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 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."
The Telephone Shaped Like a Banana, 1986: The New York Times, obviously burying its lede, mentioned the fruit-inspired phone (along with "compact disk players, combination video cameras and recorders, [and] television sets small enough to be carried in a pocket") in its report of a 1986 show.
The Code-A-Phone digital answering machine, 1986: Attendees of the show were treated to "a working prototype of an answering machine that turns the human voice into digital language." Instead of tapes, the machines relied on personal computers for their message recordings—and those messages could then be printed. The device cost around $1,000.
The Velcro-mounted television, 1986: The New York Times noted that "marketing minds at Citizen Electronics stuck Velcro on the back of its tiny liquid-crystal display television, calling it 'the world's first stick-up TV.'"
A Telephone-Programmable VCR, 1986: Advanced Video Dynamics of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania took advantage of a 1986 CES to debut "the first attachment that makes VCR's programmable by telephone"—useful for, apparently, "the video enthusiast who already owns a wireless remote-control VCR but forgets to program it." AVD named its device, naturally, Hal.
The Butler in a Box, 1986: The voice-activated device allowed users to "control small appliances on command and can also make telephone calls." (As the Times noted, the Butler "had trouble understanding commands amid the din of the show—and resorted to apologies like 'I'm sorry, Master.'" Still, though, "it caught the fancy of many visitors, who crowded around the Mastervoice booth.")
The Munchkin microwave, 1987: Sharp's ovens had 0.3 of a cubic foot of cooking space—making them "smaller even than Sharp's one-half cubic foot 'Half Pinte' models." They were basically pre-Fey versions of GE's Funcooker. And they were, in a way that probably makes them emblematic of their times, designed "primarily for heating single-serving convenience foods."
The Garfield scale, 1987: The digital scale, introduced by Tyco, took advantage of the year's obsession with both digital readouts and physical fitness to have some fun with CES attendees. "Step on the cat and his eyes pop open—and then the scale gives you the bad news on a digital readout." Oh, in case you're not a Garfield fan, there's also a Miss Piggy version.
The Duck phone, 1987: This came from Kash 'n' Gold's Telemania line, which offered, apparently, ''crazy phones for class people." The phone, the company said, was ''carved from wood like a true collector's decoy.'' It quacked instead of ringing. It would become known, decades later, as the phone that blew the mind of Snooki.
The Security Bear, 1987: Don't let the gadget's manufacturer—Rabbit Systems, Inc.—fool you: The Security Bear is, indeed, a literal bear. A teddy bear. It looks, reported the Times, "like an ordinary teddy bear, simply placed on the car's back seat." And yet "the moment the car is broken into, though, a shrieking siren inside the teddy bear emits a 110-decibel alarm."
The handheld electronic Bible, 1989: The device featured both a keyboard (with gold lettering) and a screen with a liquid-crystal display. As Mort David, president of the Bible's manufacturer, Franklin Computer, explained: "Type in a word or phrase—'The meek shall inherit,' 'Jesus wept,' whatever you want—we'll find it!'' The device then allowed the user to read each the passages in which their selected phrase appears. The computer, said the Times, was "the most talked-about new product at the show."