The later part of the 20th century was an incredible time of technological advancement, with gadgets and gizmos that people once thought were only achievable in science fiction. This was the decade in which technology was rapidly evolving and people were beginning to understand the potential of the breakthroughs that were taking place in science and technology.
The things you are using today are the advanced version of the gadgets that were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, the modern-day USB comes in the capacity of terabytes (1000GB makes 1TB), while the poor eight-inch floppy disk of 90s, had the storage capacity of about only 80 kilobytes (1000kb makes 1MB).
The list of gadgets that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s is endless, some of these have been forgotten and discarded, while others have taken modern forms. A nostalgic trip down memory lane will take us back to a time when the world was a much simpler place, learning to adopt to the inventions and changes taking place.
Let’s explore some of these gadgets that were so revolutionary at the time and an important part of life, but most of which have either become redundant or taken on new forms.
Walkmans: the portable music player
Back in the days, if one wanted to listen to music, there were cassette players, from handheld Walkman, to the bigger amplifiers with large speakers. There was no concept of Bluetooth or CDs; people would buy cassettes of their favourite singer or music, and play it on the player, which rolled the black tape encrypted with data, that is the songs or music, in the cassette player, (we are not going into the science of those black tapes).
The Walkman was the name given to the very first pocket-size cassette player ever released in the world. This was a device that enabled people easily carry it around with them to listen to music anywhere and at any time.
The Walkman was first introduced in Japan in 1979, and was declared the “product of the decade” by the International Institute for Industrial Advancement. This device also became the first electronic device to be given a royal warrant for supply to the British Royal Family.
Incredibly popular, this gadget changed the way that people listened to music back then and it spawned an entire generation of people who were dubbed “Walkman-heads.”
Tamagotchis: the digital pets of the 90s
The Tamagotchi was a virtual pet that was created in 1996 by the Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai. It was a pocket-sized electronic keychain toy that required constant care and attention from its owner.
If you fed and attended to the virtual creature represented on a tiny LCD screen via the few buttons on the device, it thrived. But if neglected, it would die — a surprisingly painful early lesson in loss for kids and adults alike. This device was designed to teach children about responsibility and caring for people, pets and even plants.
Tamagotchi was released at the same time when the internet was becoming a common household item. This device became the very first online interactive toy in the world and was sold in excess of 72 million units.
Game Boy: the portable video game console
Playing games on consoles is a common today, but back in those days, kids had their first portable gaming experience on The Game Boy — the first ever handheld video game console in the world.
Introduced in Japan in 1989, Game Boy allowed people to play their favourite video games on the go. It also paved the way for many other portable video game playing devices. However, a year later, the release of the Nintendo DS, replaced the Game Boy. So it is not wrong to say that Game Boy introduced millions of people to the world of video games and inspired a whole new generation of gamers.
VHS and VCR players: the home movie players
These days, watching a movie is no more a big deal, as you have access to several local and international streaming services. But back in the 90s, there were no streaming services, and the only way to watch movies, other than going to theatre, was buying a video cassette just like the audio ones, and playing it on a particular player, called VHS (video home theatre) and another variation was the VCR, video cassette recorder, which could record as well.
As their name suggests, these devices allowed people to play videos on their television sets. The VHS player was introduced in 1976 in Japan while in the mid-1977, it was introduced in the US.
Pager: the portable communication device
The pager was the name given to the first portable communications device. It allowed people to communicate with one another without needing wires like that of the telephone.
The pager was introduced in California in 1949, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the device became incredibly popular among the general public around the world. The use of pager made things easier and people could easily contact each other. This concept was alien, but so appealing that everyone wanted to have one.
The device was very expensive and was incredibly popular among doctors and people working in the medical profession, allowing them to be in constant contact with their offices. The pager became the symbol of technological advancement.
Discman: the portable CD player
The Discman was the name given to the very first portable CD player released. The device was designed to play compact discs in a portable format, just like Walkman. The Discman was also introduced in Japan, but in 1984. It quickly became popular and inspired a generation of people to switch from cassette tapes to CDs. This device was incredibly popular among teenagers and young adults.
Knowing the meaning of the words in seconds fascinates everyone. But in the 90s, if you don’t know the meaning of a word you had to look it up in the big thick book called dictionary. But as this was the era of technological advancement, the book-shaped dictionary also saw its digitalised facade — electronic dictionary. Although they had been around since the late 1970’s, in 1986, George Miller planned the creation of the WordNet electronic dictionary to test psychological theories of semantic memory. It was released in 1991, and offered alphabetic and taxonomic access to English definitions.
Over time, electronic dictionaries evolved to have more and more options suited for its very wide student user base. However, electronic dictionaries are technically outdated, and it is indeed generally going out of vogue with some due to the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets.
The internet: dial-up modems
Today, you only know about the devices that provide you WiFi and mobile services providing you internet data packages. Back in those days, the dial-up modem was a breakthrough that allowed people to access the internet and connect to information through their computers.
The dial-up modem was a device that enabled computers to connect to internet over telephone lines. Dial-up requires exclusive access to the phone line; when connected to dial-up internet, the household cannot use the phone to make voice calls.
Soon DSL (Digital subscriber’s line) replaced it, by achieving the speeds more than 100 times that of dial-up through its advanced digital signalling technology. The DSL also functions at high signal frequencies that allow a household to use the same phone line for voice calls and internet service.
Cell phones are an integral part of our lives, but, not long ago, this device did not exist. In 1973, the first call from a hand-held device was made with a phone shaped like a brick that weighed about 2.4 pounds. Martin Cooper, an executive at Motorola, picked up the large device — one that only worked for 30 minutes of chatting after a 10-hour charge.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that these devices became common household item. The cell phone enabled people to stay connected through voice calls even when they were away from their home or office. However, they were still the feature phones, with which you can make a phone call and type a text message, there was no such thing as that of a today’s smart phone.
Over the past half-century, the cell phone has gone through a lot of transitions, from small to large, from thick to sleek thin body which are easier to carry around. It is a multitasking device that can perform all the tasks that you do on a computer.
Ever since the computer came on the scene, people started questioning how to store the data. In 1972, IBM developed the floppy disk drive as a way to provide read-only magnetic storage. The disk was roughly eight inches; however, this version didn’t last long.
In the late 80s, wafer technology emerged to create chips and silicone, replacing magnetic optical methods. Then Toshiba pioneered the use of silicone, with which a company can essentially print electronic servers; this gave way to silicon-based means of storage, or flash memory, as flash memory or USB drives.
In short, floppies could only hold small amounts of information, they were notoriously unreliable as data also “faded” on them, bulky and not suitable for proper archival purposes.
So if you think that the gadgets that you are using today and the technology you are witnessing is first of their kind, remember that they have come a long way and are actually the outcome of the development that took place in the later part of the 20th century when the world truly began to embrace technology and change the way people interact with each other today.
World Wide Web
In 1990, the first Web browser called WorldWideWeb was released. Over the years, the web has had a deep and lasting effect on people’s lives. The web browser, along with the various web protocols, made it possible for people to access the web from a wide range of different operating systems and devices. It made it so that people with no technical training could easily click and browse from one website to the next.
Film camera and digital camera
To take a picture, you don’t have to buy a film and insert it in the camera, it only takes a few seconds to take the mobile phone, focus and click. Isn’t it super easy?
But kids, a couple of decades back, taking a picture was also an art and needed a device of its own. The invention of the camera is more than a century old and the device has evolved with time. From a larger one invented by George Eastwood, to the portable ones with Oskar Barnack’s 35mm camera, and Edward Land’s Polaroid.
In 1990s, the world saw the advent of digital photography and companies like Nikon, Canon and Leica joining in the race by adding advanced components to their cameras, like interchangeable lenses, light metres, flash etc. Interestingly, most of which are now easily available to you in mobile phones.
Initially, the digital camera was too expensive to buy, however, the increased competition and advancement in technology saw a decrease in prices for digital cameras. And as the smartphones emerged, the cameras, both film and digital, became obscure and limited to those who loved photography the old fashioned way.
Published in Dawn, Young World, December 17th, 2022