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Wonderful toys

2012 January 3

It’s funny how college students can be perpetually broke, but somehow have the most amazing toys and gadgets stuffed into their tiny rooms.

I recall scouting a photo shoot in the residence halls while I worked at Drake University, in fact, and being struck by one pair of students with an astonishing projection home theater system just-barely wedged inside their box of a dorm room. Suddenly all that larger, “suite” style housing that universities were building as fast as they could made perfect sense to me. The existing situation in front of me, after all, was a plainly ridiculous juxtaposition.

Of course, packing an already-crowded dorm room with showy electronic entertainment kit is nothing new. Back in my own dorm days, at dear auld ISU, things were much the same. The “god box” computer, the speakers which could go to 11, etc. But perhaps nothing stands out, 15 years later, quite like this one kid with the 200 disc CD changer.

Something reminded me of it, the other day, and I realized that time has actually made the device even more marvelous than in its own day. Looking back from 2011, the thing almost seems like some sort of imaginary, retroactive adaptation of a past era’s technologies to a modern feature-set, as in steampunk fiction, or perhaps The Flintstones.

Because what this dude had, in a way, seems from a modern perspective remarkably like a crude, mechanical version of the mp3 player.

Many of the key features were there. CDs were effectively translated from discreet, physical objects to data stored inside a “black box,” with individual albums and tracks selected thereafter through a single control panel. Hours of music could be stored; I remember sitting around while someone or other would giddily calculate the potential length of continuous, no-repeat playback, and I think one time the owner and his roommate did in fact attempt a multiple-day tune marathon with the thing.

You could also randomly “shuffle” through your entire music collection, too. I can’t recall whether the machine shuffled individual tracks as well as albums, but certainly there was no technical impediment; if the feature was left out it was only because switching one disc for another involved a seconds-long mechanical process.

Which, of course, was the big difference between this machine and its miniaturized or entirely-virtual successors: inside, it relied on mechanical actions which now seem almost comically complex, if also fascinating.

I suppose that it was, also, as much a miniaturized “home jukebox” as a mechanical mp3 player, of course, but then by the same token an mp3 player could be seen as a completely-digitized “home jukebox.” In any event, like other mechanical, physical-disc-based jukeboxes, the 200 disc CD changer was a bit lacking in terms a selection interface. Again, I don’t recall whether it was possible to enter album titles, etc., into any kind of electronic memory, but the feature would have been very cumbersome compared with just downloading metadata automagically with a computer (or simply purchasing files in purely electronic form in the first place). My friends just relied on printed lists of which album was in which numbered slot inside the machine.

Again, the whole thing almost seems like I must be imagining it. It sounds a bit silly, now, and arguably was pretty silly even at the time. It’s like it offered many of the basic functions of an mp3 player without the real advantages; you could store your whole CD collection in a “black box,” but the result was hardly portable or even compact, and was actually more difficult to select music from than a shelf of jewel cases; you could shuffle through a whole collection but the process was laughably slow.

A marvelous toy, though, and probably all the moreso for its Rube Goldberg qualities. Marvelous also, perhaps, for its timing. Whatever the degree to which it even “made sense” at the time, after all, the 200 disc CD changer appeared in an odd little window of technological history, outside of which no one probably would have made such a thing at all. Until the mid-1990s, there would have been a very limited market given 1) a presumably higher cost for components and 2) the fact that it probably took until that point for a significant number of average, middle-class people to have anywhere near 200 CDs. And then within just a few years, before I even moved out of the dorms, along came the mp3 and suddenly you could replicate the same functionality plus improvements on any computer or, a year or so after that, on a device which fit in your pocket.

Like phototype, or to some extent the steamboat, it seems like something which might never have existed at all if successor technologies had arrived even slightly earlier.

Anyway. I could probably weld this little reminiscence to any number of “points,” but truthfully the point of telling the tale was simply telling the tale. Thank you for reading; I hope I’ve provided some entertainment.

(If you’re in the mood for further music-musing about the transition to electronic media, you might also enjoy this and this.)

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