Fascinating Primitive Versions of Modern Technology
Many years ago, someone made a hammer. Afterward, following centuries of technological advancement and increased knowledge of human physiology, someone else made an updated version: a hammer with a rubber grip.
Other inventions go through a more interesting evolution. You’d be surprised to learn about what predecessors some of the items around your house had in years past. For example…
An Early Remote Control Used Little Hammers
The remote control is a marvelous invention. It works instantly. The batteries might last for years. The device is so durable that even if your brother breaks it open while using it to beat you, a little duct tape will seal it up again, and it will go on working just fine. If the whole 20th century went by without remote controls, and we only got them the same time we got smartphones, that would almost seem appropriate — that’s how futuristic the remote control is.
Today’s remote controls generally use infrared rays. Before we settled on that, we tried various other systems. The earliest remotes weren’t even wireless and sent electrical signals to the TV down a cord. Early wireless remotes used beams of visible light. But we really want to highlight the following remote that Zenith unveiled in 1955. It was called the Zenith Space Commander 600. That sounds like a video game system and is a fitting name because, like we said, remote controls are futuristic.
The Space Commander used audio tones — ultrasonic ones, so you didn’t hear them and get annoyed. It created these tones by hitting aluminum rods with clappers. Pressing this remote’s buttons was like playing a xylophone. Though it debuted in the 1950s, people were still using it in the 1970s, which means some of you reading this right now used the remote and are laughing at us for our surprise. We salute you, old people, and we turn to your memories for guidance.
Vacuum Cleaners Used to Be Drawn by Horses
The first motorized carpet cleaner did not suck. It blew. A man in St. Louis invented it in 1898, and it blasted air at carpets to dislodge dust. It didn’t do a very good job collecting the dust. Obviously, sucking dirt into some receptacle would be better, but inventor John S. Thurman said this was impossible.
Like so many people who declare improvements impossible, Thurman was quickly proven wrong. In 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth unveiled a vacuum cleaner. Confusingly, he called it “Puffing Billy,” burying its main selling point, which was that it didn’t puff air out; it drew air in. The device did puff out as well, however, because an internal combustion engine powered it, so it burned petrol and spat out smoke.
The machine was huge. This wasn’t something you could drag across a carpet by hand. Instead, a horse-drawn carriage carried the thing, and then a team of men would bring hoses from it into a building to extract literal tons of dust. So, here, we had an internal combustion in a vehicle, but the vehicle moved thanks to a horse. If we ever figure out how to get an engine like that providing locomotion to the carriage, the transportation industry will never be the same.
The First 3D Movie Was Also Choose-Your-Own-Adventure
Movies have used 3D for longer than they’ve used sound. The first 3D cinema release was called The Power of Love and came out way back in 1922. It was a classic story of boy-meets-girl, man-robs-priest, man-accidentally-shoots-girl. Audiences didn’t view the film using today’s polarized glasses. Instead, the glasses isolated different types of light by tinting one lens red and the other green. Some of you reading this may have grown up with similar glasses even long after the 1920s.
Audiences hated the 3D. It wasn’t so much a matter of audiences resisting innovation as the fact that no one had figured out how to do 3D right. Even today, unless you watch a movie that films 3D properly, it may well look worse to you than a proper flat image. Despite 3D being the whole deal behind The Power of Love, the distributors switched to 2D just a little into its run.
The movie had another gimmick as well, connected with the glasses. For the final act, rather than showing the same scene filmed from slightly different angles, the two lenses viewed totally different scenes. You were supposed to pick one eye and cover it, choosing whether you wanted to see the film end happily or end tragically. That said, we’re relying on shaky recollections for exactly how this went down, since The Power of Love is now a lost film, and there’s no way to view a copy and see for yourself.
As this was a silent picture, dialogue wasn’t a problem — you’d read the sad conversation or happy conversation just as you’d watch the sad scene or the happy scene. The music might have complicated this a little, though. They must have played some tune that could sound either happy or tragic. Something like “Freebird,” or that song about eating peaches.
Computer Games Used to Print Their Output on Paper
When you play a video game, the image on your screen changes several times a second. Maybe 120 times a second, maybe 60 times — this number matters a lot and is a reason to spend huge amounts of money on powerful hardware. But what if the screen doesn’t have to change continuously? What if the game simply waits for your input, tells you the result and then awaits more leisurely input, without any need for animation?
Quite a few games like that exist, even now. They’re turn-based games, or text-based games, and though they’ll probably include some stuff moving on the screen just for the hell of it, they don’t need to. In fact, when a game responds to you in this way, it doesn’t need to use a screen at all (or a “visual display unit/VDU,” as they were called way back when). Early computer games worked on systems that had no monitor. They printed the output for you, by typing text on physical paper.
These included text adventure games that you can now play using a monitor, games like Colossal Cave Adventure. They also included one game even non-gamers surely know of: The Oregon Trail. The version that came out for the Apple II might seem ancient enough today, but the original came out in 1971 and used no screen at all.
If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between “computer games” and “video games,” turns out it’s not that video games are played on consoles while computer games are played on PCs. It’s that video games have video, while computer games might not.
They Had Clockwork Coffeemakers in Victorian Days
They had clockwork teamakers in Victorian days, but we chose the word “coffeemaker” in the above title in case you’re unfamiliar with dedicated teamaking devices. Such devices, called teasmades, used to be popular in the U.K. relatively recently, and looked a little like this:
A teasmade makes tea and also has an alarm clock to wake you up. Convenient enough if you can plug one in, but teasmades existed even at the end of the 19th century, and the first ones ran on gas. (History does not record just how many people set their bed on fire using teasmades.)
A cooler version came right at the start of the 20th century. It was called the “Clock That Makes Tea.” It too used fire, but it burned methylated spirits so it needed no fixed gas pipeline. The alarm clock was analogue, naturally, and when the alarm rang, the clock struck a match. This match lit a lamp, and when the water boiled, the kettle tilted and poured into a glass.
If this sounds somehow both primitive and overengineered, realize that these products were marketed toward British people who had been used to having servants but who no longer could afford them thanks to changing times. A fair number of other people, on the other hand, decided that when they woke up, they were perfectly fine getting out of bed and walking to the kitchen.
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