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The Scrivener: When I Was A Boy We Didn't Have...

Part 4

Brian Barratt concludes his series of personal glimpses into recent history which serve as a reminder of how we used to live. "There is nothing new or startling here,'' he writes. "Just a ramble along Memory Lane.''

Every day, you use a ballpoint pen. You watch television in the evening. Maybe you play a computer game. Perhaps you play a CD or a DVD. If you want a snack, you go to the fridge.
I did none of these things in the 1940s and 1950s. Here are a few of the items that we didn't have when I was a boy in England.


In the 1940s, I used to visit my girlfriend in the next street. Her father had been in the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) during the Second World War. He had a small box with a screen which he told me was a television set. However, it was not a real TV set. It was an oscilloscope. It operated on the same principle as a TV set, using a CRT (cathode ray tube) and screen,
Television sets came onto the market in the 1930s but production was halted by the Second World War, 19391945.

They were in shops again early in the 1950s. They were very expensive, so not many people could afford them. One of our neighbours bought a TV set, and invited me to go round and watch it. The programme I chose to watch was a performance in London by the great Italian singer Benjamino Gigli, in about 1952. It was in fuzzy black and white, of course. Colour TVs did not come onto the market until much later. And now flat screens and very thin TV sets have replaced the bulky old CRT sets.


Early in the 20th century, in hot countries, food could be kept relatively cool in an ice-chest or, from about the middle of the century, a Coolgardie safe. A large block of ice was placed in the top compartment of an ice-chest so that the cool air flowed down onto food. The Coolgardie safe had hessian sides. It was kept on a verandah outside the house. Water flowed gently down the hessian, keeping it damp, and thus cooling down the any breeze which blew through it.

Among the few things I can remember from Geography lessons at grammar school are the names of two towns here in Australia: Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie. The latter is now a ghost-town. Something else I recall is that our genial Geography master mispronounced Popocatepetl, the name of a volcano in Mexico. But that is irrelevant.

Refrigerators of the sort we use in the 21st century did not come onto the market until about the 1920s. In my childhood in a cold country, we didn't really need a fridge even if such things had been available. Perishable food was stored on a stone slab in the pantry. Some items were stored underneath the slab, on the cement floor, where it was very cool. The pantry was the coolest part of the house, having no outside walls or windows. It was always dark to keep it as cool as possible you switched on the light only for the short period that you spent in the pantry. Even the light globe was low power, to give out as little heat as possible.

We had another way of keeping meat and milk cool in hot weather. There was always a draught blowing underneath the front door of the house. The floor was paved with beautiful Italian clay tiles in a kind of mosaic, which were always cool. My mother had a food cover, a sort of small dome made of wire gauze. As with the Coolgardie safe, cool air could blow through the gauze. Meat would be put, only for short periods, on a plate beneath the cover. A jug of milk would be placed in a larger bowl of water, and covered with a light cloth. My mother would smell the meat quickly before using it, to make sure that it had not 'gone off'. Even in the 1960s, when she had a small fridge, she would still sniff over it before using it, just to make sure!

Computers and photocopiers

I used to type with two fingers on a Remington office typewriter, a very heavy and cumbersome machine. You had to press the round keys hard to activate the rods that had metal letters on the end, which bashed against an inked ribbon to make an impression on the paper. The paper was fed round a roller at the back. When you reached the end of a line, a little bell rang. You then had to use a large metal handle which, in one movement, turned the roller round for the next line and slid it across so that you were back at the beginning of the line. If you made a mistake, you had to erase it with a hard rubber eraser. White-out had not been invented. The Remington was probably about 20 or 30 years old when I used it. You might find something similar in a museum, nowadays.
If I wanted to make a copy of the story I typed on the old Remington, I had to use carbon paper. This was specially coated on one side. When you put a piece of carbon paper between two pieces of typing or writing paper, an image was transferred to the sheet underneath.

The form of photocopying known as xerography was invented when I was aged 1 year, but photocopiers did not come onto the market until I was in my 20s. Some machines used a wet copying process. Making copies in the 1970s was a complex process. Furthermore, the copies went grey and faded after a short time.

An earlier way of making multiple copies was to use a duplicating machine such as a Gestetner. This involved typing directly onto a waxed sheet. The typewriter's metal letters made deep impressions. The sheet was then wrapped round a roller on the duplicator. The roller had a feeding mechanism which distributed special ink. The machine was operated by hand or by electricity, and as the roller went round and round, sheets of blank paper fed through it with copies of what was on the stencil. It was a noisy, time consuming and often messy process, but very useful at the time.

The first functional electronic computer was constructed when I was aged 10. It had 18,000 valves, which were used before transistors were invented. It occupied a room 15 metres by 9 metres in size. The first computers using microchips did not appear until I was in my 30s. I did not operate a computer until I was in my 40s. It was one of the early IBM desktops, running at 4.77 megaHerz. That was 2,700 times slower than the computer I'm using now, which is slow by current standards.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


To liven up your mental faculties in this new year do visit Brian's invigorating Web site www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/


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