Retro Gadgets: The 1974 Breadboard Project

It is hard to imagine experimenting with electronics without the ubiquitous solderless breadboard. We are sure you have a few within arm’s reach. The little plastic wonders make it easy to throw together a circuit, try it, and then tear it down again. But, surprisingly, breadboards of that type haven’t always been around, and — for a while — they were also an expensive item. Maybe that’s what motivated [R. G. Cooper] to build Slip-n-Clip — his system for quickly building circuits that he published in a 1974 edition of the magazine Elementary Electronics.

The system isn’t really what you would think of as a breadboard today, but it was effective and certainly cheap to build. The biggest problem? It wasn’t something you’d use with DIP ICs. But in the early 1970s, you might not be building very much with ICs, and the ones you used might be in oddball transistor-like packages. Things were strange in the 70s!

A Brief History of Breadboards

In the very old days, people built radios and such on wooden substrates that were actually bread-cutting boards. That’s where the name came from. It was common to draw a diagram with the physical layout you had in mind, glue it to the board, and use it as a guide for building and troubleshooting. Wood was easy to drill and cut. A nail or a thumbtack would make dandy terminals. Probably the last time we saw that done was about a dozen years ago in Make Magazine. Even then, it was only a novelty — few people still build circuits like this, but you can see how [Colin] did it in the video below.

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Retro Gadgets: The Real Desktop Computer

People argue about the first use of the computer desktop metaphor. Apple claims it. Xerox probably started it. Yet, when I think of computer desktops, I think of the NOVAL 760. Not a household name, to be sure, but a big ad spread in a June 1977 Byte magazine was proud to introduce it. At $2995, we doubt many were sold, but the selling point was… well… it was built into a “handsome wood desk, designed to compliment any decor.” The desk folded down when you were not using the computer, and the keyboard recessed into a drawer.

The computer itself was no slouch for 1977, but nothing you couldn’t find elsewhere. An 8080, speed unspecified, had 16 kB of RAM and 3 kB of PROM. There was also a display with a few kB of memory hanging around, too. And just in case you were worried, the bottom of the page entitled “The Ultimate in Home Computers” reads, “The NOVAL 760 COMPUTER. A fully-assembled, fully-tested personal computer … not a kit!” Of course, for us, that’s not really a selling point. If you wonder why the computer was memory limited, this is the time that Extensys bragged in an ad: 64 kB for $1495! If you ordered one, you could have it in 15 to 30 days, too!

There were options for more memory, and it wasn’t clear how many of the I/O devices in the ad were actually included in the advertised price. Some of the devices seemed very specialized, so we are guessing the basic system didn’t include some of them.

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Retro Gadgets: I Swear Officer, I Was Listening To 45

Audio in cars has a long history. Car radios in the 1920s were bulky and expensive. In the 1930s, there was the Motorola radio. They were still expensive — a $540 car with a $130 radio — but much more compact and usable.  There were also 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and lately digital audio on storage media or streamed over the phone network. There were also record players. For a brief period between 1955 and 1961, you could get a car with a record player. As you might expect, though, they weren’t just any record players. After all, the first thing to break on a car from that era was the mechanical clock. Record players would need to be rugged to work and continue to work in a moving vehicle. As you might also expect, it didn’t work out very well.

It all started with Peter Goldmark, the head of CBS Laboratories. He knew a lot about record players and had been behind the LP — microgroove records that played for 22 minutes on a side at 33.3 RPM instead of 5 minutes on a side at 78 RPM. He knew that a car record player needed to be smaller and shock-resistant. Of course, in those days, it would have tubes, but that could hardly be helped.

The problem turned into one of size. A standard 10- or 12-inch disk is too big to easily fit in the car. A 45 RPM record would be more manageable, but who wants to change the record every three or four minutes while driving?

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Retro Gadgets: The 1983 Pocket Oscilloscope

In the 1980s, an oscilloscope was typically a bulky affair with a large CRT, and a heavy power supply. So it probably grabbed a lot of attention in 1983 when Calvert Instruments Incorporated ran an ad in magazines like Radio Electronics. The ad touted a 5 MHz scope that was pocket-sized and weighed 4 ounces. The ad proudly proclaimed: CRT oscilloscopes just became obsolete!

Indeed they would, but if you are wondering who Calvert Instruments was, so are we. We have never heard of them before or since, and we don’t know for certain if any of these devices were ever actually produced. What did it use instead of a CRT? The CI Model 210 Pocket-O-Scope was not only solid state but used an LED screen 1.5 inches square. That’s small, but it packed in 210 LEDs for “high resolution.” We assume that was also the genesis of the model number. Judging from the product picture, there were 14 LEDs in the X direction and 15 in the Y direction. High resolution, for sure!

There were some early LCD scopes (like the Iskrascope and one from Scopex) around the same time, but it would be the 1990s before we would see LCD oscilloscopes and even longer before CRTs were totally squeezed out.

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Retro Gadgets: Nintendo R.O.B Wanted To Be Your Friend

Too busy playing video games to have a social life? No worries. In 1985, Nintendo introduced R.O.B. — otherwise known as the Robotic Operating Buddy. It was made to play Nintendo with you. In Japan, apparently, it was the Family Computer Robot. We suppose ROB isn’t a very Japanese name. The robot was in response to the video game market crash of 1983 and was meant to keep the new Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) from being classified as a video game, which would have been a death sentence at the time of its release.

Since you might not have heard of R.O.B., you can probably guess it didn’t work out very well. In fact, the whole thing tanked in two years and resulted in only two games.

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Retro Gadgets: The CB Cell Phone

There was a time when one of the perks of having a ham radio in your car (or on your belt) was you could make phone calls using a “phone patch.” In the 1970s, calling someone from inside your parked car turned heads. Now, of course,  it is an everyday occurrence thanks to cell phones. But in 1977, cell phones were nowhere to be found. Joseph Sugarman, the well-known founder of JS&A, saw a need and wanted to fill it. So he offered the “PocketCom CB” which was billed as the “world’s smallest citizens band transceiver.” You can see the full-page ad from 1977 below.

Remember that this is from an era when ICs that could operate at 30 MHz were not the norm, so you have to temper your expectations. The little unit was 5.5 in by 1.5 in and less than an inch thick. That’s actually not bad, but you had — optimistically — 100 mW of output power. They claimed the N cell batteries would last two weeks with average use, but we imagine a lot less as soon as you start transmitting. The weight was 5 oz, but we suspect that is without the batteries.

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Retro Gadgets: Tired Of The Beatles On 8 Track? Try The Police

In the 1970s, 8-track audio players were very popular, especially in cars. For a couple of bucks, you could have the latest album, and you didn’t have to flip the tape in the middle of a drive like you did with a cassette. We’ve seen plenty of 8-tracks and most of us a certain age have even owned a few players. But we couldn’t find anyone who would admit to owning the Bearcat 8 Track Scanner, as seen in the 1979 Popular Electronics ad below.

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