Fascination with old technology

I found this New York Times story on retro technology today. I have my own take on retro gaming.

My girlfriend tells me the 1980s are terribly hip with her students. As she was grading papers last night, I noticed one student had doodled Pac-Man on a paper, the way I remember my classmates and I doing in 1982.

I dig it.I was feeling nostalgic in the summer of 1996 when I started visiting old 8-bit oriented newsgroups on Usenet. Someone wrote in with a question about an Atari power supply, and I happened to have a Jameco catalog in my hands that was advertising some old surplus Atari boxes.

That led to me meeting Drew “Atari” Fuehring, who along with his brother had accumulated one of the largest collection of retro video game consoles in Missouri. Atari 2600, 5200, 7800; Vectrex; Colecovision; Intellivision–you name it, they had it, and if they didn’t have every cartridge and accessory that came with each, they had more than 75 percent of it.

I did a feature story on them for the Sunday magazine of the newspaper I was working at the time. It was easily the most enjoyable story I did during my time at that paper. Maybe the most enjoyable story I ever did.

I didn’t take up video game collecting, but obviously I never forgot that article. (I’d link to it but the database seems to be down forever.)

Those of us in our 20s (I’ve still got 3 1/2 months left of my 20s) grew up around technology. We’ve watched it grow up with us. So why does it seem so odd for us to think of older technology as something other than inferior? Isn’t that like saying that once you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll, you have to give up jazz and blues?

In some regards the old stuff’s better. Hold up that original fake wood-grained Atari 2600 alongside my GPX-branded DVD player. Hold both of them up and then ask any person which of those two things originally cost more money. Even if they don’t have a clue what the two objects are, they’ll know.

There was a time when things were built to last and they weren’t rendered obsolete in two years or six months just to force us to buy more stuff.

Take the guy in the article who bought a 15-year-old Motorola cell phone. I’m sure some people think he’s nuts. The new phones have all the functions of a Palm Pilot in them, and you can play video games on them (funny, they’re old video games–I hold out hope that the people who make these gadgets have some clue) and you can take pictures with them and you can program them to play annoying songs when people call you, and I think some of them even do septuble duty as an MP3 player. But have you ever tried to talk on the phone with one? Or worse yet, talk with someone who’s talking on one? They’re terrible! They cut out all the time and the conversation sounds robotic, so everyone talks really loud trying to make up for the terrible quality–and succeed only in annoying everyone around them–and if you drive under a bridge, forget it. You’ll lose the connection.

I remember all the promises of digital. I’ll tell you what was so great about digital: It allowed the phone companies to cram a lot more conversations into a much narrower frequency range. It saved them a buttload of money, and we get the benefit of… ever-smaller, costlier phones that are easier to lose, along with an endless upgrade cycle. Trust me, next year the annoying salespeople in the mall will be asking you if you can watch movies on your cellphone, because you can on this year’s model.

Eugene Auh says he bought the phone to impress girls. Maybe he did, but he’ll keep the phone because it works.

I spend my day surrounded by technology and by the time I manage to get home, I really want to get away from it. My sister asked me a few months ago where my sudden fascination with trains came from. I think that’s exactly it. The first time I saw a train with onboard electronics that ran by remote control it really wowed me, but I’m constantly drawn to the old stuff. The older the better. I have a lot of respect for the 1950s units that my dad played with, but for me, the holy grail is an Ives train made between 1924 and 1928. In 1924, Ives came up with a technological marvel: a train that could not only reverse when the power was cycled, but added a neutral position to keep the train from slamming itself into reverse and doing a Casey Jones maneuver, and could keep the headlight lit at all times.

Trust me, it was a big deal in 1924.

Besides that, those oldies were built to be played with hard and built to last. And they were built to look good. Remember that picture I posted this weekend? That’s nothing. The electric units were gorgeous, with bright, enameled paints and brass trim and the works.

Why should I settle for a hunk of plastic made by someone who gets paid a dollar an hour whose electronics are going to fry in a year, rendering the thing motionless?

Nope. I like old stuff.

Next time I’m at a flea market and I see a Betamax VCR, I might just buy it.

5 thoughts on “Fascination with old technology

  • September 22, 2004 at 9:49 am
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    The old stuff for me is familiar territory that gave me much of the same emotional fulfillment that new technology does with greater reliability. When I play a game on a PC I cross my fingers and hope that my PC is up to snuff, and that the game isn’t riddled with bugs. When I played a game on the C= 64 my only concern was "HURRY UP!"

    Technology comes around to money. Technology companies can’t seem to make enough money selling us something once, so they improve on it. They build lifetimes into these things specifically so that next year they have a ready audience for upgrading. It’s not about giving the customer something worthwhile, it’s about giving them something to last until the next model is ready. That’s another change.

    Assume computers were available in 1929, as your train was. Can you imagine them working 75 years later? Minor repairs? Ha. You’d be lucky to know what you were looking at was a computer.

    I have over 2,000 C= 64 games on my IBM system and I regularly play them using the emulators. I’d love to find a complete C= 64 system that someone wasn’t trying to "make a buck off of" so I could play them on the original. Phantasie I, II, and III. Pool of Radiance. Ultima. Heck, my boss uses Symantec Q&A for a word processor, copyright circa 1995, because he despises the bells and whistles of Word.

    Simplicity and reliability is really what people want.

    • September 22, 2004 at 4:28 pm
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      "Simplicity and reliability is really what people want."

      Really. Someone needs to explain this to MS. Come Longhorn, we’ll 1GBRAM, top of the line graphics chip and a 4GHz CPU just to run an OS! Totally unnecessary for users, but of course it makes perfect sense to thier marketing team…

  • September 22, 2004 at 10:17 am
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    Sadly, about five years ago someone ripped me off of my C-64s and all but one of my 1702s, but I do still have a couple of 1541s. My C-128 either has a failing power supply or a failing memory chip. It only runs for about 15 minutes before it crashes.

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