As decades go, the 1980s had more than its share of iconic technology, from Walkmen to VCRs to pagers. Most innovative gadgets and entertainment devices of the Reagan era have since become obsolete, but they paved the way for a new generation of 21st-century items such as cell phones and voice-activated household appliances.
Here are eight influential tech marvels of the 1980s that have long since jumped the shark:
Small, wireless telecommunication devices that could easily snap onto a purse strap or a belt, pagers allowed people to deliver simple messages in an instant. One-way pagers let users receive messages, while two-way devices could acknowledge, reply to and originate communications.
First commercially developed in the 1950s for use in the medical field, pagers spread into wider use the 1980s, when having a “beeper” (as they were called) signified your status to the world as an important person who needed to be reached immediately.
Pagers became a cultural phenomenon, mentioned in numerous rap songs from the era. The devices couldn’t process texts, so users developed their own shorthand using numbers and asterisks—an early emoji. Pagers also became quickly adopted by illicit drug dealers, with one Miami school district official in 1988 calling the device “the most dominant symbol of the drug trade” and several districts around the country banning them from campuses.
Cell phones all but eliminated the need for beepers. But the device is still used by disaster responders and the restaurant industry, among others.
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Portable Cassette Player
The Sony Walkman, a handheld cassette player with headphones sporting orange foam earpieces, forever changed the way people consumed music.
Portable transistor radios had already made it possible for people to listen to broadcasts practically anywhere. The hi-fi Sony Walkman—introduced in Japan in 1979 and a year later in the U.S.—allowed consumers to become their own DJs. Not only could they choose from commercial cassette versions of LP albums, but cassette devices also facilitated the creation of “mix tapes”—curated analog playlists mixing and matching songs from different sources.
The popularity of Sony’s invention, and copycat devices, helped the cassette tape outsell vinyl records for the first time in 1983. The word “Walkman” became generic and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986. During the height of the device’s popularity, according to TIME magazine, walking for exercise increased by 30 percent.
About a decade later, the walking-and-listening trend went digital with the advent of the MP3 player—and most significantly in 2001, with the debut of Apple’s iPod.
This multiple-format, portable music player was the antithesis of the cute Walkman: large, heavy and in-your-face loud. The combination radio-cassette player-recorder with an amplifier and speakers offered good sound quality at a high volume.
Developed in Europe as a device to record clean audio directly from radio, the boombox made its U.S. consumer debut in the 1970s. In the 1980s, manufacturers added a second cassette player, sophisticated audio controls and input/output jacks that enabled the use of microphones and other external devices.
Buyers gravitated to bigger boxes, looking for increased bass output. Large boxes became status symbols, and teens commonly carried them on their shoulders, regardless of weight. The devices became a staple of the decade’s breakdancing craze.
Because of boomboxes’ connection to urban Black and Hispanic youth, some people started calling them “ghetto blasters.” Cities tried banning their use in parks and public places, and their popularity declined—in part because of the growing acceptance of the Walkman and next-generation personal listening devices.
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Videocassette Recorder (VCR)
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Devices that could both record TV programming and play previously recorded content on magnetic tape videocassettes arrived on the U.S. market in the 1970s. Two video formats emerged as industry leaders: Betamax, which debuted in 1975, and VHS, a year later. A format war ended with VHS controlling 60 percent of the market by 1980.
With timers that could schedule recordings of TV broadcasts, VCRs freed viewers to watch their favorite shows on their own schedule. In the early 1980s, the film and TV industry complained about the recording of copyrighted material; in a 1982 congressional hearing, Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Ironically, the sale of movies on VHS brought increasing revenues to the studios.
The DVD debuted in 2000, overtaking the analog video market. The last VCR was manufactured in 2016.
Fax (or “facsimile”) machines were as ubiquitous in 1980s offices as telephones, copiers and typewriters. Users scanned a document with text or images into the device, which processed the contents as a single image, converted that into a bitmap and transmitted it through a telephone line in the form of audio frequency tones. On the other end, a receiving fax machine reconstructed the image and print a paper copy.
In 1964, Xerox marketed the first modern fax machine, and by the late 1970s many other competitors entered into the market. By the 1980s—peak faxing years—copy and scan functions were combined into all-in-one fax machines.
Fax machines’ instantaneous transmission of documents proved practical and convenient. But the devices were noisy, required pricey paper stock and their texts, rendered as bitmap images, couldn’t be edited or altered.
Industries with strict privacy policies like healthcare or finance have relied on fax machines the longest. But the decline in use of telephone landlines and the convenience of email and the internet has rendered the device practically obsolete.
Introduced to U.S. TV audiences in the mid 1980s with the catchy jingle “Clap On, Clap Off!,” the Clapper was the first sound-activated switch marketed to control household appliances like lamps and TVs. Plugged into an outlet, the Clapper accommodated up to two appliances. Two claps would turn on the first; three claps would activate the second.
The patented device was marketed—largely through late-night TV commercials—by California-based businessman Joseph Pedott, who sold his company in 2018. By then, Forbes reported, it had sold more than 7 million Clappers. The gadget continues on the market, appealing mostly to the elderly and disabled.
Some of the automation and sensing technology used to create the Clapper appears in 21st-century voice-activated systems like Alexa, Google Technology and Siri.
Introduced in 1985, Teddy Ruxpin was the world’s first animatronic toy—a plush, storytelling bear-like creature named “Illiop.” A cassette tape inserted in the toy’s back played the story (in as many as 13 languages). The magnetic strip on the audio delivered electronic commands that made Teddy move his eyes and mouth in sync with the narration. Kids could flip through one of 60 related storybooks, to keep up with the tale.
At around $100 for the Teddy Ruxpin (batteries not included, the first TV commercial warned), along with the additional storybook and cassette, the bear wasn’t cheap by 1980s toy standards. Still, it became the best-selling toy of 1985 and 1986, and launched its own animated TV series.
The original Teddy Ruxpin was forced off the market when distributor World of Wonder went into bankruptcy just before Christmas of 1987. Subsequent versions appeared throughout the years, including a 2017 version programmed with digital audio.
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Speak & Spell
The development of personal computing technology brought about several electronic games in the 1970s. Among them, the Speak and Spell—unveiled by Texas Instruments at the Consumer Electronics Show of 1978—was one of the earliest handheld devices with a visual display, and one of the first gaming consoles with interchangeable cartridges.
Its appeal was simple: It spoke, using trademarked technology to store full words. A synthesized voice prompted the player to spell a word, and called out each word as the user typed it in. Depending on the spelling, the voice called out “that is correct” or “wrong.” Each cartridge held about 200 words.
Speak and Spell gained its share of pop-culture exposure. Referred to in multiple TV shows and films, it was part of the gear used to “phone home” in the 1981 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and even inspired the title of the British synth-pop band Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut album, “Speak and Spell.”
While its final model was released in 1992, the Speak and Spell’s advanced technology, especially the speech synthesizer, presaged more sophisticated gadgets of the 21st century.