Retro Gadgets

Those little gizmos we just couldn't get enough of!
July 01, 2009

Ahh, little gadgets, gotta love 'em. No, I'm not talking about the completely forgotten (and completely imaginary) Nicktoons series "Aaahh!!! Little Gadgets" or the never produced (that I know of) A Pup Named Scooby-Doo style Inspector Gadget spin-off, "Lil' Gadgets". Instead I present to you a retrospective on the tiny and usually attached to a keychain electronic gizmos of the 80's and early 90's that captured our childhood imaginations and filled our 5th grade teachers' classroom contraband drawers to the brim.

One of the essential accessories of the 80's was the classic Calculator Watch. Whether in sporty electric yellow, stealth-stalker black or sleek silver, math was never so cool as when you performed calculation from your wrist mounted mini-computer. At least that's the line we used on our parents to get them to fork over the $20.00 we needed to buy this technical wonder, "Math is cool!". The less convincing, "Science projects involving the effects of fireworks on Hostess Ding Dongs are cool!" was also worthy of at least one try, just to test the parental waters.

Of course the real reason we wanted the watch was to play Knight Rider, Power Rangers or James Bond Jr. depending on what the current TV line up was at the time. But our parents didn't need to know that. I personally radioed K.I.T.T. hundreds of times to get me out of sticky situations. In fact I have a message for that blinking British boob: "Don't worry about it, I already got beat up and yes, my head does fit in a toilet". All we had was the fantasy element of it, because Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio technology was yet to be introduced in a form that wasn't a regular walkie-talkie attached to some Velcro that you strapped on your arm-LAME!

In the 90's, an extra function was added to calculator watches causing them to evolve into something even cooler, if less-studious. I'm talking about a wrist-wrapping TV remote control that made laziness awesome again. Just check out the: Remote Control Wrist Watch, the future is here!

I clearly remember a kid in my science class who had one of these righteous watches and would drive the teacher nuts on days she was hung over (allegedly) and opted to show us a video instead of teaching. The teacher would wheel in the TV cart and as soon as it was plugged in the kid would start the "On/Off Game".

Next he would mess with the volume in the middle of our viewing of PBS' latest installment of "The Voyage of the Mimi" or would change the channel so all we got was static. Eventually Teach got wise to the techno-pranks, but it was fun while it lasted.

Another invention of the electronic age allowed us to add sound effects to our daily life, no matter where we were. I am talking of course about the amazing electronic multiple noise maker. These were usually black plastic cases with a rounded edge and an embedded speaker that produced various video game type sounds when you pushed any of the many buttons on its surface. Classic sounds of mayhem like the "Machine Gun", the "Dropping Bomb" or "Laser Fire" could also be combined into totally different sounds in some models, by pushing two buttons at once. Now most of these sounds could usually be found individually in various brands of Laser Gun toys, but now they were combined into one awesome machine!

Early models were the size of that teal-colored buzzer from the classic board game Taboo. As technology allowed they got smaller and smaller, going down to garage door remote size and finally the fit-in-your-pocket key chain dimensions. This of course led to more classroom disruptions than spitballs, graphing calculators and whoopee cushions combined.

Speaking of which, it has always disappointed me that this unique technology has since been downsized to a single flatulent noise in the form of "The Fart Machine". I at least expected a machine with 100 different noises to come about before we decided on the "Ultimate Noise". If the current model is in fact the ultimate noise, then I think it's time we just hand over our planet to whatever alien race cares to conquer it. Sad...

The same type of gift and trinket shops that stocked electronic noise makers usually carried another goofy device that captured our collective imaginations for a time. Of course, I'm talking about the Dancing Flower Pot. Mostly found near the cash register, these sunglass wearing monstrosities were always found in some stage of seizure-like jerking motion as they moved along to the beat of the Muzak of "Wake me Up Before You Go-Go". But the novelty wasn't reserved simply for plant-life, no sir. Soon we had dancing Diet Pepsi Cans and the ever present dancing Santa.

By now you may have noticed the linking thread between all of these Boogie Beasts: Sunglasses. It's almost as if the sunglasses are some type of mind control device developed by a mad scientist that causes inanimate objects (and jolly, fat men) to shake their groove thing until a strong gust of wind removes those sadistic shades from their eyes. If not, then who decided that sunglasses were an essential part of the dance scene?

I don't go to a lot of clubs, but can anybody tell me if there are idiots in there wearing Oakley's? How could you possibly see the girl you're about to spill your drink on? Anyway, I only succumbed to the sound-activated novelty temptation once in my life. At least what I bought was a sound activated dancing Frog Band, so it made sense that they would be shaking it while they put on a show. Man, those frogs could rock!

Instamatic cameras may seem like an odd choice for this list, but they were just so old school. Looking like a remote control minus the buttons these sleek pieces of machinery were truly unique. Point and shoot was about all they were good for, as there was no protruding lens to focus or frame speed to set. I owned 2 or 3 of these in my day and probably took a total of 10 pictures during that time. It was just the idea of a camera so cheap that you could give it to a kid, knowing full well that he was going to drop it overboard while Whale Watching and not care that made them so most people.

My favorite part was the film. Just look at this stuff! It looks like a little telephone or a new fun-size candy bar design. Further adding to the candy bar similarities was the fact that they came in sealed foil packages that you ripped open like pack of trading cards or a Baby Ruth, letting out an unforgettable smell that's hard to describe unless you've ever been in a photo lab. I think I had more fun opening and loading the film than taking pictures. Of course, camera film is almost non-existent these days and as a result gone are my days of huffing freshly opened packages of film.

Our final gadget of note founds its fame and fortune on the silver screen and may in fact be the whole reason for the movie it was featured in even being made. Every kid who didn't have one wanted one and every kid that did have one thought he was the king of toy town. Behold, from the the famed sequel Home Alone 2, the Talkboy!

Now according to Wikipedia, my claim that the projected sales of the Talkboy prompted the filming of Home Alone 2 is false, stating instead that the toy wasn't even thought of to be marketed until a letter-writing campaign made it a reality. But that's just what those fat cats in the Tiger marketing department wanted us to think...tricky fellows. This device was a guaranteed winner from the moment any kid of the 90's laid eyes on it. How could they even think of passing up the opportunity to take our parent's money with this thing? Let's explore some of its merits:

1) SILVER. It is a proven fact that anything shiny silver or chromium is going to mesmerize a child and lead to its eventual purchase. This clever color scheme made the device look space-aged and top secret, like it was made in a lab for James Bond, Jr. (There he is again. Somebody do an article on that show, please!).

2) Hand Held. Electronic toys that attached to your hand always gave the illusion that you had become some type of cyborg and let's face it, cyborgs are awesome! Also, once you realized that no one believed you were 40 years old just because your voice was slowed down on a tape, it made for a pretty spiffy looking laser gun equivalent.

3) Macaulay had one! Before he made us groan at the very mention of his name with films like "Richie Rich" and "Getting Even With Dad", Mac (as he was known) was the coolest kid in the world. He danced and rapped with Michael Jackson (pre-controversy), he tortured home invaders with blow torches and even had his own cartoon show about a magical baseball glove called "Wish Kid". So if Macaulay Culkin was using a glorified tape recorder to fool hotel service people into doing his bidding, we had to have one too! These days Mac is tongue wrestling with the smokin' hot Mila Kunis and we all pretty much feel the same way. "Hey Mac, little help?"

You know what's funny? I was going do a section in this article about laser pointers, but I forgot. Suffice it to say, from about 1996-1999 you couldn't attend any type of public event (especially movies) without seeing a little red dot floating around in front of you and it was REALLY annoying. But that's a tirade for another day.

I'm very anxious to hear from you guys about what little electronic gizmos I may have forgotten in my old age. Seriously, there were so many of these types of things littering impulse buy shelves, there's no way I could have covered them all.
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