STORAGE In 1980 even a powerful personal computer like the Apple II Plus did not come with a hard drive; at $1,500 for a 5 megabyte model, the drives cost more than the computer itself. Instead, Apple’s mass storage system was a $495 floppy disk drive using disks that held 140 kilobytes of data apiece. (If you were a big spender, you could spring for dual drives.)
Hard drives got better and more affordable through the 1980s, yet the floppy disk still flourished. It was only when cheap, durable, compact USB thumb drives appeared in 2000 that floppies—by then downsized to a 3.5-inch hard-shell version—started to look archaic. Today the same $50 you might have paid for a 10-pack of diskettes back in 1980 buys a 32 gigabyte thumb drive—the equivalent of a stack of floppies taller than the Golden Gate Bridge.
CELL PHONES Tokyo was the only city with commercial cellular telephone service in 1980—which wasn’t a major problem, because there weren’t any self-contained mobile phones yet. Those arrived in 1983 with Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, based on technology the company first demonstrated in 1973. The bricklike gizmo cost $3,995, weighed more than a pound and a half, and drained its battery in an hour. None of that stopped it from becoming an instant status symbol.
The most striking thing about 2010’s most iconic cell phone, the iPhone 4, has nothing to do with the phone. It’s all the other features crammed into Apple’s pocketable form, which has one-sixth the DynaTAC’s heft. Among the 1980s gadgets it replaces: a Polaroid, a Handycam, a Walkman, a Watchman, an Atari 2600, and a Sharp Wizard. The iPhone 4 is also a powerful computer that packs more memory than all the Apple II computers in the world as of 1980.
CARS Thirty years ago, during the Iranian hostage crisis, gas prices shot up to a then astronomical $1 a gallon. Ford responded with the Mercury Antser, which it demonstrated at the Chicago Auto Show in 1980. The angular concept car sported a lot of modern-sounding tech: a hybrid electric/gas power train that drove all four wheels, an onboard computer with digital displays for everything from the speedometer to the radio, and electronic maps to help you navigate traffic snarls.
The Antser never reached showrooms, but many of its gee-whiz concepts are now realities. And after our long detour through cheap gasoline, economy is back in vogue, leading to a spiritual descendant of the Antser: the Karma, developed by the Southern California start-up Fisker Automotive. The swoopy sport sedan is one of the first plug-in hybrids, able to run on pure battery power but augmented with a gasoline engine; a rooftop solar panel is optional. After several delays, the Karma is scheduled to reach production next February at a price of around $90,000.
SURGICAL INSTRUMENTS Most of the key surgical tools of 1980 were highly refined versions of classics that had been around for decades or even centuries, such as the scalpel and forceps. If things went wrong and you were the patient under the knife, you hoped to be in the care of a surgeon who knew how to use those instruments with great skill.In the late ’80s, work began at SRI International on medical robotics. The goal: to make surgery less invasive by giving surgeons more-dexterous “hands”—and more of them. SRI’s research was commercialized as Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci Surgical System, approved by the FDA in 2000. The latest version of the $1.5 million device lets doctors work while seated, viewing a magnified 3-D image of the procedure they’re performing and precisely manipulating up to four robotic arms—one with an endoscopic camera and three that handle special surgical tools. (Some things never change: Available instruments include both scalpels and forceps.)
Harry McCracken is the founder of Technologizer, a personal-tech Web site, and served as editor in chief of PC World.