Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 20, 2015

What's old is new again

Last week, actor Tom Hanks was a guest on David Letterman's TV show. Letterman mentioned that Hanks was the inspiration for a new application - an app - called the "Hanx Writer." When running on an Apple iPad, the tablet is "converted" to an old-fashioned typewriter. Well, not exactly. There is no actual paper or ribbon, but when the soft keyboard is used, the iPad makes a sound like that of a typewriter. The "Delete" key can be set to place an "X" over a previously entered character rather than erase it.

The human mind often finds incongruity humorous. So having such an old-fashioned and unneeded aspect added to something as modern as a tablet is funny - and yet it isn't. For those of us who grew up with the typewriter, having that familiar feedback - the clack of the type face hitting the paper and the ding of the bell signaling the end of line - is somehow reassuring.

We experience this old-new connection with most modern digital cameras. Pressing the button to save an image generates a sound similar to that produced by the mechanical shutter in older cameras. This sound is completely artificial, but provides an immediate familiar confirmation that a picture has been taken. When color photos became available, most people quickly left black-and-white photography behind. Yet modern digital cameras routinely offer an option to convert the saved image into a grayscale version. Some even provide for creating the even older sepia-toned images.

Another example of what is old is new again is occasionally encountered when I hear certain cell phones ring. Of course, they don't actually ring as phones no longer have a bell. Still, I've noticed a few folks "of a certain age" have chosen a ring tone that sounds like that bell from long ago.

These old-new links started me thinking about other such connections. Much of our world has gone electronic and many of those devices are pretty small. So trying to meaningfully label the tiny buttons in very little space is a challenge. A small and universally-recognized symbol was a good solution, particularly for manufacturers who sold products in several countries with different languages and so needed to avoid using words. The power switch in some places was indicated by a finger touching a button. In others, switches were often of the rocking style with a "1" and a "0" used to indicate which side to push to turn the device on or off. These two were combined in the now ubiquitous circle with a line going through the top of the circle.

The origin of a couple of frequently-encountered symbols is even older. Humans have long drawn the sun as a circle with lines radiating away. Today, that same design is frequently used to identify - what else? - the brightness control on a TV or computer display. A bolt of lightning has often been depicted by a zig-zag arrow pointing downward. A modern camera has adopted it to identify the flash control.

When I was young, the thermometer that hung outside our window was a vertical glass tube with a ball at the bottom filled with a red liquid. The warmer the temperature, the farther up the tube the liquid moved, and a scale next to the tube gave us a reading. Today, many of us have small electronic weather stations or phone apps where the temperature is indicated by an outline drawing of that liquid-filled tube.

The origin of some symbols seems a bit more obscure. A mute button on a sound-producing device typically combines two symbols. One is a line drawing of a loudspeaker. The other is either a slash or an "X" over it. The slash probably came from using that symbol on a typewriter to "erase" a character - as with the Hanx Writer - and an "X" has long been used to indicate the underlying item was now gone. But the loudspeaker was always INSIDE an enclosure, so why would people recognize it? Perhaps it made a person think of the old Victrolas.

An arrow pointing to the left usually means to go backward and one to the right means to go forward. I'm guessing these arise from reading and writing. I wonder it they are confusing for people who use a language that is read right to left?

Most computers have more than just "on" and "off" states. Two common intermediate conditions are sleeping and hibernating. Some use a small moon to indicate the machine is "sleeping."

E-mail apps frequently use a drawing of an envelope to represent the program, even though no envelope is ever involved. A trash-can icon shows me where I need to "toss" unwanted documents.

But old-meets-new is not limited to just our visual and hearing senses either. Automobile manufacturers have long known that people like being able to "feel" the road through the steering wheel and brake pedal. So while they could completely eliminate the effort needed to turn the wheel or greatly reduce the pressure needed to apply the brakes, they don't.

I did some additional research and discovered Hanks has collected typewriters since 1978. It is his obsession with the machines that resulted in the app he created with the developer Hitcents. The sound was actually based on typewriters from his own collection.

Apparently the idea just struck him one day. But I imagine somewhere in an industrial engineering curriculum, psychology program or graphic design course, these matters are routinely considered. For when the right old-new association is selected, it helps us adapt to new technology - it helps us oldsters feel just a bit younger.

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