x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Time dulled what was once cutting-edge technology

In 1981, many of the technologies we know now were in their infancy, such as mobile phones, personal computers and digital cameras.

It was April 12, 1981, and as Columbia thundered from the shuttle launch pad on its maiden mission, the news was relayed by teletext machines to news organisations around the world.

At a safe distance from the plume of flame and smoke, hundreds of cameras clicked furiously. The professional photographers would use couriers to rush their films to developing labs for the morning editions. The public could expect their precious prints in the post a week later.

Thirty years ago, this was the cutting edge of technology and the shuttle was its apogee. As Atlantis orbits the Earth on the programme's final mission this weekend, the shuttle still represents the high point of the United States' manned endeavours in space.

But everything else has changed.

Arguably the most significant moment of 1981 came on August 12, when International Business Machines Corp announced the launch of what we now regard as the world's first personal computer.

The IBM 5150 PC, which cost US$1,565 (Dh5,750) was fitted with an Intel 8088 microprocessor and 16 kilobytes of Ram memory. Today, laptops feature Intel i5 core processors and 4 gigabytes of Ram. The advances are so extraordinary they are hard to process. A single kilobyte represents 1,000 bytes or units of information storage. A single gigabyte equals one billion bytes.

As the shuttle made its debut, so also did the mobile phone. Nordisk MobilTelefoni, a Scandinavian company, rolled out the world's first automated mobile phone network that summer using open source software that encouraged local manufacturers to develop handsets.

Mobira, which changed its name to Nokia, was one of the first to enter the market, although the bulky handsets were too large for any handbag or trouser pocket. Its pioneering Mobira Senator model weighed 10 kilos (Nokia's latest n8 smartphone weighs 135 grams).

A worldwide network with the catchy title International Packet Switched Service linked computers in North American and Europe and spread quickly to the Far East and Australia, but it was three more years before the domain name system was developed and seven before American On Line gave ordinary consumers internet access.

At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Canon demonstrated its prototype of the first filmless digital camera, although the cost - up to $20,000 - made it inaccessible to all but professional newsgathering organisations. Affordable models appeared at the turn of the century. A decade later and film is all but dead.

In October 1981, the Bee Gees appeared on a BBC science programme, Tomorrow's World, with a copy of their latest album, Lying Eyes. The small shiny disc playing the music was the world's first CD and tolled the death of the long-playing vinyl record. Today it is the CD format that is in decline, replaced increasingly by digital downloads. (The Sony Walkman appeared in US markets in 1980, playing now-obsolete cassette tapes.)

Now the shuttle itself is history, the final launch last week watched around the world, streamed live over the internet and, for those lucky enough to attend, captured on the spot by high definition digital cameras built into mobile phones that could send the images to their owners' Facebook pages in seconds.

To most of those watching, the flame-spewing shuttle must have looked not so much as a vision of the future, as a blast from the past.

jlangton@thenational.ae