Can you remember the days before we were all connected?

John Caudwell, who went on to become a mobile phone billionaire, with one of the early Motorola devices.

North Staffordshire entrepreneur John Caudwell, who went on to become a mobile phone billionaire, with one of the early Motorola devices.

Just put it down for a minute while you read this, will you? Your Facebook account will still be there when you pick it back up again and, no, you absolutely do not have to answer that text message straight away.

That email can wait too. Honestly.

Mobile telephones: Great, aren’t they? One of the many technological advances for which we have the Eighties to thank. Sort of.

Passion-killers. Conversation killers. Movie-interrupters and promoters of ignorance on an epic scale.

OK, maybe that’s taking it a little far, but you take my point?

Unbelievably, it’s actually 30 years since the first mobile telephones went on sale at an eye-watering £2,300.

Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, which had been in development for about a decade, was as big as a house brick, weighed more than a kilo and was only seen initially on TV programmes or being lugged around by the ‘City boys’ of London.

However, its arrival sparked a race between manufacturers to produce ever smaller, more lightweight and – crucially – mass marketable phones.

During the 1980s, the growth in popularity of the mobile was largely fuelled by carphones.

Indeed, when I started work as a cub reporter for a local press agency in 1989 my colleagues and I shared a pager – yes, like a doctor would wear – when we were ‘on-call’.

It wasn’t until two years later that we were equipped with a big chunky mobile telephone which I felt hugely self-conscious about using when it first went off one night in a pub up Hanley.

By the end of the Eighties Motorola was ready to follow up its world first with another one – the first ‘flip-phone’.

The MicroTAC had a pop-up aerial but was still nine inches long and weighed just over 12 ounces.

It is worth pointing out that at this point, of course, a mobile telephone was still, well… a mobile telephone.

People weren’t using them to send dozens of text messages every day, they didn’t have built-in cameras and they weren’t connected to the internet because it didn’t exist.

It was a novelty just having a phone in your car, to be able to take to the shops, the pub or a football match.

Most of us were still using red phone boxes or those awful metal BT ones which took cash or cards.

Bear in mind my generation, and all those before, were just about getting used to cordless telephones in the home. The ones which had digits rather than dials.

When we made arrangements to meet someone this was done via a quick call from the home phone.

We would just turn up, as agreed – without feeling the irrational urge to check someone’s estimated time of arrival or to inform the world where we (or they) were at a given moment.

However, there was no stopping the march of progress and over the years mobile phones just kept getting smaller and more powerful – adding that word ‘functionality’ with every new model.

I’ll mention just a couple.

By 1999 the Nokia 3210 was on the market and became the first ‘mobile’ to gain widespread popularity among high school pupils.

Then the Blackberry 6210 was launched, 10 years ago, and that really did put an end to family life as we know it for many who couldn’t resist using their phone to check their emails when they should have been doing something more important.

After that, phones got ‘smart’ – started storing music and getting cosy with internet applications and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like the internet and email, mobile telephones have undoubtedly revolutionised our lives – for good and ill.

I guess the trick is knowing when, and where to switch them off…

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.


How the digital revolution changed our lives (whether we wanted it or not…)

The keyboard from a Commmodore 64 (like what I had!).

The keyboard from a Commmodore 64 (like what I had!).

This week I attended my first ‘tweet-up’ where prolific Twitter users from our patch met face-to-face over a pint at The Leopard pub in Burslem.

A disparate group of people, including some of North Staffordshire’s most influential thinkers and business people, were brought together by the power of a social network.

It is a concept that would have seemed bizarre even 20 years ago.

During my time at high school and college and the early years of my career as a journalist, such a thing would have been impossible as the technology just didn’t exist.

I am talking about a time before Skype, text messages, mobile telephones, email and, of course, the internet.

Simply put: The revolution in digital communications during the last quarter of a century or more has had a dramatic effect on the way we live our lives.

It is an effect that we would neither have believed nor understood three decades ago.

What’s more, the changes all come back to the advent of the internet and key events during the 1980s which really did shape the world we live in today.

In 1988 I sat my GCSE examination in computing and got a C grade which basically meant I could log in and shut down a PC and use a mouse.

This was, in fact, partly due to the fact I had a Commodore 64 at home on which I was playing Airwolf and Johnny Reb of an evening.

Perhaps more telling was the fact that I was one of only two boys at Holden Lane High who also sat the GCSE typewriting exam – using actual typewriters with ink ribbons. Remember them?

What most of my generation was unaware of was the fact that a revolution was coming. A digital revolution.

Back then we viewed computers as new-fangled machines for the office and school or play-things. If you were lucky you had one at home – although most people didn’t.

It was a time when children first started having portable (usually black and white) TVs in their bedrooms. Chunky little things with aerials that you had to manipulate in order to get a decent signal.

Either that or you had to stand on your tip-toes up the corner of the room holding the aforementioned telly in a certain position to achieve the best reception.

Anyone over the age of 30 knows I’m not kidding.

Computers were static, large, clunky things which took ages to ‘boot up’ and were, in effect, little more than memory devices for text or video game consoles.

But the internet changed all of that and made computers vital to every walk of life – from healthcare and law enforcement to your weekly shop and keeping in touch with friends and relatives in other parts of the country or across the world.

The origins of the internet can be traced back to the first real network run on what’s called ‘packet-switching’ technology.

Arpanet, or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was born in 1969 when computers at Stanford University and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) connected for the first time.

There was no commercial benefit to this – it simply allowed data to be shared by people across the network – but this very basic system was, over time, to lead to the global connecting of computers which the current generation takes for granted.

The 1970s saw the first email sent, the first trans-Atlantic connection and the advent of the first PC modem which was originally sold to computer hobbyists (when they were still niche).

In 1984 the domain name system was created – making addresses on the internet more ‘human-friendly’.

1985 saw the development of ‘The WELL’ (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) – one of the oldest virtual communities still in operation.

By 1987 the internet had around 30,000 hosts and a year later Internet Relay Chat was first used – paving the way for real-time chat and the instant messaging services we use today.

1988 also saw the first cyber attack by malicious software when the ‘Morris Worm’ caused major interruptions across the fledgling ‘inter-network’.

A year later saw the proposal for the World Wide Web – written by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) and published in the MacWorld magazine.

At the time yours truly was working as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press Agency, where one of my colleagues remarked that this ‘internet’ thing would hit our industry like a train.

At the time he was referring to electronic image transfer and I honestly don’t think he had any real idea how the internet would change everything. To be fair, no-one did.

By the end of the decade the die was cast and the digital revolution had begun.

Oh. I almost forgot: The 1980s also gave birth to another modern-day staple of communications.

In 1982 the first smiley emoticon was used.

Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist now living in Pennsylvania, proposed using 🙂 after a joke to represent a smile.

So now you know exactly who to blame for such nonsense. 😦

For more Eighties nostalgia pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday

The gadgets and gizmos that shaped a decade…

You’d be surprised at just how many gadgets and gizmos that we take for granted nowadays made their bow in the Eighties.
The decade of decadence was also one of great technological advances in both the home and on the streets.
A desire for portability and the growing importance of mobile communications were key drivers for this evolution as lifestyles changed and time became a precious commodity.
Chief among labour-saving devices which became popular during the 80s has to be electronic TV remote controls.
This lazy-person’s wand, which ultimately led to the invention of the phrase ‘couch potato’, is now a given in homes up and down the land.
Generations have grown up assuming we always had ‘remotes’ and never suffering from having to traipse to and from the sofa every time they want to change channels. Unless the batteries run out, of course.
Sticking with television, let’s not forget that the first satellite channels aired in the mid-eighties – eventually leading to the creation of the all-consuming behemoth that is now Sky TV which was launched on February 5, 1989.
Almost obsolete these days, it is also worth remembering that video cassette recorders (VCR) enjoyed their halcyon days back when yours truly was in high school.
The first VCR actually went on sale at Dixons in 1978 priced £798.75 – the equivalent of more than £3,000 in today’s money.
It was made by Japanese electronics giant JVC and had a slot in the top to insert the tape and huge, piano-style keys.
But it was during the early 1980s when video recorders really rose to prominence during the infamous battle of the brands between VHS and Sony’s Betamax.
VHS eventually won out – largely because it was the format favoured by video rental stores which were so popular at the time.
I recall my mate Richard hiring umpteen videos and us having the run of the old manor house up Norton when his parents were out.
We watched everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Evil Dead II while burning another 80s novelty – pizzas – in his mum’s cooker.
At the time, Mrs Murphy didn’t have a microwave oven – another invention which became a household must-have in the UK during the mid to late Eighties.
Microwaves didn’t become available in Britain until the end of the Seventies and did not catch on initially because of safety concerns and confusion over whether the ovens might be ‘radioactive’.
In addition, for most families at the time they were just too expensive.
For many in the UK the microwave revolution really began with Jimmy Tarbuck’s advertisements for Sharp microwaves which first aired in 1985.
Wearing a rather fetching red jumper, the Scouse comedian showed the nation how to defrost a chicken in minutes.
Strangely, Tarby wasn’t chosen to front marketing campaigns for another 80s icon.
Who could forget the ‘ghettoblasters’ or ‘boombox’ radios in a variety of sickly colours which popped up all over the place – turning Sneyd Green into downtown Detroit? Sort of.
Boomboxes were introduced in the late 1970s, when stereo was added to existing designs of the radio-cassette recorder but are mostly associated with the 80s sounds of breakdancing and hip hop.
The major manufacturers competed as to who could produce the loudest, best-sounding, flashiest and/or most quirky-looking boomboxes.
Of course, the boombox wasn’t the only musical innovation of my youth.
The metal-cased blue-and-silver Sony Walkman TPS-L2 – the world’s first low-cost portable stereo – went on sale in Japan on July 1, 1979.
It was launched in the UK in June 1980 and I remember being ridiculously jealous when I saw a lad wearing one at Central Forest Park.
As an avid collector of vinyl, I have to say I was less than keen to embrace the advent of another 80s musical phenomenon: compact discs.
These horrible little tea coasters put paid to my trips to Lotus Records in the old arcade up ’Anley from where I would purchase limited edition, imported picture discs of my favourite rock artists.
To be fair, I’ve still got a cracking vinyl collection, but it’s not been quite the same since the world’s first compact disc was produced at a Philips factory in Germany in 1987 – sparking a global music revolution.
Jointly developed by Philips and Sony, to date an estimated 220 billion CDs have been sold worldwide and they remain the dominant format despite the growth in digital downloads.
Interestingly, the first CD produced was The Visitors by Abba, but when the first CDs went on sale in November 1982 they were mainly classical recordings as classical music lovers were believed to have more money than pop and rock music fans.
The final gizmo we have the 80s to thank for is the mobile telephone.
Britain’s first mobile phone call was actually made across the Vodafone network on New Year’s Day 1985 by veteran comedian Ernie Wise.
Since then, ‘mobiles’ have become essential to modern life and it is now estimated that almost 90 per cent of Britons now own a handset.
When mobiles were first launched they were the size of a briefcase, cost about £2,000 and had a battery life of little more than 20 minutes.
You see, sometimes small really is beautiful…