12 New Technologies in the 1980s

Fax Machines
Before e-mail, a fax machine first allowed people to send a message to someone anywhere in the country in seconds.
Before e-mail, a fax machine first allowed people to send a message to someone anywhere in the country in seconds.

­ As we've seen, the 1980s and the breakup of AT&T brought a flood of new devices. People connected their answering machines and portable phones. They also ran a phone wire to the computer so they could log into bulletin board services -- the precursor to the Internet.

The other thing that appeared in the 1980s was the fax machine. The technology had been around for a long time, but it became cheap in the 1980s because of the microprocessor, inexpensive heat-transfer print heads (which could print on special heat-sensitive rolls of paper) and cheap optical sensors that could read a page of text.

Once fax machines reached a critical price point, they took off. Millions of people bought them, because they represented a miracle. With a fax machine, you could send a sheet of paper to someone, anywhere in the country, complete with a signature, in seconds. E-mail really didn't exist yet (except in military and university environments), so the fax machine was amazing. During the "golden age" of the fax machine in the 1980s, people faxed everything. Lunch orders went into restaurants by fax rather than being phoned in. Ads and brochures could be sent out by fax. Nearly every legal document got faxed once it was signed. People traded recipes and personal letters by fax rather than sending them in the mail.

All of this activity has now been replaced by e-mail and e-mail attachments, but the fax machine gave us an early taste of what that would be like.

See How Fax Machines Work for details.

There are many other new technologies that arose in the 1980s: Satellite television, laser disks, the first simple home robots (like the Heathkit Hero), bulletin board systems for computers, the space shuttle (first launched in 1981) as well as the first shuttle disaster (1986), the MIR space station (1986), digital music synthesizers, the Rubik's cube and the DeLorean car. There were so many firsts, and it is truly surprising how many of these technologies are still with us today. That is part of what made the 1980s such an amazing decade.

For lots more information on the technology in this article, check out the links on the next page.

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