100 Greatest Gadgets
On Bank Holiday Monday Channel 4 are screening one of those “100 top” programmes they like to make and this year I had the pleasure of being allowed to choose my 100 favourite gadgets. I don’t think you’ll guess which comes first. Besides, I didn’t really approach it as a beauty pageant. The winner might as easily be a kitchen essential as a digital doodad. The fact is I have always had a quite inexplicable love of gadgets and feel myself blessed to have been born into an age in which they seem to have come thicker, faster, newer, sleeker and more miraculous than ever before. In the programme we didn’t want to get all ontological on your arse and never made an attempt to define or limit the meaning of the word. A gadget, for our purposes, was more or less what I decided it was, and in the end it doesn’t really matter who wins the Palm D’Or. Though naturally your burning curiosity will keep you watching all the way to the finish because …. well, you’ll never guess. You’ll just never guess…
But it’s talk of palms, d’or or otherwise, which brings me to the sad story of the week. Of the year. Of the decade.
The early days…
I’ve always been a lucky sod when it comes to my love affair with all things tech. It is a passion that coincided with my having a career that allowed me to be able to indulge in the kinds of insane spending spree that the speedy inbuilt obsolescence of gadgetry has always necessitated. At some time in 1985 I astonished my friends by brandishing before them professionally printed material. I remember the late and blessed Ned Sherrin goggling in disbelief when I came into a radio studio with a piece of A4 on which my script had been perfectly printed.
“You send your scripts to a printer?” he shrieked.
I nodded gravely. “These are fine scripts,” I said. “They deserve memorialisation.”
It was only after being harangued for insanity, hubris and dementia that I finally confessed that I had invested in a new kind of printer. You must remember (or be told because you are far too young to remember) that in 1984 printers were dot matrix machines that produced only a faint simulacrum of what a printing press could manage. In 1985 Apple brought out the LaserPrinter, Aldus produced a programme called PageMaker and I had splashed out £7,000 for one and about £40 for the other. A ridiculous sum, but I was now a Desk Top Publisher. The PostScript language, kerning, leading and justification were all I could think about.
Less than ten years later I ambled into a film studio and started taking photographs of the set with a QuickTake camera, much to the astonishment of the cinematographer and his crew.
“What’s more,” I said, “I could upload the photographs to my computer and email them to a friend.”
“What’s email?” they all wanted to know.
That digital cameras, perfectly printed pages and email are now all as platitudinous, quotidian and meretricious as takeaway coffee is easy to take for granted and I certainly don’t expect credit for being an early adopter or some kind of wise prophet. I was also an early adopter of many disastrous failures. The Newton, the Microwriter AgendA, early, bulky and dreadful Sony electronic books, iRex iLiads weird tone-dialling devices – any number of freakish gadgets that were either before their time and technology or simply deluded and hopelessly hopeful were all grist to my crazy mill.
The Mac, the LaserWriter and QuickTake camera were (niche and generally unprofitable) Apple products and it’s hard now to believe that there was so long a period when friends and the entire tech press gleefully crowed that my aging Mac peripherals and spare parts would in future have be bought at specialist hobbyist shops because Apple as a company was doomed. Well in 1997 Steve Jobs returned to the company he co-founded and that had fired him 12 years earlier and everything changed, but enough of that.