Updated on April 23, 2022
Technology changes as the years roll on, and is even rendered obsolete. This extends to tech references in popular culture, including comics and animation. Below is a look at some obsolete technology references in cartoons.
1. CB radios (The CB Bears)
CB radios were all the rage in the mid-to-late 1970s. Unsurprisingly, some cartoons tried to cash in on the craze.
One egregiously dated example is “The CB Bears,” a 1977 Hanna-Barbera series that aired on NBC. 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. And yes, they solve mysteries, like numerous other cartoons of the 70s. They drove around in a garbage truck and got orders over CB radio from an unseen contact, a la “Charlie’s Angels.”
Given all of this, it’s no surprise the show had a short one-season run, and fell into obscurity.
As for CB radios, they still exist, but ceased being a craze after the late 70s. The general public (and actual truckers) all carry smartphones these days.
2. Telegraphs (Schoolhouse Rock)
It’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 this short debuted on ABC in 1979. However, it was clearly on the wane even then, thanks to long-distance phone calls, the rise of early fax machines, etc. Of course, telegraphs were still familiar even to kids at the time, thanks to older media. Today’s kids probably only know about telegraphs from science fair projects. I’d imagine a modernized version of this song would use email or text messaging instead.
In the United States, telegrams ceased being a thing in the (rather late) year 2006. That’s when Western Union stopped offering telegram service.
3. The Apple Newton (The Simpsons)
“The Simpsons””s sixth season episode “Lisa on Ice” (from 1994) featured the bullies trying to use an Apple Newton (an early PDA) to write down a reminder to “beat up Martin.” The device changed their writing to read “eat up Martha.” (Frustrated, they opted to throw the Newton at Martin’s head instead.) The joke was prominent enough that it drew the attention of Apple’s engineers, and caused them to work harder at preventing such a scenario from happening on a similar but much more successful device: the iPhone.
The Apple Newton was sold between 1993 and 1998, but was still considered a failure. Its biggest flaw was its poor handwriting recognition, which drew a lot of negative publicity (enough for “The Simpsons” to make a joke about it).
4. The CRT iMac (FoxTrot)
Bill Amend’s long-running comic strip “FoxTrot” shows the Fox family as devoted Apple device users. (Amend himself is a fan of Apple’s products.) This extends to their family computer, which is always a Mac, or “iFruit” (as the iMac was later parodied).
One particular example is the several week long storyline where the Foxes buy a new “iFruit” to replace their previous computer (what looked like some unspecified Quadra or Performa model). Jokes about the iFruit’s color choices, the lack of a floppy drive, etc., were all done. The storyline even headlined one of the book collections, “Think iFruity.” Jason, of course, hated the iFruit, though he warmed up to it eventually (going by the Steve Jobs memorial strip).
The original iMac’s release in 1998 was a big game-changer for both computers overall, and for Apple. Despite its fame, the iMac’s CRT design was relatively short-lived; it was replaced by the lamp-like, flat-screen iMac G4 in 2002.
As such, the Fox family’s computer after the mid-2000s or so has usually been an “iFruit” version of a flat-panel iMac. The strip even added a laptop in 2013, since many families have more than one computer nowadays.
5. Phone booths (Superman)
One of the most iconic items associated with the Man of Steel is the telephone booth. The idea is that Clark Kent would duck into one when an emergency rises, in order to change into Superman. The odd thing is, he very rarely did this in the actual comics.
The Superman Homepage, a Superman fan site, ran an article outlining where the connection between Superman and phone booths came from. Basically, it seems to be a remnant of the 1940s radio show, plus several of the 1940s Fleischer animated shorts. It’s an association that’s stuck since, despite that 99% of the time, Superman changes identities in the “Daily Planet” storeroom, an empty office, in an alley, or somewhere else secluded.
As for why phone booths? In the 1940s, they were largely made of wood and glass, so it made sense as a semi-secluded spot. The university I went to had such wooden phone booths in the student union.
These days, phone booths have pretty much died out. Superman-related media occasionally makes jokes or references about phone booths. Still, even in the comics, Clark Kent usually carries a smartphone, like everyone else.
6. Typewriters (Superman)
The typewriter was a longtime staple of any office or writing scene in fiction, including in animation and comics.
To go with Superman again, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen made regular use of typewriters at their “Daily Planet” jobs in most comics up through the 1980s. The main change during this time was a shift from manual to electric typewriters, when those became popular. A few 1970s comics had Clark complain to himself about his manual typewriter being unable to keep up with his super-speed typing (as it’d jam).
The 1980s, of course, is when typewriter sales went into a decline, with the introduction of personal computers. Comics and spin-off media during this time saw Lois and Clark permanently shift to using personal computers. These days, the “Daily Planet” reporters, like everyone else, use laptops, desktop computers, and smartphones for their duties.
7. Black-and-white TV sets (101 Dalmatians, The Simpsons, Superboy)
As I wrote before, black-and-white TVs dominated TV sales in the United States until the early 1970s, when color TV sets finally outsold black-and-white ones.
Most comics published in the 1950s and 60s show the characters with black-and-white TV sets. Meanwhile, animated cartoons during this time would vary on whether the characters had color or black-and-white sets. (Future-proofing? Easier to just animate everything in color?) For instance, the 1961 Disney movie “101 Dalmatians” shows the titular dogs watching a black-and-white TV.
After the 60s, black-and-white TVs would appear as secondary TVs in some cartoons. One example is “The Simpsons,” where Moe’s Tavern has a black-and-white TV. Black-and-white TVs also appear in flashback stories. One such example’s DC Comics’ 70s and 80s Superboy stories. The Kents are shown in various stories owning a black-and-white TV; per DC’s floating timeline, 70s published stories were set in the 50s, while 80s stories were set in the 60s/early 70s.
In real life, black-and-white TV sales declined over the 70s and 80s; they were reduced to a secondary status as bedroom sets, security cameras, etc. By the 90s, black-and-white TVs had pretty much left the market entirely.
Photo by Ron Lach. (Pexels)