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Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year: 1960


The New Year is usually the time to look forward, make those resolutions, vow to do better.  I thought I would take a look back in time fifty years, to 1960, and see what has changed.  Of course, the answer is "a lot", but I have forgotten just how pervasive the changes have been. Here are some things that come my mind.  If you have others to add, drop me a comment.

In 1960....

- Television was analog, black-and-white, and came in through your antenna.
- Telephones were owned by AT&T, were mostly black, and still had rotary dials.
- Cars had no seat belts, shoulder harnesses, air bags, or other collision safety features.
- Tires were bias-belted, not radial, and lasted about a third as long.
- Airliners were almost all propeller-driven.
- We still had not put a person in space, let alone on the moon.
- The only computers that existed filled large rooms and were tended by special gurus.
- Cameras still used film which was predominantly black-and-white.
- Home record players and televisions were built with vacuum tubes.
- 45 RPM records were the rage for hit rock-and-roll songs.
- 33 PM Long-playing records were just coming on the scene.
- Automobiles had carburetors, mechanical ignitions, and needed frequent tune-ups.
- Long distance phone calls were an infrequent event and reserved for special events.
- Phoning someone when away from home required a pay phone, found in a phone booth.
- Gasoline cost about 35 cents a gallon.
- Plastic was just coming into its own as a material for consumer products.
- Flying from New York to Paris on a 707 required a fuel stop in Gander, Newfoundland.
- The Interstate Highway system had only been underway for a little over five years.
- Engineers did complex calculations with slide rules and mechanical calculators.
- Shoe store fluoroscopes that allowed you to see how shoes fit had just been banned.
- Doctors were routinely shown smoking in cigarette commercials.
- Just about everything that was in a bottle came in one made of glass.
- Dishwashers in the home were still very uncommon.
- Many women sewed a portion of their families' clothing on a home sewing machine.
- Milk was still delivered to the home by milkmen.
- The U.S. launched its first weather satellite in 1960.

You get the idea.  Of course, the equally interesting list is what wasn't around.  There were no:

- cellphones
- mp3 players
- video cameras
- home vcr or dvd players
- microwave ovens
- personal computers
- internet or worldwide web
- e-mail
- stereophonic music systems
- lasers
- LED or LCD anything
- high speed (bullet) trains
- catalytic converters for cars
- anti-lock brakes
- intermittent windshield wipers
- video games
- car navigation systems

The theme that runs through most of these items is the importance of solid-state electronics. Our world has been fundamentally remade on silicon.  While not a new observation, it does show how pervasive and powerful one technology concept, the microchip, can be.  I wouldn't be writing this on my laptop and posting it on my blog without it.

But the electronics revolution is only one part of a larger theme:  a materials revolution.  Not only did the last fifty years bring silicon and all its derivatives, but t also brought polymers and plastics which have had an almost equally large impact.  It brought fiber optic filaments which allowed the world to be wired with high-speed networks based on laser pulses (also a silicon technology).

Materials technology is down there at the ground level of invention and innovation.  That is why there is so much hype about nanomaterials.  These promise to unleash another wave of innovation.  Whether they do so remains to be seen.  Maybe the collateral risks to our health and environment will knock them out in their infancy.  Further out is the promise of materials engineering through biotechnology.

It is fun to think for a minute about what the lists for 2060 will be.  It seems quite certain that someone looking back to today will think of us as hopelessly antiquated.  Kids will wonder how anyone could have even survived in those backward days.  Happy New Year from the Good Old Days of 2010.

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