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Scott Begbie: When cutting-edge technology was Mickey Mouse

A Mickey Mouse watch.
A Mickey Mouse watch.

When I was a bairn, one of the most cutting-edge pieces of technology around was a battery-powered Mickey Mouse watch with a second hand.

Despite numerous letters to Santa, I never got one before I reached the age when wearing a Mickey Mouse watch would be an invitation to being ridiculed…

But then, we were never early-adapters of the latest innovations in our house. Take, for example, having a phone.

Tech moved on a bit from the days of the “string telephone”.

These days the idea that you grew up without even so much as a landline will have people looking at you with concern and sympathy. Poor thing. Such poverty. How did you cope? More to the point how did your parents manage?

Simple. If mum or dad needed to get a message to someone nearby, it was written on a note and one of us urchins was sent to drop it off. That didn’t happen very often mind you. In those days few things were deemed so urgent anyone needed to know about it immediately.

Wanted to be Batman

But one of my earliest memories is of my big sisters and me being trotted through to our neighbour across the landing so we could talk to mum on their phone (they were a bit posher than us) the day after my little brother was born.

Hello! Anyone there?

That was when I asked if he could be named Robin. Then I could be Batman. Didn’t happen, for which my brother is no doubt eternally grateful.

Eventually, technology caught up with us and a telephone was duly installed. It came with a stern warning from dad that it wasn’t a toy, we weren’t to use it and it cost money, you know.

At least he didn’t go as far as one of my mates whose dad put a lock on the rotary dial of the phone (remember those). His meanness failed to take account of the ingenuity of kids, though. It was soon figured out if you tapped out numbers rapidly on the receiver on the phone cradle, you could bypass the dial. No doubt he spent days trying to figure out how all those 160 numbers were called from his house. For those of you not of my vintage, if you called 160 you reached Dial-a-Disc, a GPO line that played the hits of the day to you. No, seriously. We did that.

Posh friend’s house

Colour telly was another late arrival in the Begbie household. The first time I saw a programme in colour, it was at my mum’s friend’s house. She was even posher than our neighbours.

Children would gather at a neighbour’s house to watch their favourite programmes back in the day.

The Virginian was on (cowboy shows were all the rage back then) and someone was playing a trumpet. I was astonished at how, well, colourful it was. I mean, the brass looked like brass.  I was also amazed that when you watched Laurel and Hardy it was the same really vivid black and white you got in the cinema as opposed to the sea of grey offered up by our Radio Rental box.

Pester power kicked in and eventually my folks relented and said we could get a colour telly. There was a waiting list and I remember coming back from school every day praying the tell-tale cable from the fancy aerial was running down the front of our tenement. One day that prayer was answered. The Magic Roundabout never looked so magical.

The Magic Roundabout really was magic in colour.

As the years rolled by, my fascination for all things technical and gadgety grew exponentially.

Forget Mickey Mouse. Casio was now offering the coolest thing on the planet to wear on your wrist. Digital watches were the must-have accessory for any young teenager.

Digital Casio watches were the must-have accessory.

Especially one that had an alarm. An alarm that played Scotland The Brave, no less. Well, it didn’t so much play it as belt out some flat electronic notes that vaguely approximated it… but still, what a time to be alive!

Education hadn’t caught up

And as for pocket calculators, could it get any more cutting edge. Especially when you discovered how if you put in 5318008 and turned it upside down, it spelled boobies. I was a teenager, okay?

Calculators were so cutting edge, the education system hadn’t caught up with them yet. I was actually allowed to take a calculator into my maths O Grade exam.

Calculators made maths homework simpler in the 70s – for some.

I still nearly failed, which goes to show machines are no substitute for actually knowing what you are doing. But then, I have still to find myself in a situation where someone shouts: “quick… is there anyone here who can do trigonometry!”

My next great leap into the future was the tape recorder – no, not a Walkman, that came later. These were the boxy things you held next to the radio when the Top 10 countdown was on, so you could record your favourite songs. And you cursed Tony Blackburn when he talked over the end of Bohemian Rhapsody. The cad.

You too can be as  cool as Kevin Bacon with a Walkman. The picture is a scene from the 1984 film Footloose.

But, yes, Walkmans. Suddenly you could play your own music wherever you wanted. I was a bit older when these became the next big thing, but I, and many like me, spent many a happy bus journey zoning out to Peter Gabriel or Sade, looking for that next big dinner party album to show off to your mates. Oh, and anyone with an ounce of sense carried a pen along with their Walkman. Not that you needed it to take notes but just to try to wind the tape back into the cassette when it got stuck in your Walkman.

Mobiles changed everything

If listening to tinny headphones was gadget nirvana, the arrival of mobile phones changed everything. Not, of course, that they were seen that way to begin with.

The first mobile phones looked like a small suitcase before evolving into house brick size with a pull-up antenna and 30-minute battery life.

An early version of a mobile phone – from 1972

Back then, they were hideously expensive and the preserve of Yuppies and stock exchange wideboys, shouting into them on trains. Dom Joly nailed that one. Possession of a mobile back then made you look like a plonker.

But, eventually, the prices came down along with the size of the things and before you knew it everyone had a Nokia, was using txt tlk and playing Snake, thinking we were all as cool as.

A Nokia mobile.

Until iPhones. I remember the first time I saw one. I thought, “how one earth do you work that”. The scary thing is, that was only 13 years ago.  I’ve been through a few versions since then.

And now we have wearable technology, like the Apple Watch on my wrist right now.

I can change the watch face at the push of a button. I can have different ones for work, for play, for the weekend, for holidays, for running.

A half-century wait

I can make phone calls from it. I can play music on it through my not tinny-sounding, noise-cancelling wireless headphones.

Paying at a cafe with a smartwatch.

It will read my texts to me and let me dictate replies. It will measure my pulse, perform an ECG, check my blood oxygen level, tell me how far I’ve walked, nag me to exercise more and time me washing my hands for 20 seconds. It does stuff I don’t even know about.

But you know the thing I like most about it? I can finally have my Mickey Mouse watch face… and when you tap him he tells you the time out loud. Aye, it might have been a half-century wait, but it was worth it.