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50 Years of Tech: From B/W TV and 8-Track Tapes to Netflix and Spotify

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In 1965, Americans were still recovering from the assassination of President Kennedy, the Beatles were heading the British Invasion, and only 3% of U.S. households had a color television set. A lot has changed since then, especially in technology. Michael Miller, author of The Internet of Things: How Smart TVs, Smart Cars, Smart Homes, and Smart Cities Are Changing the World, details the big changes in technology over the past 50 years, from color television sets and punch-card mainframe computers to today’s high-definition TVs, notebook and tablet computers, and smartphones.
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In 1965, Americans were still recovering from the assassination of President Kennedy, the Beatles were heading the British Invasion, and only 3% of U.S. households had a color television set. A lot has changed since then, especially in technology. Best-selling technology author Michael Miller details the big changes in technology over the past 50 years, from color television sets and punch-card mainframe computers to today’s high-definition TVs, notebook and tablet computers, and smartphones.

For younger generations, 1965 seems a lifetime away. For baby boomers, however, 1965 seems like only yesterday—until we start looking at the technology.

The past five decades have seen astounding technological developments. Fifty years ago, personal computers, mobile phones, digital cameras, and flat-screen televisions didn't exist. Handheld calculators hadn't been invented yet, nor had compact discs or DVDs. And the Internet? Nothing more than a figment of somebody's vivid imagination.

Come with me, then, as we travel back in time to 1965 and discover how technology developed over the decades.

The Colorful Sixties: Color TV, 8-Track Tapes, and Men on the Moon

In 1965, the world was a much different place—no Internet, no mobile phones, no electronic games, no home video of any kind. Sounds boring, doesn't it? For entertainment, you could watch perhaps four channels of broadcast television (three major networks and an independent station, in most cities), listen to the "Top 40" hits on AM radio, or play your favorite vinyl records on your hi-fi system.

But all these technologies went through significant changes in those first 10 years. At the beginning of the 1960s, fewer than 3% of households had a color television set; black-and-white TV was the norm. By the end of the decade, however, close to half of all households had a brand-spanking-new color TV console in the living room, and practically all network programs were broadcast in color. It was a many-hued revolution, led by television manufacturer RCA and its NBC broadcast subsidiary.

Consider this: Until fall 1965, rival network CBS had no—that's zero—regular scheduled color programs. NBC took the lead, in part to promote parent RCA's television sets (see Figure 1), broadcasting its entire 1965 fall schedule in color. ABC and CBS had to play catch-up, and by the 1966–1967 season all three networks were airing all their prime-time programming in full color. (Public broadcasting networks followed a year or later.) I can tell you, it was a blast watching the Adam West Batman show in 1966 in living color. A real blast.

Figure 1 An advertisement for RCA's 1966 color TV sets. ("Now in your choice of two picture sizes.")

As to home audio, vinyl ruled. Kids listened to the latest hits on 45 RPM singles played on their portable record players. Their parents listened to long-playing (LP) 33 1/3 RPM albums on their stereo record consoles. Audiophiles upped the ante with expensive high-fidelity (hi-fi) systems with separate pre-amplifiers, power amps, and turntables. The only recording devices were high-end hi-fi reel-to-reel tape decks.

In the world of broadcast radio, the decade began with AM ruling the roost. Teenagers across America listened to the Beatles and the Supremes on their portable transistor AM radios, pretty much all imported from Japan. By the end of the decade, however, FM radio had nosed its way into the culture, supplanting "Top 40" pop and playing deeper album cuts.

Then came 8-track tapes. The Lear Jet Stereo 8 cartridge (what we came to know as 8-track) was designed in 1963 by Richard Kraus while working under Bill Lear for his Lear Jet Corporation. An 8-track cartridge housed an endless loop of 1/4-inch magnetic tape on which eight separate tracks were recorded, corresponding to four stereo tracks. You inserted a cartridge into the player, and the recording played over and over, automatically shifting tracks when the time was up. (Of course, dividing a two-sided LP into four tape tracks sometimes meant a song got cut in half as the machine switched tracks in the middle.)

The automotive industry quickly latched onto this new audio technology, with Ford Motor Company offering factory-installed 8-track tape decks on three of its 1966 models—Mustang, Thunderbird, and Lincoln (see Figure 2). In the 1967 model year, Ford offered 8-track as an upgrade option on all of its models. By the end of the decade, 8-track player sales exceeded $500 million, and virtually every new album was also released in the 8-track format. LP sales were still larger, but 8-track was a big thing.

Figure 2 An early 8-track player in a Ford automobile.

On the communications front, talking to a friend across town meant using the rotary-dial phone that hung on your wall or sat on your table. Pushbutton Touch-Tone phones were introduced in 1963, although they didn't gain a foothold in most households until the late 1970s. Most homes only had a single phone, connected by a relatively short cord. Phone numbers were typically expressed as two letters followed by five numbers, as in PE6-5000. (The alphabetic prefix typically stood for a relevant local name, such as PE for Pennsylvania.)

Computers in the 1960s were big mainframe affairs that took up entire large rooms (see Figure 3). Instructions were entered via punch cards, and storage was on magnetic tape. No one would call these "personal" computers. (They also were not very common, used only in very large military and business installations—such as the SABRE airline reservation system.)

Figure 3 An IBM 7090 mainframe installation.

While these societal advancements were important, most of the major technological developments in the 1960s involved the space program. Back in 1960, President Kennedy had promised a man on the moon by the end of the decade, ushering in the great space race with the Russians. The space program—through the one-man Mercury, two-man Gemini, and three-man Apollo spacecraft—was a resounding success, culminating in Apollo 11's 1969 moon landing, and Neil Armstrong's famous "One small step for man..." speech.

The space program also contributed to many of the technological advancements later in the decade and into the 1970s—including calculators, personal computers, and more. That's up next.

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