The retro-facing side of British social media has been abuzz for the last few days with a very neat piece of marketing form the catalogue retailer Argos: they’ve digitised all their catalogues since 1975 and put them online. While this contains a cross-section of over four decades’ styles, fads, and ephemera, it also gives the browser a fascinating look at a host of retrotechnology from a contemporary viewpoint rather than through the rose-tinted glasses of 2019. It may not be a hack, but we guarantee you’ll spend a while browsing it!
The 1975 edition as you might expect doesn’t have any computers, as the Altair 8800 probably wasn’t intended for the British retail market. There’s a feeling of a byegone era about to implode as we see typewriters, though the few calculators do give a hint of what is to come even if they do include slide rules and a couple of Olivetti mechanical models. Even the electronic digital watch is too much of a novelty to yet grace these pages. Entertainment is all analogue, with plenty of vinyl and cassette, plus the very 8-track player we did a teardown on a while back.
By 1977 not much has changed as for the most part we’re still in the analogue world of 1970s Britain, but a few hints are there of what is to come. TV games have made an appearance, though only as single-game Pong style consoles rather than what we’d recognise as a console. That would wait until 1979, with the Atari 2600 appearing alongside the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell in the toy section rather than alongside the televisions. There they are again in 1980, joined by the Milton Bradley BigTrak for fans of programmable toys, and in 1981 by the Mattel Intellivision.
Surprisingly 1982 is not all about the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, instead we see the first computer with a keyboard and it may be a name you’ve never heard of. The Philips G7000 was the European name for the Magnavox Odyssey, which was a relatively venerable four years old by the time Argos had it. If this is unexpected then perhaps it relates to how home computers were sold in the early 1980s, with more traditional retail outlets such as the WH Smiths newsagent having exclusive deals with manufacturers and selling them to parents as an education aid rather than to children as a toy. While we’re in 1982, it’s worth noting the brief appearance of CB radios as the CB boom was on a definite downslope.
For 1983 the home computer cat is well and truly out of the bag. Mattel, Commodore, and Texas Instruments are all there alongside the earlier consoles, which have melted away in 1984 as the ZX Spectrum and Atari 600 join the line-up. We are a world away from the first catalogue nearly a decade earlier, and the world will never be the same again. Succeeding years bring us through the history of home computers and consoles, dive into any of the catalogues and you’ll find them alongside the VHS video recorders and Eternal Beau breadbins.
Browsing this archive will provide a lot of readers with a chance to look again at the tech they had in their youth or wished they’d had in their youth. As a writer it’s been a particularly interesting journey not only through products once lusted after, but those from a decade earlier which arrived for repair or teardown by a teenaged hardware hacker. This has taken an hour of browsing through the pages to compile, don’t blame us if they occupy a similar proportion of your time too!