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Obsolete technologies (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

It seems like we live in a time where things become obsolete quickly, but for every eight-track tape that has gone by the way side, there are age-old technologies that keep on giving. Today I celebrate the geriatric set of technology.

You'd think the typewriter would be dead in this computer age. Yet in 2002, Americans bought nearly a half million electronic typewriters. Even manual machines hold their own, two companies - Olympia and Olivetti - still make them. Typewriters survive because of forms: The computer word processor may be a dandy tool, but a printed form sends it scampering to the corner, while undaunted a typewriter conquers the form.

Next consider vacuum tubes. Any one over fifty can recall when slim, slick microchips replaced clunky, slow vacuum tubes. Surely in this age of miniaturization, where cell phones get smaller by the second, we can write the obituary for the vacuum tube. Yet, hundreds of millions of homes around the world all have one: The microwave oven sitting on the counter is essentially one big vacuum tube. Turns out that when you need power you cannot use a weaselly tiny silicon chip, you need the umph from a big old vacuum tube. And beyond that, music lovers have sustained vacuum tube technology. Many find the sound from old-fashioned vacuum tube amplifiers more pleasing to the ear.

Here's a third thing you'd expect to be disappearing: Pagers. Cell phones have become so sophisticated and so small that who needs a pager today? Yet in 2002 the old-fashioned pager surprised everyone by selling in greater numbers than the year before. Most people find a pager more reliable than a cell phone. They need far fewer transmitters than cell phones, so they provide better coverage, working in the dead spots between mobile phone cells. And pagers tend not to jam up in emergencies the way overloaded mobile phone cells do. So, many institutions still rely heavily on them: police departments, hospitals, and emergency workers.

And my favorite technology, whose death has been predicted again and again: Radio. In the 1940s many expected television to deal it a death blow. But it simply reinvented itself. Radio became the mobile medium. Cars combined with suburbs, superhighways, and longer commutes gave radio a vast captive audience. And radio also stayed local: TV covered the world, but radio gave you the weather above your head. Perhaps the age of broadcast radio is nearly over: There are now mobile MP3 players that download from the web, and satellites that deliver radio. But be wary: You'd not be the first in the last sixty years to write a premature obituary for radio.

[For More Information see Ten Technologies That Refuse to Die From typewriters to vacuum tubes, these 10 technologies aren't as obsolete as you might think. By Eric Scigliano February 2004 Technology Review]

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises