Saturday 30 September 2017

Photostat Machine (1907)

Launched 1907

Ever since humans invented writing, there has been a need to duplicate what has been written. From monks toiling away duplicating manuscripts through the printing press in the 15th century and to the invention of reliable carbon paper in the late 1800s, this had always been something of an effort.

As the industrial revolution drove economies forward, being able to copy legal agreements, contracts, drawings and notes became more of an issue. Although all sorts of technologies existed for making multiple copies of something when they were being prepared (for example, carbon sheets in a typewriter or using a duplicating machine) if you wanted to copy an existing document then you were out of luck, and in all probability it would need to be copied by hand which was really just the same thing those monks had been doing.

The development of photography in the 19th century brought new technologies to bear, and in 1907 the first Photostat machine was launched. Simply put, the Photostat was a type of camera, but instead of projecting the image of whatever was wanted onto a film, it projected it via a lens and prism onto photosensitive paper.

The catch was that this process produced a negative image of whatever was being copied, which was fixed by inserting the first copy back into the Photostat and producing a negative of the negative (i.e positive) version.

These days we are used to digital photocopiers producing near-perfect copies of whatever we want, but the quality from a Photostat machine was not great. And if you copied a copy... well, it would become unreadable pretty quickly. Nonetheless it meant that if you had the original document, then you could produce readable, accurate and relatively inexpensive copies in a few minutes.

The machines were not cheap, coming in at about $500 in 1911 (around $10,000 today) with costs-per-page being about 6¢ (around $1 today). They were also bulky and required a trained operator to use them, but they were a huge improvement over what went before.

The commercialisation of xerography in the 1950s killed off the Photostat for good and formed the basis of almost all modern copiers and laser printers. But that is a story for another day.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday 21 September 2017

SPAM (1937)

SPAM in a can
Launched 1937

Way before email spam, text message spam, search engine spam and almost any other kind of spam you could think of was the tinned meat SPAM, launched in 1937.

A technological marvel of its time, SPAM was precooked and shelf stable, meaning that it didn’t require refrigeration. The cuboid tin meant that it was easy to ship in bulk, and SPAM ended up being a worldwide success. But what is it exactly?

The meaning of the word “SPAM” is a trade secret, but is possibly some combination of “Pork” (the main ingredient) and “hAM” (which comes ways down the list). Hormel foods used the unpopular pork shoulder cut and added starch, water, salt, ham, sugar, flavourings and other additives to create a food that people either seem to love or hate.

SPAM found a particular niche during the Second World War with millions of tins being shipped out to allied troops and civilians. Today, over 400 million cans of SPAM are sold each year, which is almost enough to circle the earth. Hugely popular in US territories in the Pacific and Puerto Rico, SPAM has also found a niche elsewhere in the Pacific Rim and also the United Kingdom. The product is sold in 44 counties worldwide in 15 different varieties.

SPAM varieties
For real SPAM lovers there is even a SPAM museum. But not everyone is a SPAM fan, and in the classic form it is quite high in sodium and fat, however low-fat and reduced sodium varieties are also available plus many other types. There’s a version of SPAM made from turkey, one with bacon, various spicy versions, smoked SPAM, cheesy SPAM, garlic SPAM and even teriyaki SPAM to use in sashimi. If you don’t want it sliced, you can have it in a spread too.

For good or bad, SPAM helped to change the way that food ended up with consumers. In some parts of the world, SPAM fundamentally changed diets… also for good or bad. Increasingly consumers began to demand more and more convenience when it came to foodstuffs, and SPAM helped to pioneer that change.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Pot Noodle (1977)

Pot Noodles in the wild, 2017
Introduced 1977

A familiar snack food for students and bedsit dwellers, the Pot Noodle range was launched in the UK in 1977 and quickly became a popular and somewhat notorious product.

Instant noodles were invented in Japan in the 1950s with the Nissin Chikin Ramen. The same company then imported instant noodles in a cup in the the US in the early 1970s. This phenomenon had been spotted by Golden Wonder, who then introduced a version of it into the UK in 1977.

Preparation is simple enough. Boil a kettle, pour it in, wait a few minutes and stir. Sometimes there is a sauce packet to add. There's a tendency for the noodles to be high in fat and salt, and of course you shouldn't eat them all the time… nonetheless, the Pot Noodle did really open up new culinary adventures if all you had was a kettle.

Advertisements over the years ranged from the tame to the highly controversial, but they helped to make the Pot Noodle a rather laddish cult product. Although Golden Wonder sold the brand off years ago, they are still available today and retail for around £1 per pot. Although vintage Pot Noodles aren't really a thing, there's a lively trade in collectable spinning forks and matching mugs to go with your secret noodle obsession if you so desire.

Thursday 14 September 2017

Atari VCS / 2600 (1977)

Launched September 1977

1977 was the dawn of home computing, with the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80 Model I all being launched within months of each other. But another early computing pioneer also found success in the same year, and that was Atari.

Launched in September 1977, the Atari Video Computer System (“VCS”) was an early second generation console that came after the 1970s wave of single purpose games machines that could typically play Pong and nothing else. Based around a cut-down version of the 6502 CPU called the 6507, the Atari VCS was designed from the start to be a highly flexible system that could play a wide variety of games.

Atari VCS "Heavy Sixer" (1977)

One key thing that made the VCS easy to use was the cartridge system. Instead of struggling to load a game from tape or splashing out on a very expensive floppy disk drive, the VCS loaded in games from cartridges instead. Although it wasn’t the first cartridge console on the market, the VCS was the first one to be a real success.

Games included the ubiquitous Pong, Space Invaders, Breakout, Pitfall, Centipede, Defender and later on a poorly received version of Pac-Man and the infamous E.T. Despite the VCS’s fairly crude colour graphics and sound and the relatively high price of the cartridges themselves, the VCS and many of its games went on to sell in huge numbers.

Atari 2600 ad (1982)
Priced at just $199 at launch, including a game and two joysticks, the VCS represented impressive value for money. Cartridges were relatively expensive, typically coming in at $20 or more. However the cartridges were easy to use… and crucially for Atari, almost impossible to pirate.

The original VCS models were made in Sunnyvale, California and are known as “heavy sixers” because they have six switches on the top and a more solid construction than the later “light sixers” built in Hong Kong. Further revisions followed, with the fake wood panel surviving until 1982, but the VCS name was changed to 2600 in 1980. In one form or another, the VCS / 2600 remained in production until 1992, giving the console a staggering 15 year run with almost unchanged hardware, selling 30 million units in the US alone.

Despite ending production, the VCS / 2600 remained popular, and in 2004 a modern interpretation was made called the Atari Flashback which is currently in its eighth generation. A top-of-the-range Flashback with an HDMI connector and a huge number of games costs around €170, an original 2600 console can cost from next to nothing up to several hundred euro depending on exact model, condition and bundled games with consoles quite commonly available.

In 1983 a crash in the video games market led to Atari being sold by its then parent company, Warner Communications, and it split into two. On part of it was bought by Jack Tramiel (who founded rivals Commodore) and which later went on to make home computers including the Atari ST. The company’s name and assets have changed hands many times over the years, but “Atari” still exists as a gaming brand today.

Image credits:

Saturday 9 September 2017

Nokia Lumia 920 (2012)

Nokia Lumia 920
Announced September 2012

By September 2012, Nokia had been in the Windows Phone business for just under a year, starting off with the Lumia 800 in October 2011 and then the bigger Lumia 900 in February 2012. Neither device was really successful, despite having their charms and the goodwill of an army of Nokia fans.

Although Windows Phone 7 and 8 had been well-received by critics, customers were not so keen and there was a general shortage of good applications. Well, Nokia was stuck with that problem whatever they did... but the other problem that the Lumia 800 and 900 had was that the technical specifications really weren’t up to much either.

The Nokia Lumia 920 addressed the hardware at least – here was a phone that made no compromises when it came to features and it could easily hold its own against the flagship devices of rivals.

Firstly there was the look of the thing – elegantly minimalist and housed in a variety of brightly-coloured thermoplastics, the physical design actually complemented the minimalist design of the operating system very well. A big, bright 4.5” 768 x 1280 pixel display dwarfed that of the iPhone and on the back was an optical image stabilised 8.7 megapixel PureView camera with Carl Zeiss optics, capable of full HD video capture. The camera itself caused quite a stir due to its advanced capabilities.

Mmmm... yellow.
Added to this was wireless charging, support for 4G LTE data, a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU with 1GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash storage and all the other features any high-end smartphone from the time would have. At 185 grams in weight the Lumia 920 was quite heavy, but it gave the whole thing a feeling of quality.

Windows Phone 8 was easy to use, integrated well with companies running on a Microsoft platform and Nokia threw in some useful apps of its own such as turn-by-turn navigation and a free music service. However, beyond that apps looked a bit scarce – not least because Windows 8 was built around a different core from Windows 7 meaning most apps had to be reworked.

In hardware terms Nokia had finally come up with a device that needed no excuses making for it, and which was just as good as, or better than the competition in most major respects. It was a relative success for Nokia and was the best-selling Lumia device to date. Even so, Nokia only managed to shift 4.4 million Lumia handsets in Q4 2012 while Apple shipped 47.8 million iPhones of all models in the same period. Despite giving it their best shot, the Lumia 920 was ultimately not the breakthrough device that Nokia desperately needed.

Thursday 7 September 2017

Apple iPhone 5 (2012)

Apple iPhone 5 (White/Silver)
Announced September 2012

Half a decade after the original iPhone, Apple announced the iPhone 5. The sixth version of this highly popular device, the 5 was an evolution of the second-generation iPhone 4 and 4S phones.

The launch of the 5 came when Apple’s competitors were beginning to pull ahead of Apple in terms of specifications, particularly when it came to screen size. For example, the rival Samsung Galaxy S III had a 4.8” display that completely dwarfed the 3.5” panel on the iPhone 4S. Indeed, even low-end rivals had bigger displays and it was becoming clear that a lot of customers wanted exactly that.

Of course the obvious solution was to make the phone bigger, but there was resistance from Apple management (reportedly Steve Jobs) in following Samsung’s lead with larger devices with each generation. Instead a design compromise was made, and the iPhone 5 fitted in a larger 4.0” screen by making the device taller. Adding 9mm to the height gave an extra half inch on the display (and yes, that IS a horrible mix of metric and imperial units).

The advantage was primarily that the iPhone 5 felt pretty similar in the hand, but because Apple also changed the connector on the bottom at the same time, you couldn’t easily dock the 5 in peripherals designed to hold the 4 and 4S.

A switch in materials from steel to aluminium made the iPhone 5 much lighter, and of course the 5 was faster than its predecessors and heralded a new version of the iOS operating system too. On the downside, the new Apple Maps application included with the phone was truly terrible and the paint on the devices was prone to scuffing and chipping.

Apple iPhone 5 (Black/Slate)
Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the iPhone 5 was a massive success, although it only had a run of one year before being replaced with the popular iPhone 5S and the unpopular iPhone 5C. The 5S continued in production until 2016, and Apple recognised that many customers very much enjoyed the more compact design of the 5 over their newer and larger smartphones, launching the iPhone SE in 2016 with an almost identical form factor.

Software support for the iPhone 5 (and almost identical iPhone 5C) ended in July this year, so their usefulness is somewhat limited. Prices are currently around €100 for a unit in good condition, or alternatively the equally compact but much more capable iPhone SE starts at around €480.

Image credit: Apple