General

4 groundbreaking inventions that are now obsolete

For many people who are part of Gen Z, it’s hard to picture a world before high-speed internet, smartphones, video chat, and social media. But older Millennials and anyone born before 1979 remembers a time where landlines were the only options, computers were novelties rather than necessities, and “social media” was nothing more than your school lunch period or time spent around a water cooler while at work. So, this got us thinking about other once-groundbreaking inventions that are now dusty pages in history.

Encyclopedias

Photo of the spines of encyclopedia volumes
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Technically speaking, encyclopedias aren’t dead, but when the go-to source for researching quick facts is Wikipedia or Google, we can classify the old tomes as obsolete. Once upon a time, if you were in school and needed to research a paper, you started with an encyclopedia. This meant physically going inside a real library and sifting through the right volume to find relevant information to cobble together an outline for your topic. Or, if you were lucky, walking over to the bookshelf in your home and finding the corresponding letter that starts your project topic.

While there were a variety of encyclopedia publishers, Encyclopedia Britannica is viewed as the most respected. Print publishing first began in 1768 and continued through 2012 when they stopped printing in response to low book sales. Encyclopedia Britannica still releases new editions of their reference material, but they’re online only.

Walkman, Discman, & MP3 players

Photo of a portable discman device with headphones attached
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The 1980s were a crazy time to be alive as technological advances occurred by leaps and bounds. One of the biggest inventions to come out of the decade was the concept of personal music players and digital music formats. And the first on the scene was the Sony Walkman, which debuted in 1979. It relied on cassette tapes (also obsolete) as a music source and AA batteries to power it. To this day, the Walkman is still one of Sony’s most successful products.

Eventually cassette tapes — and their constant warping and tangling — gave way to CDs (compact discs) and the Sony Discman. Officially, the Discman was released in 1984, but it was several years before the technology became a consumer favorite.

And then there are MP3 players. Even for some members of Gen Z, this newer technology might still sound foreign. But the MP3 player first appeared on the scene in 1999 and served as a staple source of revenue for computer giant Apple. The player was completely dependent upon MP3s, a specific digital audio format that was created over a decade earlier at the Fraunhofer Institute for Dedicated Circuits in the late 1980s. Officially, Apple released their last iPod (their twist on the MP3 player) in 2015 with the sixth-generation iPod Touch. Today, most people use their smartphones, smart speakers, or other digital devices to play a variety of audio file formats.

Floppy disks

Photo of floppy disks sitting on an old, discolored computer keyboard
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Today when you need to save a file on your laptop, you either save it to the cloud, an external drive, or a USB flash drive. But back in the day, none of these options were available. Instead, you had the floppy disk. To be fair, floppy disks had many lives before the technology became obsolete. The disks were first invented by IBM in 1967. The original versions were flexible, thin, square pieces of technology that measured 8 inches.

This later was reduced to a 5.25-inch disk in 1981 that most older Millennials and earlier generations remember, and it held a whopping 360 kilobytes of data. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.) The disk later morphed into a 3.5-inch rigid diskette that held 1.44 megabytes of data. But as data needs increased and storage options improved, even the diskette couldn’t avoid its fate.

Polaroid instant cameras

Photo of a pile of Polaroid instant photographs
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If you remember when you took a picture with a Polaroid instant camera and had to shake the picture to wait for it to develop, at minimum you’re an older Millennial — or as we like to say around here, a member of the Oregon Trail Generation (also known as Xennials if you’re not up on your generational lingo). Before the instant camera, if you took pictures with a traditional film-based camera, you had to completely use the roll (usually at least 24 frames per roll), drop it off at a photo developer, wait, and hope that you took quality pictures.

Polaroid’s 600 series instant camera burst onto the scene in 1981 and allowed people to “instantly” (roughly seven to 15 minutes) see whether or not their picture was a success. While the camera eventually fell out of favor as digital cameras and self-print photo processing booths popped on the scene, the Polaroid 600 series cameras continue to be a fan favorite and even have a refurbished sales option.