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Ten Passed Technologies

New isn’t necessarily better. The attic of discarded technologies contains objects whose simplicity and elegance have never been replaced.
January 1, 2001

Not every disappearing technology deserves that fate. Sometimes the “losers” have an elegance and simplicity the “winners” lack. Here are ten examples.

Electric Trolley

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.

Pneumatic Post

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.

Ribbon Microphone

The classic “ribbon” microphone that became an icon of radio broadcasting-RCA’s model 44A- was a hefty 8-pound device introduced in 1931. Unlike conventional microphones, in which air pressure from sound waves moves a diaphragm to produce an electrical signal, in a ribbon microphone, a tiny piece of foil hovering between two magnets created a signal when it moved in response to air velocity. Ribbon microphones’ warm sound worked particularly well with a singer’s or broadcaster’s voice, and they were uniquely useful in radio drama, as Bose fellow William R. Short of Bose Corp. in Framingham, Mass., explains. “They have this figure-eight pattern-they accept sound from the front and back, while rejecting sound from the sides.” As a result, actors at different positions around the microphone could sound as if they were far apart, even in different rooms.

The 44A was too bulky for widespread use in television and wasn’t effective outside the studio because wind gusts could blow the foil from between the magnets. Yet ribbon microphones remain popular today “because their unique transparent sound quality was better than carbon and early condenser microphones,” says audio engineer Bob Speiden, whose own ribbon microphones, developed in the 1980s, are still manufactured by Royer Labs.


Long before Microsoft Word’s talking paper clip started bending users out of shape, there was a feature-rich but trusty word processor: WordStar. According to telecommunications columnist John Dvorak, Rob Barnaby programmed the first version, released in 1979, in assembly language in four months, a feat that some at IBM later estimated was equal to 42 years of effort by a normal programmer. WordStar was the first word processor to compute page breaks on the fly. It introduced a new way of moving up, left, right or down in a document, by pressing control-E, S, D or X. Variants of this “WordStar diamond” (named for the arrangement of those keys) are still used in some programmers’ text editors today. WordStar also offered handy letter-transposing key commands and a view of the document that looked much like the final printout.

By 1984, WordStar International was the country’s largest software company, but WordStar2000, released in 1985, fared poorly against rival WordPerfect, and the company fell from its lead position. Still, WordStar laid the groundwork for today’s WYSIWYG, or “what you see is what you get,” systems. Perhaps its simplicity relative to today’s word processors is a virtue rather than a defect: A present-day WordStar Users Group testifies that the influential early application is still in use.

Edison’s Wax Cylinder

Audiophiles lament the passing of vinyl, which they perceive as having a richer sound than the compact disc. But the recorded disc (first made of vulcanite, then shellac and finally vinyl) was in its own day an upstart technology, elbowing out a superior medium for recording sound: the soda-can-shaped wax cylinder first manufactured by Thomas Edison in 1877. Edison chose to produce wax cylinders instead of discs because they were technically superior. In his book The Invisible Computer, technology-design guru Donald A. Norman explains that, with the cylinder, “each part passes under the stylus at the same speed. With discs, the outside edge moves past the stylus more rapidly than the parts near the center, and so the sound at the center deteriorates.” Another plus: People could make their own recordings on wax cylinders, while records were read-only.

Despite their technological virtues, Edison’s wax cylinders failed in the marketplace early in the century. RCA, which championed discs, rounded up a more recognizable group of recording artists. Records were also easier to stamp out en masse. Norman points to Edison’s cylinders as the principal example of a superior technology defeated by one that was inferior but “good enough.” Although the last cylinders were manufactured in 1929, the year Edison’s company closed, the band They Might Be Giants went to the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey to record “I Can Hear You,” a track of their 1996 album Factory Showroom, on wax cylinder.

Slide Rule

“No engineering student would dare venture out in public…without his (or her) slide rule in its ‘holster’ and hanging from the belt,” recalls Professor Emeritus Wayne McMorran of California Polytechnic State University in his online history of that school’s electrical engineering department. “If you were really into it, you bought a really long one (about 20 inches) so you could get better precision.”

Slide rules were developed in England to allow multiplication by use of logarithms-a mathematical idea set out by Scottish mathematician John Napier in 1614. They ruled supreme for more than three centuries, widely used by engineers and navigators. Because the product of any two numbers is equal to 10 raised to the power of the sum of their logarithms, any multiplication problem can be more simply restated as an addition problem. With the rise of the mechanical slide rule, one could make these computations by positioning two ruled straightedges (or in some cases, circles), without having to look up numbers in a logarithm table.

In the early 1970s, cheap handheld electronic calculators vanquished slide rules. Although they are no longer manufactured, slide rules are still used in education: A slide-rule lending program run by Wichita, Kan., high school teacher Bill Cooper teaches important mathematical concepts that are crucial when using a slide rule, such as orders of magnitude and significant digits.

Reel Mower

Although lawn mowers call to mind the green grass oceans that surround modern suburban homes, the first one was patented in England in 1830 by Edwin Budding. Budding’s mower wasn’t driven by an internal combustion engine, of course; it was pushed along quietly, if effortfully, by the human operator. The cylindrical reel mower was displaced in the United States by the motorized rotary mower, part of the post-World War II crop of home-automation devices.

While the gasoline-powered mower is easier to push and cuts closer, it’s annoyingly noisy and generates bags of grass cuttings that are better left to mulch back into the lawn. It also belches pollution: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 5 percent of domestic air pollution comes from garden equipment powered by extremely inefficient two-stroke engines that burn both oil and gasoline. Another woe of the prevailing technology: A U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study reported 385,000 injuries from power mowers over a recent seven-year period, while reel mowers, although much less frequently used, caused no reported injuries at all during that time. Now re-engineered using more lightweight materials, reel mowers are making a quiet comeback; according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, sales of reel mowers in the past 15 years have more than doubled.

Automatic Watch

In 1780, Parisian watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet devised a timepiece that did not need to be wound; the everyday jostling of carrying the watch drove a pendulum that kept the watch running. This automatic watch was, in the words of modern-day poet David Slavitt, “a frugal wheel hoarding all human movement / for its own to spend at a jeweled leisure.” Early automatic watches, nestled in their owners’ watch pockets, didn’t get bounced around enough to work well. Only in the 1920s, when watches migrated to the more mobile wrist, did the automatic watch (also called “perpetual” or “self-winding”) become truly successful. One Swiss watchmaker, Rolex, became particularly well known by billing its watches as waterproof: Since the stem no longer needed to be used for winding, automatic watches were more resistant to water. The automatic watch did have to be worn daily in order to stay wound, but it was much less likely to wind down accidentally than earlier mechanical watches. It also kept time better, because the watch spring stayed at a rather consistent tension rather than winding down a great deal and then suddenly back up all the way.

Today, most people wear quartz battery-powered watches, which are accurate and can be made cheaply, but automatic watches are still successful in niche markets, including Rolex’s high-end market. Those mechanical watches that are still made today are largely automatic.


On May 6, 1937, as a stunned crowd looked on, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin’s majestic airship, the Hindenburg, exploded-a violent end for 36 human lives and also, since public faith in airships was destroyed, for a promising transportation technology. An earlier hard-shelled airship, the famous Graf Zeppelin (named for its inventor), could attain speeds of 130 kilometers per hour and in 1929 circumnavigated the globe in a record time of less than 22 days. Many dangers were associated with this transportation advance, though-the Hindenburg was only the most spectacular of numerous disasters.

While soft-sided blimps serve as flying billboards and camera platforms for sporting events, a German company, CargoLifter AG, plans to build an airship, the CL160, that could bear 160-ton loads across the ocean, which only boats might otherwise manage-buoyed by nonflammable helium, not the hydrogen that filled the Hindenburg. Plans call for a fleet of 50.

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