Return With Us Now to the 1971 Consumer Electronics Show

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For this week’s Technologizer column on, I wrote about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which will take over Las Vegas this week. I’m going to hop on a plane in a few hours and go there myself–and even though the show is massive, crowded, frenetic, and tiring, I’m looking forward to the experience. But if I could choose, I suspect I’d find attending CES 1971 a more fascinating experience than going to this year’s edition.

Actually going to a forty-year-old CES would require a Wayback Machine; the miracle of Google Books makes it easy, at least, to look back at some of the press coverage of the show, which was held in Chicago in June and featured more than 275 exhibitors. (This year’s version includes 2700 of ’em.)

What was big at the show? audiotape. Lots and lots of audiotape. And because tapes were so important, devices for holding tapes were a big deal–including hip items such as “Tie-dye and psychedelic patterned carry cases for the young and young at heart.” (Of course, even the most capacious tape case could hold only a teensy fraction of the music that fits in today’s dinkiest MP3 players…and one of the virtues of digital music is that you don’t need to buy cases for it.)

In 1971 as in 2011, people cared about headphones, but I’m struck by how much prices have come down: At the 1971 show, RMS Electronics showed a set of deluxe headphones with a remote volume control and zippered carrying case for $49.95–or around $270 in current dollars. (There will be $270 headphones at CES 2011, sure–but they’ll be way more high end than their 1971 ancestors.)

Pre-recorded tapes carried imposing pricetags, too: You could pay $6.95 for a cassette of music by The Who, Loretta Lynn, Neil Diamond, or Elton John. That’s the equivalent of paying $37.50 today. (More on Techland: The Tech Letdowns of 2010 (and Their Silver Linings for 2011))

Cassette players were common, but looking back at coverage, it’s clear that most of the excitement was over four-channel 8-track tape–a format that would be in trouble within a few years and dead a decade later, proving that in the 20th century as in the 21st, CES is an unreliable guide to the technologies that’ll matter over the long haul.

There was TV at CES, too–including wondrous stuff like a $100 adapter from a company called Spectrac that claimed to convert any black-and-white TV into a color set. (If seven-year-old me had known about it at the time, I would have begged my parents to buy one; 2011 me is a little more skeptical about the idea.)

Yes, I’d have fun if I could attend CES 1971 right now. But here’s an even more mindbending question: What would the folks who attended the 1971 show think if they had been magically transported to the 2011 version and confronted with HDTV, smart phones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras, and a bevy of other stuff far beyond the wildest dreams of an early 1970s gadget freak?

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