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Before the iPhone, other objects of desire

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Stacey Vanek Smith: The iPhone 5 is expected to be unveiled at a press conference later today. Apple’s iPhone is a major object of desire these days. David Brancaccio, the new host of the Marketplace Tech report, takes a look now at what we covet–and what it says about us.

David Brancaccio: Before there was the 5, or the 4GS, or the very first iPhone, there was another object of desire.  


Ulysses Dietz: Back in the mid-1980s, there was this tea kettle that Michael Graves designed.

Ulysses Dietz is chief curator at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.

Dietz: It was a sort of conical steel tea kettle with a blue plastic handle and a little red bird whistle. And it struck me that it became a national icon. That every, kind of, young professional couple in the country owned one of those.

Even though the little plastic bird on the thing sometimes caught fire and melted. Owners of this pricey kettle were sending the iPhone-like message that they are the sort of people who embrace the design of the future.

Dietz: It was cutting edge. I know it sounds silly because it was just a tea kettle. I remember that it was referred to in I think New York Magazine as “Yuppie Porn.”

And we can step back even further. At the Morris Museum, also in New Jersey, is an amazing display of automatic music-making devices that pre-dated the latest iTunes pumping iPhone by more than a century.

Kelly McCartney: They were the first real instruments that were music-on-demand.

Kelly McCartney is curator of the collection. She points out a photograph of a family on the Nebraska frontier in 1888, with a stern-looking dad and mom in front of their simple prairie house made of sod. At their feet is an object the size of a breadbox, an object the family wants everyone to know they own: A high-tech device known as an organette music box.

McCartney: It was a highly desirable object and one that a family would save up to purchase.

An object that McCartney says would communicate that this was a family with enough disposable income to embrace the technology of what was then the future. Rather like, an iPhone 5, wouldn’t you say? In Morristown, N.J., I’m David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

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