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A lifetime of change

13 October 2021

In less than two years time, I will start my eighth decade on the planet.

Seventy years is both a long time, in terms of life, and a short time, in terms of human history but regardless of how you look at it, an amazing amount of change has happened in certain areas of technology during that one lifetime.

I realised this yesterday when I came across this excellent video from the NZ Film Archives:

How many of the bits of old-tech shown in this movie did you recognise or remember as being part of your life when you were younger?

Well I remember every bit of this stuff and I marvel at just how far we've come since 1956 when this film was made.

It's very clear that communications technology has seen some astonishing changes, not the least of which have been brought about by the use of computer technology.

If we compare a car from 1956 with one from today we will see quite a few changes but (EVs notwithstanding), most stuff is pretty much the same. We have a motor with pistons, valves and crankshaft driving a gearbox which then transfers powers to the wheels via a differential. Tyres, wheels, suspension, bodywork etc are still pretty much the same apart from some minor modernisation. The real test is that you could put someone from 1956 in a modern car or vice-versa and they'd pretty quickly get to grips with driving it.

Contrast this with the tech-changes seen in that video.

The opening scene shows land-line phones failing in a flood and then coming to the rescue as the woman says, via a toll-call "It's a big thing to ring you but it's worth it to know that you're all safe". Yes, toll calls were an expensive luxury back then whereas today we regularly chat with people across the globe virtually for free, by email, voice or video and think nothing of it.

Then there was the once-popular communications medium known as "the telegram".

Spot the other piece of ancient tech when the woman places the written message in a pneumatic pipe so that it is whisked from the counter into the telegraph room?

Once delivered, the message is typed by any one of dozens of operators who spend their days slaving away at awkward mechanical keyboards so as to create the punched paper tape that was then used to electrically encode the message for transmission. I recall visiting one such room as a kid and being amazed at all the technology going on. I also recall seeing the same keyboards and punched paper tape setup being used with very early computer systems.

The use of long-distance HF radio links was also fascinating to see. Although there were submarine cables connecting various countries, HF radio still played an important part in carrying the overload.

It was also interesting to see the "wire photo" system being used. Once again, I remember seeing these the images that had been transmitted by cable or radio appearing in the local paper when some significant event had happened overseas and there hadn't been enough time for actual pictures to be delivered by international air cargo.

These days you can just snap a multi-megapixel full-colour image or even video with your smartphone and have it appear on someone's screen half a world away in just a few short seconds.

Good old snail mail was also far more important back then. Today we find that the Post Office is almost out of the business of delivering letters but back in the 1950s this was one of the cornerstones of their business.

Finally we had the arrival of radio-telephones. What a fantastic device... allowing people in offices to communicate with people in cars. Who'd have thought?

Once again we now all take our smartphones and ubiquitous communications for granted so to see large steel boxes laden with energy-hungry valves and an imposing "push to talk" microphone on a curly cable is somewhat quaint. I spent many years of my life installing and servicing radio-telephone equipment so this was a particularly nostalgic part of the film for me.

Yes, there has been a huge amount of technological advancement in this field over just one short lifetime. I wonder what things will look like in another 70 years. Anyone care to hazard a guess?

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