The future of time

Stories about 2 March, 1981 (8/10)

Actually the future of time turned out to be cellphones.  Almost none of the kids I teach now actually have watches.  Nevermind, in 1981 this was about the coolest watch a little boy could covet,

Firstly, what is the purpose of the watch changing the alarm jingle it plays depending on what day of the week it is?  Secondly, one of the listed features is that it plays a special Jingle Bells alarm on Christmas Day, which seems to be a feature designed to alert the completely clueless about the existence of a very well promoted day.  If the first clue you have that it is Christmas Day is a special alarm going off on the day itself then suffice to say it will be a disappointing round of presents for your nearest and dearest, (“Wow, a Moro bar… you really shouldn’t have”).

Actually I think in a funny way the digital watch was a precursor to the cellphone in that it was a portable, electronic device that the makers continually tried to pack with more and more features.  Weirdly all of these features were sort of useless in the way that a massive Swiss army knife is useless, but every boy wants one.  I mean it seems pretty cool that a digital watch is water resistant to fifty metres, and has a stop watch, and can tell you the time in five different cities, and is also a calculator, but don’t you really mostly use a watch to, er… tell the time?

Similarly I could never figure out what to do with all the equipment on my Swiss army knife although it was a very tactile toy.

The only other technology to feature in either The Listener or the Evening Post on 2 March, 1981 (aside from all the huge L.V. Martin ads selling clock radios) was something else that was doomed to irrelevance.  The Evening Post featured an article about a couple of guys in Britain who were trying to get somebody interested in the computer programme called The Last One (because it was to be the last programme that would ever be needed). 

It is a programme that writes programmes for all other computers.  And by its very nature it threatens to make redundant the vast army of human computer programmers.

The idea being that it had prewritten chunks of code (written in Basic) which could be selected from menus to make a computer programme for the user, instead of everyone having to write programmes in Basic from scratch.  Which is actually a cool idea, but under-estimated people’s laziness.  Personally I’d rather buy a pre-made programme than build my own.

This story reminds me how crap the first computers were.  We got a Commodore 64 at one point (it plugged into the TV), which was terrible exciting to begin with until we realised it was completely useless.  I mean what were you supposed to do with it?  The games were laughable, and entering data was time consuming and pointless (why not just write the same stuff in a book?).  At school we had computer lessons that involved writing lines of code to get a turtle (or something) to draw a line (after first loading the programme by putting a cassette in a tape deck).  Even when computers first swept the land, and everyone was telling you they were the future, it was very hard to see what you would actually use them for.

In March of 1981 the creators of The Last One were complaining that they couldn’t find any backers in Britain for their product and would have to take it to America or Japan.  It seems they found a backer in America if this article in Popular Science in 1982 is anything to go by.  I suspect the launch of Microsoft Word was a bit of a blow to The Last One in the mid 1980s.

Talking of dumb ideas (and because I can’t find anywhere else to fit it in), this ad in The Listener struck me for its spectacular lack of appeal.  It is selling some kind of healthy icecream (carob and honey… come to think of it, I think we actually bought this stuff), but the food stylist has managed to make it look like… well, perhaps I’ll let you decide what it looks like.

3 thoughts on “The future of time”

  1. At school we had computer lessons that involved writing lines of code to get a turtle (or something) to draw a line (after first loading the programme by putting a cassette in a tape deck).

    If it was a “turtle” which was actually just a triangle, then that sounds like the Logo programming language. I also learned that at school, and it was a huge disappointment to me.

    “It’s a graphics programme,” they said. “It lets you draw stuff with a turtle,” they said. But what happened? Labouring over typing in meaningless code to make the triangle draw a line. And usually the line ended up hooning off the screen because I’d mistyped it.

    I wanted to play Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego, or write stuff in Bank Street Writer. Thankfully those two programmes have served me better than Logo ever did.

  2. Robyn – Yes… “hooning off the screen”… I remember it vividly. I thought: “couldn’t I just do this with a ruler on a piece of paper?”

    Devon – I knew that the bowl added to this picture in some way but couldn’t put my finger on it. Chamber pot is exactly it.

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