Blast from the Past: Greatest Retro-Tech

There is something about vintage technology that makes our hearts beat faster. The nostalgia factor, added to the collectible value and the excitement of a hunt for the perfect item, plus the evolution of design and technology that can actually be traced to the modern examples - all this, and the fact that technology artifacts are less durable than, say, architecture - and often as perishable as your crumbling comic books.

This article is the start of a new series - please let us know of your "pride and joy" collectible items, to be worthy of highlighting in the next post.

- a gorgeous Russian radio from 1954: "Zvezda" (The Star)

We'll start with radios. They were the ultimate "internet+TV+iPod+iPhone" at the time: in short, these electric devices were often the only thing that people had for entertainment & news.

Radio Living in a Radio World

Instead of the "web", there was the Radio-Web!

(image credit: Modern Mechanix)

The radio personalities spoke into the coolest mikes on the planet:

Some were more portable than others

You gotta love that: First Portable Kitchen Audio System:

Now, do you appreciate your iPod more? In the 50s you had to carry the CART with you, wherever you go.

For the best vintage transistor radios collection on the web - click here. Some examples of the space-age 50s models:

Actual lace is part of the design... They don't make electronics like that any more.

"Hippy" radio from the early 70s, with all the "flower power" colors:

"Orb" radio from General Electric:
(other weird radio shapes from the 70s are here)

(images credit: transistor radios)

On this page you have instructions on how to make your own retro-radio iPod

Evolution of TV sets

Have a look at your widescreen television - now compare the size of your screen with this:
1928 G.E. Octagon -

1939 Andrea 1F5 -

1948 first effort at miniaturization:

Old Soviet TVs do not look very exciting:
(get your blurry picture of Khruschev pounding the UN table with his boot)

Compare the above boxy designs with Japanese 1960 model: SONY

(image credit: Ammaro)

Philco Predicta TV 1960:

(image credit: plan59.com)

Neat Russian sewing machine:

Radio / LP combination:

Best of all: Soviet early-60s Electronic Microscope
(featuring an electron gun)

First Car Phones

Here is some vintage material to remind us how big and unwieldy old car phones were:

But even in their rudimentary design and technology they apparently made a good many business men happy:

Calling home after a happy day at the office, looking forward to a happy dinner with the family... Wonderful.

(image credit: Plan59)

First Soviet Mobile Phone

What's behind the ugliness of the design? Probably even uglier electronics:

(image credit: TM, Russia)

That's definitely better than this "Russian Radio Helmet" from the 50s:

Phone designers went crazy on this one:

(original unknown)

LP Players, Arcade Games, etc.

First Automatic Record-Changer LP Player:

(image credit: Plan59)

Want to play your 45rpm records in your car? Here is a device just for you:

Closer to our times, some of the first arcade video game kiosks looked pretty neat:

... others did not look so hot:

We will perhaps make a special article about the development of video games.

But let's go back a few decades now, searching for "gadget coolness" in the mists of time:


Vintage WW2 Tech

We want to point you to the LA6NCA's Radio page. It's an impressive collection of German WWII radio equipment in operating condition.

A direction finder and monitor receiver for HF:

"Happy times" with a radio:

This is not a robot (wartime R2D2), it's just a direction finder:

(images credit LA6NCA)

There is also a page of Unknown Devices, some looking quite mysterious all right:

(some kind of an "agent-transmitter")

War-time radios were bulky, so they required some reliable transportation:

(original unknown)

Word War Two Searchlights & Sound Locators

Very impressive looking "swords of light" - and their use - are documented at this page

The searchlight control station operator:

The bizarre sound locators (not many can be found in the museums today) - listening for the sound of engines through the special horns. The bigger the "horn", the better range of detection. (more info here)


And now for something really special:

Astrolabe - The Ultimate Victorian Pocket Device from 1568

Kinda like "catch-all" iPhone of the Middle ages. It is "an astronomical compendium, signed by Humfrey Cole, made in 1568 for the Elizabethan printer and publisher Richard Jugge. … The compendium includes a quadrant, room for drawing instruments, a compass, a universal equinoctial sundial, a table of latitudes of towns and an incomplete calendar." -

Here is another variation:

As you can see "portability" can be a relative term, "usability" is rather more important - and the most ancient device (hardly having any perishable parts in it) is still remarkably useful. Take it with you for your travels and it might even serve you better than a GPS.

(image credit: Garron Nicholls)

Also read: Cold War Phones.




Permanent Link...
Category: Gadgets,Vintage
Related Posts:
Mystery Devices, issue 2, Cold War Phones

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That astronomical device is called an "Astrolabe" and has nothing to do with eternal female genitalia (Labia).

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Lol... fixed. Must be Latin :)

Blogger BrianDeuelDotCom said...

Computer Space was THE first commercial coinop video arcade game, designed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. The second photo you have is of some recently discovered Soviet-era video games that never made it out of that country. All of the other photos are obviously electromechanical coinop games. The scoring reels on the cabinets give that away.

Not to spam, but if you need a little help with a video game history article, I conducted interviews with Ed Logg (Asteroids), Al Alcorn (Pong creator), and a couple of others that might help. Just visit my blog page at http://www.briandeuel.com and check the links. Another page to check out is http://www.orubin.com. Owen has some great stories in his mailbag from 1976-1984 era Atari (he was a game designer there).

Another excellent article from an excellent site. Thanks!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should see the early listening devices. You could detect a plane before you could see it...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The astrolabe was a portuguese invention from the early period of maritime discoveries (mid-15th century), and derived from an arab navigation device. The name, latin in origin, means roughly «star-measurer».

In the late decades of the 16th century (circa 1580-87), queen Elisabeth I of England, ordered sir Francis Drake to plunder the portuguese naval schools of Lagos and Sagres, in the Algarve region, at the time under spanish occupation. There they found the astrolabes, which they replicated, and another then strange device - the calculating or slide rule, invented by the portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes, around 1550. It was not until well into the 17th century that the british Edmund Gunter replicated the slide rule, just after the publication of the logarithmic tables by John Napier.

The evolution of the astrolabe gave birth to the sextant (one-sixth of a full 360º astrolabe).

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Actual lace is part of the design... They don't make electronics like that any more."

Actually, they do:

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

b.d. - will be delighted to see your info!

Listening devices we also covered here

carlos - fantastic info, thanks - slide rule deserves its own post

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Astrolabes were an invention of the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria about the time of Christ. The earliest surviving descriptions of how to make them date from the 3rd Century AD. The actual earliest examples are Arab, from about the 8th Century AD.

Like much of Western culture, it was lost during the Dark Ages and reintroduced into Europe from the Islamic culture of Spain in around the 8th Century.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the English were familiar with astrolabes well before the time of Elizabeth.

Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales) wrote a "Treatise on the Astrolabe" in the 1400s.

Fascinating gadgets.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Chiropetra, you are right up to a point. The astrolabe mentioned by Chaucer was not... an astrolabe. In fact, it was the instrument devised by the greeks and adopted by the Arabs, which they called «kamal» or «balistl» (meaning height), and the portuguese of the 15th century called «balestilha». It was a crude instrument, similar to a crossbow, with a ruler on the longer end.

It was based on this instrument that the portuguese devised the actual astrolabe, circular in shape and more practical to use.

But, both the kamal and the real astrolabe were usually called «astrolabes», hence the misunderstanding.

There were lots of these instruments found in wrecks around the portuguese coast, both arabic and western.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

These pics are too much fun! Thanks for sharing. I'll probably write a post about it and link to your site in the next week or so. My readers would love this stuff.

My fave is the portable stereo in the kitchen, where the homemaker looks more pleased about her cutting-edge technology than she does about her Christmas dinner.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not too surprised to see Chrysler had invented the automotive record turntable... For a long time Chrysler invented many neat things... Two others that come to mind quickly are the automotive alternator (1959) and I believe they invented the portable window mounted air conditioner.

Blogger Railgap said...

re; "electronic microscope":
The proper name is "electron microscope". It is not an optical microscope with some electronics. It is a microscope which uses electrons moving through magnetic lenses, rather than photons moving through glass lenses.

And as for "featuring" the electron gun, well, it's rather difficult to build an electron microscope without one. These devices are still being built and sold and used today, and they don't look much different beyond having some rounded plastic covers and lighter colors of paint.

I've been toying with the idea of building one of my own - a crude one of course.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting to me that despite all the benefits, freedoms and opportunities we have in the modern age..these pictures instantly stand out. That is a reflection on just how blinkered and centric our tastes have become.

In today's age, you can have round corners on your device..just as long as the device is the same as millions if not billions of other people are using; just as long as the device never veers too far away from the collective.

I think we've basically lost the ability to dream, thanks in parts to a technology that is made to do it for us and thus limit our aspirations as well as force us to conform. I ask myself whether it really is better to live in this age, despite the fastest computers, the quickest Internet speeds..along with that comes the ability to destroy our planet quicker, to become more selfish and manipulated, and less respectful especially given the massive population increases and industrialisation of vast areas of land.

Just makes you wonder where we are all heading to, doesn't it. I think I would like to return to a more simpler age, to be honest. I can associate more with these old adverts than I can with today's social trends and technologies, and no, I am not a techno-fobe (far from it). Something's missing in today's world and we've got too used to following the pack.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Great and inspiring comment; thank you!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

1928 Octagon? Seriously? Tell me that was a typo.


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