A Night at the Museum: Timeless Cool Tech at MoMA

Never underestimate the geek value of a night at the museum, specifically New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

On a recent Friday afternoon (admission is free 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays) I found myself on the third floor where MoMA houses a surprisingly eclectic and entertaining collection of old and new technology in its Architecture and Design areas.

While the Bell-47D1 helicopter in the lobby and the collection of vintage vacuum tubes were expected, the displays also include products you may have used or may be in your home right now.

The FPR2 Human Powered Radio and Freeplay Human Powered Torch from Freeplay Energy Ltd. would have come in handy during any of New York’s three major blackouts. Both units can be charged with elbow grease or via built-in solar panels. The London-based company still makes hand-crank-powered devices but they’re smaller and sleeker than these translucent 1998-vintage consumer products.

The IBM ThinkPad 701 notebook, which debuted in 1995, is a classic example of cool technology which went white hot and ice cold almost overnight. How do you fit a full-size keyboard into a compact laptop? Create a split keyboard which expands when you open the unit’s lid and collapses when you close it.

The butterfly keyboard, officially called the TrackWrite, allowed the unit’s 9.7-inch-wide case to accommodate a keyboard that could fold out to 11.5 inches wide. As laptops grew larger and more affordable, the need for such keyboard magic disappeared and the ThinkPad 701 ended up as the only ThinkPad made with the nifty folding keyboard.

Long before frills such as wireless mice, studio-quality audio or (gasp!) electronic displays came to personal computing, Olivetti’s Logos 80 Programmable Calculator provided a reasonable calculating option for those graduating from slide rules or four-function pocket calculators.

It’s not surprising when art makes its way from a museum for temporary display in the New York’s subway system, but it’s rare when things go the other way. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the folks who run New York’s subways, is experimenting with the Help Point Intercom, a highly visible customer assistance and emergency communicator.

Many stations have customer communication boxes, but they’re yellow and much smaller and sometimes hard to find. The Help Points are much larger, always illuminated and are uniquely coded so subway personnel can tell which unit was used to call in an emergency and where to send assistance.

In a pilot program, some units have been installed at the 23rd St. and Brooklyn Bridge stations on the Lexington Ave. line. Apparently the sleek, but functional design earned the Help Point a spot in MoMA even before it merited widespread adoption in the subway system.

The moral of this story: Cool design is timeless. Only time will tell if the electric toothbrush you used this morning will make it to MoMA’s third floor next year.

Text and video Copyright 2012 Robert S. Anthony, Stadium Circle Features

So Was I Right? Year 2000 Predictions for the Future of the PC

In 1999, as the high-tech world prepared for the big bite of the Year 2000 computer bug which never really chomped down, I wrote a newspaper column on how far the PC had come since IBM showed off its first model in 1981.

While lots of things have changed since this column was written on Dec. 29, 1999, one line still rings true: “The most important PC improvements may have been the ones that made life simpler.”

And it looks like one prediction, especially for those of you reading this on your cell phone or iPod, clearly came true: “Where will the PC go in the next ten years? Probably into your pocket.”

What hardware were you using in 2000 and (*gasp!*) are you still using any of it now? My 1995-vintage HP DeskJet 855C inkjet printer is still humming with the aid of a parallel port-to-USB adapter.

Where will we be in the coming decades? I hope one of you will come by the old folks home to tell me.

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The Paper PC
By Robert S. Anthony
Stadium Circle Features
The PC in 2000: Where Do We Go From Here?
     It has been said that if the history of the Earth were compressed into a 24-hour video, humans wouldn’t appear until the last three seconds. Imagine how hard you’d have to watch to detect the short history of the personal computer.

     As thousands of office workers spend the New Year’s weekend basking in the glow of computer screens as they watch for “Year 2000” problems, it’s a good time to take a quick look back at how far personal computing has come since IBM trotted out its first PC in 1981.

     In less than 20 years the PC has evolved from a text-only, limited-purpose office device into a machine that can handle multimedia communication as easily as it can process words.

     Before you worry about what the hardware of tomorrow will look like, take a look at what we’ve already left behind. Remember the 5.25-inch floppy disk? Have you ever connected a PC to an online service by pushing a telephone handset into the rubber cups of an acoustic coupler? Remember when the worst desk in an office was the one next to the screeching daisy-wheel printer? All of these items have disappeared since their heyday in the 1980s.

     Leaf through an old computer magazine and you’ll get an idea of how segmented the personal computing market used to be. In 1987 the most popular software titles were available not only in IBM- and Macintosh-compatible versions but also in formats for the Commodore 64 (pictured above), Commodore Amiga, Apple II, Apple II GS and Atari ST.

     PCs evolved at a startling pace in the 1990s. In a 1992 column I suggested that a good home office PC would have at least a “386SX microprocessor, an 80-megabyte hard drive and 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch floppy drives. If you use programs written to run with Microsoft Windows, four megabytes of user memory are also required.”

     Later that same year I reviewed a fledgling online service named America Online. “With attractive rates and easy-to-use software, AOL seems to be attempting to strike a compromise between the colorful, but sometimes slow graphics of Prodigy and the speed and variety of text-only services like GEnie and CompuServe. The funny thing is, the compromise actually seems to work.” Of course America Online has since become the world’s largest online service.

     PCs have evolved by knocking down technical barriers and widening data bottlenecks. Remember how DOS (Disk Operating System) limited programs to using no more than 640 kilobytes of memory? Advances in memory management and Microsoft Windows broke through that limitation.

     Technical breakthroughs such as the PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) bus and the AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) bus provided the wide data pipelines that allow today’s PCs to process high-resolution color graphics and full-motion video as quickly as old PCs could underline text.

     The most important PC improvements may have been the ones that made life simpler. For example, today’s memory cards snap in place much easier than the old multi-legged chips. Today’s USB (Universal Serial Bus) port offers a simpler way to connect peripherals to a PC than the old-style serial and parallel ports.

     Then again, some things haven’t changed: Most personal computers are still beige and good units are still expensive.

     Has the PC reached the “must have” status of the television and other household appliances? Not by a long shot, but PCs seem to be making themselves a little more indispensable each year.

     Where will the PC go in the next ten years? Probably into your pocket. As technology makes it possible–and affordable–to surf the World Wide Web with a portable device, the desktop PC may fade into secondary status as a data-storage device or as a base station for communications.
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Original column Copyright 1999 Stadium Circle Features
Other text C
opyright 2010 Stadium Circle Features
Photo Copyright OldComputers.Net