7 obsolete tech references in cartoons

In my latest bid to cash in on clickbait trivia, I thought I’d make a list of seven cartoons featuring obsolete technology references. Specifically, tech references that’re not only obsolete, but also a head scratcher for those under a certain age. The list is in no particular order.

1. “The CB Bears”

CB BearsCB radios were all the rage in the late 1970s. Some comics and cartoons would touch on the craze, including an episode of Flintstones spin-off “The New Fred and Barney Show.” However, “The CB Bears” was a 1977 NBC show entirely meant to cash in on the craze.

Said bears consisted of a trio of mystery-solving bears named Boogie, Hustle, and Bump. Yes, they’re named after equally-dated disco dance moves. They drove around in a garbage truck and got orders over CB radio from an unseen contact, a la “Charlie’s Angels.”

Despite that the premise didn’t really involve CB radios otherwise, the show’s appeal was clearly meant to tie into a technological fad. Thus, it’s no surprise the show had a short one-season run, and hasn’t been hugely popular in syndication. The characters also didn’t appear in any following Hanna-Barbera series.

If anything, one of their show’s supporting segments probably was more popular than the stars post-cancellation. “Undercover Elephant” was about an elephant detective using flimsy disguises. He went on to make cameos in a few subsequent Hanna-Barbera series, including the 90s “Secret Squirrel” revival.

As for CB radios, they still exist, but ceased being a craze after the late 70s. Nowadays, of course, we have the smartphone.

2. “Schoolhouse Rock”‘s “Telegraph Line”

Telegraph LineIt’s one of the better “Schoolhouse Rock” songs, but “Telegraph Line,” about the body’s nervous system, still makes the list.

Telegram delivery in the United States still existed when the cartoon debuted on ABC in 1979. However, it was clearly on the wane even then, with long-distance phone calls, the rise of early fax machines, etc. Of course, telegraphs were still familiar enough even to kids at the time, thanks to older media. Nowadays, I’d imagine kids would have little idea what a telegram is. However, changing the short’s reference to “email” or “text messaging” would make it still work.

As for telegrams, in the United States they ceased being a thing in the (rather late) year 2006. That’s when Western Union stopped offering telegram service.

3. “Schoolhouse Rock”‘s “Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips”

Scooter Computer and Mr. ChipsOne of the last entries in the original “Schoolhouse Rock” run was a four-episode series of shorts, about a boy named Scooter and his talking computer, Mr. Chips. The shorts explained the basics of what computers could do and how they worked. However, the heavy references to concepts such as typing commands and BASIC made the shorts become quickly dated as the 80s wore on.

Of course, computers are now ubiquitous, so there’s little need to explain them to kids who’ve not known a world without computers. Fortunately, various educational groups, tech companies, etc., are still promoting programming skills among children. The current owners of the “Schoolhouse Rock” shorts, Disney, are also using their characters to promote such skills.

4. “The Simpsons”

Eat Up MarthaGiven how long the show’s been on the air, “The Simpsons” can fall prey to now obsolete technology references. Among the most now-dated technology jokes in the show might be:

  • The famed “Eat Up Martha” joke from a sixth season episode, related to the handwriting recognition flaws of then-new (and eventual flop) Apple PDA, the Newton. This apparently was a prominent enough joke that it motivated Apple’s engineers to work harder, to ensure that the initial iPhone would become a well-polished device.
  • The 1996 episode “You Only Move Twice” had as a joke an upper-middle class neighborhood’s grade school being wealthy enough to have its own website. True at the time given it was the early days of the Web, but quickly became an extremely dated joke.
  • Also from 1996, “Homeraplooza” featured in one scene a character not having heard of Apple Computer. A sign of the gigantic turn-around Apple made, of course. In 1996, the company was a shadow of itself, and widely rumored/believed to be on the verge of going under.

Not long after the above episodes, Steve Jobs returned to the company he co-founded, and began its massive turn-around effort. Currently, Apple’s one of the wealthiest and most successful companies on the planet. “The Simpsons,” meanwhile, went on to make jokes about an Apple stand-in company’s products in 2000s episodes.

5. Superman and the Tandy TRS-80

The Computers that Saved Metropolis
“Superman in The Computers That Saved Metropolis” (July 1980). Art by Ross Andru and Dick Giordano.

Comics have long done product tie-ins, and Superman shilling stuff is no exception. A 1980 special, “Superman and the Computers That Saved Metropolis,” was produced for Radio Shack.

The book featured Cary Bates writing, with art by Jim Starlin and Dick Giordano. The story features Superman as a guest teacher for a sixth-grade classroom. The Man of Steel starts off explaining the history of computer development up to that point, then presents the class with the gift he’d brought: TRS-80 computers.

The computers come in useful later in the story, when minor villain Major Disaster somehow causes interference with Superman’s super-brain. This forces the students to use their computers to perform various calculations for Superman.

The comic was apparently successful enough for Radio Shack that they commissioned a sequel involving Supergirl and a Tandy “pocket computer.” There was also a third issue (written by Paul Kupperberg, art by Superman mainstay Curt Swan) featuring Superman and Wonder Woman.

These days, the TRS-80 is a nostalgic memory of early home computers. As for the Man of Steel, nowadays he’s using the latest MacBook for his alter-ego’s journalism duties. Even Clark Kent’s iPhone has vastly more horsepower than the TRS-80s in those stories.

6. “Inspector Gadget” and the “computer book”

Inspector Gadget's computer bookThe 1980s series “Inspector Gadget” often featured Penny, Gadget’s vastly more competent niece, making use of two pieces of then-advanced technology. One was her Dick Tracy-ish wristwatch, which doubled as a visual communication device. She used it mainly to talk to her pet dog, Brain. The other piece of technology was Penny’s “computer book.” This was a large-sized book that let her perform various functions: accessing information, communications features, hacking into electronics, and so forth.

As a kid, I liked the show, but thought the idea of a portable-sized computer that powerful was something I’d only see in a cartoon. However, the “computer book” makes this list because it quickly became reality, and then surpassed, thanks to the rise of two things in the 1990s: more powerful laptop computers and the World Wide Web. Laptops went from having much more limited power versus desktops to becoming the dominant form of home computers. Meanwhile, the rise of the Web in the 90s allowed everyone easy access (outside of libraries) to the collective sum of humanity’s knowledge. Penny’s (and Dick Tracy’s) computer watch is also now a reality, thanks to the smartwatch.

The 2015 Netflix revival of the series reflects all of the above changes. Now, Penny has more typical modern devices.

7. “FoxTrot” and Apple computers

Think iFruity
Art by Bill Amend.

Given the characters’ non-aging nature, the long-running newspaper strip “FoxTrot” has seen plenty of tech come and go. This extends to the Fox family’s computers, all of which are Apple models, or Apple parody the “iFruit.” I’ve outlined the Fox family’s computer changes before.

A particular example to single out is the several week long storyline where the family buy a new “iFruit” to replace their two-piece Mac. Jokes about its multicolored choices, its lack of a floppy drive, etc., were all done. The storyline even headlined one of the book collections, “Think iFruity.”

Nowadays, the characters have expanded their computing devices to include tablets and smartphones. The family even has more than one computer now, lessening the need for “Jason hogging the sole household computer” jokes.

(Updated 8/5/18)

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