Thursday, November 15, 2007

Technology: Any "Early Adopters" In Your Family Tree?

This was written for the 36th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, a carousel edition.

Most readers know that I tend to look at my family history from some very different angles - sometimes bordering on the controversial or bizarre. One angle I've been pondering has to do with technology.

The other day I thought about my great-grandmother, Therese McGinnes Austin, and tried to count all the different technological advances that appeared during her life. It was impossible to get an accurate number. But then I refined it down to technology that directly affected her life and items that she would have been introduced to and tried to learn.

I am admittedly a technogeek - it is what I do for a living as an applications analyst for a global law firm. I've been working with computers since the first IBM PC appeared in 1981. I have been a document processor, a software trainer, a technical writer, a programmer and developer, and now a project manager. Ask me a question about Microsoft Word 2003 or 2007 and I can probably recite the menu structure without looking. Sad isn't it?

Here is a brief list that I came up with in terms of inventions and how they probably affected by great-grandmother:

  • Electricity - while it wasn't "invented" per se, Grandma would have seen an increase in the use of electric lighting, transportation, and home appliances. I know that she still had an ice box growing up - that was the means of refrigeration. And much of her lighting was still by kerosene oil lamp. In fact, the Grahamsville farm house which they bought in the late 1940s didn't have electricity until the early 1950s.
  • Telephone - early telephones were not cheap (are they really cheap now? Don't get me started). I also remember Grandma talking about the first phone at the Grahamsville house - it was an 8 party line! It was the only type of phone service available and I remember it growing up - Grandma didn't replace it until the early 1970s. She always complained about one woman who did nothing but yack on the phone all day and tied it up for the other 7 homes.

    Through the years Grandma had to learn how to use a telephone and the method of calling someone was rudimentary compared to today's multiple area codes and overlays. In small towns you picked up the phone, clicked the receiver a few times and told Cora that you wanted to speak to Mrs. Hutchinson. Later you had to remember a number like 132 or something. Then there were 4 digit numbers and 3 digit exchanges. Remember when the exchange was partially based on a location? The ones I remember most are MUrray Hill 7 (New York City) and BUtterfield 8 (from the movie).

    Most people also think of a female operator with a headset and an enormous board filled with lights and cords. Well this is one male who had that job during summers in high school and college. I worked on the last "cordboard" in all of New York State for Ma Bell. Long time ago - when the earth was still warm.
  • Plumbing - growing up Grandma did not have indoor plumbing even in New York City. And the Grahamsville house didn't have it installed until the 1950s. I remember my mother talking about the 2 seater outhouse and having to go in the middle of the night and worry about snakes.

These are just some of the basic technologies that we take for granted today. There are so many more that vastly improved daily life: penicillin and antibiotics, the automobile, television, ATMs, computers.

Looking back even at your own life and the technological changes is a great way of feeling old. I remember when there were no ATMs - you had to go to the bank which closed at 3pm - and 12pm on Wednesdays - and wait in line for a teller. I remember vinyl - not clothing - but LP and 45 records. I remember when there was no TIVO and no VCRs - you rushed home to catch a television show.

Some may argue that television hasn't really improved our lives. All I know is that the technology itself is innocent - the good or bad that comes of it is determined by how we put it to use.

Think about technology and your family tree. Are they any inventors in your family's past? Do you remember parents or grandparents hanging on to some outdated technologies - due to fear of the new or just because they thought they worked better? What changes in technology have you seen in your own life?


Apple said...

I am a true technophobe. I tried ATM's in the 90's. The bank's machine swallowed my card and that was that. My kids have big screen TV's with lots of boxes and remote controls that I can not make work. My grandkids already have the old board games out when they know I'm coming to babysit. A high school student recently looked at my cell phone and called it an antique!

An interesting topic and one that I plan to tackle for my mother's life and then perhaps take back one generation at a time.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks Apple.

Now you can't be that much of a technophobe as a blogger using a computer right? Unless it is a Commodore 64 I guess.

It is an interesting topic and I discussed it with a few people this weekend - lots of them remembered certain things that I had forgotten: the first pop up toaster didn't appear until the 1950s; you had to mix a coloring tablet into the margarine to make it yellow.

Bill West said...

I can recall how radio and tv ads
were built around the old phone
district name system.Even now at
59 I can recall the old commercial for a rug company in Boston whose
jingle made you remember their

"How many cookies did Andrew eat?

ANdrew 8-8000!"

Janice said...

I still have a phonograph player that works, and the records to go with them. Granted we don't use it much, and we have to hunt on ebay for replacement needles. But we also have iPods...

I enjoyed your article very much. Are you also a marketing major? (Just curious, because I am, and "Early Adopters" is an often use marketing term).


Thomas MacEntee said...

No I'm not a marketing major - I went to college so long ago I don't even think that had invented marketing yet. Well, I guess things have been marketed since The Serpent marketed the Apple, but they just didn't have a name for it.

I was an Art History and Spanish Language and Literature major. Right around the time of Cervantes as I remember. LOL!

I use the term quite a bit in the Information Technology field which I've been in for over 20 years. We also call them "cheerleaders" because they adopt the technology and then can talk it up among colleagues.

Thanks for the kind comments!

Susan Kitchens said...

This is cool. My grandpa, in the final couple of years of his life (he was born in Dec 1900 and died in April 2001 and so lived through the entire 20th century), wrote a paper called "Twentieth Century Developments" wherein he offered up his observations about various and sundry inventions and changes he'd observed in this lifetime.

There's lots to do with transportation, beginning with railroad (his grandfather -- from the 1880s and uncles worked for the Denver and Rio Grande RR in Colorado). Then, in 1912, my grandpa's father bought a Model T -- and his description goes into the art of care-care before there was much in the way of documentation.

My grandfather worked as an engineer for the General Electric Co, (one of the high tech powerhouses of 1920s, akin to Google, et al., today).

He talks of the airplane and first jet engines (which he worked on in the WW2 push) and Gas Turbines and power generation, which he worked on from the late 30s until his retirement, and well after his retirement when he worked as a consultant.

Other topics: The single cylinder Corliss engine, a seemingly all-purpose boiler room type of motor, then later versions.

he wrote of plumbing, of the washing machine. and, of course, the refrigerator, which I've blogged about back when -- OMG, nearly 8 years ago!! Oh, and communications and computers, too. There's medical observations, too, ranging from the time before antibiotics to after -- "I can still remember, in grade school in March, the empty desk or two which would not be occuped the rest of the year, because the occupant was stricken by diptheria." [list of other common but deadly illnesses] "Now all of these have either been eliminatd or are well under control."

(oy! this is long-winded! I oughtta copy and past it and post it on my own site, too!)