Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two more technologies bite the dust

Every year, new technologies are introduced. What we don’t often hear about are technologies that are retired.

Two very different technologies were retired in 2008.

First, paper music rolls for player pianos. The last manufacturer of paper music rolls for player pianos ceased production at the end of 2008.

I only vaguely recall one of my relatives having a player piano that used these paper rolls to play music. The piano was a pump version where someone had to sit on the piano bench and alternately pump two pedals on the floor, not unlike riding a bicycle.

If you’re not familiar with a player piano, it looked like a regular piano, but where the music sits, wooden slats would open up to reveal an area where a scroll of paper could be inserted. The scroll was about 12- to 14-inches wide and had holes in it. As the paper would move from one spool to another, holes in the paper would move across jets of air. If the jets of air found an opening, the key associate with the jet would play.

Somehow, pumping the pedals provided both the mechanical motion to the piano keys and generated enough air to activate the jets of air.

A recent news report about QRS Music Technologies in Buffalo, N.Y., ceasing production of paper music rolls has caused quite a stir in some circles. Apparently QRS had been producing paper music rolls for 108 years.

Player pianos moved to the digital age years ago and the newer technologies provides a more robust and accurate representation of the pianist.

The second technology to bite the dust was Polaroid film. Yes, the film that many of us grew up with making instant pictures is going away.

The film technology developed by Edwin Land (hence the Polaroid Land name) gave us instant photos wherever we were, without having to send the photos to a lab for processing.

The original photos had a peel-off part and a special coating that had to be applied to preserve the photos. This was later replaced by the SX-70 film, which only had one part that ejected from the camera.

Polaroid film was a boon to travelers who wished to leave photos with friends they met. It also became very popular at parties and other events where having an immediate photo was desirable. Professional photographers used the Polaroid film to check lighting, composition and exposure before committing their image to film.

Digital photography has changed the entire photographic landscape.

While the ability to make instant prints is still a bit of a challenge, it’s very possible to do so now with other techniques besides the Polaroid method. A digital camera, a computer and a color printer will do the same thing. In fact, a number of printers eliminate the computer component and will make prints by talking directly with a camera.

Not to let the entire instant photo business go away, Polaroid introduced a camera/printer combination that lets people make instant prints. The product was unveiled last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The other reasons for people to use Polaroid film have pretty much gone away. Every digital camera now has a screen on the back that lets the user see what the image looks like immediately after the photo is taken. E-mail now allows people to send digital photos to each other, even if they’re around the world. And if the recipient wants to have a print of the photo, he or she can make it themselves.

So, while the passing of both paper player piano rolls and Polaroid film is sad, I can’t say they will be terribly missed. It is mostly nostalgia on my part.

These items will be yet another technology that my children will ask me about when we’re watching a movie; or something I’ll be able to say: “I remember when I was a kid and cameras used to spit out a print that we used to watch develop in front of our eyes.”

I’m sure they’ll respond the way I used to with my parents: “I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the olden days.”

This was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 28 January 2009.

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