TCS Daily

Techno Christmas Past--and Present!

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - December 22, 2003 12:00 AM

LIGONIER, Penn. -- It's that time of year. Our kitchen table here in Ligonier is piled with all those catalogues full of gift ideas. The era of the "personal electronics" Christmas has been here for a while, as we all know. And to wander through these catalogues is to absorb more fully the effect of microchips and microelectronics on our lives.

From Brookstone, I can get an "Acousticlear CD3 System" featuring "unrivaled sound from our revolutionary transparent speakers," or an "electronic handheld crossword puzzle" game containing a thousand New York Times crossword puzzles.

From Frontgate, I see a "wireless" weather forecaster that sits on your kitchen table and gives 12 to 20-hour looks at the weather ahead. On another page there are binoculars with a built-in digital camera to take instant shots of whatever you happen to be zooming in on. In fact, maybe we should call this the Digital Christmas; or the Flat Screen Christmas; or the Digital Flat Screen Christmas.

My favorite item, from The Sharper Image, is a sort of electronic mini-saxophone. There's something digital in there, too, I'm sure. Anyway, you just hum into this thing and it translates the vibrations into real saxophone sounds with a jazzy background as well. It's like the ultimate kazoo. Let's not even get into all those karaoke machines.

Christmas 50 Years Ago

If you want to understand the spirit of Techno Christmas just ask any department store Santa how many times he's heard the word "Gameboy," "xBox" or "Playstation" from the mouths of the wee ones on his knee. This plethora of electronic goodies got my mind drifting back to Christmases a good while back. I thought specifically about Christmas 50 years ago -- 1953. I was 12 years old then and really noticing who gave who what. I had to do a little checking to vector in my memories, but as I recall the techno "edge" under the tree was pretty slim back then.

The closest most people got to any personal electronics that Christmas was an item that had been around since the 1930s -- an electric shaver. The most talked about technology for a lot of people then was in fabrics. It was the era of synthetics. Cotton was so yesterday, and the woolen industry was worried because everybody was mad for "a new kind of clothing" made from Dupont: Orlon. Other "rage" fabrics were Celanese acetate, Dacron and Avcoset, a form of rayon from American Viscose. My aunt gave me a shirt from Sears that actually reflected light. If I sweat, it stuck uncomfortably to my skin. It didn't "breathe" so it was hot, but I thought it was really cool.

Television was about to move into the color era and the average black and white television then was big, heavy and somewhat cantankerous. The cheapest ones cost around $150, a hefty sum, but most sets were priced well north of that. There were a lot of brands that have disappeared -- Dumont, Muntz, Capehart. Emerson was advertising "a TV picture so clear, so deep, you'll think you're at the movies." The public was becoming aware of something called UHF (ultra high frequency) and Mallory Electric was pushing a UHF converter. It looked like a small brown plastic radio and it sat on top of your television set so you could get those mysterious new cannels above 13, if there happened to be any in your area. "Make any set an all-channel receiver," the ads said.

Olympic (Olympic?), "America's favorite television," advertised a particularly popular model at the time -- the "console." It had a massive mahogany cabinet containing not only a 21-inch TV (huge at the time) but also an AM-FM radio and a "Hi-Fi" record player, its speakers featuring "balanced tone in the exclusive Olympic Carillon Chamber." Price, $595.

Olympic's enthusiasm about hi-fi, or high fidelity sound, was shared by everybody back then. Stereophonic sound was soon to come on the scene, but the big gift idea for 1953 was definitely a hi-fi. Sure, you could buy a mere "record player" for $50 or $60, but if you really wanted to make an impression, you had to fork over about $120 and get a Magnavox "Playfellow," which was billed as "the most sensational high-fidelity table model phonograph ever developed" and boasted two six-inch hi-fi speakers in its handsome modern case.

Columbia Records countered with its High Fidelity Columbia "360" ($139.50) a portable player in a "luggage-styled cabinet" featuring "eXtra-Dimensional sound." The extra dimension came from the optional (at $24.95) X-D speaker that could be plugged into the player and "moved anywhere around the room."

An RCA Victor "Stratoworld" radio, that played AM, FM and short wave, cost $139.95 and featured "Golden Throat" tone. Tape recorders were just coming into more popular use. They were cumbersome, touchy reel-to-reel devices and very expensive. Western Electric advertised its "Golden Tone" Ekotape two-speed recorder. RCA heavily promoted its new "PUSH BUTTON tape recorder" and extolled the virtues of "recording the music and voices you cherish."

Christmas videos? Forget it. The middle class ritual of the Christmas home movies involved turning on every available light, getting out the tripod and the camera, which was frequently a wind-up model. This resulted in blurry, dark, poorly lit screen images. If you were really serious you could buy a compact 16-mm Bell & Howell 200 movie camera for $174.95.

Polaroid Land Cameras were just catching on. Ads boasted, "Christmas picture in 60 seconds... and how it can happen at your house!" Dad was shown in a Santa suit snapping a picture. "60 seconds later the fun begins! You open the back and lift out a beautiful finished picture. The family crowds around to admire it. And when friends come, you show them the wonderful pictures you snapped that very morning."

Few people could have even conceived back then that the day would come when we'd be in, say, Chicago on Christmas morning, forwarding live digital video to grandma in Boca Raton as the kids unwrapped their programmable robot dogs. In 1953 the Western Union Telegram was still big business ("They are fast, clear, concise, considerate -- compelling," said an ad of the time). The then expensive and exotic Polaroid camera nudged us toward only the dimmest awareness of the kind of personal control over pictures and information that has become routine today.

Nobody had a photocopier in the home or even dreamed of having one. They were still an emerging wonder in the office. People today remember the name Xerox, but who can remember one of the big names in the business back in 1953? It was Ozalid, of Johnson City, N.Y. They were touting their new "desk-top" copy machine, the "Ozamatic." It needed a big desk. It was about half the size of a refrigerator. "All kinds of routine paperwork can be copied in seconds," the ads beamed breathlessly. "You write it once with Ozalid, and use Ozalid copies to carry instructions wherever needed!"

For kids there weren't a lot of electric gizmos beyond the classic boy's desire of an electric train. Girls could get a little stove with an oven that was basically a hot light bulb in a tin box. I remember that a kid down the road from us got an electric football game. We were pretty excited when we saw the colorful box, blaring its promise of "exciting grid action!" But I don't recall anyone ever finishing a game on the damn thing. The metal playing field vibrated with an annoying buzz and the tiny players wandered around randomly. Some kid leaned his elbow in the coffin corner of one end zone creating a dent there. All the players gravitated to the dent in a confused buzzing mass. It proved a season-ending -- indeed a career-ending -- injury for that particular toy. I still see later versions of that game sitting forlornly at flea markets and antique malls.

This is where I'm supposed to harrumph and say that we had better toys back then, but we didn't. When I visit toy stores shopping for my five grandchildren, I'm always muttering "Why didn't they have that when I was a kid?" And those Gameboys and Playstations sure seem to sustain interest a lot longer than Lincoln Logs or my favorite, the old miniature Fort Apache.

One thing going for them is the mobility. They're great on car trips or when Grandpa wants the little ones out of his hair for a while. Now there's a real technology payoff! Let's hear it for Techno Christmas Present! And I'm still sort of hoping for that digital techno-sax super kazoo.


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