Another Boomer Legend Passes On: Steve Jobs

The passing this week of Apple Computer founder, Steve Jobs, has prompted Mister Boomer to ponder the qualities of the Boomer Generation that have made a striking difference in the daily lives of every generation that has followed. Surely, generations before us were inventive and savvy in the technology of their day, but boomers have taken it to another level in just a few, short decades. Much of our modern tech-savvy ways can be directly attributed to the work of Steve Jobs.

Here was a man — himself a boomer — whom people are comparing to great inventors of past technological ages, particularly in the field of communications: Guglielmo Marconi, Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison among them. Each adapted and expanded on the technology of their era to develop tools and products that changed the way people conducted their daily lives. Unlike previous generations, however, there has never been a time when the pace of change has advanced so quickly, and never before had a generation embraced that change with such gusto as the boomer generation. To wit:

We were the first TV generation. Boomers didn’t invent TV, but we became a huge part of the first audience for TV programming. We grew up watching TV, before any other generation had that opportunity. Perhaps that contributed to our ability to not fear new technologies.

We were always among the first adopters. Every new technology requires “first adopters,” who are the people who inevitably want new technologies as soon as they surface. The buzz generated by first adopters — and their analysis of the functionalities of these new products — further advance the development of products. Perhaps this is most evident in the field of technology over any other area. Among the products we embraced whole-heartedly:

  • Transistor radios. The idea of portable music devices can trace its direct lineage back from the iPod to the compact disc; the Walkman to the cassette tape; 8-track tapes to reel-to-reel; and all the way back to the transistor radio. What would have happened to the technology chain if boomer teens didn’t take it for their own, to make it a financial — and more importantly — social success? And what might have happened if Steve Jobs didn’t weigh in here? He not only took existing technology — namely, the MP3 player — and made it cool and desirable, but completely reshaped the way music would be purchased. He displayed typical boomer behavior to reinvent the old to make the new, then applied it to daily life in a meaningful way.
  • Push-button telephones. Our parents may have been the first purchasers, but boomers were the ones who used them the most in daily communications. When we were old enough to go out on our own, we helped hasten the replacement of older technologies with what would ultimately become today’s digital network. Again, Steve Jobs took existing technology — a burgeoning cell phone market — and stood it on its ear with the game-changing release of the iPhone. What rock ‘n roll had done to the music of our parents, Steve Jobs had done to the world of personal communications.
  • VCRs. Despite the arguments for or against Beta vs. VHS, we are the generation that saved our parents’ VCRs from perpetually blinking “00:00.” We hear today that kids can figure out technology so much faster than their parents, but we were the first generation to which that sentiment was attached. Again, Steve Jobs had an important part in the whole process. Not only had he helped facilitate the distribution and enjoyment of video and movies through the iTunes library, he helped transform their very existence. Through the purchasing of Pixar Studios he announced loud and clear that digitally created images would henceforth play an integral part in the moviemaking process. This was no more felt than in the world of animation. With the release of “Toy Story,” animation no longer had to be defined by the decades-old method of hand-drawn animation cells. And who among us would have ever thought that it would be possible to view videos on our hand-held telephones?
  • Personal computers. The IBM PC may have been the first, but once again, Boomer Steve took an existing technology and made it cooler for his generation, and much easier to use. Boomers have always enjoyed a level of instant gratification. Jobs played to that quality perfectly with the release of Macintosh computers. The visual nature of its graphical user interface — another existing technology — made it a simple transition for boomers, who were by this point parents and even grandparents themselves, to embrace. That in turn made it easier for the next generation to embrace technological change, and so on. It has been argued that the Windows operating system itself may never have existed without the competition represented by Steve Job’s Apple Computer.

Steve Jobs’ poignant words in 2005 reflect the very nature of boomer philosphy heard so often in the music of our day: there is no time like the present … live for today.

Mister Boomer heard a radio interview this past week in which a guest opined that in a study of four and five year olds who were given iPads, they as a group intuitively knew how to operate the devices and had no trouble doing so. These children will grow up in a completely different world thanks to the efforts of one boomer — Steve Jobs — and the boomers he employed.

Mister Boomer often recalls the ’60s and ’70s with great nostalgia. Yet in those times, very few of us could envision the world of communications and technology as it is today. It took a few boomer visionaries like Steve Jobs, and a whole lot of boomer willingness to embrace the change for the better, that has shaped our world today. Mister B is reminded of a quote from Bobby Kennedy that seems apropros to Mr. Jobs:
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

On a personal note, Mister B’s life has been changed dramatically due to Apple products. First, he has been a great fan of Macintosh computers since their introduction, and has been using them on a daily basis since 1986. Of course, he, along with hundreds of millions of people around the world, owns an iPod. Mister B bought one for his wife shortly after the release in 2001, then promptly bought his own in 2003. It’s still in operation today. Indeed, would not have appeared as it is today were it not for Mister Boomer’s Macintosh. These posts are written, edited and posted on an iMac, which is the fourth Apple computer Mister B has owned. Thank you, Mister Jobs. Our world is a more connected place because you saw what could be, and made it happen.

What do you think about the passing of our fellow boomer, Steve Jobs, boomers?

Boomers Dial Up Some History

Everyone knows the first practical application of the telephone predated the boomer generation by a hundred years. Nonetheless, we boomers have seen our share of telephone history, not the least of which was the gradual transition from phone exchanges starting with numbers, then names, then letters and on to the ten-digit numerals of today.

In the late 1800s, phone calls were placed through an operator (they were mostly women). The operator would literally sit in front of a switchboard that had a slot for each of the phone numbers in any particular exchange. She would plug a call from one number to another on the exchange by way of a cord with a plug at each end, thus connecting the caller to the home of the person he or she wished to reach. At first, phone exchanges were named by two to five numbers.

By 1910, however, there were more than 10,000 phone numbers for operators to sort through in New York City. As the amount of phone numbers grew — especially in the larger cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York — the urgency to change the naming system became a practical necessity. The prevailing thought of the day was that people would have a hard time remembering a series of more than five numbers, so recognizable names were chosen to represent telephone exchanges. The person placing the call would then tell the operator the name of the exchange — such as Murray Hill, Butterfield, Dunkirk, Fairmont or Glenview — and the one to three numbers that followed it that made up the person’s phone number. You could tell a lot about a person by their phone exchange name, because it placed them into a geographical area and neighborhood.

This system served the telephone industry well for nearly four decades, even as long distance calls became more feasible through the 1920s and into the ’40s. Boomers will recall famous movies that had references to these telephone exchanges, such as Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

As direct dialing appeared during the boomer years of the late 1950s, letters had been placed in positions around the phone dial to correspond to the ten numbers of zero through nine so the exchange names could be shortened to the first two letters for dialing purposes. Ultimately, it was decided to add five numerals after the two letter digits (i.e., Murray Hill 45678 was dialed directly as MU4-5678).

Naturally, as boomers began to make and listen to their own music, phone exchange names found their way into the mix. Most notably, the Marvelettes recorded Beechwood 4-5789 in 1962. Bell Telephone had started a transition to all-number phone numbers as early as 1958, but the Marvelettes would show that it was to be a slow transition that had not reached every area four years later. For most boomers, it would be the mid-60s before all-number phone numbers would affect their family’s home phone. In fact, all-number phone names weren’t universally accepted nationwide until 1980, as immortalized by yet another song, 867-5309/Jenny by Tommy Tutone, in 1982 — twenty years after the Marvelettes made that Beechwood number famous! How’s that for spanning the boomer years with telephone history?

Mister Boomer recalls as a wee boomer having to learn his two-letter and five-digit home phone number and write it on the first page of his school books — in pencil, as required, of course. Somewhere around 1962, however, the letters were replaced with their numerical counterparts. The area code, which added three numbers at the beginning of the phone number, would only come into play when dialing long distance. For some families the transition necessitated a change of phone number. For Mister Boomer, his family moved to a “private number” from a “party line” (which we’ll discuss at a later date in more depth) at that time and their long-held phone number changed. If your family is anything like Mr B’s, that “new” phone number still rings on the phone situated on the kitchen wall four decades later.

What memories do phone exchange names bring back for you, boomers?