Cassette recorders, the internet and other passing fads

It was recently announced that a further £100,000 is to be invested in Teesside’s burgeoning hi-tech and digital sector. Most people will have greeted this news with a hearty cheer.

One man who won’t have done is my dad.

You see, my dad is 86 and he’s convinced that the internet – and everything attached to it – is just a passing fad.

“Remember cassette recorders?” he says. “It’ll be like them all over again.”

To be honest, my dad has never got over the slide rule business.

Back in 1973, he told me: “If you can use a slide rule accurately, you’ll never be out of work.”

His faith in the slide rule was grounded in history. The slide rule was invented in 1620, and for pretty much the next 350 years it was the indispensable tool for engineers, architects and scientists. If you went into British Steel, Swan Hunters or ICI in the 1960s you’d see dozens of people fiddling with them.

The slide rule was a kind of analogue computer that did arithmetic, trigonometry and a range of other things the names of which still make me feel queasy at the school-time reminder of double maths.

My dad had learned to use a slide rule at school in Redcar and then perfected his technique at Dorman Long. Such was his faith in the slide rule that he set himself to teaching me to use one.

After school for many painful months he took me through every aspect of the device’s use, patiently correcting my mistakes, offering encouragement and occasionally slapping his head with exasperation.

And then, a week after I had become fully proficient in slide rule usage, Texas Instruments issued a pocket calculator that could do it all in a fraction of the time by punching a couple of buttons.

The new electronic machine was cheekily called the S-R 10. S-R stood for “slide rule.” And that was the end of that. Nowadays the only time you’ll see a slide rule is on the self of retro bric-a-brac in a hipster café.

I guess that’s a good example of disruptive technology – that sudden leap or twist that makes something that had once seemed indispensable immediately redundant.

Telex machines were replaced by fax machines, and fax machines…well, I’ve got one here if you’d like it. It hasn’t been used since 1998 – when I got my first laptop.

While my dad wants nothing to do with computers, at the opposite end of the spectrum is my 21-year-old daughter. She’s part of a generation that have lived their whole lives in the World Wide Web.

If she wants to do arithmetic, she does it on her smartphone. If she wants to look up the meaning of a word, she does it on her smartphone. If she wants to know what time it is, where she is and where she’s supposed to be, she looks it up on her smartphone. She is lost without it, quite literally.

Once, when her smartphone had run out of charge, she even phoned me, reverse charge, from a call box to ask directions to the restaurant she was heading for. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except she was in Finland at the time.

“You are too reliant on that damned phone,” I said to her when she returned to England. “You would be utterly helpless without it.”

My daughter rolled her eyes so dramatically it sounded like ball bearings in a spin dryer. “Yeah and, like, if electricity runs out will you be able to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together?” she asked.

She had a point.

We’re nor reliant on computers, but on the inventive human intelligence that creates them. Luckily there’s plenty of that on Teesside, and always has been.

After all, thanks to Stockton lad John Walker (pictured above) and his friction matches, if I wanted to light a fire I wouldn’t have to rub two sticks together, would I?


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