It can be easy to take our world for granted and to forget how much almost everything in it has changed in the past 20 years or so thanks to the relentless march of progress. Things that were at the cutting edge as recently as a decade ago are all but obsolete today, and products that cost hundreds of pounds in the 1990s have absolutely no value in the 21st century.
Let’s take a look at the things have disappeared entirely and those that are teetering on the edge of oblivion.
It wasn’t that long ago when these clickety-clackety, cantankerous writing machines were to be found in most Irish households. They were pleasingly loud and infuriatingly difficult to master. The ribbons were a nightmare to spool and to replace, and correcting errors in anything other than an extremely conspicuous manner was impossible.
In the mid-1970s the Gemini Man burst on to our television screens with his mind-blowing ability to render himself invisible for up to 15 minutes at a stretch using only his digital watch. Suddenly everyone wanted one. Impressionable Irish children were left sorely disappointed by the absence of invisibility features on the ones they got (the calculator function was a pretty poor substitute), but for the decade that followed, digital watches were all the rage. Then, like the Gemini Man, they just disappeared and today can only be found in flea markets and on the odd hipster’s wrist.
In a world of Facetime, WhatsApp, Facebook and the rest, it is hard to imagine a time when the main – in fact only – social media channel available to the general public was the CB Radio. Popularised by American truckers and a couple of weird country-and-western chart-topping songs in the mid 1970s, the CB radio craze swept across the developed world. Men and women (but mostly men) took to their bedrooms of an evening to talk to other like-minded souls over crackly, static-heavy radios using all sorts of ridiculous jargon. Then, almost overnight, the CB just went away and was never seen again.
What on earth was the story with the pressure cooker? It was a most peculiar of cooking instrument and four decades ago it just appeared in kitchens all over Ireland. Its unique selling point was that it could dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to boil potatoes. Every Irish home suddenly had to have one of the heavy lidded pots as if the nation had collectively and simultaneously realised it was in a real hurry and couldn’t wait the 15 minutes it used to take for their potatoes to boil and needed them done in seven. The price to be paid was an alarmingly hissy – and potentially lethal – pot that would alert anyone within a two mile radius that dinner was ready. Pressure cookers still exist but the hiss that formed part of the soundtrack of the seventies is a whole lot quieter now.
From a hiss to a fizz. When this carbonated drink-maker came on stream 40 years ago, it was the coolest thing in the world. It allowed people to make soft drinks to rival Coke and Pepsi in their own homes. Well, sort of. Eventually people realised that their homemade fizzy drinks were kind of rubbish and a poor imitation of the store-bought options which saw the machines fall out of favour. It has had a couple of revivals in recent years and in our more health conscious times, now dresses itself up as a sparkling water maker rather than the sugary soft drink maker it use to be. It has also been known to market itself as a sparkling wine – and even beer – maker. Word to the wise – don’t try and make fizzy milk.
There was a time when the payphone was the only lifeline many Irish homes had to the outside world. Queues of badly dressed teenagers would form at certain spots as the young folk planned assignations away from parental ears. There was even a cub scout badge to be had for any young boy who could show a troop leader they had mastered the art of the A/B phone. Pricewatch knows this because it is the only cub scout badge it was ever awarded. Can you imagine seeing a queue outside a phone box today? Can you remember the last time you saw one being used? At the end of last year, there were around 900 public payphones in the Republic – in 2009 there were more than 3,500. More than two thirds of the public payphones still standing are used for less than a minute per day. Their days are numbered.
The days of the video recorder are long gone. When these magic boxes became mainstream in the early part of the 1980s, they retailed for around £500 – that’s pounds in the old money. Today you couldn’t give one away. The DVD player has yet to go the way of the video recorder but it is only a matter of time.
Making mix tapes was a rite of passage for many Irish teenagers and romances could flourish or flounder depending on the quality of the music chosen. Building a Spotify playlist doesn’t have the same allure. It is just too darned easy.
They haven’t completely disappeared but the very thought of using a phone that is tethered to a home will seem as anachronistic in a decade as making a mix tape is today. To be honest the numbers aren’t looking great for the landline already. Around 2.5 billion minutes of mobile to mobile calls are made in the Republic each quarter compared to just 600 million minutes of landline to landline calls. There are around six million mobile phone subscriptions active in the State compared with less than two million fixed line subscriptions. Many of those fixed line subscriptions don’t even have a physical phone attached to them and have only been bought because of some cunning sales tactics on the part of phone providers.
Remember when people used to write down the telephone numbers of people they cared to keep in touch with in little books? Players had little black books with the numbers of all their conquests in them? Does anyone do that now? Does anyone even go to the bother of actually remembering anyone’s number anymore? Why bother when the phone can do all the work for you.
The children of 2016 are the most photographed generation that has ever lived. But virtually none of the pictures are taken with cameras and not many of the pictures are physical things today. In the mid 1990s digital cameras became commonplace among consumers and replaced film-based cameras which had been around for more than 100 years. The digital camera’s period in the sun was a whole lot shorter than its predecessor and while some people still use digital cameras, most of us are happy enough to use our phones which are now an awful lot more advanced than even the most expensive of digital cameras were 20 years ago. And they have the added advantage that they are always by our side.
For hundreds – if not thousands – of years we have relied on maps to show us how to get from A to B. Today maps are only good for gathering dust as we rely on our phones and on Google and Apple to guide us. And we are much better off as a result. For a start phones tell us things that old school maps never did – like how long it is to our destination or whether or not there are any obstacles in our path or if we are going the wrong way. And the ridiculous origami skills that were needed to correctly fold a map can be forgotten.
The Sony Walkman was invented because one of the head honchos at the Japanese technology company fancied listening to music on transatlantic flights. It took its first tentative steps into the public arena in Japan in 1979 and within months had completely changed the way we all listened to music. For 20 years it was king of the hill until it was suddenly over it. It was replaced by the Discman which was quickly replaced by low grade MP3 players which were then replaced by higher end iPods which have now been replaced by our phones.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica
Many of Ireland’s finest salespeople cut their teeth selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica door -to-door. It is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in production but the manner in which it is produced has been radically altered in the digital age. The notion that any family would spend in excess of €1,000 on more than 20 leather bound reference books seems outlandish in the extreme.
For hundreds of years books were remarkably resilient at staying the advances of technology. As recently as a decade ago, they were largely unchanged from the days when Don Quixote first tilted at windmills in the 16th century. “The question is, can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well-suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?” asked Amazon. com’s chief executive Jeff Bezos in 2007. Then he answered the question with the Kindle. People do still buy books, just not as many people as before. And that number is going to keep falling.
CD players and CDs
Music has been all over the place over the last century. It has hopped from cylinders to vinyl to cassettes to CDs to a collection of ones and zeros stored on your computer’s hard drive, The CD player made its public debut on Tomorrow’s World in 1981 with the producers taking the somewhat dubious decision to use the Bee Gees’ album Living Eyes to highlight its virtues. The first CD produced was Abba’s The Visitors. When the CD first came into our world we were told they would be indestructible. That was complete lie.
Around 1.5 million homes in the Republic of Ireland get a hard copy of the telephone directory. Most will also get the Golden Pages. Can you remember the last time you used the phone book? Us neither. If you want to stop getting the phone book you can opt out here – phonebookoptout.ie. It only takes a second. And it will go some small way to saving a bit of a tree.
Time was when Palm Pilots were the height of tech wizardry with their greenish screens and special stylus. The only thing Pricewatch ever used it for was Dope Wars which is why we didn’t really mourn its passing. It was eventually overtaken in the tech wizardry stakes by the Blackberry which was squashed by the smart phone.
Old people will remember when 3½ inch floppy disks were a thing. Really old people will remember when 5.25 inch floppy disks – things which were actually floppy – were a thing. They were rendered obsolete by the USB key something which is, in turn, being rendered obsolete by the Cloud.
We’re not talking about the buttons on your shirts but the buttons used to operate gadgets. In an era of Minority Report style screen swiping, it won’t be long before pushing buttons will be a thing of the past. Truth be told it won’t be long before screens are a thing of the past too as all our social media channels and access to technology will be fused onto our retinas. Probably.
The boundaries that separate work and home and private life and public display have all but entirely disappeared in the last 20 years. Technology was supposed to make our lives easier but instead it has created an always-on world, one in which it is virtually impossible to escape the demands of work – thanks to constant access to emails. The social media channels meanwhile have us constantly on display while the multiscreen format of our worlds has destroyed our attention spans. But sure where would we be without it?
Did we leave anything out? If you can add to our list of things which were once a thing but are now nothing, drop us a line at