Of Things Big and Small

In and out inventions

Sony is stopping the production of Walkman: This is some news. Belonging to the transition generation that has seen abacus to Apple i-pod, I could not help but feel nostalgic about not only Walkman but also other inventions that have passed by.

Once upon a time, there were radios with circular knobs, which turned smoothly, moving a red pointer over the medium and short wave bar lines. These boxes coughed and conveyed news after three beeps, through their netted fronts. During any State mourning, they whined for days and in happier times, entertained us with music and drama. Glass container transistors glowed in their insides.

There were hand-wound gramophones which matured into sleeker motor-driven record players. There were black telephones with stiff wires. There were Lambrettas, Vespas and Fantabulus scooters. Fiat, Ambassador and Herald cars roamed with Impalas and Plymouths. The earth rotated at a slow rate of one revolution per day!

Then came pocket transistors which we could carry to parks and offices. They whispered and crackled cricket commentaries in schools, colleges and offices. Big spool magnetic tapes had arrived and their midget version of cassettes followed. National Panasonic cassette players and 2-in-1s became symbols of prosperity. Refrigerators and mixie-grinders were still luxuries. Around the same time, in the Middle-East, the Arabs discovered that Indians could work for their development!

Flashbulb cameras stopped exploding and noiseless flashes with single lens reflex cameras froze the world in black and white. Kodachrome arrived not too late but yet, video cameras were still a concept. Cinema had already conquered countries and projectors flashed images with side-slotted films unwinding and winding into large spools. The invasion of the idiot box followed, arresting the public in their dwellings and fertilising couch potatoes. The age of VCR and VCP dawned. The youth of this era jogged and jostled with micro speakers in their ears and Walkman in their belts. The Walkman had a sibling... the Discman.

Then a major blitzkrieg hit the world...The personal computer penetrated the privacy of one and all... in offices... in homes... Communication took a leap and inventions of mobile phones and pagers brought people closer and allowed them to go away further. As our generation was just turning away from the orange mushroom of the atom bombs... the napalms, hydrogen bombs, ICBMs and ABMs came and went.

The cinema theatres metamorphosed into multiplexes and cans of films micro-coiled themselves into compact discs. The VCRs, VCPs and video libraries vanished as inverted umbrellas of disc antennae spotted the earth looking up at the skies. Cable TVs and sitcom serials became life routine of many. Pagers became prehistoric as hand phones started to sing, send mails and photograph people and things...

The last decades of the 20th century can be termed as the peak period in this age of inventions. We also came to the edge of our seats with the Y2K and continued our journey on the information highway of the net and the web.

Let us fast forward into this century... Now we look around to find the likes of MP3s, mobile phones, laptops, videogame players and i-pods... a caboodle of all these inventions being identified as icons of any generation of today.

Inventions are rapidly evolving and any invention arriving in one part of the globe is getting outdated in another. Inside of this decade into the new century, we have witnessed phenomenal inventions: Wikipedia and i-pod in 2001; Facebook in 2004; Youtube in 2005. Let us ponder on some of the new arrivals in the 10th year of this century. Here are a few which caught my fancy:

An almost-waterless washing machine is ready to hit the market. This machine uses stain removing nylon beads to clean the soiled clothes as they spin together at high speed (I can hear the water-starved Chennai citizens roaring in approval). By the way, the nylon beads can be reused (now, I hear all the middle-class Indians applauding).

The next couple of inventions might invite sceptical sniggers from many... malaria-proof mosquitoes and mosquito zapping laser: In the first invention, a crowd of genetically engineered mosquitoes, which are immune to the malaria parasite have been cultured. The plan is to release them into a crowd of deadly, malaria-laden mosquitoes. In due course (say 10 years), they will replace the bad mosquitoes. Good mosquito change bad mosquito! Does it not sound exciting?

Wait, there is a quick fix invention also: A laser gun that zaps the mosquitoes only, recognising their wing beats and size (humans, cats and dogs exempted). This laser contraption is being readied for commercial availability. (Now, I can see all the Chennai folk standing and applauding, but I still see some rubbing their chins with doubt).

Ok. There are other fanciful inventions: English-teaching robots, fix-anything silicone rubber, laboratory-cultured lungs and ear mountable camera are also arriving. There is a sarcasm detector also in the pipeline!

Here is one for the damsels who are always delayed due to dressing up – A spray fabric! Spray a liquid fabric from a can onto your body and in minutes, the fibres bond into a curve-clasping, figure-hugging garment! (Beware of the non-sprayed areas causing a wardrobe malfunction).

Then there are innovative inventions which will sound too familiar for us, who are Bharat desh ki vAsiyon: Briquettes made from sugarcane stalk for fuel (equivalent: varati or cakes made from cowdung and straw). Clay cooler placed in a larger clay sand container to keep vegetables cool and almost refrigerated (equivalent: clay pots (pAnai in Tamil) which keep water and buttermilk cool).

We are in the midst of a material millennium which is spurning out inventions that not only satisfy human desires and comforts but also cater to human whims and fancies.

Maybe the new inventions are pushing out the old. Maybe the new inventions are just old ones coming around after a period. Maybe every invention is an involution or an evolution. We are travelling in the train of time and as we stare through the window of our minds into space, inventions are fleeing past.

But I guess only one invention of man has always stood the test of time...It has been outraged, denied, described as being useful and useless, depicted as anything and everything... yet it has never become outdated... the invention that we call God!

Dec 31, 2010
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Rajoo Balaji

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