This is the Modem World: An ode to the trapper keeper

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|08.29.12

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This is the Modem World: An ode to the trapper keeper

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

It's back to school season, and if you're one of the younger Engadget readers, surely you did a little supply shopping. Perhaps you bought some pens, pencils, paper and notepads. Maybe you even landed a new laptop, tablet or printer. You probably tried to convince your parents that Xbox Live has a live after-school study group that can help you excel in calculus. (Parents: I'm not going to say if it does or not. It's up to you, as involved parents, to look this up on your own. If you don't look it up, then, yes, there is an amazing study group on Xbox Live. Buy your kid that 360.)

But when you went back-to-school shopping, I'm going to guess you didn't buy a Trapper Keeper.

If you know what a Trapper Keeper is, high five. If you don't, it's just a little thing.

It's just the original nerd gadget of the '80s. It's just the greatest pre-tablet gadget ever. It's just a thing that made high school bearable for those of us who would have rather been copying the programs out of the back of Compute! magazine. It was a portable vault of note-taking, anime-doodling, geometry-proofing goodness in a $10 package.

It was the greatest three-ring binder ever created.

The original Trapper Keeper was the king of school supply and paperwork organizers. It was, arguably, an analog computer, in that it housed pencils, pens, a calculator, ruler, protractor and a folder for each of one's classes. It sealed closed with Velcro security, and featured some sort of groovy (or rad, depending on your generation) design. And it used the same exact font for its logo as Apple Computer did for the Apple II.

It was legit. It sported fast cars, early 3D computer renderings, kittens, tigers playing football, space ships, dragons, rainbows, Sonic the Hedgehog and The Ghostbusters.

It was also a very clear sign that you were dedicated to education and were subsequently labeled a hardcore nerd. If you had a Trapper Keeper, you were fodder for John Hughes' next teenage drama. The cool kids? They didn't bother with protractors and calculators. They used minimalist, separate folders for each class, usually Pee Chee folders modified to exhibit the best in lowbrow bathroom humor. Cool kids didn't need to carry too much; the kids with the Trapper Keepers were doing their homework anyway -- for profit, of course.

You always knew a fellow D&D-playing, graph paper-using geek from his Trapper Keeper.

I'll go one step further. Trapper Keepers -- the way they combined all of one's desktop tools -- were an early incarnation of the smartphone. Portable, customizable and deeply personalized. Interestingly enough, Trapper Keepers faded from popularity in the '90s just as smartphones made their presence known. Coincidence? I think not.

But wait. It turns out that Mead still makes Trapper Keepers. They've replaced the Velcro with magnets, but otherwise, it looks the same, Apple font included.

But why would someone carry a Trapper Keeper now? Don't kids take notes on laptops and tablets?

Or, please tell me, Engadget readers: Do you still sport a fresh Trapper Keeper on the first day of school? Say it's so.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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