Friday, June 26, 2009

The Challenge of Retro-Tech

Household things tend to wear out or go bust in clusters. On a hot and humid morning earlier this week I realized that the air conditioning was not working and traced the problem to a corroded, leaking battery in the thermostat. That same day the cordless phone in the kitchen began whining that it wanted a new battery, sending me into the blister-pack jungle of phone batteries that look almost exactly alike to find the only one that would actually fit (memo to phone manufacturers: it would be really swell if you put the model number of your phone on the actual phone).

Brief Old Guy Rant here: Remember when the only difference between light bulbs was the wattage? Now I have eleven completely different kinds of bulbs in the kitchen alone, some of which cost what I once considered a reasonable price for an entire fixture. I have a considerable portion of my retirement savings tied up in spare light bulbs. Batteries may be even worse – I do not even try to keep spares on hand except for the basic AA, AAA and 9V varieties. I initially thought it was ridiculous when a chain of stores selling nothing but batteries opened, now I’m thinking there may be a wonderful franchise opportunity in stores selling nothing but light bulbs.

But the real challenge is in maintaining “legacy” products. We still have several phones with receivers connected to the phone by an actual cord. These are the only landline phones that will still work if the power goes out (at least they will until the expensive back-up battery on the cable modem gives out). One of these primitive phones is critical to my wife. It sits on a small table in the upstairs hallway, just outside her office. There is no electrical outlet there, so a cordless phone is not an option. She loves that phone; loves the solid heft of the receiver in her hand. Often she needs to take it into her office so she can pull information up on her computer while chatting with her caller. Long ago I made two modifications to the phone that make this possible – an extra length coiled cord for the receiver, and a 16-foot retractable cord for the phone line. This last item is what prompted me to write.

Retractable cords are fragile creatures. They are very thin, which is what allows them to fit into a retractor of modest size. Sooner or later they become kinked or frayed and must be replaced. I used to be able to pick them up in any hardware or variety store, but they gradually vanished from the shelves. The last time I needed a new one I had to buy it at Radio Shack. This time I learned that even Radio Shack has dropped the item from their line.

Resigned to paying outrageous shipping charges, I turned to the web. Even there the pickings were slim. Shorter retractable lines are sold for laptop users who are forced to resort to dial-up connections, but it took a lengthy search to track down the classic 16-foot length we needed. I bought two. I can’t decide whether to keep the second as a back-up or to place it on a stand and display it as an antique. I recently read that there are now more households in the US that a have a cell phone and no landline than a landline and no cell, and the trend is accelerating. Susan is apparently the last human being on earth still using a corded landline phone with a retractable line. I am living with the Queen of Retro-Tech.


Harry said...

It is good to be the Queen!

rick in cos said...

AT least you've been in one house for quite some time. Now that we're in our 6th home in just over 30 years of marriage, I have hauled boxes of "spare parts" to legacy products around forever. Being a pack rat only exacerbates the problem you describe. You end up with cords and parts that still won't fix your problem, leading you to buy MORE cords and parts. It's a slippery slope. OUr cordless house phone (we still maintain a landline as well as cellular, imagine!) is starting to not perform very well. Why I didn't throw away generations 1,2,3 and 4 before deploying generation 5, which is now soon to be defunct, I don't know, but I think I'll throw them ALL away when I break down to buy Gen 6 here shortly. Of course, MY wife will not likewhatever I get, because it has more buttons than simply the phone key's.....must be a guy/gal thing.