COLUMNS

The electronic pendulum swings

Gene Deason

This week, my wife and I took another trip to Austin to play grandparents. Our journey took us much farther than we had anticipated.

    On the late-night drive back to Brownwood, we listened to a radio broadcast featuring the “top 40” music hits from June 1963. Our car thought we had traveled only 150 miles, but we actually went back 51 years.

    I was not yet a teenager at this point in history, but I was close. So while I did remember most of the tunes on this list, many were not familiar to my wife. I decided that’s because my father was a technology buff.

    In the early 1960s, the basement of our house was littered with parts of television sets and radios. Dad’s hobby was working on these cast-offs. After he retired, he made the rounds of garage sales to pick up “broken” TV sets for $5 or so. He usually was able to bring them back to life with a few parts and a couple of tests.

    It was no surprise then that my parents gave me a transistor radio as a birthday present. It must have been sometime in the early 1960s, because I remember walking around the neighborhood that summer listening to music. I could pick the stations I wanted, not those my parents preferred.

    Back then, miniaturization ruled. Tiny transistors replaced the bulky vacuum tubes needed for older radios and television sets. Needless to say, the transistor was one of the major technological breakthroughs of the 20th century. Products with transistors also put companies like Texas Instruments and Sony on the map.

    However, it was the Japanese who capitalized at the retail level. Making consumer products smaller was seemingly a national obsession in post-World War II Japan. Even their cars were smaller, as drivers of those pioneering imports learned.

    None of that mattered to me, though. All I knew was that I could carry my radio around the neighborhood and listen to music to my heart’s content — or until the battery wore out, whichever came first.

    While I inherited my father’s appreciation for cutting-edge technology, I did not inherit his ability to repair it, or even to understand how it works. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to use it. My wife knows if we don’t need a new gadget, our best option is to stay out of the electronics section. Whether we need it or not, I will probably come home with one of the latest and greatest.

    That’s how I wound up owning the original iPhone when it was introduced in 2007. And just to be sure I didn’t get into trouble, I got my wife one, too.

    We’ve upgraded those original phones only once, because she’s successfully managed to keep me away out of the store. But I have read that cell phones are becoming thinner and lighter.

    Lately though, I’ve read that Apple is losing ground to Android. They may or may not be superior, depending on the owner’s bias and preferred features, but the iPhone is losing favor mostly because it’s too small for many buyers. I hear that the next iPhone should fix all that.

    I guess it makes sense. Smart phones, aka cell phones, aren’t used for making phone calls much these days. They are computer screens where data is retrieved, text messages are typed and read, and photographs/videos are snapped and shared.

    I don’t need all that. At the risk of letting the industry race into the future without me, I’ll stick with the smaller size, thank you very much. If I have computing to do, I’ll get a computer with a really big screen. My current model iPhone is already almost too big for comfort. Other manufacturers make lovely phones, but they are even bigger.

    In fact, I have fond memories of my old Nokia 8210 (used from 2001 to 2007), which was about the size of a medicine bottle and could almost be hidden in the palm of your hand.

    Transistors were developed in the early 1950s, buy I still marvel at how much technology can be fitted into a small package. It seems I’ve lived long enough to watch the pendulum swing the other direction.

Gene Deason is a former editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears in the Bulletin on Fridays. Contact him by email at fridaycolumn@aol.com.