The Introduction of the VCR

By Rick Chromey | June 7, 2021 |

Television was (and is) a transformative technology.

It transformed how we processed information and received entertainment. It transformed how we interacted with our world. It transformed education, religion and government. And it introduced other transformative technologies, from the remote control to “smart” television. From rabbit ears to cable to satellite to streaming, television has reimagined our world.

And yet few TV technologies were more transformative than the video cassette recorder (VCR). The ability to time-shift (record and watch at a different time) television broadcasts personalized the viewing experience. Suddenly television was democratized. A VCR changed how “we the people” watched television. We were no longer slaves to the TV Guide and network programming schedules. We could watch television on our terms.

Before the VCR, television was a live event. You gathered with family and friends to watch the show. The family room transformed into the new cultural theater. The VCR and later DVR (digital video recording) changed how (and when) it all happened. Today, streaming allows viewers to slate, schedule and save entire seasons in the “cloud.” No more boxes of plastic and tape. No more lost episodes due to a VCR eating the tape. No more recording a baseball game over a priceless family video (been there, done that!).

And it all started on this date (June 7) in 1965 thanks to Sony.

The Cable News Network Reimagines the News

By Rick Chromey | June 1, 2021 |

The emergence of cable television news reimagined how information was reported and consumed. With a 24/7/365 platform the Cable News Network (CNN) could report LIVE news visually, as it happened…with no commercial breaks if necessary. It was the brainchild of media mogul Ted Turner.

Watch CNN in 1980…

Unfortunately, cable news wasn’t good for radio. In fact, to paraphrase the seminal 80’s new wave band The Buggles: Cable television killed the radio star. Not just in music (MTV) and sports (ESPN), but also the news. First it was CNN (who spawned a second darling network called CNN Headline News). Sixteen years later, two new cable news stations debuted. Microsoft and NBC joined to create MSNBC (July 15, 1996) and, a few months later, a conservative Fox News was born (October 7, 1996). By the year 2000, the polarization of political views and news was clearly evident.

In a cyber culture we think nothing of a 24/7/365 news cycle. News is constantly NEWS, but before June 1, 1980 television news (unless “breaking”) was hours old at best. Even on the radio, most stations only carried news at the top and bottom of the hour.

CNN changed all the rules for news.

And it started on this date (June 1) in 1980.

The Real Thing: Coke Advertising

By Rick Chromey | May 29, 2021 |

I’ll confess. I’m deeply biased when it comes to my favorite carbonated beverage.

If it’s not a Coca-Cola, it’s not a cola.

I don’t know if I was born with this affection (some might call it an affliction), but here I am 58 years later still sipping Coke…albeit in more sugar-free varieties. My favorite is a Coke Zero with butter rum and vanilla syrup. One of the early Coke television commercials touted its ability to keep you slim. I kid you not. Take a look.

When Coke switched to “New Coke” in 1985 (and then quickly repented to “Classic Coke”), I saved a bottle of “old Coke” (with a silver cap) for my growing Coke bottle collection. I still have that bottle sitting on my shelf.

Since 1997, Coca-Cola have served more than a billion drinks a day. That’s a lot of Coke.

Coca-Cola learned how to mass market early and grew an international brand on the back of clever slogans, dynamic visuals and memorable jingles. The Sundblom Santa. “It’s the Real Thing” commercial. Polar bears. The iconic Coca-Cola logo. Here are the Coca-Cola slogans from over the years, starting with the one that launched on this date in 1886:

1886 – Drink Coca-Cola
1904 – Delicious and Refreshing
1905 – Coca-Cola Revives and Sustains
1906 – The Great National Temperance Beverage
1917 – Three Million a Day
1922 – Thirst Knows No Season
1923 – Enjoy Thirst
1924 – Refresh Yourself
1925 – Six Million a Day
1926 – It Had to Be Good to Get Where It Is
1927 – Pure as Sunlight
1927 – Around the Corner from Everywhere
1929 – The Pause that Refreshes
1932 – Ice Cold Sunshine
1938 – The Best Friend Thirst Ever Had
1939 – Thirst Asks Nothing More
1939 – Whoever You Are, Whatever You Do, Wherever You May Be, When You Think of Refreshment Think of Ice Cold Coca-Cola
1942 – The Only Thing Like Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola Itself
1948 – Where There’s Coke There’s Hospitality
1949 – Along the Highway to Anywhere
1952 – What You Want is a Coke
1956 – Coca-Cola… Makes Good Things Taste Better
1957 – Sign of Good Taste
1958 – The Cold, Crisp Taste of Coke
1959 – Be Really Refreshed
1963 – Things Go Better with Coke
1969 – It’s the Real Thing
1971 – I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke (part of the “It’s the Real Thing” campaign)
1975 – Look Up America
1976 – Coke Adds Life
1979 – Have a Coke and a Smile
1982 – Coke Is It!
1985 – We’ve Got a Taste for You (for both Coca-Cola & Coca-Cola classic)
1985 – America’s Real Choice (for both Coca-Cola & Coca-Cola classic)
1986 – Red, White & You (for Coca-Cola classic)
1986 – Catch the Wave (for Coca-Cola)
1987 – When Coca-Cola is a Part of Your Life, You Can’t Beat the Feeling
1988 – You Can’t Beat the Feeling
1989 – Official Soft Drink of Summer
1990 – You Can’t Beat the Real Thing
1993 – Always Coca-Cola
2000 – Coca-Cola. Enjoy
2001 – Life Tastes Good
2003 – Coca-Cola… Real
2005 – Make It Real
2006 – The Coke Side of Life
2009 – Open Happiness

One sociologist once quipped that you could teach the history of America simply through Coca-Cola advertising. I think he’s right, but then again I’m prejudiced. I’m a consumer. I’m a collector. I’m a Coke man.

And all this writing about Coca-Cola has made me thirsty for a taste of the “real thing.”

The Model T Defined an Era

By Rick Chromey | May 26, 2021 |

The Model T was not Henry Ford’s first car, but it might’ve been his best. Also known as the “Tin Lizzie” or “Leaping Lena” or “Jitney” or “Flivver,” the Model T was the first truly affordable automobile. In 1999, it was honored as the “most influential car of the 20th century.”

Manufactured between 1908 and 1927, the Model T was the eighth most sold car of all time (with 15 million cars sold). It also framed a new “Transportation Generation” (born 1900 to 1920) who grew up with the sounds of motors, the smell of gas and the bounce of primitive roadways.

What made the Model T special was its middle-class affordability. Suddenly the average Joe and Jane could buy it. It took Ford nineteen models (Model A to S) to perfect his “T” but when he did, the parts all fell into place. That’s because parts and labor were expensive. Thanks to Ford’s assembly line system and interchangeable parts, the Model T was built inexpensively, reliably and quickly.

In his 1922 autobiography, Henry Ford quipped about his Model T:

I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.

It’s no wonder, by 1918, that half of all the automobiles chugging down the roads were Ford’s famously black tin lizzie. Ford made driving a car possible. As his assembly line production improved, Ford was able to reduce production time from nearly 13 hours down to a mere 93 minutes, even while using less manpower. In 1914, the Ford Motor Company produced more automobiles than every other carmaker combined.

His Model T engine even found dual purposes as a homemade plane and boat engines. Model T’s also had conversion ability to heavy snow and deep mud. It could handle rough, rural terrain (making it popular with the U.S. postal service).

Unlike most popular items, Ford actually reduced the price of his cars over time. In 1909 a car cost around $825 ($23,763 today), but by 1925 it was a paltry $265 ($4,002 today). As a result a new car culture emerged. Cars were raced. Owners formed car clubs. Comics Laurel and Hardy used the Model T in all their movies.

It’s no wonder an entire generation of kids–born between 1900 and 1920–grew up with a thirst for the open road. It’s no wonder a whole generation drove many new industries from National Park tourism to home delivery to the infamous Route 66. In a post-war America they’d settle in to collect cars, use drive-thru restaurants, view drive-in movies and make the car an icon of American ingenuity, status and freedom.

What Hath God Wrought? The Birth of Telecommunications

By Rick Chromey | May 24, 2021 |

Samuel Morse is where telecommunications all began. He invented the telegraph and created the Morse code. An 1810 graduate of Yale, Morse was also an accomplished artist who founded and presided over the National Academy of Design for two decades.

But he’s best know for the telegraph.

Initially, Morse had little interest–or financial backing–for his innovation. Despite naysayers and critical voices, Morse believed in his telegraph machine. Finally, in 1843, the U.S. Congress funded telegraph lines between the Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol and Baltimore.

On this date in 1844, Samuel Morse asked a young girl to pick a Bible verse to send as the first telegraph message. She chose Numbers 23:23, which stated in part: “What hath God wrought?” And with that message, a new era dawned. The clicks of Morse’s telegraph machine reimagined how humans communicated.

During the Civil War, the telegraph proved invaluable to Lincoln’s Federal troops, as they were able to faster position and communicate orders than the Confederate armies. Three decades later another inventor named Alexander Graham Bell would take Morse’s invention one step further: moving the human voice down the line.

No one could imagine “what God hath wrought” in 1844, when the telegraph punched out its first line of text, but 177 years later it’s clear that everything from the telephone to television to the Internet sprouted from Samuel Morse’s telegraph.

What God hath wrought, indeed!

Heeeeeere’s The End, Johnny!

By Rick Chromey | May 22, 2021 |

The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was the drug of choice for late night insomniacs for three decades.The program was ranked #12 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.

The undisputed King of Late Night talk show hosts,  Johnny Carson (1925-2009) made his debut on October 1, 1962 at the NBC studio in New York City (before moving permanently to southern California in 1973).

Carson, along with his sidekicks Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinson, created the formula for late-night talk shows. Carson’s “current events” comedic monologue, featuring deadpan looks for jokes that bombed and sly grins for those that hit the mark, was legendary. After the first commercial break it was time for sketch comedy featuring characters like the psychic Carnac the Magnificent, yokel Floyd R. Turbo, salesman Art Fern or a spot on impersonation of Ronald Reagan. For the rest of the broadcast it was guest interviews with the Hollywood elite, pop culture icons, and national news makers. Carson also spotlighting up and coming stand-up comics.

The Tonight Show debuted in 1954 with host Steve Allen, followed by Jack Paar (1957-1962), but it was Johnny Carson that made the show must-see NBC television. After 1992, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon hosted, but nobody match the charisma, comedy or command as Carson. In many ways, late night talk shows began and ended with Carson, although younger viewers eventually flocked to hip hosts like David Letterman, Arsenio Hall and Jon Stewart in the 1990s and 2000s.

Nevertheless, for those born between 1940 and 1975, Johnny Carson was late night. In my home, we rarely missed Carson’s monologue and sketch before heading for bed. In fact, even in my 1980s college years, Johnny Carson was my “warm glass of milk” at bedtime.

And the final curtain call happened on this date in 1992.


Why 2030 Will Look Nothing Like 1995

By Rick Chromey | May 20, 2021 |

If you think the past quarter century has been transformative, buckle up buttercup.

Yesterday (May 19, 2021) Microsoft announced that it’s scrapping the Internet browser Explorer–once the standard browser on most non-Apple computers. Born on August 16, 1995, Explorer is now done. It was just 25 years old.

In the 2020s, we’ll see a flood of new “obsolete technology” as the digital and cyber world completes its transformation into “smart,” “stream” and “cloud” technologies. It’s not just Microsoft’s Explorer. Say goodbye to desktop computers, hard drives, cable/satellite TV, Redbox, DVD/CD and stand alone GPS…essentially all the 1990s and early 2000s technology we once embraced.

Get ready to say hello to emerging H.A.I.R. technologies that will change every facet of life. Holograms. Artificial Intelligence. Robots. In 2030, smart tech will be every where, from lifelike robots that take orders to miniature drones that can explore inside the human body to “smart” clothes that detect heart attacks before they happen to holographic entertainment and presentations. These “H.A.I.R.” techs will revolutionize how we learn, work, communicate, socialize, buy and sell, age and play.

In my book GenTech: An American Story of Technology, Change and Who We Really Are, I explain how these technologies have already launched a distinctly new American generation known as the Robo Gen (born 2010 – 2030). These kids, currently preteens and under, will experience a world that we never imagined.

Welcome to the 2020s.

The Race of the First Kentucky Derby

By Rick Chromey | May 17, 2021 |

Today is the 146th anniversary of America’s most storied horse race: the Kentucky Derby. The winning jockey was Oliver Lewis aboard a horse name Aristides.

We have forgotten how black Americans, in the beginning, not only ran these thoroughbreds but also cared for them. In this first running of the Kentucky Derby, thirteen out of fifteen jockeys were black. In fact, of the first 28 derby winners, more than half of the jockeys (15) were black. However, by the early 20th century, black jockeys faded from view. In fact, a black jockey would not ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby for 79 years when Marlon St. Julien jockeyed a horse in the 2000 running of the roses.

The irony is black American has a storied past with horses and horse racing that dates to the colonial era. Many founding fathers loved the track, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson actually relocated his stables to DC (along with his black jockeys) when he became president in 1829.

The popularity of horse racing in the South meant that many slaves raised, cared and jockeyed their owners stock. As one historian noted, “For blacks, racing provided a false sense of freedom. They were allowed to travel the racing circuit, and some even managed their owners’ racing operation. They competed alongside whites. When black riders were cheered to the finish line, the only colors that mattered were the colors of their silk jackets, representing their stables. Horse racing was entertaining for white owners and slaves alike and one of the few ways for slaves to achieve status.”

It’s a story that needs to be told. In many ways it was a sport that brought America–black and white–together. Ironically, the horse race lost its luster in the early 1900s because a new race was tearing up the track: automobiles and motorcycles. For racing enthusiasts, the sport is about speed and the motor proved a faster thrill.

America Embraces Debt

By Rick Chromey | May 13, 2021 |

“Put it on my card!”

It’s the American way. We buy now, pay later. 

The history for card purchases is nothing new. In fact, it was first described in an Edward Bellamy utopian work titled Looking Backward (1887). Bellamy employed the term “credit card” in his work as a way for a person to spend what the government had portioned to him.

In reality it was less a “credit card” and more a “debit card.”

In the early 20th century various technology emerged to make Bellamy’s idea a reality. Initially, every store and restaurant had it’s own “credit” card (or tab). But then, on this date (May 13) in 1950, a new concept emerged. Why not have ONE card to pay multiple merchants? Ralph Schneider and Frank McNamara led the way and the “Diners Club” credit card was born.

It proved a popular buying strategy.

Eight years later, American Express would issue the first general credit card.

And we’ve been indebted ever since.

The Golden Spike Connects a Nation

By Rick Chromey | May 10, 2021 |

It was one of the most significant transportation projects in U.S. history: the transcontinental railroad. Over six years (1863-1869) in the making, this railroad project joined the eastern states with the western frontier.

The golden spike (or “The Last Spike”) was a ceremonial 17.6-karat gold spike driven by Leland Stanford to connect the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad (Sacramento, CA) to the Union Pacific Railroad (Omaha, NE) at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory. The golden spike is now displayed at Stanford University.

The labor for this transcontinental rail project came primarily from the Chinese, many of whom were recent immigrants to California. Over 12,000 Chinese built the rail line (80% of the work force). Originally considered too weak and small for this dangerous work, but the lack of labor forced the Central Pacific owners to take a flyer on them. Ultimately, the Chinese work ethic, tenacity and fearlessness helped the Central Pacific to blast through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains in the west, despite snowbound, sub-freezing winter and blast furnace hot summer conditions. Hundreds of Chinese were killed in this project by explosions, landslides, accidents and disease.

Sadly, despite their significant contribution of the Chinese, nearly all were excluded from the Golden Spike ceremony in 1869. Only in recent decades has their story, achievement and legacy been honored and celebrated.

The “Golden Spike” moment was not just a technological achievement but a huge win for a young nation still leaning into its future.

With a transcontinental railroad available, the westward migration increased, new boom towns sprouted and the way to ship goods (including western cattle to eastern meat markets) grew.

The new railroad sparked additional east-west lines like the Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific and Atlantic Pacific…sparking a new industry: tourism. Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Yosemite National Park (1890) were the benefactors of railroad tourism.

And it all started on this date (May 10, 1869), when two railroads connected, in northwest Utah.