Over the decades, the 1980s had more than its fair share of iconic technology, from walkmans to VCRs to pagers. Many of the innovative Reagan-era gadgets and entertainment devices have since become obsolete, but they paved the way for a new generation of 21stitems from the last century such as cell phones and voice-activated home appliances.
Here are eight influential tech marvels of the 1980s that have long since jumped the shark:
Small wireless telecommunications devices that could easily clip onto a purse strap or belt, pagers allowed people to transmit simple messages in an instant. One-way pagers allow users to receive messages, while two-way devices can acknowledge, respond, and send communications.
First developed commercially in the 1950s for use in the medical field, pagers became popular in the 1980s, when having a “beeper” (as they were called) signified your status in the world as an important person who needed to be reached immediately.
Pagers became a cultural phenomenon, mentioned in many rap songs of the time. The devices couldn’t process texts, so users developed their own shortcut using numbers and asterisks, an early emoji. Pagers were also quickly adopted by illicit drug dealers, with a Miami school district official in 1988 calling the device “the most dominant symbol of the drug trade” and several districts nationwide banning them from campuses.
Cell phones have virtually eliminated the need for beeps. But the device is still used by disaster responders and the restaurant industry, among others.
WATCH: Full episodes of “The Toys That Built America” air Sundays at 10/9c on The HISTORY® Channel and air the following day.
portable cassette player
The Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player with headphones sporting orange foam ear cups, forever changed the way people consumed music.
Portable transistor radios already allowed people to listen to broadcasts virtually anywhere. The Sony Walkman hi-fi, introduced in Japan in 1979 and a year later in the United States, allowed consumers to become their own DJs. Not only could they choose from commercial cassette versions of LP albums, but cassette devices also made it easy to create “mix tapes”—organized analog playlists mixing and matching songs from different sources.
The popularity of Sony’s invention and copycat devices helped the cassette top vinyl record sales for the first time in 1983. The word “Walkman” became generic and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986 At the height of the device’s popularity, according to TIME magazine, walking for exercise has increased by 30%.
About a decade later, the walk and listen trend went digital with the advent of the MP3 player, and especially in 2001, with the launch of Apple’s iPod.
This multi-format portable music player was the antithesis of the adorable Walkman: big, heavy and loud. The radio-cassette-recorder combination with amplifier and speakers provided good sound quality at high volume.
Developed in Europe as a device for recording clean sound directly from the radio, the boombox made its debut in the United States in the 1970s. In the 1980s, manufacturers added a second cassette player, sophisticated audio controls and input/output jacks allowing the use of microphones and other external devices.
Buyers turned to larger enclosures, looking for increased bass output. Large boxes became status symbols and teenagers usually carried them on their shoulders, regardless of their weight. The devices became a staple of the breakdancing craze of the decade.
Because of the connection between boomboxes and urban black and Hispanic youth, some people have started calling them “ghetto blasters”. Cities tried to ban their use in parks and public places, and their popularity declined, in part due to the growing acceptance of the Walkman and next-generation personal listening devices.
WATCH: The first season of ‘The Toys That Built America’ on HISTORY Vault.
Scroll to continue
Devices capable of both recording television programs and playing content previously recorded on magnetic tape video cassettes came to the American market in the 1970s. Two video formats emerged as industry leaders : Betamax, which debuted in 1975, and VHS, a year later. A format war ended with VHS controlling 60% of the market in 1980.
With timers that could schedule recordings of television shows, VCRs freed viewers to watch their favorite shows on their own schedule. In the early 1980s, the film and television industry complained about the recording of copyrighted material; During a 1982 congressional hearing, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, “The VCR is to the American filmmaker and the American public what the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone “. Ironically, the sale of films on VHS has brought increasing revenue to studios.
DVD debuted in 2000, overtaking the analog video market. The last VCR was manufactured in 2016.
Fax machines (or “facsimile machines”) were as ubiquitous in 1980s offices as telephones, photocopiers and typewriters. Users scanned a document containing text or images into the device, which processed the content as a single image, converted it to a bitmap, and transmitted it over a telephone line as audio frequency tones . At the other end, a receiving fax machine reconstructed the image and printed a hard copy.
In 1964, Xerox released the first modern fax machine, and by the late 1970s many other competitors entered the market. In the 1980s, the peak years of faxing, copying and scanning functions were combined into all-in-one fax machines.
Instant transmission of documents through fax machines has proven to be convenient and practical. But the devices were noisy, required expensive paper, and their texts, rendered as bitmap images, could not be edited or edited.
Industries with strict privacy policies like healthcare or finance have relied on fax machines the longest. But the decline in the use of landline telephones and the convenience of email and the Internet have rendered the device virtually obsolete.
Introduced to American viewers in the mid-1980s with the catchy jingle “Clap On, Clap Off!” the Clapper was the first sound-activated switch marketed to control home appliances like lamps and televisions. Plugged into an outlet, the Clapper can accommodate up to two devices. Two shots kindled the first; three claps would activate the second.
The patented device was marketed — largely through late-night television commercials — by California businessman Joseph Pedott, who sold his company in 2018. At that time, Forbes reported that he had sold over 7 million Clappers. The gadget continues in the market, mainly attracting the elderly and disabled.
Some of the automation and sensing technology used to create the Clapper appears in 21stcentury-old voice-activated systems like Alexa, Google Technology and Siri.
Introduced in 1985, Teddy Ruxpin was the world’s first animatronic toy – a stuffed bear-like creature named “Illiop”. A tape inserted in the back of the toy played the story (up to 13 languages). The magnetic tape over the audio delivered electronic commands that made Teddy’s eyes and mouth move in sync with the narration. Children could flip through one of 60 related storybooks, to follow the story.
At around $100 for the Teddy Ruxpin (batteries not included, the first TV ad warned), plus the extra storybook and tape, the bear wasn’t cheap by 1980s toy standards. Still, it became the best-selling toy of 1985 and 1986 and launched its own animated television series.
The original Teddy Ruxpin was pulled from the market when distributor World of Wonder went bankrupt just before Christmas 1987. Later versions have appeared over the years, including a 2017 version programmed with digital audio.
LEARN MORE about toy history at HISTORY.com
speak and spell
The development of personal computer technology resulted in several electronic games in the 1970s. Among them, the Speak and Spell, unveiled by Texas Instruments at the 1978 Consumer Electronics Show, was one of the first visual display handheld devices and the one of the first game consoles with interchangeable cartridges.
Its appeal was simple: it spoke, using patented technology to store whole words. A synthesized voice prompted the player to spell a word and called out each word as the user typed it. Depending on the spelling, the voice called “it’s correct” or “wrong”. Each cartridge contained approximately 200 words.
Speak and Spell has earned its share of pop culture exposure. Mentioned in several TV shows and films, it was part of the equipment used to “phone home” in the 1981 film AND the extra-terrestrial and even inspired the title of British synth-pop band Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut album, “Speak and Spell.”
While its final model was released in 1992, the advanced technology of the Speak and Spell, particularly the voice synthesizer, presaged more sophisticated gadgets of the 21st century.
#Essential #1980s #Gadgets #Obsolete