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Ten Technologies That Refuse to Die

From typewriters to vacuum tubes, these 10 technologies aren’t as obsolete as you might think.
February 1, 2004

In technology, as in biology, we like to imagine evolution proceeding onward and upward. As new species and technologies appear, their primitive ancestors drop by the wayside, right? Not exactly. Mammals, birds, and flowering plants-all relatively recent innovations-might seem to rule the earth today. But far older designs, from barnacles to crocodiles, are doing just fine in their respective niches, thank you. New species don’t always evolve to replace old ones; they also fill vacant niches, which in turn can actually solidify the standing of older species. So it is with technology.

Paper and bytes are the classic example. In the early 1980s, at the dawn of the PC age, high-volume electronic storage and transmission-360-kilobyte floppy disks! 14-kilobit-per-second modems!-were supposed to make paper superfluous and forests safe. Hah. Electronic data just begat more paper copies. Writers who used to carefully mark corrections on pecked-out manuscripts began printing out one revised version after another. Web surfers started printing out whatever looked interesting. Having data on-screen didn’t stop people from wanting to read it, share it, and store it on paper.

Like paper, the 10 technologies that follow have seemingly been surpassed and superseded at one time or other, written off as road kill on the highway of progress. But reports of their demise have proved greatly exaggerated. All have survived, and some have thrived, in their supposed obsolescence-not as cult artifacts (everything from buggy whips to eight-tracks has its fans and collectors), but because they fill real needs that their more sophisticated successors don’t.

Consider these venerable survivors in the pages ahead.

Analog watches Compared to today’s digital timepieces, old-fashioned, sweep-hand watches are pathetic one-trick ponies. Digital-watch wearers can check temperature, altitude, and the time in Tokyo, play tunes and games, and send messages. Can wristwatch videoconferencing, Web surfing, and tarot readings be far off? But what digital watches can’t do, according to sweep-hand proponents, is display the time and context as elegantly and intuitively as an analog model. Children often start out with the digital bells and whistles, then graduate to a sweep hand; then finally, perhaps, they dispense with electronics altogether and acquire an all-mechanical, high-end trophy watch-sales of which have grown dramatically in recent years. In the end, how a device performs its essential job matters more than its extra functions.

Dot-matrix printers Time was, back in the 1980s, that the clickety-click of dot matrix was the sound of progress. Now it’s just a memory for most PC users, who want ink-jet or laser printers to churn out family photos and fancy letterheads. But just as dinosaurs evolved into birds-so the theory goes-dot matrix has gotten a jazzier name (“impact printing”) and survived as an industrial tool rather than a consumer toy. For accounting firms, banks, and pharmacies with reams of data to print out (and for whom speed, reliability, and economy actually count for more than looks), dot-matrix-er, impact-printing still works. Small wonder: today’s impact rigs can print up to 2,000 lines a minute, over 500,000 pages a month, for less than a fifth of a cent per page-versus one cent per page and up for ink-jet and laser printers. Epson still offers 12 models, while Okidata advertises 36.

Typewriters These original impact printers seem as remote as quills to the generation nursed on PCs. But they too have confounded expectations: in 2002, Americans bought 434,000 word processors and electronic typewriters, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Even manual machines hold their niche. Olympia and Olivetti still make classic machines. Consider the advantages: no viruses to catch, no hard drives or software to get corrupted, no batteries to run down. Typewriters do one thing computers can’t-fill out printed forms-and are faster at addressing envelopes and other one-shot jobs that usually don’t entail revisions. Affection and habit also sustain old machines. One Seattle typewriter repairman says that aging writers who “prefer simplicity and don’t want to learn computers” are what keep him in business. And you needn’t worry about your system going obsolete if it already is.

Broadcast radio This medium was declared D.O.A. after commercial television stormed the scene in the late 1940s. TV stole radio’s top shows, national sponsors, and central place in the home. But this erstwhile dinosaur was quickly repositioned to exploit the next decade’s social and technological changes. Portability was key: transistors and cars made radio the mobile medium of an increasingly mobile society. Suburbs, superhighways, and longer commutes provided a vast captive audience. Mass-market youth culture, disc jockeys, and, later, talk jocks opened new franchises. With TV glomming the national market and local newspapers folding in droves, radio became a more local medium, airing hometown news, sports, weather, and traffic reports. Now, ownership consolidation and cookie-cutter programming are reversing that trend; and mobile-Internet games, MP3s, and instant messaging threaten radio’s franchise as the real-time, go-anywhere companion. But hey, radio has been pronounced obsolete before.

Pagers The teens who made these devices essential fashion accessories in the early ’90s graduated to cell phones, and even RadioShack stopped selling them. But pager sales rose in 2002, contrary to industry expectations. Some institutions still rely heavily on pagers: police departments, whose officers’ hands and gun belts are often too full for cell phones; hospitals, where cell-phone signals would interfere with diagnostic equipment; and schools, which can’t readily afford cellular service. And pagers still beat cell phones in some ways. They’re cheaper, with no roaming charges. They need far fewer transmitters than cell phones but still provide better coverage, so they work in the dead spots between local “cells.” And pagers tend not to jam up in emergencies the way overloaded cells may. Best of all, they are far less likely to make you crash your car or turn you into a yakking boor. And now, two-way text messaging makes them a plausible alternative to phones.

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.

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