Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Forty years of personal electronic gadgets

I've had my Sony tablet for exactly one year. Although it's been heavily used every single day, it has lasted well, and frankly still looks new.

I bought the 32GB version, but inevitably it has filled up with music tracks, the cream of my photos, and my Ordnance Survey digital map coverage. So a few days ago I deleted all the music, to make more room for photos yet to come. The music was an exact duplication of the music on my Samsung phone, so deleting it didn't matter. My tablet should now last another couple of years before lack of storage space will compel me to buy a replacement.

How capable and useful these electronic friends have been! Tablet and phone have become a two-gadget partnership. The tablet is my computing workhorse at home. The phone is my with-me-at-all-times communication device. Both run on the same version of Android, so in theory the phone can do everything that the tablet can do. But in practice the tablet's larger screen makes it much the preferred choice for Internet surfing, iPlayer, games, photo viewing, studying maps, working with the calendar, using the to-do list, and creating or maintaining personal records on Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. All the things that need a decent-sized screen, especially if you haven't got young eyes. On the other hand, the phone is just as good for emailing. And the phone is king for texts and voice calls.

They work together beautifully, and mostly share the same apps. I'm not tempted to buy a phablet, an oversized phone such as Samsung's Galaxy Note, because it would be a poor compromise for me in day-to-day use.

Is there anyone who could really manage nowadays without a mobile device of one kind or another? The modern world is wholly geared up for consumers who own convenient, powerful pocket gadgets that can do almost anything.

It was not always so. These things did not exist as routine personal possessions when I started work in 1970. There was no computer of any kind for the home. And only huge mainframe computers in offices. Head offices, that is: not in my local office. The most sophisticated device in my local office in 1970 was the adding machine, a mechanical device that had no memory. It simply printed out its results on a long roll of paper. And there were so many things to total up, so many reconciliations to be done. Nobody could have the convenience of their own personal adding machine. For ordinary calculations one used mental arithmetic, or pen and paper, or printed ready-reckoners, or official tax tables. I even remember using log tables (as I had in school) for some calculations. Stone-age stuff!

Within a couple of years, my office had acquired an electronic adding machine. But this was nothing to get excited about. It was a bulky thing, not especially portable, with huge keys and a strange way of inputting figures and telling the machine what to do with them. It confused everybody. I was poor at arithmetic, and longed for something better.

Then in 1972 the Sinclair Executive appeared in the Sunday supplements as a high-tech toy for go-ahead business people. This was a New Age device. It was a thin futuristic-looking slab of plastic with little buttons to press. It was only a basic pocket calculator that performed simple arithmetic. It cost an awful lot. But you could hold it in your hand, and it was something an ordinary person could buy and own. I was twenty, and not earning enough to even consider having one. I think it cost £99, a fantastic amount at the time. Nobody took it seriously, except as a design icon. But I awaited developments.

The following year, 1973, saw the arrival of the thicker but much smaller Sinclair Cambridge. This time I bought one. It looked like this:

It was in fact cheap and plasticky, and those black keys were wobbly, and it went through its batteries at a rate of knots. But hey, it could do difficult sums in an instant. It was totally fascinating to see the red LEDs flash up the answer. I had the only one in the office. People would crowd round to see what happened when (for instance) you worked out the twenty-fifth power of two - as far as you could get on an eight-digit display. This stuff actually had entertainment value, such was the novelty of pocket calculators. My grumpy line manager, an ex-CPO of the old school, had me in and ticked me off for wasting time. But he too eventually embraced these new gadgets, although he never stopped grumbling about them.

My own Sinclair Cambridge cost me £28.45 on 28 November 1973. I rediscovered the actual purchase voucher only the other day:

£28.45 in late 1973 was the equivalent of nearly £280 today. It was therefore quite an investment, and not something that people were going to run out and buy at the drop of a hat. But prices quickly fell. By 1975 everyone in the office had been issued with a personal pocket calculator, and manufacturers like Sharp and Casio were getting well-known. And the devices rapidly got more sophisticated. By 1977 you could buy a proper programmable scientific calaculator. My Sinclair Cambridge had long fallen to bits, and in 1977 I replaced it with a Casio fx2000 calculator in a metal body that lasted a very long time:

This had a battery-saving LCD display, and in all ways was a practical, durable and pleasant-to-use product. I think it cost no more than the much-inferior Sinclair Cambridge had.

But it was still not a 'computer' as we now understand the term. During the 1980s 'computing' certainly existed as a hobby, and you could buy monitors and keyboards, but there was no such thing as Windows, and no Internet. Unless you were solely interested in pre-packaged gameplaying, with no personal creativity or input, you had to learn a computing language and write your own programs. One brainy colleague at work called Colin Wyld was a keen bellringer, and was forever using his 'home computer' to find out a way of ringing a certain peal that had long been considered impossible. He did eventually crack it, and I think he must be the same Colin Wyld mentioned in these two items on the Internet: see and But he (and fellow enthusiasts) were the exception. Most of us were still in the old world, and oblivious to the many potential applications of computing. We did not imagine, could not imagine, the things we would take for granted in the 21st century, when computers and phones converged.

Of course the nature of today's tablets and phones - what they look like, how we operate them, and what facilities they put at our fingertips - reflects current fashions and preoccupations. Modern devices are slanted towards things like 'social networking' - something that has already altered forever the way in which people communicate and relate to each other. A good thing or bad? I'm inclined to think it's a good thing. The different ways in which we can now get in touch with each other have conquered isolation and distance, even if the warmth of personal contact has in some cases been lessened.

We know a lot more about each other. It's hard to keep things secret. I was for instance astonished to find that I can use Google Earth and Google Maps to look closely at (of all places) North Korea. And amazed how much information about that country and its society is available on the Internet. And there are other places in the world that are supposed to be secret and hidden, but in fact can be studied by simply conducting a search on the web.

Ready access to an entire universe of information must surely be the major result and benefit of modern electronics. For the ordinary person in the street this revolution has come about in the last forty years, beginning with instant calculation, and then moving on to a state of affairs where anything at all can be looked up, or checked, with just your mobile phone.

So I wonder why people do not make themselves better informed.

Why does prejudice and ignorance persist? Are people lazy? Or are they afraid to look things up and face the facts? 


  1. I guess some people just cannot be bothered or have no interest whatsoever. I know a couple of people in that category and they are fairly young. I love the idea of having information at my fingertips, I have always been interested in reading informative literature, never interested in fiction so the Internet is right up my street. Now I am spoilt for choice! Funny thing is how connecting to the rest of the world has become so commonplace in my life, I don't give it a second thought. I refuse to use my phone for such things though, I just can't see the point but I've mentioned that before. Now that I have the Nexus 10 (an android device like my phone is) I can use it for mobile information should I ever need it. I use Google Chrome (and have a Google account) on my laptop which enables easy synchronisation between the three devices. Technology certainly has developed in leaps and bounds over the last few years, makes me wonder just where it is all headed!

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I remember someone proudly pointing out that they had saved a fortune by buying a cheap calculator and simply writing the extra scientific notation on the keyboard themselves.

    Someone had discovered that all calculators in the range were exactly the same inside, just different instruction manual, remember them?

  3. Wow! 40 years of personal gadgets? I bet that's a lot! I remember I had my first phone when I was 10, and everyone was so amazed that I had a phone at such a young age. Now, everyone has a phone or even two phones! Phones are a necessity these days and it's vital for communication purposes. Since then, I switched phones almost every year which is not very frugal, in hindsight. Joanna Daniels


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