Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted in February 2019, but which is still relevant today.

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only twelve years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843. Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo. Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress! You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.


When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that. Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies. However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

On this date in 1828, at the age of 70, Noah Webster copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fettish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly fast. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) or Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!