10 Intriguing Forms of Technology that Became Obsolete

Technology is forever evolving, with newer and better forms replacing older and clunkier ones. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that most forms of technology used today likely have an expiration date. While this may seem like an unsettling thought, it is still fascinating to look back in time and marvel at the things that went out of use. So, if you’re all set to feel a bit nostalgic, here are ten intriguing forms of technology that became obsolete.

Table of Contents

1. Paternoster Lifts 

A paternoster lift system consists of a chain of doorless compartments moving in a slow but non-stop loop. People were required to step in and out of the compartments at the desired floors, while the compartments were still in motion. Eventually, this 19th-century technology was phased out to bring in safer alternatives. 

Paternoster Lifts
Image Credit: HE WEIJING/Shutterstock.com

The paternoster lift was invented in the 1860s by a Liverpool architect named Peter Ellis. This elevator consisted of two shafts placed side-by-side, carrying a chain of doorless compartments constantly moving in a loop.

To get from one floor to another, people were required to step in and out of the compartments while they were in motion. Due to their movement resembling the beads of a rosary, these elevators were named “paternoster,” meaning “our father” in Latin.

Soon after their invention, these elevators became a permanent fixture in most European buildings. For instance in Germany, almost every department store used them well into the 1960s.

But eventually, owing to the danger they posed while stepping on and off, these elevators began to be phased out with new legislation and building codes. As a result, today, these are rarely used to transport people, except in some parts of Europe. (1, 2)

2. Pneumatic Tubes

Pneumatic tubes had intrigued people as early as the 1800s and became intensely popular during the mid-20th century. These tubes used compressed air or vacuum to transport cylinders containing documents, mail, or money over short distances. Today, however, these have been largely replaced by electronic mailing systems. 

Pneumatic Tubes
Washington, D.C. Miss Helen Ringwald works with the pneumatic tubes through which messages are sent to branches in other parts of the city for delivery (Image to the left); A cat was sent through a pneumatic tube. This photograph shows a tube in operation in 1897. Image Credit: Esther Bubley/United States Library of Congress’s via Wikimedia. com, Scientific American/Internet Archive via vox.com

The technology behind pneumatic tubes has fascinated people long before it was put into use. As early as the 1800s, people like Alfred Ely Beach had worked on the idea of passenger trains driven by the velocity of compressed air. However, since moving people this way was impractical at the time, the idea was eventually restricted to packages. 

In the US, post offices became one of the largest users of pneumatic tubes to transport mail over considerable distances. But as road transport improved, truck delivery systems quickly replaced pneumatic tubes. Nevertheless, the USPS had brought them enough attention that they were soon adopted by individual buildings. 

In the mid-20th century, many office buildings used these tubes to deliver mail at the speed of an email even before the Internet age. But eventually, as technology improved and the Internet became a reality, the pneumatic tubes were relegated to the status of a novelty item. (1, 2)

3. Moonlight Towers 

During the 19th century, US cities began constructing tall structures called “moonlight towers” to provide light to their neighborhoods. These towers were meant to mimic moonlight by illuminating a vast area of the ground with a single light source. However, they eventually fell out of use, and Austin, Texas is the only city that still has them. 

Moonlight Towers
Image Credit: Julian Oliver Davidson/Library of Congress via Wikimedia.org

After the advent of electricity, the 19th century US saw the rise of a new technology called “moonlight towers.” While the idea of lighting up streets at night was certainly not new, these towers used something called “arc lighting” that was indeed an innovation of the era. 

These lights were placed on top of a 150-foot-tall tower that shinned its light over vast areas of the ground. This, then, mimicked the Moon, as it illuminated large areas with a single light source. 

At the time, numerous American cities like Detroit and New Orleans were home to these lights. However, when it became apparent that smaller lights were more efficient and cost-effective, moonlight towers became a thing of the past. 

Today, Austin in Texas is the only US city that still has moonlight towers. Having arrived there in the 1890s, moonlight towers have managed to survive through time despite dwindling in numbers. (1, 2)

4. Rocket Mail 

Although the idea of rocket mail had existed much earlier, it did not become a reality until the 20th century. In the 1950s, the US launched its first and last mail delivery by rocket. But since then, rocket mail has remained a relic of the past, having been replaced by airmail services. 

Rocket Mail
Image Credit: Smithsonian National Postal Museum/engadget.com

Throughout the ages, mail delivery systems have undergone numerous changes, going from horse-riding messengers to homing pigeons and airmail. However, one of the most innovative ideas of mail delivery was perhaps rocket mail. 

In the 1930s, the idea of delivering mail by rockets fascinated German scientists to no end. A German engineer named Gerhard Zucker even became its biggest proponent, having traveled throughout the world to demonstrate the technology.

Finally, in 1959, the US successfully launched its first and last rocket mail. However, historians today believe that this was merely to show off their Cold War-era technology to the Soviets who were bound to have been watching. Since then, no world leader could entertain the use of rockets for this purpose, considering them to be harbingers of death and destruction. 

Today, with the advancement and affordability of airmail services, rocket mail has permanently been pushed into the pages of history. (1, 2)

5. Credit Card Imprinters 

Also known as “knuckle-busters,” credit card imprinters were once the go-to technology to collect customer information. These machines had a flatbed to hold the card and vendors would make an imprint of the card using carbon paper forms. However, with the advent of electronic payment terminals, these quickly became obsolete.

Credit Card Imprinters
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Although credit cards have been around for a while, the payment systems did not always work as they do now. Before electronic payment terminals became a reality, vendors were required to manually collect the details of each customer that paid with their credit cards. For this, they used a specialized machine called the credit card imprinter or the “knuckle buster.”

Credit card imprinters typically had a flatbed that held the card and an imprinter that could run over it. Vendors would lay the card in the bed, place carbon copy forms over it, and run the imprinter back and forth to get the impression of the card’s face.

Then, one copy of the form would be given to the customer while the vendor would keep the other. Later, as electronic payment terminals became more common, imprinters were no longer needed and they fell out of use. (1, 2, 3) 

Also read: 10 Technologies That Very Few People Know Exist

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