You’re obsolete my baby, my poor unfaithful Baby.
Baby, baby, baby, You’re out of time.
-The Rolling Stones
When we were kids we used to rank each other out with sayings like, “I’ll rank you so low, you’ll be able to play handball off the curb.” “I’ll rank you so low that you could jump off a dime and freefall for three minutes.” Then, when we were in the armed forces with only days remaining on our enlistment, we would proudly say things like, “I’m so short I could play handball off the curb. I’m so short I could jump off a dime and freefall for three minutes.” The power and the meanings stirred by words are constantly changing.
Enemy at 9 o’clock? That used to be a way to warn somebody to look left, but in the world of digital watches it has no meaning anymore.
When you were really sure of something you’d say, I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut that such and such is true. Back then a donut cost a nickel so that meant you were so sure you were right that you were willing to give 20-1 odds. Nowadays with the cost of donuts, those aren’t such great odds anymore, and betting a dollar to a blueberry muffin, would really be bad odds for the person risking the muffin.
In the old days we used to pick up the telephone and dial a friend. There’s no rotary dial on the phone anymore, unless your dad works for the telephone company. They seem to be the last to want to let that rotor technology go. Even the touchpad is already being replaced by voice commands, “Siri call home.”
Even Shakespeare had anachronisms in his plays. Hamlet was set in the 13th Century, and Hamlet supposedly went to The University of Halle-Wittenberg, which was not founded until 1502. Shakespeare also put a clock in the play Julius Caesar. I’m sure he knew full well that the Romans didn’t have clocks, but like many other writers he also knew that you just don’t mess up a good story with the facts.
Even Leonardo DaVinci, who told his story with paint instead of words, played fast and loose with the facts. It was already pointed out in the DaVinci Code that he painted the scene of the Last Supper with no wine glasses on the table, but the unmentioned anachronism is the table itself. In Jerusalem in Biblical times they did not have great big tables, especially not the kind that were so big that 13 people could sit on one side with everyone facing the painter.
The pen may still be mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than a phaser, a laser, or something even crazier, like a suitcase nuke.
Momma jokes were always popular. There were jokes like Your Momma is so fat she has her own zip code. Your Momma is so poor, she has to save old Brillo pads to knit a stove. But even these come and go with style. Your mother wears combat boots, used to be the biggest slam. Now it could be high praise for her hard work and patriotism, especially if your momma was serving in the Armed Forces.
I saw a blooper scene in the movie Troy about the Trojan War, where Brad Pitt could be seen wearing a wristwatch, something that wasn’t quite invented at the time of the Trojan War, especially not Rolexes. Movies set in early times often have to make sure there are no planes flying in the area, before they yell, “Action,” but it still happens. Off in the corner of some cave man movie I’ve seen a vapor trail from a plane that was recently in the area of the set.
Movie makers have to insure that they don’t add inventions to the set that didn’t exist at the time of the story. You can’t have a washer/dryer in the laundry room of the Little House on the Prairie.
To avoid anachronisms in stories about the past it just takes some research, but writing about the future is trickier. Did anyone writing in the 1990’s picture a New York skyline without The Twin Towers? What items will be anachronisms sooner than we think? Books and newspapers will be replaced by smart phones and tablets, but how quickly. Probably more quickly than we think. If I write a story set in the year 2020 and say that the subway traveler turned the page of his newspaper, it is quite possible that readers will wonder why he wasn’t using an e-reader or a tablet, and, if you want to take it a step further, how long will it be before smart phones and tablets disappear, too?
Sometimes ancient inventions make great comebacks. The windmill, originally invented around 650 BC is making a big comeback today. Wind power. Who’d a thunk it, in this Hi-tech age?
Sulphur matches used to be given free with every pack of cigarettes. Bic lighters made them obsolete. Now, both the matches and the smokes are becoming out of date, and that’s a very good thing.
Toilet paper was invented around 589 AD, but I can’t see that going out of date anytime soon. Shit still happens. Firearms were invented in the 10th Century. Over the centuries, a whole lot of people have tried to put them out of business, but the firearm business is still booming, literally.
Soap was invented in the 13th century in Babylonia. That’s still going strong, but washing somebody’s mouth out with soap is now only mentioned in old movies. The slide rule was invented way back in 1630. Yet, I used one in grammar school, and maybe even in high school, but they didn’t make it to the next generation. I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut that slide rules aren’t being used in any schools anywhere, anymore. There were still some ice boxes in use when I was a kid, but not many, but we still called the Refrigerator the Ice Box for many, many years. Even today, I’ll say, “I’m heading towards the ice box. Would you like a beer while I’m up?”
In 1836 Samuel Morse invented Morse Code. The Boy Scouts are probably the only ones who still know the Morse Code, but I doubt if they use it for anything. Pop Quiz – how do you send an SOS message in Morse Code? Answer: dit dit dit, dah dah dah, dit dit dit. (S – Three shorts, O – three longs, and S – three shorts.) If you ever have to use that, and if a Boy Scout someday saves your life, you’re welcome.
The first solar cell was invented by Edmond Becquerel in 1839. We’re still hoping that idea will eventually become fashionable. 1852 was the first manned flight in a dirigible. The Hindenburg knocked that right out of style in a hurry. In 1877 Thomas Edison produced the first working phonograph. The recording industry has been active for a century and a half making sure that any recording media you ever purchased was obsolete long before you tired of listening to the thousands of songs you had in that media. My friend John is the only one I know who still listens faithfully to his stacks of wax. The rest of us have been coaxed and cajoled into purchasing constant “upgrades” from vinyl, to reel-to-reel, 8-tracks, cassettes, CD and MP3 players, all of which became obsolete soon after we had invested in them.
Remember rabbit ears for your television? Remember free TV? Oh, I guess I’m giving away my age on that one.
In 1986 Fujifilm invented the first disposable camera. Not long after that, smart phones made almost all cameras disposable.
There is an expression that “Fashion wears out more apparel than the man.” I know that I have wasted money over the years on things like Nehru jackets, panchos, and Ben Casey Shirts. The Davy Crockett hat, however, was a good investment, though. I just wish I could find it.
There are even many recent inventions that have already gone the way of the dinosaur. Most of them end in “dot com.” The technology itself is not safe from itself. When’s the last time you used a floppy disk?
Global warming could really change a few things, in the next hundred years, like the Florida coastline, for example. Maybe future generations will wonder what you’re writing about if your book is set on the Florida coastline. Maybe they will even wonder, “What’s Florida?” All right, that’s not such a bad thing, but it’s not such a good thing either.
In the future, cowboys may still ride off into the sunset, but they’ll probably be doing it on motorcycles, or some sort of hovercraft.
I sign off each of my stories offering peace and love, and hoping that they never go out of style. Some things are worth keeping and have no expiration date.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,