You know you’re getting old when you mention something from your formative years to your children and they stare back at you with that look that says, “What on Earth are you talking about?” And when you patiently explain it to them, they roll their eyes and say, “Why would anyone want/need to do that?”
This chain of events seems to occur with alarming regularity. But that’s what happens when your children are still pre-teens, while you’ve just brought up your own half-century.
Anyhow, here are six things from my childhood or early adulthood that I have had to explain – not always successfully – to my kids.
1. The Speaking Clock
At the third stroke, the time from BT will be eight forty-three and 50 seconds
Why would anyone pay to call an automated voice which tells you the time at ten-second intervals?
Back in 1936, when the then General Post Office introduced its Speaking Clock service, the need for an accessible, accurate clock was understandable. If you wanted to tell the time, you used a wrist-watch or a clock. Over time, these would become inaccurate and require occasional resetting. The easiest way to do this was to dial 123 and receive a reliable report of the actual time.
Of course, in the last 10-20 years, the Speaking Clock has become increasingly unnecessary. You are rarely more than a metre or two away from a device with a built-in clock: mobile phones, computers, even kitchen appliances. Many of these have the ability to automatically self-correct via wi-fi, 4G or GPS.
Amazingly, though, the Speaking Clock is still running even today. So if your kids don’t believe you, get them to try it. Simply dial 123 from a BT landline and you can listen to the dulcet tones of Alan Steadman informing you of the current time. Calls cost 50p per minute. Time, as the saying goes, is money.
(Most mobile services also have their own version if you dial the same number. Although why you would want to call a speaking clock from a mobile which already has its own self-correcting clock is beyond me.)
2. Cassettes & mixtapes
Anyone remember mixtapes?
If you’re really old (like me), you’ll remember Sunday afternoons listening intently to the charts on the radio. Your fingers would constantly hover over the record and play buttons, ready to start recording when one of your favourite songs started. You’d curse whenever the DJ spoke over large portions of the intro or outro.
Later, if you were posh you had a twin cassette deck. Using this, you could compile your mixtapes in a more sophisticated and controlled manner, copying songs from an original cassette album to circumvent that annoying DJ.
Then iTunes came along. And Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services. Now compiling a playlist can be accomplished with a few clicks. Entire catalogues of music are readily available online, so you don’t need to ‘own’ an album to copy from. You aren’t limited by the 60, 90 or 120-minute capacity of a cassette. You don’t even have to plan the order of your tracks with any real care.
I do kind of miss all that effort, though. There used to be a real art to compiling a good mixtape; it was a proper labour of love; it showed you cared about something or someone. Selecting a good mix of songs. Planning the running order for a pleasing flow and to reduce the dead space at the end of each side. Achieving a clean edit to avoid awkward ‘clunks’ between tracks.
Nowadays, our kids dash off playlists of 50 or more songs in minutes without any real thought at all. They’re disposable, throwaway creations. They may achieve the same thing, but there’s a world of difference between a playlist and a lovingly crafted mixtape. It’s painting-by-numbers versus proper artistry. Bah humbug.
3. Black-and-white TV
What do you mean, you only used to watch TV in black, white and shades of grey?
It gets even better when you have to explain that these old TVs would take 30 seconds or more before the screen properly warmed up and there was no such thing as a remote control.
- The test card.
- When TV would go off air during the middle of the day. (No Loose Women or Judge Rinder back then …)
- Teletext – Like the internet, but with only a handful of pages, slower and no pictures. Oh, and if you missed one in a series of pages, you might have to wait several minutes for it to scroll round again.
- No ‘live pause’ or starting to play back a recording before it ends.
4. Software icons
It’s amazing how long some of these icons have survived for. Okay, our kids can just about work out why the universal icon for an email is an envelope, but …
- Why are files and folders still represented by an icon depicting a manila folder?
- ‘Call’ and ‘end call’ are usually signified by a rotary phone with a dial and its receiver handset
- ‘Save’ is represented by a 3½-inch floppy diskette
And so on …
5. Floppy disks
Speaking of 3½-inch floppy disks (or even their 8 and 5¼-inch predecessors), I remember when we thought how amazing it was that we could fit a massive 1.44 megabytes of data on to something so small. Nowadays, you couldn’t save even a single image from your average smartphone to a floppy – the file size is simply too large.
Modern USB flash drives, which are a fraction of the size, are readily available with a capacity of one terabyte – equivalent to over 694,000 floppy disks.
And if you really want to confuse your children, explain to them that, while 8 and 5¼-inch floppy disks lived up to their name, their 3½-inch successors were rigid and not floppy at all.
6. Pigeon post and internal memos
I finished university just before the internet and emails started to become widespread. Back then, we used an internal mail system called ‘pigeon post’ to send messages between colleges or departments.
This essentially involved writing messages by hand and posting them into a box. These would then be sorted and distributed around town by a network of elderly gentlemen on bikes. Using this system, messages might take a full day to get from A to B – longer if the recipient didn’t check their mail slot regularly.
Nowadays, of course, you would just send an email or fire off a WhatsApp message. Job done.
Similarly, when I started my first job, we used to communicate with colleagues in different departments or buildings by typing up internal memos and sending them in a reusable orange envelope which would then be delivered to the person and department named. Again, this meant messages were usually only received a day later – possibly longer if the recipient was on a different site.
If a message was really urgent, you would send it by fax. (Assuming the machine at the other end was (a) switched on, (b) working and (c) hadn’t run out of paper.)
All this meant that people only wrote to you when they really needed to. As a result, you might only receive half a dozen memos a day. Nowadays, I receive upwards of 100 emails or instant messages every day and the expectation is that we should respond to these instantly (if not sooner). That’s certainly what our kids seem to expect.
I could go on and on with examples similar to the ones above. I’m sure you could name countless others too.
However, doing this exercise goes to show that, while some aspects of our earlier lives may seem completely alien to today’s kids, they weren’t necessarily worse.
Good God, I really have turned into one of those rose-tinted spectacle-wearing “When I was a lad …” types, haven’t I?