A brief history of the ‘D’ word

As the demigod that is Mr J Timberlake once sang, “what goes around, comes all the way back around”, and even in the ever-evolving world of tech there are certain terms that reappear in re-appropriated fashion from time-to-time.

Few words, however, have had such singular staying power as the one that has – mostly recently in its venerable career – come to encompass a new wave of user-driven, hyper-available web goodness.

That word, if you haven’t guessed, is digital. And it’s got quite a history…

Part I: Many digits, many pies

1972: A watchword for the future

Hamilton Pulsar PS1
Pulsar P1: No moving parts, no problem

Digital as shorthand for shiny, sexy and technologically-advanced was first firmly embedded in the public consciousness thanks to the new wave of watches that hit the market in the early 70’s.

With the world in love with all things technological and cosmological – following the marvels of the moon landings and the slew of sci-fi films that bookended this monumental moment – it was inevitable that anything that spoke of a new reality of flying cars and space tourism would capture the public’s imagination.

In fact the first commercially-available digital watch, the Hamilton Pulsar P1 (opposite) – which would have set you back an astronomical (sorry!) $2,000 at the time, albeit for a weighty 18-carat timepiece – was directly inspired by a watch created by the company for the 1968 film, a 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What followed, as we all know, was an explosion of innovation and ever-cheaper manufacture that resulted in, arguably, the first mass adoption of tech, and wearable tech at that. In the space of a decade people were sporting such esoteric miniaturised functionality as calculators, TV remotes and even rudimentary personal organisers.

Like I say, what comes around and all that… as a recovering Apple fanboy I’ll studiously avoid any mention of the Apple Watch at this juncture!

1984: Digital to get down

Still spinning: The tank-like Sony CDP-11s
Sony CDP-11s: Built like a tank and still spinning

Next to get the digital treatment (vinyl lovers look away now) was, of course, music. Opposite is my very own current CD-spinner of choice (yes there are still a few of us left), the Sony CDP-11S, and you’ll see blazoned across the bottom our word-de-jour, in a funky futuristic font in case you didn’t realise that this was the brave new world.

It wasn’t quite the first (the Sony CDP-101 takes that honour, albeit with a Philips transport) but it was not far off and like the P1 above it represented a pretty meaty investment, with a UK street price of around £799 in ‘85. To be fair it’s still going after 30 years (albeit with some posh new transistors).

I’m pretty sure your iPod/iPhone with be struggling come the mid-2040’s!

What followed, again was invention and efficiency gains aplenty and, by the end, you could get a pretty decent player for pocket money amounts. It also spawned the world of CD-ROM, driving mass distribution of media-rich software, as well as some rather less successful digital audio formats (Digital Compact Cassette anyone?).

Moreover, it began the shift to the digital distribution of music and we all know how that ended…

1989: The (digital) camera never lies

Picture this: The Fuji DS-X
Fuji DS-X: A revolution begins

Having given both the watch and record industries a fair old battering it was time for our friend digital to turn its attention to a new challenger.

The explosion of digital camera tech in the 90’s took many people by surprise – including, er, one or two senior peeps at the photography behemoth that was Kodak (kind of ironic given they invented it) – and very rapidly lead to another huge wave of tech inventiveness.

There’s some debate as to who kicked it all off but Fuji’s flat snapper opposite was certainly the first commercially-available, portable digital camera.

Ultimately it persuaded the nascent mobile phone market to stitch the technology into its devices and brought us crashing into a world of super-connected sharing and first-person reportage.

With Facebook alone reporting in 2014 it was storing more than 250 billion photos, ubiquitous feels oddly insufficient a word.

2001: A digital odyssey

Sharp J-SH04: Selfiegeddon started here
Sharp JSH04: Selfiegeddon starts here

Obviously by the time we hit the noughties our friend was still pretty busy with cameras – with the first camera phones gaining traction (opposite is Sharp’s 2001 0.11 megapixel beauty that marked the beginning of the trend) and digital video becoming the norm – but it started to get co-opted for some other things too.

Thanks in no small part to the meteoric rise of Google, Digital Marketing became big business. The likes of Napster and, more latterly, iTunes made Digital Distribution of music a genuine force. And the slightly oxymoronic Digital Printing had become the industry norm.

Even here in Govland we started to hear phrases like ‘Digital by Default’ – suggesting we might actually look at tailoring our services for a digital world.

But, as we’ll discover in Part II, digital was about to have its finest, and quite possibly final, hour.

Any questions or comments hit me up below.

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