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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Not worth the nostalgia: 10 inventions from the past that aren't missed

With another year upon us, it’s easy to look to the past with our rose-tinted glasses on, but here are a few things that we’re all happy to see the back of

Audio cassettes were notorious for not lasing longer than a few plays. Getty
Audio cassettes were notorious for not lasing longer than a few plays. Getty

Nostalgia is a particularly powerful and motivating emotion, and as the years continue to move swiftly by, it’s easy to wish that we could turn back the clock, perhaps to a time when life was more simple. However, when we consider the things we used to put up with in everyday life, it’s amazing most of us are still sane. Here are 10 things that we’re not looking back on with misty-eyed melancholy.

Dial-up internet

The dulcet tones of dial-up modems at the start of the internet age seem so far removed from today’s superfast broadband, that it is almost comical. Most of us had to plan our web surfing sessions in advance, because the computer and telephone normally shared the same line, so you could only use one or the other. The modem would dial a number, strange noises came in quick succession and, once they stopped, you might manage to get online. But even then, the connection speeds were painfully slow.

Fax machines

Before email became the standard way for people to communicate with each other, there used to be a bulky contraption in the corner of every office, called a fax machine. You’d need to feed your papers into the awkward tray and pray they’d be scanned without mishap, before the machine made a bizarre collection of screeching noises as it transmitted the information to a recipient machine that was often just a couple of rooms away, such was the novelty value of this space age technology. Initially, these things used thermal paper that curled up and faded to invisibility as soon as it was exposed to sunlight. Not our finest hour.

Video stores and rewinding tapes

It used to be a Saturday night ritual, scanning the shelves of video rental stores for a film to watch while devouring a Chinese takeaway. If you were lucky, you’d manage to get a tape that wasn’t worn out or previously mangled and then there was “that” sticker, the one that got everyone’s backs up. Be kind, rewind, it said. If the advent of DVD has to be celebrated, never mind the heightened picture and sound quality, it was the fact that we didn’t have to spend 20 minutes listening to the high pitched whizz as a VHS rewound back to its beginning that made the investment worthwhile.

Terrestrial television

It might seem absurd to today’s youth, but what we watched on television, not all that long ago, was dictated to us by a small handful of broadcasters who beamed programmes into our living rooms via radio waves. Terrestrial television required rooftop aerials, or antennas, that needed adjusting after a strong gust of wind by someone on a ladder while another person from within the home would shout about signal strength. People actually died doing this.

Pagers

Americans and Canadians might know these odd little devices as beepers and, in the 1990s, when only a small proportion of us had mobile phones, they experienced a few short years of extreme popularity. Emergency workers and doctors found them invaluable, but it was thrusting young executives that had them fastened to their belts – you weren’t anyone in business unless you had a pager. And all they did was alert the wearer that they needed to contact someone else once they found a payphone. Once we all got mobile phones, the pager went the way of the dodo and nobody mourned its passing.

Getting lost

Smartphones are immeasurably useful – but even if the only app we could download and use was Google Maps, they’d be worth having, especially in the UAE, where new roads seem to appear from nowhere overnight. Before this magnificent technology was available to the masses, we had to buy satellite navigation units (or “Sat Navs”) that required constant updates and proved irresistible to smash and grab thieves. But even they were preferable to enormous, folding paper maps that were impossible to refer to while on the move, requiring constant lay-by stops, lest we get even more lost. Good riddance.

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Touching taps in public conveniences

Traditional taps are fine if they’re in our own homes, but when it comes to public washrooms, it’s not particularly nice having to handle them after everyone else has, well, you know … So for those of us that are a bit OCD, the introduction of the “sensor tap” was a cause for celebration. Just wave a hand in front of said device and out comes a steady flow of water, which halts after a few seconds. There are two major benefits of these items: they’re hygienic and avoid possible cross-contamination, and they save huge amounts of water, so they’re good for the planet.

Pre-millennium tension

We really did believe that planes would fall from the sky, street lamps would go dark, hospitals would cease to function and that humanity would enter mass hysteria, never to re-emerge. All because computer designers had forgotten to ensure their machines could carry on functioning beyond the final second of 1999 and it was assumed they’d all register the new year as 1900, not 2000. The Millennium Bug, as we came to know it, never did bite, thanks to the decisive action of governments worldwide and the efforts of programmers. The planet was able to roll into the 21st century with barely a Ctrl-Alt-Delete required anywhere.

Audio cassettes

Apart from their appalling sound quality, audio cassettes were really bad at lasting more than a couple of plays without becoming a tangled mess in your hi-fi or answering machine. As soon as we could record onto compact discs (itself a practice that has all but vanished), the audio cassette was, at long last, obsolete.

Film processing

Another industry decimated by mobile phone technology, a few short years ago no high street or shopping mall was complete without a photo processing lab. There’s an entire generation of people now who have no idea about film cameras, which we all used to haul around with us on holiday, using rolls of film that could hold up to 36 images. Once they’d been used up, we’d drop them off at the lab and hope for the best. Maybe, just maybe, the resulting images – printed on matt or glossy paper – would be sharp and in focus.