Not every disappearing technology deserves that fate. Sometimes the “losers” have an elegance and simplicity the “winners” lack. Here are ten examples.
Streetcars, the country’s first major form of public transportation, were challenged by a cheaper form of transit that gained ground through the 1930s-the bus. A persistent theory that General Motors orchestrated the demise of America’s streetcar lines is disputed by transit historians, but even without corporate conspiracies, bus systems had the clear advantage of running on existing roads-and they paid no market penalty for the greater noise and pollution they generated.
After World War II, a few major cities seized on a way to get the best of both worlds: Keep the streetcar’s electrical cables suspended over the streets, hook electric buses up to them and remove the tracks, making the streets safer for cars. Electric buses, developed earlier in the century, only caught on when streetcars made way for them. About 1,000 trolley buses are still running on electrical grids in North American cities today, mostly in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. Since a new fleet (with custom cars and new infrastructure) would be a substantial investment for any city, and with natural-gas and battery-powered electric vehicles on the rise, it’s unlikely the electric-bus grid will grow.
Telegraph lines, the 19th-century analog of today’s fiber-optic cable, had their own “last mile” problem-getting the message to the recipient. One 19th-century solution: a pneumatic messaging system, host to hurtling, paper-stuffed capsules sucked or pushed along by air pressure. A system like this first linked the London Stock Exchange to the city’s main telegraph station in 1853. In the following two decades, the Berlin and Paris exchanges also adopted the technology, and pneumatic systems later transported mail through major European cities-and through New York, until 1953. (The Paris messages, dubbed “pneus,” pop up with some frequency in Proust.) Mail is still sent pneumatically in Prague.
Air-driven communication systems offer breezy delivery of small objects, but the many moving parts and requirements for airtightness make them costly to maintain on a large scale. Hospitals and large stores still rely on them, as do drive-up windows at banks. As ATM use continues to grow, the giant pneumatic sucking sound will grow quieter still.
In 1984, Apple’s Macintosh brought the graphical user interface (GUI) to consumers. The next year, multimedia computing arrived in the form of Commodore’s Amiga 1000. The Amiga had the first personal computer operating system to offer pre-emptive multitasking, allowing running programs to utilize the processor as efficiently as possible. (Pre-emptive multitasking will arrive this year on the Macintosh with the release of OS X.) In addition, the Amiga, which could emulate the Macintosh and later the IBM PC, cost half as much as other computers of the day.
The Amiga’s graphics and sound were so extreme that many people could understand it only as a sort of ultrapowerful video game system. It was the first computer to display more than 16 colors, could be used to edit video and featured four-channel digital stereo sound at a time when other computers could only emit beeps. But business users found the software base of the IBM PC a stronger selling point. Meanwhile, the Atari ST challenged the Amiga for the slim early multimedia market, and Commodore began to unravel. Still, Amiga has survived Commodore’s demise–and ownership by several other companies. A new version of the Amiga operating system was released in 1999, and new hardware is in development.