Reel-to-reel tape Cassettes supplanted reel-to-reel for home recording in the 1960s; now cassettes have given way to CD players and recorders. So surely tape is as defunct as the dodo? Not quite. Many analog tape sizes, from two-track .63-centimeter (quarter-inch) to 24-track five-centimeter (two-inch), are still available. Some recording engineers still swear by tape, which they claim captures nuances of sound that even the most byte-heavy digital recorder can’t-just as ardent audiophiles still swear by vinyl records played on $10,000 laser turntables. And a few firms still offer two-track 1.27-centimeter (half-inch) players. “The market’s pretty steady,” says Dan Palmer, former product-development director at the high-end manufacturer Otari. “Archiving” is what drives it: customers buy the players to transfer precious taped works to digital.
Vacuum tubes Audiophiles have sustained another technology that’s even older than magnetic tape. In the 1970s, compact, energy-efficient transistors boded to replace vacuum tubes entirely. But transistors couldn’t satisfy some guitar players and hi-fi cognoscenti. “We use vacuum tubes because they sound good,” says Victor Tiscareno, a trained violinist and vice president of engineering at Red Rose Music, a maker of high-end home audio systems. Low-distortion, solid-state-transistor sound “looks lovely on an oscilloscope,” he explains. “But what we measure and what we hear aren’t the same. Vacuum tubes just sound more human, more lifelike.” And after Armageddon, they may be the last amplifiers left standing; rumor has it the U.S. government still keeps backup tubes in case an electromagnetic pulse wipes out vital communications circuits.
Fax machines With e-mail and scanners nearly universal, these clunky devices should be obsolete: why deal with paper jams and busy signals? Yet American consumers bought over two million fax machines in 2002. Fax is still the fastest way to transmit on-paper images, documents, and marked-up text. While some occupations (journalism) have moved overwhelmingly to e-mail, others remain stuck on fax. Real estate, with its endlessly amended offers, counteroffers, waivers, and warranties, still runs on it. Lawyers also remain big faxers. The rest of us grimace and use it when we have to.
Mainframe computers These big rigs costing over $1 million apiece have been dismissed as dinosaurs-big, lumbering, expensive ones at that-since the PC arrived. But the explosion of Windows networks and Unix servers obscured the fact that banks and other institutions have continued relying on mainframes for large-scale data processing. And “big iron” has seen a minor resurgence in the new millennium: IBM’s mainframe sales rose in 2001 for the first time since 1989 and have continued to increase. Speed, security, and reliability are also motives: IBM claims a once-in-30-years failure rate for its latest model, the z990.
Fortran Forty-seven years after IBM unleashed it, Fortran (formula translation), the original “high-level” programming language, would seem to be the infotech equivalent of cuneiform. But it’s still widely used, especially in scientific computing. Why has this Eisenhower-era veteran outlasted so many hardware and software generations? “It’s partly the learning curve,” says Hewlett-Packard Laboratories’ Hans Boehm, former chair of the Association for Computing Research’s special-interest group on programming languages. “For some people it’s good enough, and it’s hard to let go of something once you learn it.” Adaptability and compatibility, which made Fortran the programmers’ lingua franca in the 1960s and ’70s, are also key to its viability. Major upgrades have boosted efficiency and added features while preserving old versions intact. So a vast number of tried-and-true Fortran 77 programs jibe with the current Fortran 90. Microsoft, take note.