The Weird, Wondrous Gadgets Introduced at CESes Past

The trade show has seen not only the launch of the VCR and the camcorder and the plasma TV ... but also of the Security Bear.  And the Munchkin Microwave. And the Garfield scale.
An FM headphone set similar to the one introduced at the 1969 CES (oahus_best, eBay)

Say what you will about its ongoing relevance, but the Consumer Electronics Show has, in years past, offered just what it has claimed to: a glimpse of the future of gadgetry. The show saw the public introduction of the VCR. And of the camcorder. And the CD player. And the DVD. And the plasma TV.

The trade show's increasingly enormous floor has also introduced, however, innovations of a decidedly less game-changing variety. Some of them have been prescient. Some of them have been puerile. Many of them have been weirdly, wonderfully wacky. With that in mind, here's an incomplete list of some of the craziest gizmos introduced at CES gatherings past. And here's to all the Butler-in-a-Boxes that will be unleashed upon the world at this year's show.  

The FM stereo headset that could "be worn, Martian-like, on the head," 1969: Panasonic's headphones, debuted at one of the first CES gatherings in New York City, made their wearer, apparently, "look like a 'man from Mars' with two antennas pointing out." They sold for about $100 in contemporary currency. 

The personalized car alarm, 1969: The "Moonlighter" speaking car alarm, debuted at the same CES, traded the typical siren for a more customized message. (The one sampled at the show: "Help! I am a Buick Riviera, New York license number XXXX. I am being stolen! Help! Call the police!")

The headphones in action, 1969 (NYT)

The voice-controlled calculator, 1982: Introduced by Panasonic, the device would actually prove pretty prescient. (Newsweek, however, couldn't help but poke a little fun when describing the product's appeal: "In other words, you may never have to punch those little buttons again (was it ever so hard?)")

The Diet-Trac Personal Diet Computer, 1982: The pioneering fitness gadget, launched by (!) Mattel, tallied calorie, carbohydrate, and protein totals after its user entered each day's meals. Then, using a points system, it offered the dieter recommendations about what to eat "in order to stay healthy and keep those pounds off." The device—which was, according to Newsweek, "a hand-held wonder no larger than a standard calculator"—retailed for $55.

The Expansion Phone, 1983: This was a telephone, "made of flexible tubing," that coiled "up and down like a snake." It sounds, basically, like a phone cord with the phone part built-in. ''I can tell you quite honestly it's not a necessity in life,'' Joel Schwartz, the photographer from New Jersey who invented the phone, told The New York Times of his gadget. ''But it's a crowd pleaser.

The "solar-powered calculator that resembles a credit card," 1983: The calculator, by Canon, was apparently small and flat. It had competition, apparently: According to the Times, "Technico, the United States marketing arm of a Taiwanese company, showed a calculator that even bends like a credit card."

The "world's thinnest radio," 1985: Casio's FM card radio weighed just 0.7 ounces and had a thickness of 1.9 millimeters. It was, according to The Washington Post, "one of the most popular items" at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show. 

The colored microwave, 1985: The popular oven, at one of the 1985 shows, featured new cabinetry that included varied shades. Sanyo, per one report, "featured four colors on the show floor—red, tan, green, and yellow." (This would foreshadow a trend reported for the following year's show: "fashion electronics," which, apparently, "can be translated loosely to mean hot pink stereo components, bright yellow boom boxes, lavender telephones, and lacquered plum TV sets."

The VCR-Rabbit, 1986: The "connected home" precursor allowed its users to transmit the video/audio signal from a single VCR into any TV set in the home. The product's transmitter and receiver combination sold for about $50. It also featured one of the most delightful TV commercials of the 1980s, which is saying a lot. 

The Videowriter, 1986: Magnavox's word-processing unit, "which is being dubbed the solution for those caught between a typewriter and a computer," was a combination of a printer, disc memory, an electronic dictionary, keyboard, and video screen. "At $800," the Chicago Tribune noted, "it costs about the same as some high-end typewriters, but much less than a personal computer with word-processing capability."

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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