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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some unique audio-visual creations

Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been fascinated with the kind of electronic stuff that makes sound and/or pictures. My childhood memories are filled with Give-A-Show projectors, Close-n-Play record players, View Masters and other primitive entertainment devices which nevertheless sparked my young imagination.

One of the wonderful things about the Web is the ease with which you can research such ephemera and discover some surprising things along the way. Here's a stream-of-consciousness list of some unique, strange and downright ridiculous inventions that've struck my fancy...

CAR STEREO?

In 1956, Chrysler brought the first — and only — in-dash record player to the American automobile market. Dubbed the Highway Hi-Fi, it only lasted a year because of several roadblocks.

First, it required special records, so users had to buy their favorite tunes all over again in the format. Second, the Highway Hi-Fi was only available in new vehicles, not as an aftermarket item, so that slowed down adoption considerably. Finally, the device tended to break down frequently, and Chrysler didn't want to provide all that costly maintenance, since the cars were still under warranty.

How did a record play in a car without skipping all over the place, you may ask? The special Highway Hi-Fi discs moved at a slower speed than regular records and the turntable and tonearm were elaborately padded and counterweighted to prevent skating. But think of how bad the fidelity must have been. As a rule, the slower a record turns, the poorer the quality. Ever heard a 16 rpm recording?

VINYL WALKMAN

In the 1980s, the popularity of the cassette tape-based Sony Walkman gave birth to the ultra-bizarre Sound Burger from Audio Technica. Essentially a portable record player capable of playing 33 1/3 and 45 rpm discs, it worked as a spinning clamp with the tone arm affixed to its side.

You couldn't jog or even walk with the Sound Burger, however — it required a flat surface to play properly. There were no speakers but it came with the earbuds that have become so ubiquitous with the advent of iPods (and which still don't fit in my ears). It also had a built-in preamp and audio jacks so that speakers could be connected directly to it.

Surprisingly, the sound quality of the sound Burger is supposedly very good and it's coveted by collectors of strange A/V. There's one up on eBay right now.

INSTANT HOME MOVIES

Polaroid, whose instant film cameras kicked the bucket a few years ago but seem to be in the process of regeneration, attempted to get into the super 8mm filmmaking market in 1978 with Polavision, a cartridge-based system that provided instant movies. You'd put the unexposed cartridge into the camera, shoot about three minutes worth of footage and then insert it into the included TV set-style player, causing the chemicals in the cartridge to activate and the processing to commence.

The film's imagery was very dense, so the viewer was mandatory to watch the processed movies. What you got was a flickering, silent television show instead of a bright, large projection with sound that was easily available at the time if you had the patience to wait a few days for your processed film to come back from the lab.

The real nail in the coffin for Polavision, besides its clunkiness, silence and image quality, was its unfortunate introduction at the dawn of the home video age, when VHS and Beta rendered such a format completely obsolete.

HILARIOUS AUTO-CHANGE UNIT

In 1981, with the home video format wars well underway, Sony introduced a piece of equipment intended to level the playing field and address the recording time discrepancy between Beta (two and a half hours) and VHS (three hours).

Known as the Betastack, this bizarre device clamped onto the top of a normal Beta VCR, allowing it to be able to record onto four tapes sequentially. The Web site Total Rewind hilariously describes it as being a Rube Goldberg-type apparatus with whirring motors, pinging springs and mechanical fingers that push the buttons down on the VCR. Best of all, if there are already three tapes in the tray, ejecting the fourth throws the top tape onto the floor.

The Betastack was designed for only one model of VCR — the Sony SL-C7 — and it never made significant headway into the marketplace, needless to say. I'd love to see one in operation.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

These are great! How about some more? Surely there's more insanity out there.

Tyrone L. Warbasse said...

Use a Betastack with four L-830 tapes, keep a beanbag or large pillow underneath, and walk away, recording, what? I think it's like 5 or 5.5 hours a tape. So, what would a person need to record with four L-830s?

By the way, Ion makes record players like the Sound Burger currently. Elvis also had a record player in the back of his Caddies, and the Polaroid idea sounds like using a Fisher-Price video camera that uses regular audio tapes for video, which is STILL a step above Polaroid's camera. In fact, Polaroid's camera is more like using a Game Boy Camera as a digital camera in this day and age.

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