The 70s was the decade technology really became consumer technology. Invention that was birthed in the 50s and 60s became products to fill store shelves and catalogues in the 70s. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) even moved to a twice-a-year format in the boom of all the gadgets and consumer-facing electronics hitting the market.
Including everything from the cell phone to the person computer itself, most of the technology we use today find their common ancestors from a product sold in the 1970s. So let’s look back at the 7 big tech advancements from the 1970s that completely changed the world:
1. The Floppy Disk
The floppy disk may be a largely obsolete technology at this point but its legacy is huge. This very article is being written in Microsoft Word and the document has been saved by clicking that floppy disk symbol in the top left corner. We’re not using floppy disks anymore but we haven’t forgotten about them.
The small little square piece of plastic long pre-dates the likes of USB sticks with the roots of floppy disks tracing back to the late 1960s when IBM began tinkering on the idea.
The first commercially sold floppy disks hit the market in the early 70s, sold by IBM and Memorex and were 8” in diameter. IBM initially labelled the product as a Type 1 Diskette but the term floppy disk caught on in the press and thus it was christened so for decades to come.
It was then in the mid to late 70s that the floppy disk format started to shrink in size. Now-defunct computer maker Shugart Associates, led by Alan Shugart who previously worked on the disk storage at IBM and Memorex, released a 5¼” version and the product came down in price even if the disks could only hold about 90 to 100 KB of data.
By the late 1970s, Apple had released its own floppys that boasted 256 KB of data storage and in 1978, Tandon released a double-sided floppy disk that could hold 360 KB but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that we were introduced to the 3½” floppy disk that we all know and love.
However, the ability to write data to an external disk was truly transformative. Moving data so easily, even just via hardware like USB or external hard drive, is something we take for granted now but the opportunities presented by the floppy disk format were staggering, even if the amounts of data we’re talking about here are miniscule by today’s standards.
Floppy disks’ heyday didn’t really come until the 80s and 90s but the products developed and released in the 70s were vital cornerstones in computing
You’d be forgiven for thinking that floppy disks have gone entirely the way of the dodo but you wouldn’t be 100% correct. A 2014 edition of 60 Minutes found that the Air Force was still using 8” floppy disks from the 1970s in some cases for partly operating ballistic missiles. The website FloppyDisk.com continues to sell 5¼” and 3½” floppy disks to the few remaining faithful and you can still find disks and external disk readers on Amazon. —Jonathan Keane
2. Portable Cassette Player
Philips Electronics, a Dutch electronics corporation founded by Anton and Gerard Philips, in 1962, invented the first cassette for audio storage. Cassettes came in two forms: a tape that already contained pre-recorded content, or a “blank” cassette that was fully recordable. When the cassette was developed there were originally only three tapes in the world to allow Philips to get it right, with the BASF PES-18 being the fist tapes for the compact cassette. Using a magnetic tape recording format, a cassette, contains two miniature spools that are held inside protective plastic shells. Between the spools they hold the magnetically coated, polyester-type plastic film that continues to be passed and wound.
The cassette has two stereo pairs of tracks (so four in total) or two monaural analog audio tracks. One stereo or one monophonic track is played or recoded while the tape moves in one direction, with the second pair moving in the opposite direction. Initially, the compact cassette format offered fairly poor reliability, but as technology soon improved with advances in noise reduction and the ability to play stereo tapes, new tape formulations assured a higher-quality sound from compact cassettes.
The first cassette players were simple, mono-record and playback units that required a dynamic microphone. Stereo recorders eventually evolved into cassette decks and Hi-Fi cassette decks often didn’t have built-in speakers. So they were bulky, big pieces of equipment that didn’t sound all too well. Then, Sony came along and fixed everything.
In the 1970’s, Sony was basically the king of well-designed, miniature music products and in 1979; they revolutionized the market with the release of the first portable music system. Though it wasn’t a huge engineering innovation (magnetic cassette technology had been around since 1963) the TPS-L2 Walkman cassette player was small in size, just slightly larger than an actual cassette tape and definitely smaller than the 8-track cartridge player. The self-contained portable music system came with lightweight headphones, played cassette tapes and was capable of Hi-Fi stereo sound, so, needless to say, everyone wanted a Walkman when they came out.
The biggest impact the portable cassette player really had was how it changed the way we listen to music. Previously, people had in-home devices or 8-track players in their cars, but the Sony Walkman changed our listening habits by allowing people to carry recorded music with them and listen to it through lightweight headphones. Obviously, in 2016, no one carries a Walkman anymore—unless you happen to be a subway performer, you might still have one—but, the Walkman was the first piece of portable technology that eventually led to smaller, more modern looking devices we know and love today.—Isabel Thottam