The Greatest Tech of the '70s
Perhaps more than any decade prior, the 1970s played host to an explosion in consumer electronics gadgets that changed how we educate, entertain, calculate, and communicate. Rapidly dropping prices for transistors, integrated circuits, and microprocessors sparked an electronics revolution that gave birth to innovations such as the first personal computer, the first electronic digital wristwatch, the first pocket calculator, and the first commercial video game. In this slideshow, we'll look at those devices and others as we explore consumer tech's progress and influence during the years 1970 through 1979.
During the 1970s, electronic calculators morphed from bulky, expensive luxuries to tiny pocket commodities that anyone could own. By 1974, calculators had already shrunk drastically in size and price, as you can see here in these images from a 1974 JCPenney catalog. The pocket model on the right sold for $35, which is about $160 today when adjusted for inflation. Contrast that with one of the first pocket calculators, the 1971 Bowmar 901B, which retailed for the equivalent of $1343 in today's dollars. Now, you can find an equally powerful calculator in a cereal box.
If you have Spotify installed on your system, you can listen to perhaps the greatest song ever composed about a pocket calculator. (Apologies, though: Kraftwerk's "Pocket Calculator" actually hails from the 80s.)
You're looking at a big-screen TV, circa 1979. Although projection TVs existed in the 1970s, they remained prohibitively expensive luxuries that few people could afford. Instead, CRT-based sets like this 25-inch console unit held the high end of the home TV market. At $700 (about $2185 in 2012 dollars), a set like the one shown here represented a significant investment that inspired some families to keep using these woody behemoths until the high-definition era came along. (I regularly used a similar 25-inch family TV until 2006.)
Color TVs became more and more popular in the United States during the 1970s. They outsold their black-and-white cousins for the first time in 1972.
If one were ranking consumer tech achievements of the 1970s, the personal computer would surely be on top. During that decade, computers went from being refrigerator-size machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars to being small desktop systems that sold for under $1000. Three major events of the 1970s helped push the personal computer into the mainstream: the invention of the single-chip microprocessor (the Intel 4004, first on our list of the 11 most influential microprocessors of all time) in 1972, the debut of the MITS Altair 8800 kit (one of our most collectible PCs of all time) in 1975, and the launch of the Apple II (one of the greatest PCs of all time) in 1977. At the beginning of the decade, very few individuals owned a computer. By 1979, American consumers were snapping up 500,000 home computers a year.
In the era before cell phones, being able to communicate wirelessly with your friends while on the go felt like magic. And magic was yours to be had with a pair of these handheld, battery-operated two-way radios (commonly known as walkie-talkies) for prices as low as $13 each (about $54 today). The 1975 Sears models shown here could transmit from a distance of no more than 1 mile over flat terrain, but 30 feet was often good enough during a game of hide-and-seek.
The 1970s witnessed the birth of the commercial video game and its explosion into a mass entertainment medium. The 1971 launch of Computer Space in arcades got the ball rolling, and then Pong (1972) pushed arcade video games into the mainstream. The Magnavox Odyssey (1972) brought video games to home TVs for the first time, and Atari followed that up with a home version of its Pong game, shown here, in 1975. Home video games rocketed in popularity with the launch of the 1977 Atari VCS (aka 2600), which reigned as the home console to beat throughout the remainder of the decade.
Electronic digital wristwatches first emerged in 1972 priced at $2100 (the equivalent of $11,387 today), but by the end of the decade, they would regularly retail for under $10. The first watch, the Hamilton Pulsar P2, shipped in an 18K gold frame with a battery-hungry red LED display that became visible only when you pushed a button. By 1976, Texas Instruments sold LED watches with plastic bands for $20 apiece. LCD watches, with their far more power-efficient displays, overtook LED models in popularity by the end of the decade. The cheapest LCD watch on this page (#3) from a 1977 Sears catalog sold for $70.
Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera
Polaroid’s SX-70 Land Camera wasn’t even close to being the first camera to produce prints instantly--Polaroid cofounder Edwin Land first demonstrated that technology in 1947. But before the SX-70, instant cameras were big and boxy, and the film that came out was often messy, leaving traces of developing chemicals burning the tips of your fingers. Launching in 1972 for $180 (about $976 today), the SX-70 was compact, simple, and elegant. You looked through the viewfinder and pushed the shutter button, and out popped a picture that developed in broad daylight before your eyes. When you were done, you could fold the SX-70 into a compact, leather-covered form and slip it into your coat pocket.
As wonderful as today’s digital cameras are, none are quite as magical as the SX-70. (For more on this remarkable camera, check out former PCWorld editor in chief Harry McCracken’s in-depth story about the camera and its inventor.)
Photos: Matt Flynn/Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, Polaroid
History's largest boom in Citizens' Band radio use originated with the 1973 oil crisis. In response to a nationwide oil shortage, the United States government instituted a national 55-mph speed limit to force drivers to conserve fuel. Commercial truck drivers began using CB radio to report speed traps to other truckers. Such behavior created a rebellious image that captivated the media, and soon CB radio started playing a part in major Hollywood films. By the end of the 1970s, ordinary drivers were installing CB radios in their cars and even using the band to chat with radio friends from home. A typical CB radio like the one shown here cost about $150 in 1977 (equivalent to about $561 today).
Photos: Cobra, Pace
The drug culture of the 1960s cast a long shadow that reached well into the next decade. Its influence even extended to consumer electronics, as illustrated quite clearly in this display of psychedelic light boxes and "color organs" in a 1974 Sears catalog. The simplest of the devices produced random, swirling electromechanical color effects. The color organs, however, responded to music with more intelligence: The most complex color organ shown here (#5) contained 16 light bulbs, responded to three different music frequency ranges (high, middle, and low), and sold for $38 (about $174 in 2012 dollars). Such offerings would show up in similar catalogs throughout the remainder of the '70s.
Four major consumer audio formats dominated the 1970s: 45-rpm and 33 1/3-rpm vinyl records, Philips compact cassette tapes, and the oft-caricatured 8-track tape. LPs remained the audiophile's medium of choice, and 8-track tapes became popular on the road. The one-spool construction of 8-track tapes allowed for tape-deck designs that reduced cost and size, allowing them to fit easily in automobile dashboards and in portable players. The 8-track did see limited home use: The combination 8-track player/turntable/AM-FM stereo receiver shown here sold for $125 in 1974 (about $574 in today's dollars). At the end of the decade, the compact cassette format exceeded the 8-track tape in fidelity, convenience, and tape-deck quality, sounding the death knell of the 8-track tape.
Photos: JCPenney, Capitol Stereo Tape Club
Unlike some of the other gadgets in this slideshow, telephone technology remained relatively stagnant throughout the 1970s. That's because the Bell System dominated the American telephone network as a national monopoly until 1984. Without competition, Ma Bell felt no particular impetus to innovate (or at least bring its innovations to the mass market). The problem was certainly evident in phone design: Though all of the phone designs shown on the right were popular in the 1970s, none originated in that decade. The pictured rotary desk phone style, for example, debuted in 1949. Instead, perhaps the decade's biggest telephone handset innovation occurred with the introduction of the ATC Mickey Mouse phone in 1976. Let this be a warning to future would-be tech monopolists.
Photos: OldPhoneWorks.com, Pacific Telephone
At the dawn of the 1970s, most bedside clocks were either analog or electromechanical digital models like the one on the left. (Electromechanical clocks displayed the time on plastic tiles that flipped over each minute.) Early on, however, electronic digital clocks using LED displays became popular in part because they kept time more accurately (and quietly) than analog models. The LED Digital Alarm Clock by Westclox shown on the right sold for $45 in 1974. (That's about $206 in 2012 dollars--can you imagine paying $206 for a digital clock today?)
Like most of the tech in this slideshow, such devices became inexpensive commodities by the time 1980 rolled around. Today you'd be hard-pressed to sell such a clock for $1 at a yard sale. That's how fast technology changes--and as we've seen, things changed quite a bit in the 1970s.
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