1970’s Nostalgia Part Four: Technology

a 1970s 'music centre' with a (then!) state-of-the-art futuristic design

Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of my ‘1970s nostalgia’ blog posts – exploring the era in which my forthcoming novel LITTLE BASTARD is set. This time the subject is technology.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum...early home computers appeared in the 80s following R&D in the 70s

In terms of technology the 70s is a fascinating time because it represents the last age in which humanity functioned as a species without the over-arching influence of IT – something that will simply never happen again. To have grown up in the 70s (at a time when the concept of a ‘personal computer’ was unthinkable and the word ‘spam’ simply meant processed meat) and to have subsequently witnessed the advent of wi-fi and the internet is to have spanned an enormous technological change of the magnitude that may not be seen again for centuries.

Manic Miner: colour computer games of the early 80s developed from B&W efforts in the 70s

Back in the early 1970s the term ‘computer’ denoted an entire room full of whirring electronic equipment attended by geeky university researchers in white lab coats earnestly discussing shreds of hole-punched ticker tape occasionally spat out by the bizarre machinery!

Pong: TV tennis (of a kind!)...we spent hours playing this as kids in the 70s

In truth, the home personal computer (as such) did not establish itself in the lives of everyday folk until the 1980s (with the advent of the Commodore 64, BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum et al). However, the technology was certainly in development during the 1970s. Early precursors of the home computer age included such technology as home-based arcade games to play on your TV screen. The best known of these was Pong – which appeared in 1972. It featured a black screen with two illuminated white vertical lines that functioned as ‘bats’ to hit a ‘ball’ comprised of a square dot. If your ‘bat’ missed the ‘ball’ the ‘ball’ disappeared off the screen and your opponent scored a point. The controller was a unit with a dial you turned to vertically raise or lower your on-screen ‘bat’. I owned one of these devices and, at the time, it seemed completely revolutionary – the idea that you could actually interact with your television set was so futuristic that it was hard to believe even once it became a reality!

Galaxian arcade game: cabinet shown at right of pic

Later in the decade Pong was superceded by true arcade games played in…er…arcades! These games were housed in garishly decorated cabinets and operated as voracious money-eating slot machines. They eventually ushered in what is still referred to as ‘the Golden Age’ of arcade games – including titles that were eventually translated to home gaming technology. Yes folks, the entire multi-million pound computer/console game industry of today has its origins in the good ol’ 1970s!

Space Invaders....Game Over. You Lost!

The best known of the 70s arcade games is Space Invaders (launched in 1978). I can well remember going to a minicab office that had a Space Invaders machine and spending 10p’s like they were going out of fashion. I was one of a steady stream of kids hanging around the foyer of the ‘taxi rank’ after school playing the machine. If the minicab drivers were ever fed up with us pesky kids forever zapping assembled phalanxes of multi-coloured aliens, they never showed it. Looking back, I guess that Space Invaders machine probably earned them more than their taxi fares on some slack weekday afternoons!

Galaxian: hey, they're breaking formation!...not fair!

Galaxian (1979) built on the concept of Space Invaders by adding the challenge of aliens that randomly swooped down out of their rigid formations in screeching kamikaze attacks. However, one of my personal favourite arcade games was a little-known and largely forgotten game that pre-dated even Space Invaders. It was called Gun Fight (1975).

Gun Fight: rare...and (at the time) addictive!

A Sports Centre I used to visit had a Gun Fight machine installed and I spent endless coins engaged in the slowest gun battles ever to take place on a video screen! The controller was reminiscent of a Colt 45 gun handle and it operated a crudely pixellated cowboy who moved (slowly!) around a landscape containing one other (slow moving!) gunslinger and about two cacti. You could hide behind a cactus to avoid the (dot-shaped) bullets until the cactus was eventually worn away! Well, I liked it anyway! It let me live out my Clint Eastwood/Spaghetti Western fantasies! (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’ boy!”)

Atic Atac: my favourite early 80s ZX Spectrum game...once the 80s arrived you could play this stuff in your own home rather than arcades and taxi ranks!

Other than video games, the 70s ushered in such era-defining tech as LED watches and pocket calculators (LED being the ones with a glowing red display). I had an LED calculator and it seemed a marvel…even if all I ever really used it for was writing the word ‘HELLO’ in upside-down digits!

A 70s Phillips tape recorder...I had this exact model

The other area of tech that dominated in the 70s was audio-video technology. Audiophiles in the 70s took their hi-fi equipment incredibly seriously. A wide range of specialist hi-fi mags catered to audio enthusiasts who argued furiously as to the best possible combination of record deck, amplifier and speaker – with elite manufacturers such as Linn, NAD, Rega and Harman Kardon worshipped by their devotees with as much fervours as Apple is today.

Vinyl records were one area of audio tech the audiophiles took extremely seriously – not only regarding the record decks but also the styluses (needles). Having the correct cartridge and stylus set-up was absolutely crucial to achieving true high fidelity (or so the geeks would repeatedly tell you!)

However, tape technology was challenging vinyl – in both the audio and visual arenas. Cassette tapes made home recording possible for the first time. You could record songs from the radio, your record collection, tape-to-tape, yourself speaking and even (as I did) you and your band jamming! It was amazing! Suddenly everyone had a ‘demo tape’ – not just those who could afford studio time. As the decade ended, in 1979 Sony released the first-ever Walkman – a significant step on the road towards the iPod and other MP3 players of today.

Video tapes: Betamax (top) and VHS (below)

Tape-based technology of the 70s also made audio-visual recording possible for the first time. Video tape technology – in VHS and Betamax formats – arrived. Now you could make home movies and watch proper cinema-based films on your own TV – freeze-framing and replaying the good bits (or the scary bits!) as often as you liked! The advent of VHS and Betamax sparked an initial ‘format war’…which VHS won at a canter (in spite of the ‘experts’ always claiming that Betamax provided higher quality image reproduction).

The final area of 70s tech that stands out as emblematic of the age is its cars. The icons for the ‘man in the street’ of that era were all Fords – the Ford Capri, Ford Escort and Ford Granada were the four-wheeled totems of the time.

It was also a good time for ‘supercars’ such as the Aston Martin DBS and Ferrari Dino.

The DBS and Dino both featured in a popular TV show of the time, The Persuaders, in which Roger Moore drove the Aston and Tony Curtis drove the Ferrari.

The BMW 2002 – also known as the ‘Baader Meinhof Wagen’ and readily associated with the Red Army Faction (who feature in my latest – and currently available […hint hint!] novel – LOVE, GUDRUN ENSSLIN) – was another early1970s automotive icon.

My mother owned a 70s motoring icon too – an original Fiat 500. Here’s a pic (above) of yours truly standing beside it.

The original Sony Walkman...precursor of the iPod

OK, that’s about it for these ‘70s nostalgia’ blog posts, amigos. Next time I guarantee this blog will be a flares-free zone!

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