© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Until I finished high school in December 1969 in rural Australia, to me, cables, sockets, and plugs meant electricity. My first foray into having to learn something more about cables came when I bought my first stereo system. To be sure, it was rather simple, just a set of red and white cables to connect the various components, and some insulated wire for the speakers. Fast forward 40 years, and when I look in the boxes of cables and connectors I've accumulated since—which I'm saving for that (probably non-existent) time when I just might need them—I see a lot of things verging on obsolescence. Someone is always inventing a better/faster/simpler approach.
My first memory of a home phone was a large wooden box mounted on the wall of the hallway. It was powered by an enormous dry-cell battery. The mouthpiece was fixed to the box and the earpiece hung on the side. To make a call, one cranked the rotary handle and spoke to an operator; there was no dialer. (Unlike some areas, we did not share a party line.) Service was available during daylight hours Monday–Friday, and possibly longer if an operator was on duty and one agreed to pay "an after-hours opening fee". Like many Commonwealth countries, in Australia, the Federal Post Office had the monopoly on phone equipment and service. No competition, so no incentive for innovation.
In the early 1970's in Australia, the idea of having multiple phone outlets in a house, and moving a phone from one outlet to another, came of age. In my house, during the day, the phone was in my study; at night, it was moved to the bedroom. There was an Australia-wide standard plug and socket. And I had progressed to a handset with a rotary dialer. [It wasn't until I moved to the US that I found letters on a phone dialer, as well as digits.]
In 1979, I moved to Chicago in the US. Not only did those decadent Americans have multiple phone jacks in each residence, they had one in just about every room! Back then, the jack had four pins arranged in a square. However, the phone cable ended in an RJ11 plug, so an adaptor was needed from one to the other. (The humble RJ11 plug became widely used, not just in the US, but in many other countries as well.)
I bought my first PC in December 1982. A few years later, I bought my first modem, a "speedy" 300 baud model. Eventually, I bought a portable PC, and ultimately, a laptop. I also started to take them abroad, which led to the problem of connecting to foreign phone systems. As someone once said, "Standards are great; everyone should have them." And so they do, but of course, many countries each had their own, different standard. For $100, I purchased a kit of adaptors that purported to support all the main phone systems in the modern world.
Nowadays, for those of us still having a so-called landline, we have wireless handsets connected to a base station, which is connected to an RJ11 jack or to a broadband system. An increasing number of us have only a mobile phone, which operates entirely without a cable.
The first house I remember living in had no electricity. We used a pressurized kerosene lantern to light the main room, a wood stove for cooking, a fireplace for heating, and a wood-chip heater for heating water on bath days. The next house had a 32-volt DC generating plant, but that drove only the lighting system; we had no electrical appliances to speak of. The house after that was connected to the mains, which, in Australia, is 240 volts, 60 HZ, with a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat and slanted, and the third flat blade serves as the earth/ground.
In the 1970's I recall buying a stereo amplifier made in Asia. Although it had an Aussie plug, the auxiliary power outlets on its back used the US 2-pin socket.
When I left Australia in 1979, I started shaving with a hand razor, as I knew that taking electric appliances to different countries would be a challenge. However, fast forward to traveling with a video camera, laptop computers, mobile phones, and such, and we have a situation similar to that of connecting to the internet on various phone systems. The adaptor kit I mentioned earlier for phones also came with a number of power adaptors. I've found that there really are only three needed these days: US, UK, and European. (Although the Aussie socket is different to that of the US, I have an adaptor that allows the top blades to be swiveled to satisfy both. A few years ago, when spending time with a new colleague from South Africa, I discovered that country also had its own plug/socket style.) I used to have to carry a frequency converter, but newer equipment can detect differences in frequency as well as voltage, so only a pin adaptor is needed.
On the battery front, it seems that we really do have some international standards for the mainstream ones; however, there are still plenty of proprietary ones. A nice feature involves having a power-to-USB adaptor, so one can charge devices from any USB port (such as on laptops and now in more and more car models).
Once upon a time, it was all quite simple; there was the 6.3 mm (1/4") phone connector, which I knew as a phono jack, and that was it! This was the way in which one hooked up to an amplifier, a microphone, headphones, and electric pickups for guitars and other musical instruments. With the advent of personal audio devices, smaller versions of the phone connector were introduced, primarily to connect headphones and earbuds.
In the world of stereo, it was all quite simple: you could choose between RCA connectors, and, well, RCA connectors! The left-channel plug was white, and the right-channel plug was red. [I am happy to say that my stereo equipment still uses these, and they work just fine.]
A popular alternate audio mechanism was the DIN connector. [It got its name from the German Standard's organization Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN).]
Nowadays, audio support has pretty much merged with video and computers, both of which are covered below.
Regarding connecting to a TV antenna, I've only ever run across two approaches: a flat ribbon cable and a coaxial cable.
When it came time to connect output from a TV to other components, the established RCA cable set was extended by adding a third line with yellow plug for composite video.
Another approach to video was S-Video.
An alternate approach involved component video, with red, blue, and green plugs.
Several years ago, when I made the plunge into High-Definition TV, I discovered that the lingua franca for connecting video was now HDMI.
As with many technologies, in the early days, most connectors and cables were proprietary. However, two standards emerged early. For serial cables used to connect terminals, printers, and modems, there was the serial RS232. For faster transmission to printers, the Centronics parallel format was used.
A high-speed protocol called SCSI was developed for large-capacity storage devices; however, this was expensive and never took hold except on high-end systems.
Connections for displays have seen a number of standards, including VGA, EGA, DVI, and DisplayPort. Although VGA is a very old technology, from my experience it's the most commonly used on projectors available in conference rooms. As such, in order to project from newer laptops one needs a cable that converts to VGA.
For connecting devices in general, the most common approaches have been USB and FireWire.
One of the early ways of networking computers used 10BaseT coaxial cable with BNC connectors. Eventually, Ethernet/RJ45 became ubiquitous.
In the late 1970's, I worked at a State Government department in Australia, which was housed in a large high-rise building. Like many such buildings, the ceiling of each floor was made of light-weight tiles that were suspended from the concrete floor above. Above this false ceiling ran all the water and sewer pipes, and the power and phone cables. From time to time, a man would show up to move or add new phone extensions. He was ably assisted by his trusty companion, a fox terrier. The dog wore a harness to which the man attached a light cord. He then put the dog up in the ceiling and then opened a hole above where he wanted the cord pulled, stuck his head up there, and called the dog toward him. Once the cord was through, the man attached the phone cable to it and pulled that through. It was a decidedly low-tech solution, but one that worked well. Of course, everyone loved the dog, which, by the way, was legally registered for the work, so his expenses were a business deduction.
I'm reminded of a story about some futuristic archaeologists who were digging at various sites. They came across an old broadband cable and discussed how advanced that civilization was. Then when they found some buried copper wires, they remarked how that was rather primitive. At one site they found no cables at all, leading one person to proclaim this to be quite a backward society. "On the contrary", responded another person, "This is evidence that they had wireless!"
I'm sure we'll see more new kinds of cables for video and PCs in the near future as new technologies evolve.
Regarding buying cables, do shop around as prices can vary widely. Often, one can buy generic cables on-line or in hardware stores that are good enough and much cheaper than those available in specialized computer/electronics stores. And when you buy a device (such as a printer), be sure to ask if a power and/or data cable is included; it often is not. Getting a "good" price turns out not to be so good if you have to spend another $20–30 for cables.