History: September 4, 1888: 10 Revolutionary Products That Are Now Obsolete

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A Brief History

On September 4, 1888, George Eastman patented the first camera that used rolls of film and with it, the trade name Kodak.  For the next 100+ years this was the way we took photographs, until digital photography has made film cameras all but obsolete.  Many products that were marvels in their day have become obsolete within a matter of decades, or within 100 years or so.  Here we list 10 triumphs of technology that (relatively) quickly became obsolete.  What items would you include on the list?

Digging Deeper

10. Roll Film Camera, 1888-1988.

When the first successful digital camera was developed by Fuji (the DS-1P, 1988) the day of the film camera was clearly on the way out.  The rolls of film that revolutionized photography and the Kodak cameras that made photography something the common person could engage in have not only been replaced by digital cameras, but also by all the other electronic devices (such as cell phones) that have digital cameras built in.

9.  Percussion Cap 1820-1860’s.

After the flintlock ignition system of operating firearms had ruled for about 200 years or more, the percussion cap gave gunners a more weather resistant and more reliable method of firing their guns, not to mention making the loading process faster for military applications.  The percussion form of firearm ignition technology turned out to be the shortest run of any of the ignition technologies used with firearms so far, as the (mostly) muzzle loading percussion capped guns were replaced by breech loading firearms that used self contained metallic cartridges that became state of the art during the American Civil War.

8.  Word Processor 1960-1990’s.

What seemed like an amazing and useful replacement for the typewriter, the word processor was kind of like a typewriter with a memory so that corrections could be made electronically without having to smudge up paper with erasers or Wite Out.  Making multiple copies of a document also became tremendously easier and neater than using carbon paper or early photo-copiers.  The advent of the Internet and promulgation of the personal and office computer in the 1990’s turned all these word processing machines into dinosaurs after only a few decades of use.

7.  Gatling Gun 1862-1883.

Patented in 1862 and seeing limited action during the American Civil War, the gun was a marvel for its day, capable of firing about 200 rounds per minute as long as someone kept putting ammo in the hopper.  In 1883 Hiram Maxim patented his real machine gun (that did not rely on hand cranked power and could pump out 600 rounds per minute) and the Gatling Gun was basically obsolete after ruling the world of rapid fire for only 21 years.  Still, the US and other militaries kept some Gatling Guns in service until 1911.  The Gatling Gun got something of a reprieve and rebirth in the 1950’s when the US military came up with electric powered versions of Gatling Guns firing as many as 6000 rounds per minute!

6.  Video Tape, 1951.

First demonstrated to the world in 1951, the use of magnetic tape to record and play back video images instead of using photographic film was a giant leap forward in technology, eventually making home video viewing and home video production extremely available to the entire public, with no need to send your film for processing or using cumbersome projectors.  Video tape television shows did not happen until the late 1950’s, and video tape instant replay first was used in 1963.  The first home video systems appeared in 1971 (the video cassette having been invented in 1969), and the industry fought a format war in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s between Betamax and VHS (VHS won).   By 1978 the first LaserDisc digital type video was already unleashed on the public, and of course, the industry hashed out a standard format they called DVD by 1995, which quickly superseded VHS tapes leaving VHS based home video only about a 20 year run as our high tech home video system.  Now we have even higher tech systems such as dual-layer DVD’s, miniDVD’s, and BluRay.  People can even record their own DVD video and copy other videos onto DVD, or load the video information onto their computer hard drive or onto flash drive (thumb drive) devices.  In any case, it is obvious that Video Cassette Tapes are dinosaurs.

5.  Piston Engine Aircraft, 1903.

When the Wright Brothers made their first flight powered by a 12 horsepower straight 4 cylinder gasoline fueled piston engine, who could have dreamed that piston power would be superseded within only 4 decades?  When jet engines made their debut in England and Germany during World War II, it was obvious the piston engine was now obsolete.  Commercial use of jets quickly followed and the development of the turbo-prop engine for propeller driven airplanes and helicopters quickly followed that.

4.  Vacuum Tube, 1904.

Used in the production of radio, television, radar and early electronic computers, when the transistor was invented in the 1940 and developed in the 1950’s the vacuum tube was bound for the scrap heap of history.   Well, that is an overstatement since tubes are still used in microwave ovens and a few other applications, and Cathode Ray Tubes ruled television screens for another few decades, but for the most part they have certainly been superseded by superior technology.

3.  Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) TV Screen, 1934.

The first televisions used this technology where a vacuum tube was used to project a beam of electrons onto a phosphorescent screen to make a video picture.  This was first marketed by a German firm called Telefunken in 1934 though RCA had done much of the research and primitive CRT’s had been experimented with as far back as 1869.  When the plasma screen was invented in 1964, it was only a matter of time before Plasma, LCD and LED type television screens would replace the aging CRT technology.  The new systems were much lighter, thinner, had improved clarity and used far less energy.  Then the newer technologies went down in price, effectively killing off the CRT television by 2010, after only about 6 decades of commercial dominance.

2.  Pager, 1958.

Patented by Al Gross in 1949, the Pager got its name from Motorola in 1959.  At first largely used by doctors the Motorola “Pageboy” was made available to the general public in 1974, and pagers eventually became the mandatory accouterments of drug dealers.  (By 1980 over 3 million pagers were in use.) Pagers became so pervasive by the early 1990’s that anyone of any importance at all carried one or more, including (it seemed) every teenager.  (By 1994 over 61 million were in use.) Suddenly, pagers were made obsolete and redundant by the proliferation of cell phones (first demonstrated in 1973, first commercial model costing $3500 each in 1983) during the 1990’s and beyond made pagers obsolete.  By 2010 there were 4.6 Billion cell phones in use world wide, and today that number is around 6 Billion!  (In the US there is just under 1 cell phone per person, but in some countries there are 2 cell phones per person!)

1.  Incandescent Light Bulb.

With a miserable efficiency of only about 5%, the incandescent light bulb wastes so much energy that as soon as the first oil crisis hit in 1973 its days were numbered.  With a production of about 16 lumens per watt compared to 60 lumens per watt by a compact fluorescent bulb (and lasting around 15 times longer), the primacy of the incandescent light bulb was obviously threatened  as soon as the fluorescent light was first shown to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair.  Commercially feasible incandescent lights date from around 1879, and thus only had about a 60 year reign as the top technology.  Today, LED lights threaten to replace the compact fluorescent bulbs that are so prevalent with even greater efficiency and life span, and other technologies are also being developed.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.