Technology you used before it became wide-spread.

What stories do you have about getting your hands on some gadget before they were widely available?

For me: a laser pointer and a GPS.

Way back in the very early 80’s my dad was presenting a seminar at the local university that went for a few days. While he was there they let him have one of their laser pointers to use and he brought it home for a few nights.

Holy cow was that cool. I was maybe 8 at the time and lasers were things from science fiction.

OK, it was big and a bit unweildy, had a large transformer that you had to plug into the mains power and was made of bright yellow plastic covered in warning stickers but it was a laser!. Only had it for a little while but it was tons of fun to play with (and apparently cost several hundred dollars at the time).

Go forward a few years to 1987 and it was my first encounter with a GPS, this one from the geological survey that dad brought along on a camping trip - it was work related, he was going on a survey into central Australia & needed to know how to use it. Again bright yellow, about the size of one of those 1980’ cell phones, with a folding antenna and a small LCD screen.

IIRC there were only about 9 or 10 satellites up at the time so getting a fix took a long time and it only gave lat/long (and elevation if you were very lucky) that you then had to translate to a printed map. But again, holy cow! using satellites to tell me where I was - it’s the space age!

Sure now lasers and GPS are pedestrian, but once they were the coolest thing ever for a kid who grew up on Star Wars to use.

I joined facebook in fall of 2004 when there were less than a million users and only college students could join. The idea that it could bring down governments never occurred to anyone. At the time I just used it to collaborate on homework and read up on classmates.

The web. I was introduced to it by a friend who had downloaded source code and compiled an alpha release of Mosaic while it was still in development, and after some trial and error, I was browsing the web when there were no more than a few thousand websites in existence.

I remember trying to demo it to other friends and family, telling them how great and neat this new technology was going to be. The reaction was almost universally a polite “meh. But what can you doooooooooo with it?” One friend of mine now who is CEO of her own IT company which works exclusively in high-end web development was one of those early doubters: “It’s stupid. It looks like something only geeks would use.” I love to remind her of that. :cool:

Shortly after I got a browser working, I downloaded the source code to an http daemon and became the first person I personally knew who had a web server. Those were days of the wild west on the web, when anything was possible and the future seemed a lot cooler than malware, pop-up ads, and billions of inane corporate webpages all put together by sloppy-assed canned packages. I looked at the source of a web page which was little more than a “hello, world” page, which was 8k+ of CSS, javascript, and other crap I can actually only guess at, nowadays being a web programming ignoramus.

But once, I was on the edge of the tech.

Email in 1981, while I was an undergrad. I have a vague recollection of sending an email abroad, via the ARPANet/EARN gateway - or maybe I just heard about the possibility. I did use email to communicate with the grad student who was the boss on my senior project. I worked the occasional day and he worked nights. Email let us collaborate very effectively!

I remember working on a remote terminal one building over from the building with the mini-computer. Since they were slow close the connection was hard-wired at 2400 baud. I said at the time that was as fast as I’d ever need, since the page displayed faster than I could read it. That was plain text only, once graphics displays came along I was wrong.

My room-mate at the time used an early laser printer sort of thing (to produce the manual for his senior computing project. The brand name Versatec - I don’t recall the technology. It might have been an “original-less” photocopier. Instead of selectively discharging the drum based on reflected light from a paper original, this might have used an electron gun driven by a computer based on the virtual page image in memory. In ant case, “desktop publishing” was way cool in '81. The pages looked great, and each page inly took 5 minutes or so to print!

This might be considered cheating but…

Handheld computing, I knew this was a winner since the days of the Toshiba Libretto(once the smallest laptop made at the side of a VHS cassette when closed) and wondered when the world would figure out what a winner it was.

People used to say it looked so dorky!

The first portable mp3 player I bought had a capacity of 64 or 128 MB - I forget which. It could hold maybe a dozen songs at a time. It came with software to allow you to reencode your mp3s to a lower bitrate so you could fit more on.

In '93 I bought a “compact computer”: a desktop computer but one for which a single item doubled as “tower” and LCD monitor, you plugged peripherics into it like you would into any other tower. I can’t remember the exact wording, but my then-boyfriend claimed that LCD screens would never be any good and that nobody would ever want to buy a computer that was its own monitor.

Apparently those people making half the computers my local MediaMarkt now sells never paid attention to him. Or the ones making most of the TVs.


I had a cellphone before they were common. I can remember making a call and having people watching.

I used a word processor before they were computerized–or least, before they were electromagnetic.

Back in 1990, we had one of the early Canon Color Laser Copiers. Today, color copying is self-serve, walk-up and more often than not, built into all but the cheapest home printers. Back then, not a chance.

It was a throwback to the old days of the Xerox Room and Key Operators. If you just slapped something on the glass and hit Copy, you’d probably get an ugly mess. The early CLCs needed a dedicated operator with a skilled eye to tweak the settings for each original to get good results.

Oh, we also had the Fiery RIP! This was a dedicated computer that plugged into the copier that would allow us to input a Postscript file. Eureka! For a mere $65,000 or so, we had a fairly slow and low-res color laser printer. It’s fitting that the photo is as low-res as the machine itself, but for 30 years ago, it was magical.

From 1981 to 1984, I was working jointly with a man at Case Western. Mail between Montreal and Cleveland took 14 days (no exaggeration–even special delivery took 7) and we discovered datalinks (Tymenet in the US, which connected to Datapac in Canada) that allowed him to sign on to my account on the mainframe. After 1984 we used email (bitnet) and things got a lot easier.

Our first book was published using a beta release of latex in 1984, a year before latex was officially released and may have been the earliest publication using it.

I owned a PC in early 1982, about seven months after it was released.

Car phone. Not cell phone. Radiotelephonethat you had to have a license for. I was a ham as a kid, and this and CB use came from there.

Sony Walkman - cassette I bought one in Germany? in about 1979 or so. People in the states couldn’t get one yet. Their jealousy was so sweet!

Palm Pilot. From the time I saw one, I told my wife that everyone would be carrying their entire life on one of these in the future. I even bought a snap-on camerathat let you take digital pictures! On a PDA! Handwriting entry, megabytes of memory! In your hand!

Portable calculator. My dad worked for Burroughs in the 60’s and 70’s and he was always bringing home the latest gadgets from the computer world. I had a handheld calculator in 6th grade in 1974!

ABS canoe. Got one of the first Blue Hole canoes made from Royalex in 1974. Common material now, but everything before was wood or aluminum. You could bend and scrape the hell out of this thing and never damage it.

Ultralight aircraft. I got a Quicksilver when they came out in 1981. If I had a dollar for everyone who pointed or asked me what the hell it was, I could buy Miami.

A beeper! Someone could call it, enter a number for you to call, and you could find a payphone and call them! Early adopter.

Pocket clip knife. Thumbhole opening. Spyderco made the first knife with either or both. I’ve carried one since 1982.
What can I say? I’m a cutting edge guy!

I had a Rocket ebook back in 1998, as an anniversary gift. I remember being flown to a job interview in '99, and being interrupted by every waitress and flight attendant to ask what I was reading from. My brother-in-law put me up for the night, and I was glad I had it to use as a flashlight at night.
I also had an early word processor that used thermal paper, somewhere in the early 90s. I remember banging out a resume on it.

Despite being a serious computer geek, I don’t get excited by the latest gizmo and jump on any bandwagons. But certain things were unavoidable.

I was using email so long ago …, plus very early on Usenet when it had the original newsgroup organization (so I was using a message-board type system a long time ago). Surfing the web using Lynx before Mosaic was released. Things like that.

I was an early adopter of stereo (MTS) for TV though. Only one channel had it OTA in our area at the time: PBS.

Personal computers, and the internet.

My dad is a nerd, and one of his good friends owned the local Radio Shack. We had one of the first TRS-80s around 1977, back when programs were loaded on it using cassette tapes (we subscribed to a “magazine” called “C:LOAD” which was delivered on a cassette and which contained a few programs you could load (naturally it had no hard drive so you had to reload them each time you turned the computer back on–our TRS-80 was an “advanced” Model 2 version: it had 16K of RAM instead of the 4K of the Model I)).

As for the internet, we had a subscription to something called “The Source” back in the late 70s, which allowed us to dial up on our 1200 baud modem (this was the one where you physically took the phone receiver and put it in the holder on the modem). There were discussion groups and I believe there was rudimentary email. I didn’t get to use it much, though, because it was like $10.00 an hour and I was a kid. You got like 2 free hours when you signed up, so my dad let me use some of that. Needless to say, my flirtation with the internet back in those days didn’t last long.

I ran into several things that were either available to a small group of people, or were available to everyone, yet very new, unusual and expensive, so most people would not be familiar with them at all at the time.

Around 1972-1973, I was taking drafting in college. We had access to a single computer terminal in one room that was connected to the main computer upstairs, which occupied much of the first floor. This terminal was used to do some fancy math calculations, but nothing that a $5 throw-away calculator can’t do today.

But I never used that setup. Our department had amazing little hand-held portable calculators to do math on. They used tiny red LED letters - the first time I had ever seen an LED. The drafting department only got two of them, and they guarded them well. The schools price on them was about $600 each, and that was 72-73 dollars.

In the mid-1970s, a friend of mine worked at a company that built early business computers. A computer (basically a desk built around a computer) was left behind in his office and forgotten.

We used to play Star Trek on it. This is the version done on a tiny B&W CRT where the Enterprise was an “E”, the Klingons were “K” and the starts were asteriks. The program was stored on a platter maybe a foot in diameter, mounted inside a heavy plastic cartridge that fit into the drive, which took up an entire drawer of the computer. It took about 12 minutes to load the program into the computer, but it was SO NEAT!!!

Sometime in the late 1970s, you could buy VHS video recorders, but they were expensive, so few people had them. I went in half with my parents and bought a Quasar. It was a top-load VHS unit, but I think they were all top-load at that time. At the local discount electronics store, it cost $1000. It had little aqua LED lights on the front for a clock and the timer. The same unit without the timer was ONLY $600. Blank VHS tapes cost $16-$17 each.
But I could record TV!

I still have it, though I haven’t used it in years. Weights a ton and sounds like it is bending metal when you load it up.
I wonder if it’s collectable.

In the late 1980s I was building PC based multi-media training systems. Ethernet was 10 Mbps, JPEG and MPEG standards did not exist. A 470 MByte hard drive was a full height 5.5" monstrosity and you had to have special patches so DOS could see it. Video (NTSC composite) came off a huge video laser disk, controlled via RS-232 serial port, Sound was an add-on soundblaster board, and I had to design an amplifier that wouldn’t pick up all the digital noise from the system. Another special board did graphics overlays onto the video, so you could highlight things and add text, etc. We had a proprietary network that sent audio and RGB around a classroom, and I had to convert EGA (2 bits per color, each on their own wire) to analog RGB. We would use extender boards to stuff as many as 10 ISA boards into a PC, and would have to add fans to the case to keep it from overheating. Good times. Trivial to do today, most websites do what it took herculean effort to do then.

After that I worked on some early near Gigabit/s networking stuff. IIRC it took 24 parallel data channels with ECL buffers to do that. ~4" wide ribbon cables, and there was one for each direction. Places that had CRAYs needed to move data in and out of workstations, and boy did they pay for it. HIPPI it was called. We built EISA boards for PCs, and switches. Gigabit Ethernet is now cheap and ubiquitous.

I was the first person in my elementary school to have a digital watch, and the first person in my peer group in high school to have a Sony Walkman.

I used instant messaging, email, bulletin boards, interactive multi-player games and multi-user dungeons all in 1974, 1975 on PLATO.