So what was life like before the invention of the microchip?

No mobile phone, no microwave oven, no colour TV, no internet... Our thoroughly modern reporter Katy Guest bravely steps back in time
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The Independent Online

Texas Instruments filed for a patent for "miniaturised electronic circuits" in February 1959. Now read on...


The first problem is to do with damsons. A frozen block of them that I would love to defrost for my pudding. It seems cosily 1950s to knock up a warming damson crumble on this autumn evening and settle down in front of some wholesome repeats on the TV. But I am not allowed to use my microwave (the domestic version was introduced in 1966). Or my TV. At least not in colour (BBC2, 1967), anyway.

I call Dixons, and ask if I can buy a black-and-white television. The man who answers seems perplexed. "Eeeey, brrrrr," he says. "Just black and white? I think they are still available, but not in Dixons. Caravanners and people who are into boating, they sometimes use them." Dare I ask why? "Well, they operate from a 12V output or they are battery operated, so they can take them along and they don't use a lot of power. Can I ask why on earth you would want one?"

Eventually, I cheat and turn down the colour on my TV. It would be nice to watch something old-fashioned like Supernanny or The 100 Best Cereal Boxes ... Ever!, but Channel 4 did not exist until 1981. I end the day with Huw Edwards looking distinctly peaky, as I glumly scrape ice shards of damson purée out of a Tupperware (1945, phew!) box. It is not a good start.


Sunday begins more optimistically. I am looking forward to a week without e-mail (1971), without the capricious Microsoft Word (1983) and without being woken up at 1am by a so-called friend who accidentally dials my mobile (1973) while completely out of his face on alcopops. I am looking forward to a week without alcopops, too, but then I am told about something called Cherry Bs (1950s). Apparently not everything has changed.

But somehow I need to get to work. I investigate transport options - which is not easy with no internet (World Wide Web, 1989) connection. How did they ever manage to do journalism without it? I have been told that they worked in actual cuttings libraries, full of yellowing papers and whiskery old men, but I am sure that must be some kind of joke. I make some calls. My phone doesn't make that lovely crrrk-whirr sound as the dial returns to zero, but it is soothing to remember that it once did.

I am allowed to use trains, I discover. Steam or diesel trains, that is. I could use a bicycle, but not with my flashing LED (1962) rear light, and I am still too young to die. Cars are problematic. They were invented long before 1959, but modern cars apparently contain microchips by the billion. I don't believe my car contains microchips by the billion. It doesn't even contain any heating. I once drove to Derbyshire in it on Christmas Day, and by the time I arrived my frozen fingers had to be prised from the steering wheel. I don't want to try that again.

Then I discover something wonderful. The Docklands Light Railway, or DLR, (1987), a funfair contraption that pootles though east London and past The Independent's offices, was invented far too late for me. I cannot go to work. I will stay at home and drink Cherry Bs instead.


I have now discovered the problem with 1959. It is very boring. It is no wonder they invented daytime TV (1980s). It would be fitting to watch a fine old movie on video (Betamax, 1976) or DVD (1995), but of course those machines are forbidden. I consider visiting a museum, but my area is served by trendy modern bendy buses (introduced to London 2002), so I am somewhat confined to the house. I try to read Lord of the Rings (1954 and 1955) but I am restless. I feel like I should be doing something, but there is absolutely nothing to do.

I am allowed to use my washing machine - sort of. Not everyone had a washing machine by 1959 and I have been told frightening stories about mangles and pulley systems, which had to be filled by a hose from the sink. But if I am banned from TV, I am at least going to watch my washer. I discover that the hypnotic effect of clothes going round is a match for C4, but it is only then that I realise what I am wearing. My wardrobe is not a shrine to man-made fibres but the only bones in my underwear are definitely my own. I consider temporarily purging my wardrobe of Lycra (1959, but not in Bridlington), but that is a research project too far.

By rights, of course, a 1950s woman of my age would have 2.4 children to keep her occupied and would be walking around in curlers by now, cooking her husband's tea. I pick some tomatoes from the garden (surely they had tomatoes) but am not sure that pasta had made it to south London by the 1950s and I know that olive oil was only available from pharmacies, so I cook them with some beef mince. This would explain the need for Mrs Beeton.


Is BBC 7 (the digital radio station, 2002) considered cheating? Because I desperately need something to cheer me up, and Hancock's Half Hour (1954) is being repeated ad infinitum on this strangely retro channel. I am washing up. And it is taking a long time. Last night, I cooked myself steak and kidney pie the 1950s way. "When I was little we had no fridges or freezers," says my mum. "Meat was bought on the day and kept in a meat-safe in the larder. It was a small wooden box on legs with a marble shelf and a wire-mesh front to keep the flies out. We didn't have takeaway curries in the 1950s. I seem to remember we ate a lot of offal."

It takes a long time to find a butcher in modern London. Having tracked down my kidneys I realise that my brand new, non-stick pans are useless to me. Teflon was first introduced in Britain in 1946, but far too expensive for a girl of my means in 1959. Hence the washing up. Do they still sell Vim, I wonder?

The wireless news is about a Chinese space shuttle experiencing what is being called a "wobble", and I go away to check my encyclopaedia. On 13 October, 1959, the USA launched the Explorer VII space probe - part of the programme that sent back the first pictures of the earth from space. And they couldn't even invent a decent washing up liquid.

Tony Hancock is going on about a TV commercial for Cornflakes. Now why didn't I think of that? As I scrub, I decide to stick to breakfast cereals in future.


Something terrible has happened. I have run out of money. I woke up this morning to my cartoonishly loud tick-tock alarm clock. I am sure that John Humphrys was invented long before the 1950s but my digital radio alarm (early 1960s) has been hidden in a drawer. Having switched off my central heating (ancient Greece; but only for the incredibly posh in 1959) I am not inclined to have a bath, and I am bored out of my skull. I would like to take a train to the nearest movie theatre to catch a matinee of Ben Hur (1959) but then I realise I have no cash. And credit cards didn't come to Britain until 1967. And it is early closing. I am in trouble.

I call my mum. "You sewed and knitted clothes for your dolls and played with them for hours," she says, brightly. I go back to bed.


I have had enough of this. It is time to be proactive. I need to know what my life would really have been like in the Old Days, so I take a Tube (1863, so there) to Fleet Street and start to investigate.

There are no copy boys in Fleet Street now. Instead, there are two Pret a Mangers (1986), two Starbucks (US, 1971; UK, 1998), a McDonald's (Woolwich, 1974) and a French boulangerie. "It's mostly barristers here now," says the man behind the bar in El Vino's, where I write down my notes in a spiral-bound notebook with a view to typing them up later. I sit down beside an ancient telephone, attached to which are cables and plugs like an old-fashioned telephone exchange. I am attempting the 1950s version of e-mailing in my story.

I am waiting to buy an old-fashioned drink when a sign at the bar catches my eye. "Gentlemen," it requests. "Please be courteous about where you blow your cigarette smoke." In 1959, I realise, there were no jobs in journalism for nice girls like me. In 1959 there was no Independent (1986). In 1959 I would not have been set this ridiculous assignment. I decide to call it a day, and snap open my mobile phone.

Within five minutes I am back in 2005. I have called my friends and they are sending a round- robin e-mail as I speak. One orders up a Thai lemongrass curry to be delivered and the other summons a cache of DVDs over the internet. A bottle of Australian wine is on its way. I am to rush to them on the first DLR train. Bliss.

Friday: post script

I think I have done a good job. My editor will be proud. I have lived in a pre-microchip world for one week, with only a few lapses and barely any cheating. I hand him my copy, neatly typed up and with hardly a smudge of Tippex.

"And what do you expect me to do with this?" he asks, incredulous. Crestfallen, I go back to my desk and file it into his computer queue.