Technology Was No Stranger to Boomers

A good part of our formative boomer years was spent dreaming about the future. After all, we were the first generation that had a realistic hope of achieving some of those dreams. Our parents’ generation lead the way with innovations throughout the boomer decades. Boomers picked up where they left off and created the technological world we live in today.

Boomers were introduced to technological fantasies at an early age, beginning with cartoons and a variety of TV series. Shows like Supercar (1961) featured puppets, like most kids’ shows of the day, but in this series, the main character, Mike Mercury, drove a flying car. Even when the car was driven on land it didn’t need wheels. Instead, it hovered on a cushion of air. And, oh yes, it could also travel underwater. The Flintstones put the idea in our tiny little heads that technology — from TV to record players, cars to telephones — had always been around, even if in “rock” form. Then we looked headlong into the future with The Jetsons (1962). In this cartoon series, a typical 21st Century American family lived with a vast array of technology at their disposal, from treadmills for walking the dog to video phone conferencing; microwave-style ovens to people-moving sidewalks; flying cars to reach their apartments in the sky to a robot named Rosie, replete with human foibles. Of course, there were numerous other cartoons where technology played a key role.

Mister B apologizes for the length of this clip, but there is fun and insightful commentary to be gleaned from this interview with the creators of The Jetsons.

Live-action shows and movies jumped on the bandwagon, often centered around secret agents utilizing technological gadgetry in their defender roles as a direct or vaguely-veiled reference to the Cold War. The James Bond movies entered the scene with Dr. No in 1962, but the famous Bond gadgets began showing their impact on the characters in the second film, From Russia With Love (1963). On TV, The Wild Wild West (1965) featured two secret service agents in the employ of President Ulysses S. Grant in the period after the Civil War. Their ingenious gadgets were often integral parts of the storyline. By this time, it was so natural for us to see “future” technology on screen that we could use it in the comedy of the day as well. Enter Get Smart, a 1965 TV series where the bumbling main character, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), has all the techno-gadgetry of James Bond, but none of the finesse. The character is most-often remembered for his shoe phone, a precursor to the cellphone.

Real-life technology that entered the consumer market in boomer years played a huge part in the way the entire generation would embrace it for the following decades to come. The list of innovations that began to appear — especially electronic innovations — is mind-boggling, even by today’s standards. The entire electronics revolution was made possible when the first integrated circuit was invented in 1958. Evidently, it was an invention whose time had come, since two men had come up with approximately the same idea at the same time. Both men, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, received patents for their inventions. Look at this partial list of electronic marvels that appeared during our early boomer years:

1962 – The first portable cassette recorder was introduced by Phillips.
1964 – Pentax marketed the first 35MM SLR camera.
1967 – Phillips sells the first battery-powered shaver.
1967 – Integrated circuit inventor Jack Kilby created the handheld calculator.
1968 – The Polaroid gave us the Swinger, the first instant camera, though prints were black & white only.
1969 – The telephone got a makeover as the Trimphone. Though created in 1964, it took a few years to catch on with consumers.
1969 – Dr. Christiaan Barnard pioneered and implanted the first artificial heart.
1971 – The first digital watch was created, though mass-production at an affordable price would have to wait another couple of years.
1972 – Color TVs outnumbered black & white sets in the home for the first time.
1972 – Pioneer releases the first home LP cassette recorder.
1974 – The first portable electronic calculator is marketed.
1975 – Home freezers were sold and quickly become a standard appliance in nearly 50% of homes.
1977 – Atari introduced the Atari 2600, the first video game player.
1977 – The Apple II computer was sold; the basic model was $1,300 with an external 5 1/4 inch floppy disk running at 1 MHz and housing 4 kB RAM.

Mister Boomer recalls watching all of those TV shows and movies, and dreaming of the day he’d own a flying car. We have chronicled the time Mister B and his brother received transistor radios in an earlier entry (Boomers Strike Solid Gold). A decade later his brother got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. It was truly amazing to see a picture in a matter of a minute or two, without having to drop off a roll of film at the local drug store to be developed. A few years later, Mister B was employed in a retail setting where all the guys started buying digital watches. The watch “dial” was an overall dull, dark gray circle, with a blacked-out rectangle situated in the top half. There was a side button to push in order to display the time — in numbers — within the blackened slot. A colorful leather wrist band helped give the technology not only a function, but a fashion statement as well.

We took a look at the future as boomer children, saw it unfolding in the gadgets made available to us and our families, and embraced it until it became synonymous with our generation. We may not have invented technological innovation, but we did elevate it to the level it is in the world today.

What do you remember of the early days of electronics entering your family’s world?

Boomer-Era Mantra: Don’t Toss It, Fix It

As the nineteenth century eased into the twentieth, America was in a manufacturing boom that began to create a consumer class. With new manufacturing methods came consumer-level products for the home. Among these products were floor sweepers, sewing machines and washing machines. Each delivered a marked improvement over the labor required previously, yet they were still human-powered.

By the 1910s, electric motors were being manufactured and put to work powering new appliances as well as replacing older ways of performing the same tasks in existing products. Now the Edwardian-era floor sweeper became the electric vacuum cleaner; an electric motor replaced the foot pedal on the sewing machine; and an electrical cord removed the need for heating an iron in a fire or loading it with hot coals before each use. New appliances that joined the consumer field included toaster ovens, toasters and refrigerators. Electricity was available in most locations as the 1920s arrived. The concerns about safety in the household from earlier decades was replaced with electricity’s promise of less drudgery. However, the relatively high cost of these new appliances restricted their widespread use; then, to make matters worse, the Great Depression took hold. Any boomer can tell you by way of The Three Stooges and The Little Rascals reruns that not everyone had electric refrigerators and appliances in the 1920s and 30s.

Entering the late 1930s, western countries were only beginning to pull out of the throes of the Depression when World War II came knocking at their door. Naturally, this put a significant crimp in consumer purchasing power as rationing and sacrifice were the order of the day and manufacturing factories were converted to wartime production.

So we see that the first chance for companies to fully enjoy the fruits of the Industrial Revolution was during the post-War boomer years. As soon as the war ended, companies took full advantage of the growing number of parents who willingly partnered with them to lay the foundations for the consumer-driven market of today. The American Dream was alive and well, and along with the perfect home came labor-saving electrical appliances.

Improving on older product designs and inventing new ones, manufacturers created dozens of appliances for home use. The advance of television, interrupted by the War, now moved into full gear as the Golden Age of Broadcasting was ushered in. New, modern home units would be necessary to receive the signals transmitted through the airwaves, and view the marvels that were the TV shows of our youth.

Even though all the ducks seemed to be in a row for manufacturers, a funny thing happened along the way. The new consumer class expected quality products that lasted. If and when an appliance broke down, a new category of workers was created to repair it rather than replace it. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that our parents, having lived through tough financial times the entire first half of their lives, first with the Great Depression then with the War, would be frugal with their earnings as they became new parents themselves. Consequently, they didn’t rush out to buy the latest and greatest items as soon as they arrived. Instead, they did what their parents had done in their own families — fix whatever was broken themselves or have it repaired. The result was boomers walking around with darned socks and patched jeans (though now of the iron-on variety), radio and TV tubes were replaced and the toaster oven and hand mixer were taken into a repair shop for diagnosis and restoration.

More than likely, every boomer has a memory of going to a small appliance repair shop. They were busy places, usually of the storefront variety, with contraptions and parts scattered about and stacked to the ceiling on old wooden shelves. They were always run by men, and it always seemed that the repair would take a week — no matter what the problem.

Mister Boomer recalls trips to the repair shop via both the family car and walking the distance, with whatever the appliance was sitting in a little red wagon we dutifully pulled along. The shop seemed dark and dingy, and the man was dirty and not very friendly. Yet a magical alchemy was evidently performed there weekly as our appliances were returned, “good as new,” and with a 30-day warranty to boot.

As the 1960s edged toward the 70s, manufacturers were building planned obsolescence into their products even as the prices were coming down, so consumers could — and would have to — replace them more often. Manufacturers got an assist from boomer moms as they headed back to the workforce in heretofore unseen numbers, leaving less time for household chores. By the end of the 70s, the Disposable Era had begun in earnest and the steady decline of small appliance repair shops soon followed.

Do children today understand the history of why they now throw things away and buy new rather than repair the old? Perhaps it’s a lesson whose time has come. What do you think, boomers?