A Tutorial: Smartphones vs. 1960s Technology

PHOTO BY MARTY METZGER. Smartphones are amazing. That little flat plastic computer you hold in your hand replaces all these diverse predecessors, and many more! PHOTO BY MARTY METZGER

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Are you holding your Smartphone? Is it within kissing range? These technological marvels loyally keep our planet spinning without so much as demanding a day off. But do we 2018 humans really realize just what those flat little vibrating, singing ring tone critters replaced?

A time machine glance back into the 1960s finds exactly the same functions as a Smartphone, except via a big pile of devices rather than a solitary, plastic “Pop-Tart.”

Of course there were telephones. Some were wall-mounted. If a kiddo fell off a precarious bar stool trying to reach one, concerned parents could alternatively lease a convenient desk model from their local phone company. Yes, lease.

Those monthly lease fees would be with you till the day you died! Actually beyond, as some companies hounded heirs for months or years after a loved one’s death.

Few owned phones back then. The federal government apparently thought that was un-American or something. People shuddered when permission was finally granted to buy their own phone. It was like tearing those “Do Not Remove” tags off pillows. Had to be a trick. Someone important would come to take them or their firstborn away!

But ponder a wall phone. You held, listened through and spoke into a receiver, which hung vertically in its metal, side-mounted cradle. The cumbersome, oblong machine sported a rotary dial; rotary means it turned in a circle of numbers. Not by remote, but rather by an agile human index finger. It was a learned skill.

The phone’s receiver had a long, looping cord that some teenagers could miraculously extend to football field length. This strrrrretch didn’t at all benefit the phone but helped multi-tasking, mid-century kids simultaneously reach kitchen snacks, bedroom homework and living room TV, all while mindlessly chatting with friends. That saggy, shorting-out cord inspired the mobile phone. Allegedly.

But right at the pinnacle moment of a phoning kid’s “Groovy!” and “Cool, man!” always came that irritating warning from Mom or Dad: “I’m waiting for an important call! Get off that phone right now… or else!” There was no voicemail back in those dark and distant days, so (eventually) the pouting child hung up.

But that didn’t necessarily mean another call could come in, because some folks still had “party lines.” No, not a lengthy outdoor wait to enter a drinking establishment. Party lines were usually strangers whose phone services were grouped together by a telephone company to a single main access line. Most were in rural areas. Fees were cheaper, but anyone within the group, at any time, could quietly pick up their receiver (remember it from above?) and listen in on someone else’s conversation. Kind of like low-tech hacking. Kind of fun.

Big drawback: As long as one of the parties was using the line, no one else could. When someone’s Aunt Minerva endlessly droned (not that kind) on and on about Mrs. Waffler’s errant hubby, another party line member could cut in with, “I’m waiting for an important call! Get off that phone right now… or else!”

But what happened when people left the house in the ’60s? They surely couldn’t take their leased wall or desk phone along. Yet there were no cries of, “OMG, I forgot my phone!”

Easy-peasy. Pay phones, housed in cubicles like upright coffins, were on nearly every corner of most towns and cities. Just pop in a dime, quarter or so and spin that rotary dial for easy connectivity; oops, busy signal. Is another party using the line?

“I’m waiting for an important call! Get off that phone right now… or else!”

All that wait time wasn’t wasted, though; it allowed people time to think. Definition: “to reflect on, ponder.”

Today’s Smartphones are bright, all right. So much so that they serve as flashlights. They’re smart enough to double as calculators, clocks or watches, and snap “selfie” photos of apparently mirror-deprived individuals.

These ubiquitous, high I.Q. instruments with minuscule speakers stuffed into them become radios, televisions, even movie projectors. Transistor radios that went everywhere with 1960s teenagers brilliantly allowed their two-leggers to walk/chew gum/notice hazards in their path as they walked.

Thinking about ripping out that old-school mailbox? Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., messages instantly arrive via Smartphone. A text once meant textbook/book/manual. And go ahead, watch that cute cat video as you run to class… “Look out, open manhole!” That might leave a mark. Maybe two.

Lost? Ask your phone to lead the way home via its GPS (Global Positioning System) feature. Its magic element claims to turn traditional paper maps into origami dinosaurs.

But wait, not so fast. The term “Apps” still conjures up images of spotted horses (Appaloosas) for those of us who believe the old days, good or not, have a lot to teach. For example, as smart as phones may be, we who are supposedly their masters should be at least their intellectual equals.

The other day, I handed the cashier at a fast-food restaurant a ten-dollar bill and two pennies for a $3.52 snack. Sadly, she’d already entered a flat $10 into her register. The young girl’s gaze was pathetically blank as she hesitantly accepted my pennies because the machine’s display read “$6.48 back.”

I told her she owed me $6.50. Deer eyes again stared into my headlights. Then she grabbed her Smartphone as if a security blanket as I said, “Trust me, it’s $6.50.” Only after her phone approved the transaction (“Sorry, I just had to check”) did she sheepishly hand over my change.

This poor child who likely could navigate 1000 apps her phone offered was personally unable to figure 2nd grade math.

QUESTION: If someone gave you a hammer, and you’re not a professional craftsman, would you carry it on you 24/7/365, even sleep with it under your pillow, just in case a nail needed to be pounded? How many folks become addicted, to the point of seeking therapy, to their blenders? Doorbells? Thermostats? Hair dryers?

Smartphones also are merely tools. They shouldn’t be compulsory, all-sustaining gods that call the minute-by-minute shots of our lives. If they do, something’s very wrong. (No worries, there’s an App for that!)

P.S. Beware that GPS thingy that’s guided many a distraught traveller into someone’s moonlit cornfield. Embarrassing. If humans don’t remain on top, there will be no more need for humans.

Well, gotta go. My phone’s ringing off the wall!

Anyone wishing to view Smartphones’ predecessors, such as wall or desk rotary phones, old radios including transistors, adding machines and other retro-antique objects, can find great displays and information at the Museum of Discovery, 408 Mason Court, Fort Collins.

To own some of these or other great vintage display items, jewelry, furniture, knick-knacks and more, there are also six enormous flea markets/antique shops all located in the 6000 block of South College Avenue. Most are open seven days a week from 10 AM-6PM.