I’m interested in retro tech that either allowed humans to more easily express themselves, or allowed more humans to easily express themselves (by lowering the cost of doing so), thereby advancing the cultural and intellectual development of the species.
We’ve become so accustomed to even the most mundane tasks being digitally mediated that people now use their phone’s selfie cam as a mirror. In contrast, electromechanical devices are direct, tactile, and visceral: there is an intimate, usually direct connection between the human actuating the device and the device producing something.
Retro tech devices have stories to tell. They can be passed down in your family. You can ask “Imagine what could have been typed on this typewriter,” or “Imagine who might have played this piano.” Digital devices are short-lived: a 10-year useful life is rare, and only collectors own 30+ year old devices. Even if it thrills you to wonder “Imagine who might have saved a file on this USB key,” whoever it was probably didn’t have the intimate connection to that USB key that David McCullough had to his typewriter, or Gershwin to his piano.
Retro tech devices will survive the fall and presumed rebirth of civilization. They are easy to understand and fix. A typewriter’s mechanical design makes its function manifest. A spirit duplicator makes cheap copies possible with no electricity and no photoimaging. Electronic devices, in contrast, are opaque: open up a computer and you have no clue as to how it works. Of course, if civilization actually does fall, it will be awhile before we’re worried about reviving retro tech devices, but still.
Retro tech devices shed light on advances in manufacturing even as they promote further advances. Typewriters have hundreds of custom-shaped moving parts that must be cast and assembled just so. Decades elapsed between the first working prototype and a version that could be economically mass produced. Once they could be mass produced, they could be used to write technical documents about how to make better typewriters.
The artifacts produced by retro tech can usually be appreciated without mediation. A guitar conveys sound directly to your ear by compressing and rarefying the air between it and you. A typewriter produces visible glyphs by impressing oil-based ink onto compressed cellulose fibers. Even Polaroid photos, whose technology is not straightforward to re-create, can be experienced directly and without mediation. In contrast, if you have a JPEG file but no computer, or an MP3 file but no player, the content is inaccessible to you, and printing out the bits of the file won’t reveal the image.
Retro tech often captures the tension between art and engineering. Each technological improvement greatly lowered the cost of producing or consuming media, inviting many more people to do so, but often at the expense of quality and (as purists frequently protested) artistic integrity. Audio cassettes had poorer sound fidelity than reel-to-reel magnetic tape, but they were more rugged and player/recorders could be made inexpensively, enabling a new mass market for music and an explosion of self-recording by nonprofessionals. VHS cassette recordings were far inferior to TV broadcasts and laughably inferior to film, but they made it possible for consumers to record not only TV shows and movies but also their own work, kickstarting an independent filmmaking industry. Typewriters afforded none of the artistic sensibility that publishers brought to printing and engraving, but they made it possible (when combined with other retro-technologies such as spirit duplicators and mimeograph machines) for individuals to become their own publishers.
Books & Films About Retro Tech
Writing, Typing, Typesetting
- Documentary: The Typewriter in the 21st Century
- Documentary: California Typewriter, a family-owned Bay Area business dedicated to the craft of typewriter repair
- Documentary: Helvetica, a film about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture
- Documentary: Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, a documentary about the final day of operation of the Linotype machines at the New York Times, before they switched to digital typesetting
- Documentary: Linotype, The Film, about the revolutionary machine that helped automate hot-metal typesetting and pretty much took us all the way up to the advent of phototypesetting
- Book: Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (my summary & review)
Film & Video
- Documentary: Rewind This, chronicling the impact of VHS on the film industry and home video
- Book: From Betamax to Blockbuster (my summary & review)
- 8-minute Documentary: The Mechanics of the Film Projector. If you went to high school earlier than about 1990, you probably watched many “educational” films on these projectors in school.
Art & Music
- Documentary: Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. As a pianist and Steinway owner who has also visited their remarkable factory in New York, this was fascinating.
Looking for good retro tech resources on…
- Cassettes. This documentary isn’t bad but not as good as the above, and in particular not as good as the VHS-related pieces.