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The Cutting Edge of Retro Tech

Link - article by Avi Abrams

As vacuum tubes softly glow... and my guitar gently weeps

Since we started our Coolest Retro Devices series, we've been receiving many tips and info about bizarre devices from the last century, and even into the 1800s. It's a great subject; there is something passionate in contemplating retro technology - a strong nostalgia factor, of course, but also a "freedom of design" factor: there were no cast-in-stone design rules yet, and consumer electronics could be as wild and woolly, as consumers wanted them to be:

The Twin-Gramophone set-up, with a valve in the middle, allowing for the groovy cross-fades between the two: early DJ technology?

The Gaumont Chronophone: 1910 - photos by Douglas Self

Japanese consumer electronics catalog from the early 1970s:

Portable LP, combined with solid-state radio (when you need to listen to your records ALL the time), and a 1975 prototype Hi-Fi Sphere (probably should be called "HyFy" nowadays, in light of the recent developments)

(image credit: Josh DiMauro)

Scientific frontiers, like they used to be

1968 Control Center of the JINR's (Joint Institute of Nuclear Research) synchrophasotron in Dubna, Russia (I'd say, they had ladders to access the central panel, or maybe they just levitated up and down on excited electrons)

(image via)

Another weird control panel: abstract UFO symbols? No, this is a panel for a Russian power plant in the 1950s:

(image via)

More conventional Soviet nuclear plant control center, from the 1950s -

Scientific experiments in Russia, "Tekhnika Molodezhi", 1974

Left image is from the American 1950s pulp magazine. Right image - a real Soviet laboratory (of the kind described here) from the 1960s, complete with larger-than-life Faraday Spheres. Fantasy and reality go hand-in-hand here:

Dry cleaning? (well, then, why not get inside the machine yourself) -

(original unknown)

Multi-processor computing in 1924:

Washington, D.C. "Bonus Bureau, Computing Division", image via Shorpy

This looks much better:

(image via)

Fax machines were invented earlier than you think

From this wonderful overview of fax machine history, come the following huge table-sized devices:

1947, World's First Color Fax Machine, that used colored pencils to print the output - via

Newspaper via Radio: 1939 and later - The "Reado" facsimile receivers (big enough to occupy a whole room corner) More info -

(images via)

One could even send "kisses" by fax - just leave a lipstick impression on a telegram blank - info from 1938.

Speaking about clunky, over-sized devices... the evolution of Soviet mobile phones is also something to behold: here is the late 1960s mobile phone "Altai", used by Communist Party elite -

(images and more info)

However, old-school Cold War-era Russian phones are even groovier - see our article; they are quite collectible and much-desired today.

Old Russian Steam Irons: Heavy Metal from the 1800s

Russian elaborate and impressive steam irons, from Yaroslavl and Pereslavl-Zalesski (they even have the Steam Iron Museum) -

(images via 1, 2, 3, 4)

Behold, an iron with the optical gunsight! (left image)
Right image - underneath a big iron there is a microscopic one (made by some skilled master from Tula) designed to iron... shoelaces!

(images via 1, 2)

Kitchen Kool, with "Massagett"

Miniaturization comes to personal massage devices (used for scalp and foot massages). Some of them look like they can be used in Star Trek, as well:

See more here

What are they doing? Apparently, the girl on the left is choosing a modern-styled lamp, and the couple on the right is preparing to drill things (and can barely contain the excitement):

(images via)

Portable broiler and oven from 1975 (designed by Greta Magnusson Grossman) -

(image credit: Derrick Bostrom)

And... definitely not for the kitchen.... the 1970s "Ball Polisher" machine:

(image credit: Josh DiMauro)

NEW! Memoric Pneumatics!

Bruce Zick from PigDog Productions shares with us this marvel of Cold War technology:

This marvelous souped-up typewriter (equipped with the Computator Engine and Memoric Pneumatics) was a welcome addition to the 1950s office:

(images credit: Bruce Zick, PigDog Productions)

Mystery image

OK, let's see, not the one on the left... not the one on the right...

(images via 1, 2)

This one! Must be something related to protective garment, or decontamination...

image credit: Wellcome Library, London

UPDATE: World War One, France: a radiographer wearing protective clothing and headpiece. Photograph by H. J. Hickman, ca. 1918.


Check out the whole "STEAMPUNK / VINTAGE" series! ->


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Anonymous Benyamin Shoham said...

Wow, amazing pictures

Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice. last one must be from world war one.

Blogger Paul said...

did you know this one ?

Blogger Max said...

Uh, those "personal massage devices" were not just for "scalp and foot massages". That's just how they had to advertise them.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, that "mystery image" on the right? That's the female robot for the new Transformers movie, right?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

World War One, France: a radiographer wearing protective clothing and headpiece. Photograph by H. J. Hickman, ca. 1918. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Anonymous Rob said...

Paul: the "radiofrigo" is a keeper. Gorgeous; merci.

I always forget, somehow, that you younger guys missed out on so much cool stuff. The '60s and early '70s were amazing in terms of sound equipment. In the '50s the hippest thing going were tiny "portable hi-fi's" that only played 45 rpm discs, which had a 2-inch hole in the center. There were competing ideas about whether it was better to have an enormous spindle or just little plastic (or much hipper, metal) inserts that snapped in and had a standard spindle-sized hole in the center.

In the '60s you could get STEREO!! players that had 45, 33, and 78 rpm speed choices, and some even had 16 rpm gearing as an option. This meant you could play standard 33 1/3 rpm albums at 78 and produce chipmunk noises, or play them at 16 for the Quaalude effect. Hours of fun.

And I well remember discovering "massagers" in about '68 or so, to my wife's delight.

Anonymous groovista said...

Zoooom! Whoosh!

I think part of our modern problems stem from the unfulfilled promises of mid-century design. The World's Fair imagery was so wonderful, yet so far from what could really be engineered for consumers, that the gap between marketing and product grew too wide for trust.

The zoomy 60's "telecom room" -- what was with the "Time Tunnel" aesthetic? (groovy rounded control panels set in a cavernous darkness)

The Soviet phones -- Yum!
"Da, tovarich! - The Party will reach out and touch you!"

Soviet stuff is so cool because of the USSR's Russian heritage and closed system - giantism and science joined to weird copycat and original engineering.

Blogger Paul said...

I actually have the drill, as advertised by the DIY super smiley couple, I had no idea it was that old.

Blogger nonymous said...

I wonder if you have ever come across a radial layout on an instrument panel? It seems that grid layout rules even in times when other geometric or unusual layouts would fit the style. I would love to see some examples of radial or other exotic layouts. got any?

Blogger SittingMooseShaman said...

...What are described as, "steam irons" are in all actuality...FIRE-irons! ...where one would insert hot, burning-coals into these Dante-onian devices...designed to really, really put a pressed 'n' smoked meaning behind the back then, all to common phrase, "...darlin', you scorched my Eton...and are these...burn-holes!?!"
Yes, FIRE! "San-n-n-cer...the candles' are BURN-NING bright..."!
The one w/the FUEL-bulb...burned kero!
Ahh, th' GOOD, ol' days...

Blogger Nathan Bunting said...

Thanks for a really excellent article. Obviously it's mostly image-driven but still a great retro-tech article.


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