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Travels With An Airhead

What Happened to the Knobs?

— by Notch Miyake

I was looking at the front of my TV the other day and noticed there were no knobs. Then I looked at my VCR and DVD player and there were no knobs on them either. (In case you forgot, or you are one of our rare younger members, a knob is a cylindrical object attached to the front of early electronic devices to control things like volume and tuning.)

I have figured out why I never noticed that the knobs were gone. Looking at the front of modern electronic gadgets is a lot like looking at the pictures of fashion models in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Flat and boring. One tends to flip past them without much notice, compared to, say, Playboy magazine, where the models always command one's rapt attention. Why? As guys often said when reviewing the latest issue of Playboy, "Did you see the knobs on this month's centerfold?"

Older electronics like vacuum tube car radios had knobs. Big knobs, which were much easier to tune to those tricky AM stations. One had to use a fine touch back in those days. A soft, caressing motion worked best. I spent many a late Saturday night in my '56 Ford, perfecting this skill.

Today's youth only knows how to push buttons. Granted, pushing buttons is an important skill, but knowing how to use a knob was also socially valuable, even romantic.

For example, young men and women often listened to car radios together, but men were usually better at tuning them. This was because of men's willingness to practice and their sincere desire to get peak performance out of their date. No, I mean their radio. Women really appreciated a guy who knew how to use a knob.

So what happened to the knobs? I decided to look around the house. There was no knob on the microwave or coffee machine. There were two knobs hidden in the back of the refrigerator to control the temperature. There were six knobs on the old electric stove. One knob on the old-style toaster to control crispness.

In the bedroom we have a clock radio with three knobs: one for tuning, one for volume and one for setting the alarm. I bought this radio in 1968 when I arrived in New York City to attend graduate school. I got it at Takashimaya on 5th Avenue. It has an analog clock instead of those glowing digital readouts. It has been going off every morning for 35 years. You cannot buy a new radio like this anymore.

We live in a push button world. There are buttons for everything from changing channels, volume and mute, to PANIC, RED ALERT and LAUNCH. Just push the button and it happens. No fiddling with a knob to get things just right.

We have lost something in this transition to push-button immediacy. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to keep using every knob I have, for as long as I can.

— Copyright © 2003 by Notch Miyake.

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