus" in a transparent case with no record art, which the rapper claimed was an open casket funeral for the CD.
DIAL-UP MODEMS (56K)
Do you want to use the phone or the computer? At the dawn of the internet age in the 1990s, this was the decision you would have faced if you wanted to get online. Then, 56k dial-up modems were associated with crushingly slow speeds, long startup times, frequent crashes, and the painful sound of digital gears grinding through telephone lines. Then, as early as 2004, Newsweek reported on the "Death of Dial-Up," which was on the decline thanks to the arrival of broadband. By 2013, just 3 percent of the country was still shackled to dial-up — a drop of 15 percent over the year prior.
In 2009, two years after Apple ushered in the era of the smartphone, PCWorld ran an article titled "Google Maps Will Not Kill Standalone GPS." Just three years later, Wired ran an article with the headline "Apple, Google Just Killed Portable GPS Devices." The second article was right. Advances in smartphone-based GPS apps, GPS platforms built into vehicles, and the rise of the unlimited mobile data plan quickly rendered dashboard-mounted bricks sold under brands like Garmin and TomTom redundant and obsolete.