Human innovation is a process as old as time. But sometimes new does not necessarily mean better, and some old technology is not really obsolete. In fact, many of humanity’s earliest discoveries are still used today.
Pointy things, fire, walls, wearing materials over our naked body, drinking vessels, cutting things, and levers, are all some examples of many “technological innovations” that have not changed all that much since their invention.
But, most of you could intuitively make lists of that nature. So, let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known technologies of the past that are still going strong today.
1. The abacus still refuses to retire
Perhaps one of the oldest technologies still very much in use today is the mighty abacus. One of the most basic, and ancient mathematical machines, many people around the world still dote on it.
Where they first came from is a hotly debated topic, but one of the oldest recognizable examples dates to around the 4th-century BC in Salamis, Cyprus. Discovered in 1846, this particular piece is thought to have been derived from even more ancient Babylonian counting boards.
Most cultures and civilizations have developed their own versions of the abacus, and it is a very intuitive piece of technology to pick up and use.
In our modern age of digital calculators (both pocket ones and apps), it is something of a small miracle that anyone would prefer to use them. And yet, millions do.
Many people in Japan, various African nations, China, Russia, and Middle Eastern nations are still reluctant to set them aside for everyday use. The reasons for this are varied, but their lack of requirement for electrical power, portability, and relative cheapness are probably some of the key benefits over other alternatives.
For teaching, however, the abacus is an invaluable tool to teach children how to count and perform calculations, due to its incredibly intuitive characteristics. Interestingly, under certain circumstances, the abacus is a much more efficient calculation engine than calculators.
For example, for basic calculation, the abacus can even be faster than a calculator – as numbers can be input on an abacus faster than on a calculator, although it is slower when used for more complex calculations like division or cube routing, as the late, Richard Feynman once discovered.
Whether it is because they are still incredibly efficient, or people simply prefer the tactile nature of calculating using one, the abacus will probably be around for many years to come.
2. The venerable floppy disk is still very much in use
Mostly known by younger generations as the “save” icon on various software applications and platforms today, the floppy disk is one example of an old technology that refuses to die. These rectangles of plastic and metal were, for a time, the most common method of saving files, programs, computer games, etc., and managed to survive the near-extinction event that the compact disk seemed certain to deliver.
With their puny capacity (by today’s storage standards) of about 1.44 MB of space, it is a miracle that they have any use today at all. In fact, that is barely enough memory to store a three-minute .mp3 audio track.
Even with the advent of flash drives and other forms of solid-state storage, somehow this dinosaur piece of technology is still in use today. The reason for this is that some older technology that is still in use, especially expensive or critical infrastructure, was built during the floppy disk’s heyday, and built to last.
Some equipment, including some warships, airplanes, and until very recently some nuclear missiles, are still reliant on them.
Some older variants of the giant Boeing 747-400, for example, still use floppy disks to store and retrieve information. The software that runs these planes is much older and more outdated than what can be stored on more modern data storage devices, so floppy disks are still necessary to keep these machines running.
Some industries are still reliant on floppy disks, too. Various embroidery businesses, for example, use machines that can only use floppy disks, and it would be restrictively expensive to replace them given the very slight benefit such a company may achieve.
Because of this, some merchants also exist to service the need. One company, for example, actually runs a floppy disk refurbishment service that takes unwanted disks, cleans them up, and then sells them on. Wonders never cease.
Until these technologies are retired, or heavily upgraded, the floppy disk looks like it’ll be around for a while longer.
3. Pagers are still going strong, apparently
For those old enough to remember the pager, you’ll either be relieved or mortified to find out they are very much still in use. Largely made completely redundant by the advent of the smartphone, there are those who still rely heavily on pagers day-to-day.
Tracing their genesis to the 1950s, they became incredibly popular during the 1980s and 1990s.
Paramedics, doctors, lifeboat crews, and even some bird watchers in places like the UK are among some of the most notable users. But why?
In short, for their battery life. While devices like smartphones can do much more, their battery life is abysmal in comparison to the relatively simple tech in a pager.
Pagers can also put up with a lot more abuse, making them great for environments in which they may take a lot of knocks. Pagers are also perfect for older people who struggle to get to grips (literally and figuratively) with newfangled tech like smartphones. Rather than a cell tower, paging systems use FM radio signals to send messages, making them more reliable in areas where WiFi or cell signals might be spotty or non-existent, such as in rural areas.
For birdwatchers, pagers are excellent tools as they allow users in the countryside, where WiFi coverage may be poor, to send and receive information about rare birds very rapidly. In the UK, specifically, bird-watching enthusiasts who want to receive up-to-date information about rare birds can sign up to receive regular pager updates from a company called “Rare Bird Alerts.” However, their SwiftAlert pager is also able to receive messages via WiFi by linking the pager to a smartphone.
4. Some NATO warships still allegedly use Windows XP
Arguably one of the best, i.e. most stable, iterations of Microsoft’s incredibly popular operating systems (OS), support was officially withdrawn for Windows XP in 2014. While most private users made the switch to the far less popular Windows Vista, some large organizations and public bodies have been very slow to upgrade.
In fact, some organizations, like the United States Navy and British Royal Navy still haven’t. Since these navies had proprietary software that was heavily reliant on Windows XP, they decided to pay Microsoft millions to provide ad hoc support on their behalf only.
However, this was only a temporary measure. The U.S. Navy, for example, set up the so-called “Microsoft Eradication Team” to find ways to piecemeal remove their reliance on XP over time.
For the Royal Navy, some of their vessels including, allegedly, their fleet of nuclear submarines, reportedly still run on a specialized, custom version of Windows XP called “Windows for Submarines.” According to some reports from a few years ago, even the Royal Navy’s most modern and powerful aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was still using it, too, although the Ministry of Defence has made it clear that none of the systems using XP are directly involved in running the vessel and are not present when the ship is in operation service.
However, while this makes for great headlines in the press, any operating systems installed on these vessels bear very little resemblance to those available to the general public.
Up until a few years ago, other public bodies, like the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, were also still heavily reliant on old OSs like XP. However, they have been undergoing a massive overhaul program to migrate away from it.
5. There are a few very old satellites in orbit still in use
Among the pile of modern satellites and space junk currently orbiting our planet, there are a few satellites dating from the early days of the “Space Age” that are still very much in use. One is the Lincoln Calibration Sphere 1 (LCS-1) satellite which was first launched in the mid-1960s.
Composed of a large, roughly 3-foot 8-inch (1.12m) diameter aluminum sphere, this passive calibration satellite is, technically speaking, the oldest operational spacecraft although it has no fuel supply or solar panels and is used only as a radar calibration device.
The satellite was built by Rohr. Corp on behalf of the Lincoln Laboratory.
But, that is not the only dinosaur spacecraft that refuses to give up the ghost. LAGEOS-1, or Laser Geometric Environmental Observation Survey 1 to give it its full name, is one of a pair of scientific research satellites that are still used today.
Designed to provide laser ranging for geodynamic studies on Earth, each of the LAGEOS twins carries a passive laser reflector and are both held in a medium Earth orbit. The satellites were first launched in 1976.
Each is an aluminum-covered brass sphere with a diameter of around 24 inches (60 cm) and weighs between 882 pounds (400 kg) and 906 pounds (411 kg). Each resembles a large bronze-looking golf ball thanks to its suite of cube-cornered retroreflectors that cover the entirety of their surfaces.
Yet another ancient satellite is the still-operational AMSAT-OSCAR 7. Made on a budget by radio amateurs, this comms sat was first launched into orbit in November of 1974 from Vandenberg Air Force Base with a Delta 2000 rocket.
The satellite has operational HF/VHF/UHF transponders, which allow communication over distances of up to 5,592 miles (9,000 km) with relatively simple ground station equipment.
OSCAR 7 is in a 9320-mile (1,500 km) retrograde polar orbit, and while its original batteries are now dead, its solar cells still work. The satellite can be used daily during times when the solar cells receive sunlight.
6. There are still some very old computers and computer programs in use today
In the offices of water filtration company Sparkler Filters, located in Conroe, Texas, there might exist what could be the world’s oldest, still functional computer. An example of the 1948 IBM 402, it has no memory; instead, it relies on punchcards to complete its calculations.
In fact, running the IBM 402 requires the use of an IBM 029 key-punch machine, which itself dates back to 1964, when it was developed as a way of interfacing with what was already considered a legacy system.
Designed to perform accounting tabulation tasks, the IBM 402 can read punched cards at a rate of between 80 and 150 a minute. It also relies on programs to be physically wired into its plugboards, which need to be switched out to complete each and every task.
There were rumors that the company would make the transition to modern PCs, but at least as of 2020, this still appears to not be the case. In fact, you could argue that it would be a very real shame if they did.
With regards to computer software, the world’s oldest, still-used program might just be the United States of Defense’s Mechanization of Contract Administration Services, or MOCAS. First installed in 1958, the software was designed to use what was at the time the latest in computation and output technology to track contracts and payments to suppliers.
After 60 years of loyal service, the program is still very much going strong and is used to manage records using an IBM 2098 model E-10 mainframe. The software was written in COBOL, and keycards and punchcards were initially used to feed the program data.
Over the years, MOCAS was upgraded to work with green screen access, which is a terminal-like system that was widely used by airlines, banks, telecom companies, etc. Other elements have also been added, including new interfaces, allowing the program to extend its life long beyond what anyone dreamed possible.
There have been efforts to replace it, but the work involved has proven, thus far, cost restrictive. Today, it handles around $1.3 trillion in transactions over something like 340,000 contracts.
7. Cigarette lighter plug adaptor
Automobile auxiliary power outlets, more commonly known as car cigarette lighters, still largely come as standard in most cars and other vehicles. While most people probably never use them to actually light cigarettes anymore, they are still commonly used by most drivers and passengers one way or another.
While electric cigarette and cigar lighters were first invented in the 1800s, it wasn’t really until 1956 that the modern “automatic,” removable V-coil lighters were first patented by Casco. Shortly after their invention, they became pretty much standard features in all car models and brands.
For many years, these 12-volt outlets came with matching cylindrical, push-button, and sprung cigarette lighters, but these have largely been phased out for most new cars. However, the auxiliary power socket remains.
There also still remains an enormous market for aftermarket adaptors and accessories that can be plugged into the socket. From USB converter outlets, heated coffee mugs, portable grills, vacuums, and a whole variety of other accessories, the auxiliary outlet of your car adds a whole world of possibilities for customizing the interior of your vehicle.
Although superseded in many new cars by dedicated USB ports, given how popular many accessories seem to be for this aging technology, it seems likely that its future will be secured for some time to come.
8. QWERTY keyboards are still hanging in there
Another old tech still in use today is the QWERTY keyboard. First invented in 1873 (the layout design at least), it is still incredibly popular today.
Invented by Christopher Latham Sholes (a newspaper editor and printer from Winsconsin), the keyboard was patented in 1867 and later sold to E. Remmington and Sons in 1873 for use on their typewriters.
Pretty much the standard key configuration for typewriters and computer keyboards in countries that use the Latin alphabet, it is one of the most ubiquitous computer peripherals today.
The QWERTY arrangement was intended to reduce the jamming of typebars as they moved to strike ink on paper. Separating certain letters from each other on the keyboard reduced the amount of jamming and greatly increased typing speeds and efficiency.
In 1932, August Dvorak developed what was intended to be a faster keyboard, putting the vowels and the five most common consonants in the middle row, with the idea that an alternating rhythm would be established between left and right hands. Although the Dvorak keyboard has many adherents and computer keys are not at risk of jamming, it has never overcome the culture of learning to type on a QWERTY.
9. Sails are still around and may see a resurgence
The advent of combustion, electric, and nuclear power is yet to make the sail completely extinct. Despite its considerable inefficiencies in comparison to other ship propulsion systems, this ancient technology has managed to hang in there.
Whether it is their aesthetics, the ability to travel without the use of polluting and costly fuel, or simply the challenge and fun of using sails, it seems our species is not yet quite finished with sails. And indeed, they are one of the oldest pieces of more advanced technology ever invented by humans.
According to some archaeological evidence, they may date back as far as the sixth millennium BC, perhaps even older than that. Since then, they have helped our species carve out a living, thrive, and explore every corner of this planet we call home.
And that, ancient-tech enthusiasts, is your lot for today. Why don’t you take a look around your house or workplace for equally ancient technologies? Their age might just surprise you.
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