The analogue home was the future once. What can the digital world learn from it?

Sitting on my desk is a portable radio, the Beolit 707. It is the personification of the charm of the age of analogue: good to look at, impressive to listen to and warm to the touch. 

It was made by Bang & Olufsen in 1980 and they called it a “receiver” to distinguish it from lesser transistor breeds. It has the refined precision of an austere but carefully proportioned Modernist city hall that has been built for an enlightened Scandinavian municipality. Which is not surprising when you learn that it was designed by Jacob Jensen, who had been a student of Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House’s Danish architect.

Jensen devised a tuning mechanism that looks and feels like a slide rule. You use your thumb to move a solid metal tab mounted on minute wheels that run along a rail on the outside of the case. As it moves, it drags tiny magnetised twin metal spheres in its wake. They are set in two transparent channels in the top of the case that show where you are on the medium or long-wave bands. Vintage radios may become increasingly less useful as the BBC shuts down its analogue broadcasting network, but I find my Beolit 707 a comforting reminder of what the future used to look like.

In 1960, Astounding Science Fiction changed its name to Analog. It was an attempt to make the magazine seem a less sensationalist platform for Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, two of its most successful authors. The cover designs shifted in the same direction — at least initially. Gone were the pulp images of giant flesh-eating robots and Art Deco cities on the moon. Analog preferred airbrush renderings of space stations that looked as if they belonged to the era of Boeing, rather than Skylab.

Even more important, analog — the American version of the spelling looks somehow more compelling — was a word that seemed to best represent the future at the time, and the technology that would be transforming our homes for the half century to come.

In fact, it was already more like the past.

It took time to filter into the public mind, but in 1960, the first tremors of the digital explosion that would sweep away analogue technology had already been felt. More than 60 years later, we have come to realise what we have lost in both creative and social terms — but there is much to learn from analogue, too.

The Canadian journalist David Sax explored the vinyl revival, cameras that still use film and the invention of the Moleskine in his first book The Revenge of Analog. He emerged from the pandemic lockdown to suggest that a constant diet of isolation, Zoom calls and Netflix had shown him that while the digital future really was finally here, he didn’t like it. “It fucking sucked,” he writes in his follow up, The Future is Analog. “Give me a delivery person who says ‘hello’ not a robot that rolls down the sidewalk with my lunch.”

Analogue technology, defined as the storing, measuring or transmitting of information through a continuous physical transcription process (unlike digital, which relies on sampling and converting to ones and zeros), has a long history. A hand-powered analogue machine made of bronze was used to predict the movements of planets in the solar system 2,000 years ago. Mechanical clocks go back to at least the 13th century.

But the pace of innovation really took off in the 19th century — what we might think of as Middle Period Analogue — when telegraph systems, glass plate photography and wax cylinder sound recording transformed the world. Taken together, they made newspapers, cinema and, eventually, radio stations possible, with all the social and political ramifications they brought with them.

In 1961, portable transistor radios carried in the backpacks of the young soldiers of the French conscript army allowed them to listen to President de Gaulle commanding them to disobey their mutinous generals, preventing a military takeover in Paris and Algiers. The vinyl record that could play seven three-minute recordings on each side created the album, a modern musical form that in turn led to a new art form: the album cover, pioneered by the likes of Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton. Television reinvented advertising, made stars and homogenised culture.

But the 1960s and early 1970s — what we might call Late Period Analogue — also produced some of the most remarkable consumer artefacts ever made, from the Polaroid SX-70 camera (the closest that analogue technology ever got to the frictionless instant results of digital photography) to IBM’s Selectric typewriter, which opened the way to the word processor.

The first thing that you notice about a Selectric is its shape. It has the kind of gentle, eroded curves that might have been inspired by a sand dune. Just as impressive in a different way is what happens when you press the power switch and the machine comes to life. A chrome-plated plastic sphere the size of a golf ball takes the place of the heavy metal bars of conventional typewriters. This dances above the keyboard: it spins and tilts, back and forth, full of nervous energy as it moves to impress each letter through an inked ribbon to make a legible mark on the paper. 

The Selectric was the work of Eliot Noyes in 1961. He had the buzz cut and button-down look of an astronaut, though he was one of Walter Gropius’s students at Harvard and so an American descendant of the Bauhaus. To try to use one of his machines now is to experience a kind of melancholy for lost promise, for roads not taken and relationships never fulfilled. 

It’s the same with the primary-coloured plastic case of Brionvega’s portable television, designed by Richard Sapper and Marco Zanuso, called the Doney. It sits on the floor and tilts its little screen up to look its owner in the eye as if it were a winsome pet dog, the antithesis of a giant flatscreen digital TV pinned to the wall and looming over the room.

And there are many analogue classics. The Beogram 4000 turntable, designed by Jacob Jensen for Bang & Olufsen, which has tangential tracking arms that move parallel to the edge of the machine rather than pivoting across it; Dieter Rams’ open-reel tape recorder designed for Braun; a top-loading wedge-shaped Yamaha stereo cassette tape deck designed by Mario Bellini; and even Richard Sapper’s kitchen timer from 1980, known as the Escargot for reasons that are obvious as soon as you see it.

All are icons of 20th-century design history. Dissertations are still being written about their significance, and the careers of a new generation of designers are measured against them. But they are the closing chapters in the fossil record of a great extinction that can be traced back to the launch of the first smartphone by Apple in 2007.

By their nature, analogue devices had buttons to press and dials to watch, features that gave them a tactile quality that became an essential part of their personality — and the means by which we interacted with them. The distance a switch could travel, the sound that it made while doing so, the feel of the ridged edges of a knob all added to the impression these machines gave us that we controlled them. A smartphone feels as if it has taken control of us.

To continue to explore their significance is, for a design critic, to switch from the news pages to the obituary column. A typewriter is as remote from our day-to-day experience of the world as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection of silver snuff boxes.

But there are still lessons we can learn. The endearing way that analogue devices were designed to interact with their users can teach us how we can civilise today’s digital machines. Analogue devices click when they respond to touch. They are configured in such a way as to suggest their purpose, and give their users an intuitive understanding of how to operate them. Their digital replacements are much less interested in communicating their purpose.

Tom Hanks, who famously has a collection of 250 manual typewriters, describes “the tactile pleasure of typing old school is incomparable to what you get from a de rigueur laptop” in a piece he wrote for The New York Times. He captures the experience of using analogue machinery that makes pressing a button feel as if something important is happening.

“Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap like ones you hear in a Starbucks — work may be getting done but it sounds cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK. A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece.”

I own a bright red Valentine manual typewriter myself. It was designed for Olivetti by Ettore Sottsass in 1968, and though it has sat on my desk as a reassuring presence for years, without once being used, I would never part with it.

Sottsass used bright colour to transform a mundane piece of office equipment into a desirable object; or as he put it himself, “the kind of machine that will keep poets company on lonely weekends in the country”. It’s on a shelf in my study along with an unreasonable number of radios, perhaps the classic example of analogue technology, and an elderly cine camera for which it is now extremely hard to buy film.

Writing about them in a more systematic way for my new book, Analogue: A Field Guide, took me to Christopher Nolan’s films, and taught me that analogue is about more than nostalgia. For Oppenheimer, Nolan used analogue technology to allow him to shoot on film and achieve a resolution that digital cannot match. “[Digital] is perceived as cheaper, which it isn’t necessarily,” he told an interviewer. “There is increasing pressure to modernise but for me film will always have this wonderful richness: the analogue colour it has, the superior resolution. And when it is projected . . . it is a unique experience that people can’t get in their living room.”

For the book, my strategy was to explore them from the point of view of taxonomy; to look at how particular species of object have evolved over time. It taught me that there is very rarely a single moment of innovation that defines a new product category. The reality is that they emerge from bursts of rapid innovation in different places and are the product of many different minds.

Analogue technology has not disappeared entirely. Not only Nolan, but also Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino still use film. Vinyl records have come back from the edge of oblivion for similar reasons — they also offer the sense of ownership that a streaming service can never match. The pursuit of audio reproduction quality has turned enthusiasts’ homes into shrines to massive analogue sound systems; and the wristwatch lingers on, long after it was surpassed for accuracy and reliability. 

But much is lost. Nobody made typewriters or mechanical calculators that were more beautiful than Olivetti. Inside the smooth cast-aluminium skull of the Divisumma 24 calculator, designed by Marcello Nizzoli, is an intricate metal brain as beautifully engineered as an 18th-century orrery. The skills needed to make one have been forgotten. They depended on the 12,000 workers the company employed at its height in Ivrea, a small town near Turin.

There were skilled toolmakers, draftsmen and technicians and also physicists and engineers. There were machine shops and presses, there were assembly lines and warehouses. There was an office that worked on nothing but typefaces for all Olivetti’s machines. There was a functioning foundry, working with hand-carved wooden moulds that they needed to sand cast-aluminium parts for Nizzoli’s Lettera typewriters, techniques that are now mostly only used by artists such as Jeff Koons, rather than in factories. The components would be hand finished, and then enamel painted in an oven.

That Olivetti has vanished; the name now belongs to a small division of a telecoms company with a few hundred staff. But the architectural legacy made Unesco declare Ivrea a world heritage site, in which most of the buildings are empty. It is a company town without a company.

In the end it wasn’t clinging to the analogue world that caused Olivetti’s downfall. The company knew how to make computers, just as Kodak made Apple’s first digital camera. It was their failure to understand how to adapt.

Deyan Sudjic is director emeritus of the Design Museum in London; “Analogue: A Field Guide” is published in the UK by Frances Lincoln on March 14, and in the US under the title “The World of Analog” by Prestel on March 5

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