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Like this article? We recommend The Entertaining Seventies: Videogames, VCRs, and Walkmen

The Entertaining Seventies: Videogames, VCRs, and Walkmen

The 1970s were an important decade for consumer technology. While the 1960s saw a lot of behind-the-scenes groundwork being laid, this work came to fruition in the 1970s with a slew of new and exciting consumer products.

Let's start by looking at audio technology. While vinyl continued to dominate, the era of the 8-track tape was short-lived, supplanted in mid-decade by the cassette tape. Developed in the early 1960s by Philips, the formally named Compact Cassette (see Figure 4) hit the consumer market in 1964. By the 1970s, with the introduction of Dolby noise reduction and chromium dioxide (CrO2) tape, audiocassettes were the dominant recording format, and an important delivery medium for prerecorded music.

Figure 4 A typical blank Compact Cassette. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

The cassette format also helped usher in a new era of portable music, with the 1979 introduction of the Sony Walkman (see Figure 5). This nifty little device, along with accompanying headphones, let people listen to their favorite music on the run, without being tied to AM/FM broadcasts. The Walkman was a huge hit, ultimately selling more than 385 million units and inspiring the related "mix tape" phenomenon.

Figure 5 The original Sony Walkman, model TPS-L2. (By Anna Gerdén [Tekniska museet], licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Speaking of portable, 1972 saw the introduction of the very first handheld calculator, Hewlett Packard's HP-35 (see Figure 6). This wonder-piece of technology could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and—not much more. It sold for $395, and everybody had to have one. Before the HP-35, students worldwide had to master the intricacies of the primitive slide rule; with the help of the HP-35 and subsequent portable calculators, generations of consumers forgot how to do math in their heads.

Figure 6 The Hewlett-Packard HP-35 handheld calculator. (By teclasorg, licensed under attribution via Wikimedia Commons.)

Back in the home, videogames were all the rage. The trend started with Magnavox's clunky Odyssey console, released in early 1972, but really took off with Atari's dedicated PONG game, released to the consumer market in 1975 (see Figure 7). PONG ruled the living room for two years, racking up sales in the millions.

Figure 7 This was PONG—two paddles and a square ball.

The dedicated videogame console was followed by programmable consoles that could play multiple games. The king of the programmable videogame was the Atari 2600 (see Figure 8), also known as the Video Computer System (VCS). Launched in October 1977, the Atari 2600 revolutionized the videogame industry, going on to sell more than 25 million units (and 120 million game cartridges) in its lifetime.

Figure 8 The venerable Atari 2600 videogame console.

The Atari 2600 wasn't the only programmable videogame console on the market—or even the first. The 1970s saw the release of several interesting videogame competitors, including the Fairchild Channel F, RCA Studio II, Bally Professional Arcade, and Magnavox Odyssey2. Few people remember any of these game systems today, although all of them had loyal followings at the time.

Videogames weren't the only new form of home entertainment in the 1970s. The first videocassette recorder (VCR), Sony's Betamax, arrived in 1975. The rival Video Home System (VHS) format, developed by JVC, was introduced in 1976 with RCA's SelectaVision units (see Figure 9). These early VCRs were all priced around $1,000; blank tapes sold for $20 or more, and prerecorded movies were pretty much unaffordable in the $80 range. This costly technology led to the development of the videotape rental market, with chains of video stores crisscrossing the country.

Figure 9 RCA's original SelectaVision VHS VCR.

In the world of computing, meanwhile, things were getting smaller. In 1973, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) developed the Xerox Alto. This was a prototype—a proof of concept, really—of a general-purpose computer designed for individual use. It featured the tech world's first graphical user interface (GUI) and used a handheld mouse for input.

It took a while for Xerox's prototype to filter down into the consumer market. The personal computer as we know it was introduced to the consumer market in 1977 with the launch of three seminal models: the Commodore PET, the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Apple II. These devices defined the personal computer, and together they sold millions of units. The Apple II (see Figure 10) also signaled the early success of one of tech's most influential companies, founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Figure 10 A 1978 ad for the original Apple II, "the world's best-selling personal computer."

Beyond personal computers, the 1970s also saw the development of the C programming language by programmer Dennis Ritchie. Before C, programming was done in more rudimentary languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL. C made programming a lot easier, and it became one of the most widely used programming languages of all time.

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