Essential College Gear, From the Beat Generation to Generation Y

Tech gadgets have become increasingly important to college students since World War II, both as productivity tools and as fashion accessories. Starting with the 1950s, we review the devices that have had the biggest impact on how students live and work.

College Gadgets Then and Now

Ah, college--a blissful time of freedom, idealism, higher learning, and parties. College students are very aware of the latest technology, too, and they tend to think of tech gadgets not only as productivity and entertainment gear, but as fashion accessories and even status symbols. Were you one of those kids who always had the newest Walkman? Or the one who brought a Brother typewriter to class? Maybe you (or your kid) will among the first to read college textbooks on a Kindle. From the dorm room to the classroom, here’s a look at the must-have gear of the collegiate set from the 1950s to the present.

For a different kind of nostalgia trip, see "Obsolete Technology: 40 Big Losers," a look at 40 once-proud monuments to technological progress that were rendered extinct (or highly endangered) by subsequent advances.

Late 1950s: 35mm SLR

The image quality of photographs produced by college students in the late 1950s with the ancestors of today's Nikon digital SLRs far surpasses that found in party snapshots displayed on Facebook and Flickr today. But then again, any photo taken with a film camera these days is considered artsy and rare. In the 1950s and 1960s, neither the portability of the camera nor the sharability of the photos, were as significant factors as they are today. The quality of the photos was all that mattered. In 1959 the Nikon F finally put high-quality 35mm camera technology in the hands of consumers, and the college set took to it in droves.

1960s: Personal Television Sets

What college dorm room or common area would be complete without a television set? In the late 1950s and early 1960s, General Electric produced a personal TV that weighed only 26 pounds. Students now had a reason to gather and watch The Tonight Show with Jack Paar (and later Johnny Carson) instead of studying for finals. The dimensions and the picture quality of TVs have changed in a thousand ways since then, but half a century ago the portability of the GE set was novel. The giant Zenith TV in the basement of the family's house just wouldn't fit in the back seat of a student's Volkwagen bug.

1960s: Record Player

College kids in the late 1960s were lucky when it came to music. They had experienced the birth of rock and roll, had watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and now listened to their favorite recorded songs in (arguably) the purest way possible: on shiny black vinyl LPs or 45-rpm singles. Record players were nothing new of course, but all-in-one portable players like the GE Wildcat were a perfect fit for dorm rooms.

1970s: 5¼-Inch Floppy Disks

In the late 1970s, the 5¼-inch floppy disk ruled the data storage scene. The successor of the 8-inch floppy disk and the predecessor to the 3½-inch floppy disk, it was the common size for PCs made before 1987 and . The 5¼-inch floppy could store between 100KB and 1.2MB of data. After the heyday of this old-school floppy, 3½-inch floppy disks held sway for most of the next decade, followed by CD-ROMs and Zip drives. College kids today have it easy, with their fancy flash drives, some of which can store thousands of times more data than the old 5¼-inch floppies.

1970s: Birth of Computer Labs

It’s hard for 18- to 25-year-old students (like me!) to comprehend that when kids used to go away to college in the 1970s a laptop wasn't on the back-to-school shopping list. Nor, for that matter, was a desktop PC. Instead, universities granted students access to the campus computer lab so that they could get their computer time in. Computer labs provided great learning and a social experience that is gradually disappearing as more and more students retreat to their dorm rooms with their laptops, and rely mainly on Twitter and Facebook for company.

1980s: Calculators Go Personal

Calculators have always been a big deal for college students, but they weren't always as space-efficient as today's calculating programs. In fact, they were so large and clunky that slipping one into your back pocket was out of the question. So when advances in microchip technology made calculators small and cheap in the 1980s, many business and science kids gravitated to 'em. And when Casio took matters a step further and built a calculator onto a wristwatch, the gadget became a hot item on campus. You don’t have to wear a calculator on your wrist anymore. But if you want to, you'll be happy to know that Casio has released a refreshed version of the classic watch.

Late 1970s/Early 1980s: Personal, Portable Music

Not too long after Sony released the first Walkman in 1979, the WM-2 hit shelves--but thanks to its sleek looks, it didn’t stay on them for long. The WM-2 was the best-selling cassette-tape Walkman, and like today's latest iPods, it was constantly in high demand. The original WM-2 had a metallic gray case, but later units were available in black and red. How much cooler and more customized could portable music possibly get? Well, a lot, actually. But the design of these early music players continues to appeal; today, well-preserved vintage Walkmans fetch as much as $400 on eBay.

1980s: Portable Electronic Typewriters (With Memory!)

During the 1980s the first portable electronic typewriters began showing up in large numbers on campus. Among the first and best-selling of these were the Brother Typewriter EP-43 and EP-44. The Brother siblings were, in some ways, forerunners of the laptop PCs that began flooding campuses a decade later. The typewriters contained only a small amount of memory, which served mainly to capture each line of typed text before the machine printed it, so the typist had a chance to go back and correct typos. The EP series typewriters and their ilk used new thermal transfer printing technology to keep the size of the unit small and portable, so that students could use it anywhere they pleased--as long as it was near a power outlet.

1990s: Cellular Phone

College students in the late 1990s were among the first people other than certifiable yuppies to sport fashionable cell phones. The Nokia 5110--complete with a classic black-on-green display--was the first such phone to gain a large following on college campuses. Aside from offering average call quality, the 5110 featured the popular game, Snake, which kept college kids entertained during dull lectures. And, of course, the phone kept kids in touch with the ‘rents back home with a touch of a button.

1990s: Laptops

Of all the gadgets that have made their way onto the college campus, none has changed the way students work (and play) more profoundly than the laptop. The first notebook PCs to make the scene were heavy, clunky, and not very functional, but they still enabled students to start composing a paper in the library and finish it in their dorm room in the middle of the night. Many fast-typing students found the laptop to be a perfect note-taking device, too: College classrooms--especially in graduate-level environments such as law school classes--began to fill up with student-friendly laptops in the 1990s, and remain so today. Later, with the advent of Wi-Fi in dorms, libraries, and other common areas, students began using their laptops to communicate with their fellows in real time via services like Facebook and Twitter.

Late 2000s: Digital Books

This one's still up for debate, but it stands to reason that you'll see a lot of Kindles on campus this fall, and a growing number in years to come. Why? The Kindle, especially the new (and larger) Kindle DX, could directly address two of the biggest pains that continue to afflict college students: having to buy big, expensive textbooks; and having to lug them around all year long. The Kindle weighs next to nothing, and e-textbooks would, in theory, cost less than their paper forebears. Amazon is testing a special program that involves replacing standard textbooks with Kindle DXs and Kindle e-textbooks for selected courses at five U.S. universities this fall. If the music and film industries are anything to go by, the textbook publishing industry may sooner or later have to offer their titles in e-book form. Why? Because the market will demand it; and where there's a demand, there's always someone ready to fill it--legally or otherwise.

For a different kind of nostalgia trip, see "Obsolete Technology: 40 Big Losers," a look at 40 once-proud monuments to technological progress that were rendered extinct (or highly endangered) by subsequent advances.

PC World intern Lauren Barnard is entering her junior year at San Jose State University this fall.

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