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...
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?
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).
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.