I feel very fortunate to have been born when I did and to have observed the revolutionary change in technology that I have. Things whizz along so fast these days. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to watch man's first moon landing, but the rocket that took man to the moon only had a 16 bit processor and a tiny amount of memory by modern standards. These days we all have far more power in our mobile phones! It's all happened so blindingly quickly!
In fact I feel very fortunate to be born at all, as my parents were quite ‘elderly’ when they had me. Dad was 54 when he had me and mum in her mid forties so I'm lucky to be here. Accordingly the environment I grew up in was full of old technology that had been accumulated over many years. We had a valve radios and television that took ages to get hot before they would work. The family camera was a ‘box brownie’ – little more than a black box with a lens and a winding mechanism to advance the film. The film wasn’t cheap so we took each photograph with care, posing and saying cheese! Then it took days or weeks to get the prints back from the chemist! All these artifacts smelt old and musty, but also everything felt frozen in time as though they had been around forever.
Then around the mid-sixties I remember my elderly grandfather went through a number of transistor radios, all of which were made in Hong Kong. My grandad was a bit clumsy and used to drop these ‘trannies’ repeatedly. Invariably the case would break and after a few months of being held together with rubber bands and sticky tape, they would be replaced with another which was always smaller and lighter than the last.
I loved to take the old radios apart and figure out how they worked. The valves of old had been replaced by small blobs which were transistors. The other components had all been shrunk too, as had the printed circuit board. Even so, every component was identifiable and it was generally possible to figure out which did what.
By the time I reached secondary school things started to change a whole lot. My physics teacher explained to me about integrated circuits. Tens or hundreds of transistors were now being fabricated together on one piece of silicon to form whole circuits. These were found in the first pocket calculators. My first calculator, made by Prinztronic cost a fortune but only did +-/* and percentages!
It wasn’t long after that I saw the first microcomputer on the television. This was the commodore Pet, which today still looks more like the sort of thing you would find on the deck of the starship enterprise. The Pet seemed unimaginably expensive to a youngster like me, but pretty soon my school purchased a bunch of microcomputers in kit form (NASCOM 1 if you're curious) and us school-kids were co-opted to spend hours soldering them together.
I inevitably found myself working in computers and during the 1980's the IBM PC became the default architecture for most business users. My first experience of these was the Olivetti M24, which was a dinosaur by today's standards but crucially the office had them networked together with this clever thing called co-axial cable. The first time I met with this concept I remember thinking what a waste of money! Surely if two people wanted to work on the same spreadsheet they could copy it to a floppy disk and walk to the next office with it. How wrong I was, which is a recurring theme in my life! Of course from these humble beginnings, networking really took off, bringing us to the Internet and the applications on the World-Wide Web we are all so dependent on today.
I'd moved to Spain by the time I saw my first smartphone, a first generation iPhone owned by a friend on holiday from the UK. It seemed so revolutionary at the time, and Apple had clearly got it right - the combination of touch-screen and scrolling GUI was a winner. Now we all have one (or more) in our pockets and think little of it. When you do think about it though, today's smartphones are far more advanced than the communicators used in the first series of Star Trek, which themselves were considered light years ahead at the time.
An example of how far things have advanced is the disdain people have today of optical media, the CD/DVD discs read with a laser, which are now seen as quaint and clunky like the horse and cart of the digital world. With today's Internet speeds it a lot easier to stream a movie from Netflix than it is to watch an optical disk. A laser based tech becoming near obsolete in my lifetime! How amazing is that?
You might think then, like the apocryphal story of the commissioner of the US patent office, Charles H. Duell, that everything that could be invented had been invented. (I traced the quote - it was more likely a joke prophecy made in Punch magazine). This couldn't be further from the truth. the 21st century is the age of materials, where scientists are gaining insights as to how to manufacture new things at an atomic and quantum level. Quantum computers are in their infancy but promise to bring unparalleled levels of computing power. Graphene, the single atom thick layer of carbon famed for its conductivity of electricity and heat as well as tensile strength has already made its way into a commercial battery. Though at the moment it is only used to assist and enhance conventional lithium batteries, it is expected that graphene only batteries will be used in future mobile phones and electric vehicles that will be a fraction of the size of those used today.
So I've seen the world move from valves to the quantum computer in a couple of generations and technological progress is still accelerating. We're living in a world none of us could have envisaged 10 years ago. Who know what the next ten or fifteen years will bring.