Sometimes I wonder, probably a little pessimistically, whether there is anything that will be invented in the near future that will make people, especially younger people, genuinely amazed and gobsmacked at its absolute amazingness. Technology moves on so quickly that an i-Pad that cooks your dinner then washes-up and puts the cat out is probably only a few months away. Well, it wasn’t always so.
But in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were a number of new inventions that made us genuinely excited by their futuristic coolness, their utter brilliance, their mind-boggling wonderfulness. Now they are just relics of a time past, but as the Seventies gave way to the Eighties I was just eight years old, and I’ll never forget the things that made me, and my equally tragically-dressed friends, just look and go “WOW”!!
Tin Can Alley
You bought this at Woolworths or a big toy shop. In it was a toy rifle and a load of tin cans. Chuck Connors (an American actor) advertised it on the telly , and you could set the cans on a wall or on a shelf in your house, aim the gun at them and if your aim was true the cans would fly from their resting place! How cool was that? Chuck missed once in the advert, but that was on purpose I reckon. And, wait for it, the cans were Dr Pepper cans and Dr Pepper was easily the coolest drink of the day, way ahead of Vimto, Lilt, Quattro or boring old Coke. I wanted Tin Can Alley for ages, or at least it felt like ages. It was probably about a month. WOW FACTOR : 5
Most people who wear digital watches nowadays are looked on as a bit “odd”. They are a bit naff, a bit Eighties, not yet “retro” at all. Back in my childhood they were the mutt’s nuts. My old Timex with a traditional face was laughed at in the playground of Nazareth House school in 1979. Even when I did get a digital it had bright red numbers that only flashed-up on an otherwise blank watchface when you pushed a button. The real top boys had Seikos or Casios, just like their Dad or Grandad. They were cool, I was not. They could even play games on theirs, and tell me what the time was in Sydney on their “LCD”, whatever that was. They could set an alarm on their watches, which were all “waterproof to 10 metres” which I didn’t understand but pretended to. WOW FACTOR : 6
My grandparents (Dad’s side of the family) were the only people we knew that had one. I can still recall standing in their sitting-room with my sister, both of us open-mouthed when my Nan showed us what she had in the cupboard. Cherryade, lemonade (boring), cream soda, coke, limeade, orangeade and others were all there at our fingertips. Well, actually at Nan’s fingertips, because working a Soda Stream took quite a bit of knack and the ability not to overdo things, over-fill the bottle, drop it when it came out, etc. I was about thirteen before I could work it properly, by which time my grandparents’ home-made wine was much more appealing. WOW FACTOR : 7
The Rubik’s Cube
A cube with each face covered by nine stickers of red, green, white, orange, yellow and blue. Around 1980 everyone had one, though only a few had the “genuine” cube with the central white square having the words “Rubik’s Cube” printed on it. I remember the excitement of getting three sides all done at the same time, but was never able to do all six. Geeky kids on “Saturday Superstore” could do it in 23 seconds, but no-one I knew could. One morning I came downstairs and our cube had been “done”. Closer inspection revealed that someone (Dad) had peeled off all the stickers the night before and cheated. Sometimes there would be a rumour that a kid in the next street had “done” a cube, but it always turned-out to be a false alarm. WOW FACTOR : 7
Home video games
Atari. ZX Spectrum. Vic 20. ZX Spectrum Plus (I think it was called). The days of hiking down to the pier with your pocket money, only to see it disappear in twenty minutes courtesy of PacMan, Space Invaders or Galaxians were over. (I once cycled, after school, perhaps a mile with 10p in my pocket to South Parade Pier for one game of “Phoenix” which lasted three minutes at best). One mate in the street had an Atari which plugged-in to his Mum & Dad’s TV. We fought dogfights for days with jet planes in a game whose graphics would now get laughed at if they were on a mobile phone.
Another mate’s Spectrum was a cantankerous bastard. We’d sit there, patiently waiting perhaps ten minutes for “Manic Miner” to load, but if the family dog brushed past it or the bloke next door slammed his front door on his way out it was almost certainly back to square one. Reload. WOW FACTOR : 8
The absolute Daddy of them all. The day that Borg played McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon Final, Dad struggled in from town with a huge cardboard box. Inside was a Sanyo Betamax video player, or a “VCR” as some people started to call them in about 1981. It had cost him the best part of £500, which was alot when you lived in a house worth about twelve grand. He set it up, taking all afternoon of course. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care because now the world of video was open to me and my friends and, like Nan’s Soda Stream, no-one else had one. But what really was the most amazing thing was not that I could now watch “Captain Kronos -Vampire Hunter” as often as I wanted, nor that I could watch one programme while another was being recorded. No, the amazing thing was that you could set the thing to record (though this was more complicated than sending a rocket to the Moon) late at night, when everyone was in bed, and you didn’t need to leave the telly on all night. That took some coming to terms with, I can tell you.
This thing was a brute. It must have weighed more than me, and the huge buttons pushed down and stayed down only after quite a high level of force had been applied to them, sometimes with a mallet. The tapes loaded in at the top, huge things the size of exercise books, and when you pushed them down into the machine the whole thing clunked away and threatened to wake up anyone in the house who was still asleep. Rewinding a tape took ages, which is why when you hired a tape from the video shop it was rare if the person who’d had it before you had bothered to rewind it, as that would probably cost them half an hour’s pay in electricity.
Sadly, by about 1982 our once vaunted Betamax was a laughing stock. VHS was all the rage and the Betamax section of the local video shop started to shrink, almost daily, as the alternative “better” system began to dominate. Friends who pitied me starting inviting me to their houses to watch something on their VHS, which had cost about half of what our Betamax had cost. Their Dads looked at me with ill-concealed glee as they saw the “Betamax Kid” from down the road enjoying their super-dooper VHS. The Betamax party was over, and didn’t we know it. WOW FACTOR : 10