Tuesday 25 February 2020

Kodak Brownie Camera (1900)

Introduced February 1900

Photography these days is commonplace – we snap a photo with our smartphones and don’t give it a second thought. But early photographs were difficult, time-consuming and above all expensive to make.

By 1900 the science (or art) or photography had been around for half a century, and although it had become progressively easier and cheaper things were about to take a big leap forward with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera.

Priced at just one dollar at launch (about $31 today), the Brownie was a leatherette-covered cardboard box with a simple lens and a roll of film in the back. Cheap, lightweight and very easy to use the “Box Brownie” camera became a huge success. The improved Brownie 2 followed the next year (priced at $2) and this too sold in huge numbers. The real value of the Brownie to Kodak was not the camera itself, but the huge profits to be made from selling film and developing the photographs.

Box Brownies went on to document everything from family gatherings to wars. Simple to use, robust and portable – what they lacked in sophistication they made up for by being there at the right moment.  The Brownie spawned a huge range of similarly low-cost Kodak cameras over the following decades, and if you’ve ever owned a camera then you’ve probably owned a Kodak at some point.

Kodak’s business model of selling cameras cheaply and making money from the film sustained it for a hundred years, but by the end of the 20th Century digital cameras were making significant inroads into the market. Kodak tried hard to compete in this market, grabbing a decent share of the market… but it lost money on almost every camera it sold. Various other strategies were tried and largely failed, and finally the rise of high quality smartphone cameras proved a fatal blow. Kodak files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012, two years after the launch of Instagram which came up with a new paradigm for sharing photographs.

Despite its woes, Kodak still exists today although much slimmed down from the giant of the past. And Kodak Box Brownie cameras are still commonly available for not much money. Although nobody makes the film for the original Brownies any more, you can adapt current film for use in them if you are after a bit of retro photography.

Image credit: Federico Leva via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 14 February 2020

HTC Desire (2010)

HTC Desire
Launched February 2010

Android devices had only been around for less than a year and a half by the time Mobile World Congress came around in 2010, but during that time the platform had evolved rapidly from somewhat ropey beginnings.

Riding the crest of this particular wave was the HTC Desire – an Android 2.1 smartphone with a 3.7” SVGA display, 1GHz CPU and a 5 megapixel camera and… wait… yes, it might well seem familiar because the Desire was very closely related to the Google Nexus One launched the previous month.

The differences were minor – the Desire ditched the Nexus One’s trackball and had a much more usable optical trackpad, but conversely the Desire had physical function buttons instead of touch-sensitive ones. The Desire also had an FM radio (included in the Nexus hardware but disabled) and it used the HTC Sense UI on top of the underlying OS rather than the stock Android of the Nexus.

This whole combination of features was very appealing to potential customers, and because HTC already had an established relationship with mobile phone carriers it was simple enough to get your hands on a subsidised Desire on contract, where at launch the Nexus One was a rather expensive SIM-free affair.

The Desire was well-designed, the user experience was great and it was easy to get one. And although this combination doesn’t always guarantee success in this case it did, and the HTC Desire became the first Android phone for many people wanting to dip their toe in the smartphone world.

It had its problems – notably the original AMOLED display lacked sharpness which was fixed by a switch to S-LCD and over-the-air software updates dried up after just 18 months. Nonetheless it established HTC as the Android manufacturer to beat… however rivals Samsung had something up their sleeves when it came to that.

The “Desire” name stuck around – even if (like a lot of other HTC handsets) – it sounds a bit like a brand of condom. The most recent phone to bear the name is the HTC Desire 19s, launched in late 2019. Original HTC Desires (model HTC A8181) are commonly available for not very much money should you want to own a little slice of Android history.

Image credit: Retromobe and Mobile Gazette

Monday 3 February 2020

Lawn Mower (1830), Sewing Machine (1830), Dishwasher (1850), Vacuum Cleaner (1860) and Hair Dryer (1890)

In these days of home automation and snazzy gadgets, we don’t always realise that some of the things we use on a regular basis have their origins a surprisingly long time ago.

Let’s start with the lawn mower. The first one was invented in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding in Gloucestershire, UK. Pushed along by hand, the original lawn mower combined rotating blades and a roller which is pretty similar to the setup of a modern rotary lawnmower. Before this, grass had to be cut with a scythe which was both back-breaking work and also didn’t result in a very closely cut lawn. Although this still involved a fair bit of manual labour, the lawnmower could cut larger areas better and more quickly. Crucially, this enabled the creation of smooth sports pitches for games such as cricket or football too.

The same year saw the introduction of the first usable sewing machine, invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier in France, although other inventors had been working on their own versions for decades. Thimonnier’s machine used a needle with a barb which enabled a simple chain stitch to be created. The new invention was put to work in a factory making uniforms for the French army, however angry tailors destroyed the machines in 1831 because they were fearful for their jobs. Undeterred, other inventors continued to develop the idea and the within a few decades rival manufacturers fought it out in a thriving marketplace.

Although the lawn mower and sewing machine quickly developed into recognisable modern products. The first dishwasher – invented in 1850 by Joel Houghton in the US – took a rather longer time to develop into something practical. The first dishwasher was crank-operated and basically just splashed water on the dishes. It was the 1920s until dishwashers started to look anything like modern ones, and it was a century after Houghton’s invention that they started to be commonplace in more wealthy markets such as the United States.

A trio of "Green" lawnmowers from 1890 - functionally similar to the Budding device, a copy of Thimonnier's original sewing machine, hand-powered dishwasher from 1860

Vacuum cleaners had a similarly slow start. Perhaps the first recognisable device was invented by Daniel Hess of the United States in 1860. Combining a set of brushes and a bellows, Hess’s creation worked best if you had four arms. Nonetheless the idea evolved and got more usable, and by the beginning of the 20th Century the first recognisable and practical vacuum cleaners emerged.

Finally, another product that took a long time to become an everyday item was the hair dryer. The first commercial version was invented in France by Alexander Godefroy, it was basically a pipe connected to the chimney of a gas stove. The person having their hair dried had to sit next to the stove, and the whole thing sounds rather dangerous. By the 1920s hand-held electric hair dryers began to emerge, but they remained quite dangerous for a long time because electricity and water can be a lethal combination.

Model of Hess's vacuum cleaner, gas hair-dryer (date unknown)

Although labour-saving devices have certainly saved a lot of hard work in the home, some things remain resistant to automatic. Ironing for example. But it turns out that this particular tedious task may be done by machine too in the near future.

Image credits:
Green Lawnmower (1890) - Science Museum
Copy of Thimonnier's sewing machine (1930) – Science Museum 
Hand-powered dishwasher circa 1860 – Daderot via Wikimedia Commons
Model of Daniel Hess’s carpet sweeper (1860) - Underneaththesun via Wikimedia Commons
Gas Hairdryer – Alex Liivet via Flickr