Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Technology That Rocked Our World in the '80s


In 1986 Neil Diamond proclaimed, "We're headed for the future and the future is now!" During the '80s the future was indeed the here and NOW, thanks to the gadgets at our fingertips. In addition to the music and the fashion, I think the one thing that best defines the 1980s is the sheer volume of consumer technology that was made available to us during the decade. Sure, none of it compares to the tablets, iPods, and smartphones of today--but it was exhilarating to experience a lot of these devices for the first time at a young age, as I did. Here's a look at the technology I remember and enjoyed the most from the period...



Sony Walkman/Personal Music Listening Devices

When a kid begins to morph into a pre-teen and eventually a teenager, what do they crave more than anything else while stuck inside the house? Privacy. The Sony Walkman and other small, portable radios/cassette players with earphones provided that, blocking out the world and allowing me to keep up with the latest pop music acts. Not to mention I could keep my listening choices private and not risk embarrassment if my parents disapproved of them. It was a beautiful thing.



VCRs

Considering my father worked as a RCA repairman shortly after WWII, it's not surprising that he kept up with the latest in television technology long after he left the industry. I still remember our household's first VCR in the early '80s and the steep price he paid for it (I want to say it was around $700 or $800; it wasn't uncommon for VCRs to retail for nearly $1,000 when they were first introduced to the public.) Was it worth every penny? You betcha--we marveled at being able to not only tape a channel, but watch a different one at the same time, schedule recordings ahead of time, and get to watch our favorite movies at any time by renting them. But that's not all! If you had TWO VCRs you could make a duplicate copy of a tape! Believe me, I still consider the VCR one of the top technological wonders ever, and I think our first one latest us just under ten years. Some folks opted for Sony Betamax recorders (which was actually the first hoe video recorder on the market) but lost out to the popularity of JVC's VHS machines since the tapes could hold more recorded content. And remember the vinyl record-sized LaserDisc, which didn't record but was a precursor of the DVD? Yes, the ability to record TV programming in these days was huge and a giant step towards the modern home entertainment system of today. 



Video Gaming Consoles

I also remember accompanying my parents to Sears when they bought an Atari 2600 for me. The first game I played after hooking it up to the living room TV was Pac-Man; by the time it got hooked up to a TV of my own in my room I had amassed a nice game collection that included all of the classics: Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Adventure, Frogger, Pitfall, and several others. The primitive, one-dimensional graphics would not win any design awards to the say the least, but the Atari 2600 opened the doors for more sophisticated video game consoles by Sega and Nintendo. I played with the thing so much I got callouses on my left hand from holding the joystick control. Good times. 



Personal Computers

The computers of the 1980s were a long way off from the technological wonders of today, but they still brought a sense of amazement to the average household. Like most kids of my generation, my first computer was the Commmodore 64--not so much a computer but a very smart keyboard with built-in RAM memory that you could hook up to a TV and supplement with a tape or floppy disk player to run programs. I actually got my first exposure to coding and creating computer graphics by following one of the exercises in the instruction manual, which resulted in a pixelated hot air balloon floating across the TV screen to a sample of Mozart's Allegro. Pretty heavy stuff for a 12 year-old to accomplish. I also enhanced my typing skills with a typing program made for the system, and one of my favorite video games (that easily trumped anything running on the Atari 2600) was a flight simulator that unfortunately, often froze up on me. It wouldn't be until the late '90s that I bought myself a proper computer with dial-up Internet access, but the Commodore 64 will always have a special place in my heart.

We also had an Apple II in my elementary school's library, and I secretly wished I had one at home--there was an adventure game installed on it that we kids loved to play. Years later I would learn graphic design software on Macs.   



Interactive Toys

My mother often says that today's kids have so many incredible toys that they make my generation's look like crap by comparison, but I don't think that's entirely true. Besides the slew of handheld electronic games that we enjoyed (such as Merlin and Simon) we also had Teddy Ruxpin, an animated, talking teddy bear that exceeded at storytelling, Speak & Spell, and several other toys that attempted to raise a child's intelligence level. I received a Speak & Spell for Christmas one year and loved it, later purchasing a plug-in module that expanded its vocabulary. I also had a Big Trak, a rover-looking vehicle made by Milton Bradley whose movements could be programmed by its built-in keypad. But I think one of the coolest interactive toys I had at the time was a big red Corvette without a remote control that responded to simple voice commands...and unlike the Verbot, a voice responsive robot that used the same technology, the car actually worked properly. I don't feel deprived compared to today's kids, to say the least. 



TVs - One Size Does Not Fit All

Along with its popular Walkman, Sony also produced a line of small, portable TV sets in the '80s called the Watchman. Most of their screens were only centimeters across and aired in grayscale. Unfortunately, if you still own one of these beauties they're useless without a digital converter box, and are now collector's items. But because the '80s were all about excess and spending money, electronic stores also saw large screen TVs start to fill their showroom space. So no matter how you preferred to take in Miami Vice, there was a screen size to fit your needs. 



Video Camcorders

This was actually one 1980s electronic staple that we didn't have in the house and that was fine with me, since I couldn't stand my recorded voice on tape or appearance in photos at the time. I also think there were too many downsides to it. For starters, although portable, they were big and clunky and made the user look like they were toting an automatic weapon. The picture quality was also poor compared to today's superior digital recording devices. But the 1980s video camcorder was a pretty big revelation since it was portable and you could play the footage back right through your VCR without the need for a screen and other equipment that home movies made in earlier decades required. Plus it did help inspire a movie featuring a young, hot James Spader--Sex, Lies and Videotape--so who's complaining?



Mobile Phones

I can't conclude this post without paying homage to the world's first mobile phones, which began selling in 1984. Big and chunky (like holding a shoebox up to your ear) they were also expensive, and therefore seemed reserved for yuppies and the elite, but we would soon see their size shrink practically each year, yielding the small smartphones we take for granted today. 

Honorable mentions include the digital watch (with an alarm!) synthesizers and boom boxes. What gadgets from the '80s do you look fondly back on?

5 comments:

  1. Loved reading this Pam--I love my big flat panel tv & Tivo today (which lets me record SIX CHANNELS at the same time) but I'd trade it all in to go back to the 80s!

    How cool your dad worked for RCA, why no mention of the RCA Selectavision Videodisc Player? (They were similar to laserdiscs, but much less expensice.) Around 1982, I went to JCPenney to buy a vcr & was dismayed to see the price of 'em, and if you wanted to actually OWN a movie--they were 80-100.00 each on VHS! (That was a few years before they dropped in price & videostores started popping up everywhere.) Anyway, the salesman told me I could buy an RCA Videodisc player for half the price of a VCR, it came with 3 bonus movies, and addtional ones were 19.95-29.95 each, a huge difference in price--I wound up buying one & collected nearly 150 videodiscs (before they stopped making 'em in the later 80s). In fact, just recently, I noticed there are several groups on Facebook devoted to those RCA discs! Anyway, sorry for the long ramble--enjoyed this look back at those 80s gizmos!

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  2. Thanks, Doug! Well, I did mention Laserdiscs but didn't elaborate further on this format simply because I never owned one, and because they weren't as popular as the VCR. I think most people, like my family, wanted a VCR because it could record programming. I'm glad to hear they still have a following, though. Thanks for your comments!

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  3. Pam, when my husband I first got married, he had a VCR that was almost as big as my microwave oven.

    Great post!

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  4. Awesome post, and I'm glad I found this blog, right up my alley! :)

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  5. Pam, another great article. What I always love about "technology" is how the prophets" get it wrong. The Laser Disk Player was written up in TV guide as the ultimate home appliance that would feature movies, education, and home hints, all (I imagine) on a large projection screen. Video Tapes were never mentioned in the article and of course they took off while the 12-14" laser disk never did. As for the computer, we were all told how we had to have one, yet until the internet they were basically game machines and glorified typewriters. I had a Tandy 1400 Laptop (14 pound) and that got me through college until 1995. I don't think I ever used the modem until Prodigy (by Sears) came along.

    Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end . . .

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