Shiny – part 1

A short personal history and view of technology: the analogue years

Adding machine

Adding machine

Disposable technology: it’s taken for granted. An ad for an iPhone4 last night prompted my wife to say, “wasn’t it all iPhone3’s recently?”

Most of us, I guess, will buy at least one gadget this year, probably two or three. And, we’ll probably dispose of a couple too.

That’s wrong, on so many levels.

I am not, let’s be clear, a Luddite. I embrace technology. I’ve always craved gadgets and marvelled at the progress that’s been made in electronics in my lifetime.

In 1975, I bought a state-of-the-art Commodore desk calculator (pocket calculators were still just around the corner) for $150 (about £100 at the time). My crappy Nokia second generation phone probably has more processing power than the Apollo 11 command module and lander put together.

The advances are mind-blowing. But, equally, the consumerisation of technology has its downsides.

I’ll save the polemic for another post. For now, here’s a short personal history of my gadgets and cravings. I’m sticking to what could loosely be called input-output devices. That ignores TVs, but includes audio recording/playback machines.

Growing up in the 60s, my life pre-dates the digital era. It was all analogue as I ran around in short trousers, grazing my knees, worshipping Jimmy Greaves and Peter Parfitt.

One of my many fascinations was sports statistics and records. Until a clearout in a recent downsizing, I had a large collection of old sports annuals which I used to pour over with a passion. Numbers: 200,000 spectators at the 1950 World Cup “final”; Dixie Dean’s 60 goal season; Bradman’s 99.94 test average.

I loved the numbers and as soon as I could do multiplication and long division I was hooked on calculating cricket averages. This extended to baseball stats when, aged 8, my family across the pond.

But before that great move, we spent a week in Cornwall tagging on to one of my dad’s business trips. His company built electronic measuring instruments. The trip to Cornwall was in part to test the devices underground in disused tin mines.

One of his advisers was a mathematics professor from Imperial College, London. The professor brought with him a mechanical calculator, something which, obviously, none of us had ever seen as these beasts were usually confined to banks, insurance companies or universities. It was about the size of a typewriter and – boyhood exaggeration – weighed a tonne.

To be honest, I can’t remember exactly how it worked. I think you pushed keys like you would on a cash register – selecting digits, tens, hundreds, thousands etc from different columns. There were also buttons to press for the different mathematical functions. It probably looked a bit like this.

Anyway, I do remember that, at the tender age of 6, I was in love with this machine though I had no idea what it was used for. Nevertheless, I was allowed a couple of goes by the kind professor. Whilst operating it unsupervised, I also successfully jammed the machine. That put an end to my association with the mechanical calculator.

Magic - Brain Calculator (as opposed to your normal brain calculator)

Magic - Brain calculator c. 1969: hours of fun

A few years later and several thousand miles away, I obtained a “Magic Brain” calculator from our local 5-and10 cent store. This was an ingenuous and cheap device that made addition and subtraction a snip.

Using the metal stylus you selected the numbers, pulling down the plastic notched strips: again tens, hundreds etc separately. Repeating the operation for each additional number gave you the sum in the display at the top.

Carrying over involved a little extra work. Adding five to six, the stylus would be prevented from reaching the bottom of the column. So, instead pulled the strip up, then rotated the stylus over to add one to the next column.

It worked in the opposite for subtraction. Multiplication required adding the same number a certain number of times, so time consuming. You could achieve division in the opposite manner, but it couldn’t handle leftovers.

This little machine gave me hours of enjoyment, but it was useless to help calculate Ron Swoboda‘s batting average. I would have to wait for circuit boards and LEDs to achieve that, or get better with long division in my head.

Mathematical prowess aside, I was also developing into a literary genius thanks to my John Bull printing set.

The three of us kids had great fun producing our own family newspapers with the hard Indian rubber letters which you typeset into plastic holders. The ink pad – a cheap bit of sponge – always went dry and most of the ink wound up on my fingers anyway.

Printed programmes always made those big Subbeteo matches special.

My sister was the first to get a proper grown up typewriter. Not fair! I craved one even more than I’d craved the John Bull set.

I had to wait until I was in university before I got my hands on a typewriter though I don’t remember typing many assignments on it. It got used almost exclusively typing job application letters and CVs. Yes, I typed every single CV individually by hand. Any mistake and the CV went in the bin.

We found that typewriter in my parent’s loft during the clear out when we had to sell their house about 6 or 7 years ago. It still worked a treat and I’m sure it found a good home through a charity shop.

For my first few years of working in the civil service, manual typewriters ruled. A lot of my internal correspondence was still hand written though as strictly speaking we weren’t allowed a typewriter in our office. Everything had to go to a large typing pool. Towards the end of the manual era, much of our typing work was done by redundant coal miners in Durham.

By then, the late 80s, most secretaries (not yet called PAs) had electronic typewriters. Soon we’d have the first word processors. But, that’s a different post.

Photos from Flickr: adding machine by bcostin; Magic Brain calculator by get directly down. Both use under Creative Commons licenses.

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