A brief history of gadgets


Not so long ago, most people did not possess a phone. Any phone. And remember when video recorders were a must-have? At a time of year when tech takes centre stage, take a trip down memory chip lane.

The season of goodwill is sandwiched, like it or not, by things: must-haves, latest crazes, always-wanteds, gadgets and treats and consumer goodies, first as gifts, then the sales.

Sorry for Go Figure's materialist turn, but it just happens that for 40 years, surveys have tracked Britain's saturation by consumer durables.

And even - maybe especially - with words like bankruptcy and debt in the air, it's worth reminding ourselves of a few material facts.

Like the two thirds of people in 1970 with no phone: no mobile - there weren't any - and no home phone either. You used a red box down the road, if it worked. In the next 20 years, phone ownership hit 90% and peaked at 95%.

But are its days numbered as the techno whirligig brings changes? Read on. For here, in graphics, is the last 40 years in the history of stuff.

First, the meteoric take up of new-tech: mobile phones, DVDs, satellite and digital TVs, home computers and internet connections, from nowhere 10 or 15 years ago to 70%, 80% even 90%. Breathtaking.

Graph showing take-up of new technology

The charts show the percentage of people with access to or use of various consumer durables. The gap is when the survey changes from once every five years to yearly, making the lines appear steeper from 1970-95 than from 95 to present.

Next, those home comforts and conveniences now taken for granted - by all but a few. Microwave ovens took off so fast, that a question about whether you had one wasn't asked until 1995.

Graph showing take-up of home comforts

Less meteoric, but still rising: the car or van, tumble drier and dishwasher. (The fastest growth in cars has been in two and three-car households).

Graph showing take-up of cars, tumble driers and dishwashers

And finally, what's on the way out?

Videos - no surprise - from must-have to antique in about 20 years. That CDs are already hinting at decline is the effect, I guess, of personal MP3 players.

But home phones? For years, I thought of these as the mark of a materially rich nation, the measure of consumer access to goodies. Then came cell phones. Time makes recent ups and downs clearer: the home-phone peak now begins to look as if it passed 10 years ago.

Graph showing take-up of gadgets on the way out

For a while, the home phone will be part and parcel of many an internet connection.

But will we, one day soon, watch the Christmas comedy repeats and, in a scene when the phone rings - Ha! It's stuck to the wall by a wire. Hilarious! - wonder how those pre-mobile primitives managed?

For those who hate the innovation trip, here's Go Figure's suggested Christmas reading: The Shock of the Old - Technology and Global History Since 1900, by David Edgerton, an eye-opening history that takes numbers seriously.

And for those who hate the materialism altogether: Merry Christmas.


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