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Science, Maths & Technology

Techno-flops

Updated Monday 21st September 2009

As technology continues to progress at speed, Ian Johnston reminds us of some of the techno-flops of the past

Technological progress is a ruthless business and the road is littered with must-have gadgets that fell by the wayside. Let's take a look at some of the false starts and the factors that led to obsolescence.

Instant cameras – The iconic Polaroid SX-70 came out in 1972. It was the first really useable instant camera with prints that developed as you looked at them rather than having to hold under your arm and peel apart. That was when Polaroid took off, but it went bankrupt in 2001 as digital cameras took off.

Digital watches – In the 70s everyone wore a newfangled digital watch. But not for long. In 1979 Douglas Adams wrote about lifeforms so primitive they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. They didn’t win on function, just on being new and different. Digital watches never took over as everybody thought they would. Ultimately they were a failure because you had to fiddle with little buttons and work out what time 19:56 is.

Sandwich toaster – Sandwich toasters were introduced by Breville in 1974 and soon found their way to the back of the kitchen cupboard, where they reside to this day. It was an interesting development because it was dependent on Teflon. It was new, exciting but only does one thing. And once you’ve done that a few times it loses its appeal. Unless you’re a student.

A sandwich toaster [image by Nomad Tales, some rights reserved] Creative commons image Icon by Nomad Tales, some rights reserved under Creative-Commons license
A sandwich toaster.
 

VCR – We think of video recorders as technological winners because every 1980s home had one. But whether VHS or Betamax, video cassettes were ultimately too complicated to survive. Long term they are losers because the technology required to read a video cassette is more complex than that required to read a CD or DVD – which may lose out to solid state storage.

Sinclair C5 – History has not been kind to Sir Clive Sinclair’s C5. The notorious mid-80s electric runaround has become a byword for failed technology. But why? It was neither meat nor fish nor fowl. It was too small and slow compared to cars but too bulky compared to bikes. It didn’t have the range either. If the world was full of things about the size of the Sinclair C5, it would have caught on. But it was a not very visible or fast vehicle and it wouldn’t go far.

Fax machines – Once a vital business tool, the fax machine is now largely redundant in the workplace. They took off in the 80s, largely driven by Japanese script. There are more than 10,000 basic characters in Japanese so typewriting is almost impossible and they needed a way to send handwritten messages. It has been overtaken by the relentless spread of English and computer things like Unicode which allows much more complicated emails.

Pagers – Before the mobile phone became a status symbol sometime in the mid-90s, a pager told the world how important you were. Clipped to the belts of doctors and executives, these matchbox-sized electronic devices relayed simple messages to their wearers. Pagers had all the appeal of text messaging but you couldn’t send messages. As soon as cellphones’ SMS allowed you to send, paging just collapsed and died.

Minidiscs – The Sony Minidisc and its late-90s rival the Philips Digital Compact Cassette stored compressed music but both lost out to MP3 players. They lost out to more robust technologies. What the Minidisc is up against is either solid state storage which has no moving parts and is therefore easy and reliable, or things like the iPod which is nice and sealed.

Rabbit phone – A very limited mobile handset introduced in 1992 which succumbed to marketplace myxomatosis and disappeared within a year. It was like having a cordless phone in your house but with base stations around shopping centres and train stations so you could make calls but not receive them. Completely pointless. But in a sense the idea is coming back with BT Home Hub and Fusion – a home phone that works like a cellphone when you go out.

Rabbit mobile phone Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jmb, some rights reserved.
The Rabbit Phone.
[image © copyright Jmb, some rights reserved]

BSB satellite TV – The British Satellite Broadcasting ‘Squarial’ proved a failure from the outset and by 1990 had brought down an entire company. It was the failure that never even succeeded temporarily. They used a different satellite to Sky and thought they could get by with a smaller dish with a cunning square aerial. But the elements had to be precisely spaced and they never managed to make them precisely enough.

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