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they don’t know what they’re missing.
old inventions enter obscurity
by matt morin
6.10.03
pop culture


“The word ‘ditto’ comes from the output of this machine,” Alex Trebek droned with the same inflection and tone he’s used a million times before. Back in the booth, Jeopardy’s director cut to Camera 2 – a three-shot of the pimply-faced college kids in ugly sweatshirts, ready to buzz in with the answer to the $400 question.

Silence.

Nothing.

“For the love of God, somebody answer this!” I actually yelled at the screen.

The Day The Earth Stood Still: Part 2.

Time up. No one knew it. No. One. Fucking. Knew. It. “Mimeograph. Mimeograph is what we were looking for,” said Alex. They moved on to Television Families for $100.

I was stunned. It’s not like Alex asked them the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. Here were three high IQed early twenty-somethings, one from the University of Michigan, one from Colorado State and one from USC, and not one of them had a clue what a mimeograph machine was. It saddened me because those kids will never know the wonderful smell that accompanied freshly made dittos. (Was there a better legal high than sniffing your science quiz? Really. Maybe putting rubber cement on your palm and cupping it around your nose. Anyway, I digress.) The other reason it made me sad was that I realized there’s a whole host of things from when I was growing up that just aren’t around any more. Suddenly, I felt really, really old.

Think about it. Kids these days (and the fact that I’m using that to start a sentence proves I’m getting old) will never know the frustration of trying to write with erasable ink pens. (And if any of you are lefties, you’ll know it was impossible to write without smearing every single word you wrote and leaving the whole side of your hand blue.) Or try telling a 15-year-old about when personal computers first came out. They’ll probably never believe our stories of 20 meg hard drives the size of a shoebox. “Come on Uncle Matt, tell us how monitors used to be amber and you had to move around a document with the arrow keys!” They probably think “dot matrix” is the third movie in the Keanu Reeves series.

It’s odd to realize that teenagers today have never seen an MTV Top 20 Video Countdown that actually showed all 20 videos start to finish. Where’s Adam Curry when you need him? (On second thought, forget that.) Speaking of “Top”, they probably have never seen a top-loading VCR either. Then again, a kid born today may not even remember VCRs at all by the time they grow up.

No kid will ever get migraines from watching bad 3-D movies with those red and blue glasses. And will they ever see a movie not made, at least in some part, by computer? Put, say, The Dark Crystal in movie theaters today and it does $63 at the box office. I guarantee it – and not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s about as technologically advanced as "Crank Yankers." Kids want Final Fantasy, not a movie that's basically "Sesame Street" on acid.

I understand that technology moves on, things improve, life gets better. Who among us would rather get up to change the channel instead of having a remote? And would any of us buy Tylenol without a safety seal? (Something else kids today wouldn’t believe existed.) But “change” doesn’t always equal “better.” There was a certain excitement of discovery in flipping through that library card catalog using the Dewey Decimal System, then tracking the book down in some dusty corner between shelves. Now kids just type "Google."

I wonder how much more into sports kids would be if they knew for sure a player their favorite team drafted this year was guaranteed to be there four years from now. They’ve all grown up during free agency where players jump around more often than FOX goes through reality shows.

A child born today won’t ever know the fun of sitting in the backwards-facing seats in the family station wagon and trying to get truckers to honk their horns. They’ll never burn the crap out of their hands on a TV dinner in an aluminum tray. And they’ll certainly never see another 5-day forecast where the weatherperson sticks up magnetic suns and clouds on a board. To me, all those little down home-ish touches made the world seem a little more real and a little less generic.

I know it’s too much to say, “Hey, America, slow down a little. What we have here is pretty good.” This country is driven by New & Improved or the Next Big Thing. And really, it’s that mentality that keeps me gainfully employed. But with things moving exponentially more quickly, will nostalgia even exist for future generations? Or will the past disappear and morph so quickly that “retro” will only encompass things from last Christmas?

When kids start pining for the good ‘ol days of the first generation X-box, we’ll know we’re in trouble.

So while video game cartridges and snack pudding with peel back metal tops slowly disappear, I’ll try and hold on to some of those memories of days and products gone by. Now someone get me a bowl of cereal with “sugar” in the title. Sugar Smacks or Sugar Corn Pops anyone? I know, how about Super Sugar Crisp.


ABOUT MATT MORIN

Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

more about matt morin

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COMMENTS

juli mccarthy
6.10.03 @ 1:35a

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, eh kid? This is my life. My daughter was astonished when I told her there was no cable TV when I was a kid... she barely remembers actual "cable TV" as it is.

For my part, I remember being fascinated by my dad's $100 digital watch, learning to spell "SHELLOIL" upside down on a calculator, and spending hours trying to master Pong.

amy morin
6.10.03 @ 1:45a

Nice column Matt -
It made me almost miss home. Ah, TV dinners in front of PBS and the backwards seats in the station wagon... Yep,
Those were the days.
But don't knock the Dark Crystal...so it's not technologically advanced, I'd rather watch it than Final Fantasy any day.

"Sesame Street on acid." Not quite...


eloise young
6.10.03 @ 2:05a

20 meg hard drives? 20 *meg*? *hard* drives? "When I were a lass", we had to save our programs from our 16K Sinclair Spectrum on audio tape. There was a "verify" function. Which didn't work. So you could "verify" by running the "new" command. Which wiped the memory. And then trying to "load" the program again. With fingers and toes crossed all over. Didn't work? Well, then, it hadn't "save"d right, after all. Just 8 more hours of typing to enter it all over again...

robert melos
6.10.03 @ 2:09a

Funny stuff. I feel old every time I, well, everytime I read an article like this one reminding me of how old I'm getting.

Anyway, the other day I heard an interview with a woman who was 105 years old. She's seen amazing things in her lifetime, and the greatest invention, in her opinion, is the flush toilet. This woman really honed in on truly important changes in our lives. Sure I love my VCR/DVD players, and my computer, but what I take for granted is something so mundane to me, yet the greatest invention to her.

juli mccarthy
6.10.03 @ 2:29a

That is so funny, Robert, because my husband asked his grandmother what she thought the most incredible invention of her lifetime was, thinking she'd say computers, or air travel, or even television. And she, too, said, "Indoor plumbing."

eloise young
6.10.03 @ 2:32a

I read a review of what some deep thinkers think the biggest technological advance of the present is. The most interesting answer? "Fish farming." The move, finally, from the hunter-gatherer model to the farmer model is indeed a truly fundamental shift which changes the way we get, keep and choose our food.

matt morin
6.10.03 @ 2:35a

Juli, funny - we learned to spell HELLO upside down on calculators.

I love that my sister chimed in on this. We spent so much time in the rear-facing station wagon seats growing up...

eloise young
6.10.03 @ 2:36a

hELLO, strictly speaking...

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 8:49a

What Eloise said, re: hard drives & audio tape.

Except replace the Sinclair with a TRS-80.

There are probably certain things to lament, Matt, but change is change. Technology-wise, the major difference seems to be from a DIY standpoint (ever see all the DIY stuff in old magazines like "Popular Electronics"?) to consumer turnkey products. Makes it more disposable, somehow. Although a lot more convenient.

joe procopio
6.10.03 @ 9:01a

Evolve with it, I say. This from the kid who used to turn his (analog) clock radio upside down on top of the tape recorder to get the good songs off America's Top 40. I still can't hear "Don't Stand So Close to Me" without Casey Kasem's voice spewing some odd fact about Sting over the long intro - drilled into my head until Mom could get me to the mall to get the real thing at Record Town.

Early Napster.

And don't forget bOObiEs.

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 10:04a

I'm with you, Joe. There's too much to be lost in wallowing in what used to be. May as well roll with what's coming and have fun.

I just try to be selective about the new stuff that I get involved with, like chocolate crispy french fries. Nobody needs that crap.

matt morin
6.10.03 @ 10:29a

I don't think it's so much wallowing in the past, as it is being able to appreciate where you came from. I think knowing how things used to be make you appreciate how things are now.

So with everything changing at light speed these days, how do you have any way of gauging things?

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 10:44a

Despite what I might have implied above, I agree with Joe and Erik on this. But Matt, "changing at light speed these days"? You think it's any different from, say, the late 19th century, or the 800s, or, in fact, any time? Change is the only constant outside of taxes.

(Death I'm working on.)

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 10:51a

I think knowing how things used to be make you appreciate how things are now.

I don't think so.

I have absolutely now idea how things were when cars were first invented, but that doesn't diminish my appreciation of cars today.

It might be quaint to remember pull tab beer cans, but it doesn't diminish my appreciation of beer to never have used one.

I do think it's sad that kids nowadays will never know what it means to "rewind," but I don't think it will diminish their apprecation of the technology available to them, then.

I just think it'll make us feel old that when we say "vinyl" they think "pants."

[edited]

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 10:54a

I just think it'll make us feel old that when we say "vinyl" they think "pants."

When I say vinyl, you say pants!

Vinyl! Pants! Vinyl! Pants!

Sorry. Cheerleader moment.

joe procopio
6.10.03 @ 10:55a

I agree with Matt about the lightspeed thing. It's definitely exponential at the very least. What was that thing about flight? 50-odd years after we figured out how to get airborne we landed on the moon? Something like that. May be a bad example because of NASA's decline, but you get my drift.

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 10:57a

It might be worth noting that I have never seen a mimeograph, either.

And 'ditto' comes from Italian (past participle of dire - to say), a derivative from the Latin 'dicere.'

Alex Trebek is a cock.

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 11:00a

Erik, you've never seen a mimeograph? The purple-ink dittos permeate my memories of elementary school. And really, that's what I meant on the DIY stuff -- Back In The Day, anyone could grab a mimeograph machine and make zines easily enough (even easier than copying, 'cause who has their own copier?). Then we went through a downturn in self-publishing. Now any yahoo can put up their articles on the web, so maybe it's come back.

matt morin
6.10.03 @ 11:05a

Yeah, in grade school we used dittos to make our little school newspaper. It always sucked because you'd get halfway into the thing and hit the wrong typewriter key and there was no way to fix it without throwing it out and starting completely over.

There's a scene in Animal House where they dig through the trash to find the ditto of a test so that they can get all the answers. Do people who see that movie now even know what they're doing?

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 11:12a

Here's the question really:

Who would watch Animal House who wasn't familiar with the era, anyway?

margot lester
6.10.03 @ 11:32a

not only am i old enough to remember suffering through college using a NON-CORRECTING ibm selectric TYPEWRITER, but i'm convinced my dementia was fueled by inhaling the mimeograph fumes at school. we used to have to GO do interviews with people, GO to the LIBRARY and look up data IN BOOKS and RETYPE stories. i even remember the old line-o-type machines. so, um, yeah, i welcome the new-fangled technology. but that doesn't mean i think we should forget the good bits of the olden days. like a fountain coke. nor the important bits of history that provide critical context as we continue to evolve.

matt morin
6.10.03 @ 11:35a

Anyone remember the old days of layout paste up?

In college we were still waxing stories onto layout sheets, cutting photos and putting line tape around them, and printing out headlines on the line-o-type. Those were the fun days!

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 11:44a

I think that we, as a nation, are really overrun by nostalgia. Why else would the Game Show Channel even exist? Or TV Land?

I understand the comfort that exists in familiarity, but I think that people spend too much time in the past. They forget the present. The past is fun and all, but it's not the future.

heather millen
6.10.03 @ 11:44a

Didn't there used to be some sort of joke where the addition would leave you "Boobless." Man, wish I could remember those digits.

I have to be honest, I know what a ditto is. I can picture it's blotched, purple print. But if I was put on the spot on Jeopardy, I don't think I'd come up with "mimeograph" either.

jael mchenry
6.10.03 @ 11:55a

This discussion has passed me by, but in response to Joe's comment about taping off the Top 40: I always hear a little Winter Wonderland riff in the Bangles' rendition of "Hazy Shade of Winter" since that was the radio station's promotion. If you heard the riff, you called in, and got a prize. I didn't get the prize, but I got the riff.

russ carr
6.10.03 @ 12:48p

Junior year of college I was convinced several times that my eyesight was permanently destroyed from cleaning our paper's Compugraphic processor and getting the foul chemicals splashed in my face. It burns! It burns!

Hey, one of the papers I worked at for many years here in St. Louis still does paste up. That was one of the reasons I left!

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 12:55p

Back in my day, I had to walk to school, a mile and a half. Uphill -- both ways! In snow a foot and a half deep.

(Ha! Bet Margot can't say that.)

matt morin
6.10.03 @ 1:17p

Wow. I didn't think anyone still did manual paste up. Crazy.

So can you tell the people who work there by all the X-acto cuts on their fingers?

matt morin
6.10.03 @ 1:38p

My friend Dennis just brought up Velcro as something kids today can't imagine not having. And when you think about, Velcro is everywhere.

What the hell did people do before Velcro?

heather millen
6.10.03 @ 1:42p

Velcro is everywhere? Hmm. I remember my first pair of velcro sneakers. They were Roos I believe. You could hide a dime in them. They rocked!

jael mchenry
6.10.03 @ 2:09p

Before Velcro, we tied our shoelaces.

I don't think it was an earth-shattering discovery.

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 2:17p

Funny that you say that, considering it was first in use on the space shuttle.

Velcro is very useful, and in use everywhere, so much so that you probably don't notice it. But look for it where fastening needs to be done, and I'd bet 50% of the time or more it's done with velcro.

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 2:21p

Funny that you say that, considering that it [Velcro] was first in use on the space shuttle.

Well, actually, no. See the sidebar in above story on a NASA website.

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 3:25p

Well.. sonofabitch.

You learn something newer every day.

brian anderson
6.10.03 @ 4:15p

Yeah, how about that?

Also, I know from personal experience that kids even ten years younger than me don't equate "Tang" and "space program" the same way that I do.

Which is evidently a good bit of marketing, too, because I see from a quick google that Tang predates the manned space program.

erik myers
6.10.03 @ 4:24p

Yeah, that's what I equate Tang to.

That and freeze-dried ice cream.

mike julianelle
6.10.03 @ 9:17p

Pootie Tang?

No interleague baseball then eihter, so no seeing Pujols hit a 2 run jobber in Fenway. Bitch.

Hey Matt, this weekend I got a truck to honk his horn for me! That was like reliving childhood, even without the backward seats, which I've spent some time in myself.

No one wants Final Fantasy.

sarah ficke
6.10.03 @ 9:42p

Actually, I remember, back before minivans, we had a station wagon with the third row facing frontwards and it was even cooler, at the time, than the backwards ones.

robert melos
6.10.03 @ 10:09p

1: Vinyl makes me think of miniskirts.
2: We are advancing in some ways at light speed, but in many other ways we are reverting back to the stoneage.
3:Velcro is only a mediocre invention.
4: I can get truckers to honk at me all the time. Some of us just got it, if ya know what I mean.

mike julianelle
6.10.03 @ 10:12p

Robert, I neither know nor want to know what you mean. Shhh!

tracey kelley
6.10.03 @ 11:11p

I love technological advances, even if I can't afford new gadgets like TiVo and Palm Pilot.

I do, however, question things like a computer pad you write on (hello - either type or scan your notes. Sheeeesh.) and I miss actually writing letters on nice stationary, but don't miss hand cramps after writing for a long period of time. And I love email - I think more people are in touch today because of it.

As demonstrated on this here very site.

I look back and don't miss much. I have fond memories of many things growing up, but I think it's exciting to see what else will happen in our lifetime. If I miss anything, it's for the lack of regard for time spent doing something simple, like baking homemade bread or talking to your grandpa without the television on.

Too bad the Mars expedition was delayed again today.

American Top 40 - oh GOD, how I taped off that! And listened to a transistor radio with an earpiece in bed at night so my mom wouldn't hear.

I remember 45s. What a thrill. Usually 79-cents at Woolworth's.



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