Today in Tedium: I am not above stunt journalism. One of my greatest pieces involved me grabbing a book from 1994 and testing to see if any of the links still worked. (Spoiler alert: They did not.) But in-flight productivity, a concept I have read much about, evades me in large part because in-flight comfort evades me. Planes simply suck. They’re frustrating. They are built for the preferences of many but make no room for exceptions. And when you’re the exception, it’s no fun. With all that said, today’s Tedium talks about productivity on planes … from a plane. Well, at least for part of it. (I hope I don’t regret this.) — Ernie @ Tedium
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From typewriters, to calculators, to laptops, to smartphones: The role that airplanes played in technology
There are some people that can be productive anywhere. With the right idea and the right tools in front of them, they are editorial dynamos.
I am not like that. I am much more of a right-setting kind of person. Turn a TV on near me, and my ability to create melts. Which is why, as the plane starts its ascent, I’m feeling kind of annoyed. My in-flight entertainment has crashed, and not even in an entertaining way, and there’s a loud buzzing noise that the noise-cancelling headphones can’t seem to fully, y’know, cancel.
And of course, people are people. Some are reclining seats. Others are caught in their own worlds. There are literally hundreds of people on this flight. I am one of many.
Whatever the case, I think my point has been made: This is a cruddy place to write content. But write it I shall, because planes, somewhat ironically, have a noted reputation for productivity. (I assure you, I will not finish.)
This tight space, with little room to move, let alone spread out, has some adherents who think of it not unlike the way that some might think of working in a coffee shop.
“It wasn’t uncommon for me to have two flights in a week, traveling nationally and internationally to see clients,“ noted Inc. contributor Bruce Eckfeldt. “Making the most of my time in the air was critical to maintaining in my productivity.”
Some of this is strategic in nature. The podcast Jetset Genius argues that you need the right seat to be productive—the more legroom, the better.
“Anyone trying to get some work done on a plane knows the feeling of doing some ‘Laptop Yoga’ by trying to type on your laptop with no elbow room,” author Brad Kammlah writes.
But the big shift might have come with the evolution of technology that could help travelers maximize their productivity.
Of course, the big in-flight productivity boost came in the 1980s with the laptop and the 2000s with the smartphone, but productivity-minded business travel as a concept well predates the idea of people being able to scribble on a smartphone.
One worthy example, caught by researcher Robert Messenger in 2021, is invoked by the title of his blog post: “Typewriters in the Sky.”
The post highlights how, in the 1910s, a new type of plane launched that was well suited just for writing, complete with room for a typewriter. It even earned its own visual in the magazine Typewriter Topics, because sure, why not? Let’s face it, if we’re going to be productive on a plane, might as well get a full-on typewriter, right?
It turns out that many people were trying to do this, according to Messenger, though it was a Curtis JN-4 ‘Jenny’ that was the true innovator.
“‘The Business Man’s Aeroplane’ had, in fact, been flying in Britain for almost a year before Topics caught sight of it,” he wrote.
As air technology improved and turned into something that was attainable for regular people, more attempts to allow for productivity emerged. Typewriters, while not exactly common, had a place in flight in the pre-computing era. The now-defunct Northwest Airlines, notably, had produced a series of promotional photos that highlighted people using typewriters in the air, something that sounds comical today.
Of course, smaller devices obviously made a lot more sense when it came to getting things done. For example, a calculator-style dictionary tool called the Lexicon—not too far off from the Franklin Spelling Ace, released about a decade later—attempted to pitch itself as a good tool for business travelers. (While an obscure device today, there are examples of the Lexicon surviving in the wild, along with patent filings.)
Not to be lost in the discussion of productivity on planes are calculators, which went from being an expensive plaything to a dominant tool in the span of a decade. On top of that, they likely inspired portable video games. Reportedly, legendary Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi had been inspired to develop the Game & Watch after watching a bored business traveler mess around with a calculator, an observation that led Nintendo to build a business model that has become dominant over the past 40 years. The discovery, while taking place on a bullet train rather than a plane, likely proved more influential to modern technology than we might realize today. As Yokoi noted in his book Gunpei Yokoi’s Game Museum (translated, helpfully, by Shumplations), the move to develop the Game & Watch likely proved the viability of LCD screens in portable settings.
“At that time, I don’t think Sharp had thought much about uses for LCD screens outside of calculators. Nor do I think they had considered using them for personal computer applications as we do today,” Yokoi wrote.
Sure, portable video games aren’t really productivity tools, but they started from a Nintendo employee having an idea—the basic building block of productivity.
Some have argued that even the airplane itself is a productivity tool, a case made in a 1979 issue of the magazine Flying:
Like typewriters and computers, airplanes have proven themselves indispensable to many companies and individuals in the conduct of their business. The time of buying an airplane as a company toy has passed, for they cost too much and the IRS is too vigilant. Tub the use of business aircraft is greater today than ever, because they increase the productivity of the people who fly them. And increasing productivity is vitally important in today’s economy.
At one point, as I’m sure you remember, the technology outpaced the planes. And that created problems that limited just how productive we could be on planes. After all, we couldn’t just allow people with BlackBerry devices to shut down the plane because they sent a message to a coworker.
You laugh, but this was once a real concern.
“There is a growing concern expressed by government about the number of electronic devices carried onboard. We wouldn’t in principle like to see passengers being told they can’t carry such devices.”
— Rodney Wallis, the director of security for the International Air Transport Association, discussing (in a 1989 article for the National Post) the tension that the rising business-traveler use of laptops created for airlines and governments alike. Essentially, electronics represented a totally new territory on planes, especially those that could be used for productivity reasons. How unusual were electronics during this time? According to the piece, lithium batteries were considered so dangerous at the time that they needed to be declared by passengers before they boarded the plane. (Also, click on that article if you want to see a photo of a man getting away with a criminal amount of legroom for his gigantic laptop.)
Were electronics really a risk to airplanes? A forgotten ’90s controversy, explained
In 1993, a series of strange incidents set off alarm bells for pilots and travelers alike. And they each involved increasingly common electronics.
It all started with a short brief in Time, which reported that a DC-10 aircraft had attempted to land at JFK Airport, but nearly crashed. The reason sounds almost absurd, but it was enough to freak out a number of major airlines.
“Seems that the airliner’s electronic flight controls went wacky when somebody in first class turned on his portable CD player,” the brief read.
Quickly followed up by a longer piece by tech journalist Philip Elmer-Dewitt, the controversy expanded to concerns about laptops and Game Boys, with many pilots blaming passenger electronics for a variety of close calls:
No planes have crashed and no lives have been lost—so far. But TIME has obtained a stack of pilot reports linking a series of “anomalies” to a wide variety of electronic gadgets, from laptop computers to Nintendo Game Boys. In one striking example, a plane flying out of Chicago started veering off course while its VOR dials dimmed and danced around. When the passenger in seat 9-D turned off his laptop, the report states, the “panel lights immediately brightened dramatically and all navigation aids returned to normal.”
For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration was extremely skeptical of Time’s reporting.
“Frankly, I’m baffled by the whole thing,” said the FAA’s Anthony M. Broderick, according to a 1993 The Washington Post story. “There is no technical basis for what has been reported. What is the mechanism by which a DC-10 is going to be taken over by a lunatic CD?”
The Post article goes further to imply that it’s a situation where pilots are essentially going off of hunches, and that their knowledge of aviation was being misconstrued as a knowledge of engineering. As Rep. Bob Carr (D-MI) put it: “There are very few pilots who are also radio engineers.”
Still, the anecdotal evidence was enough that it created negative vibes around carry-on electronics for decades, leading to the ever-frustrating requirement that they be stowed away during takeoffs and landings. As noted in a 1996 Newark Star-Ledger article, a big element of the concern came from the fact that many planes were not designed with the expectation that the passengers, too, would have electronics in their hands.
The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), a nonprofit group that helps to study issues affecting air travel, conducted a study around this time to figure out whether portable electronic devices actually created a risk. And their answer, essentially, was, “maybe, possibly, in the right circumstances.”
“Some potential interference will be obvious to flight crews and only considered a nuisance,” the commission’s report said. “But some potential interference events are insidious and so misleading to the crew as to create unacceptable hazard.”
The problem was, this was not firm ground that RTCA was stepping on, and it wasn’t conclusive. And by the time the desire to end the electronics bans during takeoffs and landings started picking up steam in the early 2010s, the debate hadn’t really gone anywhere further.
There was lots of research into the issue—for example, engineering researchers at Carnegie Mellon did a study in the mid-2000s that recommended personal electronic devices (PEDs) should be tightly regulated on planes for safety reasons, and wrote a rather alarming article in IEEE Spectrum to that effect.
“Our research has indicated that PED interference occurs at an appreciable rate and that some of these events create hazardous situations,” the article stated. “The rapid growth of wireless and other devices emitting RF radiation poses increasing risks for airlines.”
But the alarm was tempered to some degree by a later assessment by the MIT Technology Review, which interviewed a Boeing employee who was a member of the RTCA committee that was tasked with researching the issue, who made an important point—the takeaways from prior reports about radio interference led to better shielding around airplane electronics. In other words, this was a problem the aviation industry could take steps to solve without negatively affecting passengers.
Even Bill Strauss, the lead author of the CMU study, seemed to temper concerns that his research raised when talking to the MIT Technology Review.
“It’s not an ‘Oh, my God’ situation,” he told the outlet. “But it’s not a light situation either.”
The RCTA studied the issue again not long after the CMU report, this time focused on the prevalence of cell phones and Wi-Fi signals, but took a wishy-washy stance on whether to ban the devices. By the time public criticism over the rules reached a peak, critics could easily point to the zero examples of smartphones taking down planes as a reason why the rule should end.
By the mid-2010s, the old requirement limiting the use of electronics on planes was all but forgotten, and now we use our cell phones on basically every part of the flight … though not to make calls.
“New technologies are often greeted with fear and that is certainly true of a disruptive technology like cellphones. Yet rules that are decades old persist without evidence to support the idea that someone reading an e-book or playing a video game during takeoff or landing is jeopardizing safety.”
— Nick Bilton, a journalist for Vanity Fair, discussing the ban on electronics during takeoff and landings in a 2011 New York Times article. Bilton wrote numerous articles about the issue, often from the skeptical stance that the regulation made no sense, that people using their electronics had no real impact on the flight’s ability to operate. Eventually, his crusade led the Federal Aviation Administration to sack the rule, which many critics misunderstood to be a ban on phone calls. In reality, people just wanted a screen to look at that wasn’t operated by an airline.
The commercial that shaped what computing in the sky was going to be like
So, now that we’ve settled the debate over in-flight electronics screwing with the plane’s navigation systems, let’s talk about something more fun.
And that fun thing is the commercial above, a feather in the cap of Apple’s wilderness period.
See, the Apple of the John Sculley era wasn’t always perfect—with noble failures like the Newton reflecting the challenges the company had with momentum in the 1990s—but if one machine could be described as his signature machine, it was most certainly the PowerBook. The laptop, simply put, was a culmination of everything that Apple did well. It was arguably Sculley’s biggest win during his entire tenure, a tenure that helped to create a successful business around the Macintosh.
Key to that win is perhaps the best commercial that Apple released outside the bookended Steve Jobs eras. It leveraged the then-newly retired basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was just beginning his life outside of basketball. (This was long before he had a Substack.)
The commercial, which aired around the 1992 Winter Olympics, leveraged his large size to point out that, while he was in a tight situation while stuck on an airplane in coach—in a middle seat, at that!—the machine he was using could still be used efficiently in a compact setting.
“We want to show the ergonomics of the keyboard, and we needed somebody with big hands,” Apple spokeswoman Lisa Byrne noted in a 1992 article discussing the campaign. “Kareem came to mind.”
At this time, basically everything about the PowerBook was unusual for computing, particularly the placement of the trackball in the center of the machine, creating natural wrist rests. The design of the machine was not only effective, it essentially led the rest of the industry to directly mimic Apple’s design—something that happened again a few years later, when Apple replaced the trackball with a touchpad.
As the article on the ad campaign noted, the mixture of the messaging and the design was an effective strategy that helped the Powerbook catch up in the market at a time when roughly 65 PC manufacturers were already in the space.
The airplane metaphor was a hit, and such a good idea that Apple actually repeated the joke more than a decade later, with Houston Rockets superstar Yao Ming rocking a 12-inch PowerBook. But that’s only half the story. Yao was teamed with Austin Powers sidekick Verne Troyer, who was rocking a 17-inch PowerBook that was nearly as big as he was. (Not a bad extension of the original concept.)
As a 2003 Slate piece notes, it was Yao’s first big-name sponsorship in the United States, which is notable because he came to be known as one of the NBA’s most notable marketing forces, helping to shape what was possible for athletes and advertising, especially globally.
And the crazy part? As he didn’t speak fluent English at the time, Yao didn’t even have any lines.
While, let’s be honest, we’re not bringing 17-inch laptops onto planes to surf the web, these commercials helped to normalize a now-common model for productivity in the sky.
The first time that an email was sent from the sky over a high-speed internet connection via a Lufthansa plane developed by Boeing. Internet access on planes, a major novelty during the 2000s, grew in prominence during the 2010s as satellite-based wireless connections greatly improved, allowing for productivity to happen on the ground even when in the sky. (Sure beats a typewriter, right?)
So anyway, you read all that and are probably wondering how much of that I actually wrote on the plane—and the answer is, a surprising amount! I got a solid 800 words in before I let external desires like sleep get the best of me.
I mostly wrote on my smartphone, a OnePlus 11, and had no real issues in the process. Not only that, but I even got a few Newspapers.com searches in. Smartphones these days are so advanced that we’re close to not really needing laptops on the go.
That’s the good news.
But ultimately, my experiment was a failure for reasons out of my control. Simply put, a literally horrible experience happened to myself and my wife that underlines why productivity and air travel seem so antithetical to me. Essentially, my connecting flight got delayed until the next morning, leading to an experience I do not recommend—sleeping in the terminal, Tom Hanks-style. There were long waits in customer service. There was lots of walking from one side of the airport to another.
No way I was going to get any more writing done after that. I was just mentally cooked after that, and it was just a rollercoaster of failure. That’s the problem with productivity and flying. While the gadget will still turn on and allow you to create, you simply can’t judge how the flight will make you feel.
When it comes to productivity, especially productivity with the end goal of creativity, so many factors just go against what crammed seats do well. Sure, if your job is herding cats, perhaps you can still herd them with the help of a slab of glowing glass or a lightweight tablet. But unless you’re as inspired of a thinker as Gunpei Yokoi, you probably won’t be getting any work done.
Thanks again to Delta Airlines and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Concourse F for helping give this story an arc. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
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