How a grandma with a bum hip sparked a shopping revolution

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Jane and Ned Snowball shopping online in 1984. Photo: Courtesy of the Aldrich Archive
Jane and Ned Snowball shopping online in 1984. Photo courtesy Aldrich Archive

A 72-year-old grandmother with a broken hip started the revolution with a television remote in her hand. She pointed it at the screen in her living room in 1984 and bought eggs, cornflakes and margarine.

Jane Snowball of Gateshead, England, spent a few pounds and became the first online shopper. In 2013, online shopping generated more than $1.2 trillion worldwide (with the promise of higher figures when 2014 numbers are reported).

Snowball did not use the computer as we know it. She used a device called Videotex, which merged media and business information systems and made them available to “outside correspondents.” She pressed a button on the remote with a phone icon and was able to connect to her local Tesco supermarket with a telephone number. The store received her list and delivered the items to her door.

The smart detective who inspired today’s smartwatch

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A child calls a buddy on his Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio in this 1960s commercial.
A child calls a buddy on his Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio in this 1960s commercial.

I have no plans to buy a smartwatch at the moment, but when I do, I already know the first command to give it.

I’m going to make my jaw as square as possible, activate the phone for my first call (probably to my wife), and say: “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!”

With Android Wear already here and Apple Watch on the way, we must salute detective Dick Tracy and his his two-way wrist radio.

Comic strip creator Chester Gould first strapped a wrist radio on Dick Tracy in 1946. He upgraded it to a wrist television in the 1960s. Tracy never complained about dropped calls or bandwidth problems.