80s Tech Memories

Ahhhhh… memories of the 80s, and the technology thereof:

Toothpicking the cable box – The first cable boxes had a row of 12-15 buttons on them, and a slider switch to choose the channel row, like this:


If you put the slider on the right channel and carefully inserted a toothpick into the top of the button, you could (sort of) get the scrambled channels, which, for teenage boys, usually meant The Playboy Channel. Cable companies were always warning against “toothpick damage” in their monthly bills, on the informational channels, and on stickers put on the boxes themselves… thus basically telling you how to do it. My family moved in 1984, and our new cable company’s boxes just had a giant dial on them that went from 2-99. You could fold an index card in half and stick it under the dial and accomplish the same thing as the toothpick trick.

Cable Guides – Speaking of cable, you used to get these little TV Guide-like magazines with each cable bill that gave you the listings of every movie in the upcoming month. You still see these in hotels sometimes, especially in Myrtle Beach for some reason, but they stopped sending them out to consumers years ago.

Programming a VCR suckedWhy did this always suck? I mean, from a UI perspective? It seems like VCR manufacturers went out of their way to make it as difficult as possible to set a VCR. Our first VCR (a 150lb. model with a wired remote) was actually as easy as setting a digital alarm clock: there were two toggle switches (OFF\ON and START\END) and two buttons to select the hour and minute. So you’d flip the START toggle to START and select the start time, flip it to END and choose the end time, then flick the OFF\ON toggle to ON. Easy peasy. But so many people whined about it being “difficult” that VCR makers tried hundreds of tricks to make it easier (anyone remember VCR Plus+?). Unfortunately, this made each model different, thus paradoxically making it more difficult, and in the end it was worse than using Lotus Notes.

Using a VCR to record radio – OK, maybe I was the only nerd who did this, but I remember being all excited when I got a stereo VCR some time in the late 80s. With it, I could run an RCA cable from the OUT of my receiver to the AUX IN of the VCR. I could then set the VCR timer (if I could figure it out!) and record two, three… even six hours of radio at once! And it sounded pretty good, too. I snagged some great Atlanta Symphony performances I wish I’d kept. I’d also record long stretches of Album 88 (Georgia State’s radio station) and WREK (Georgia Tech’s radio station) and dump the good songs to cassette. Speaking of, did anyone do the same with MTV? A few of my classmates would record 6 hours of MTV and dump the “good” videos (The Cure, Joy Division, Siouxsie) to another video tape, until they had nothing but six hours of “good stuff”, without the Loverboy, Poison and Springsteen crap clogging it up.

Buying home videos – All the other boys in my elementary school who had an opinion on music liked Kiss and AC\DC, which I thought were awful. Just after Christmas 1981, I saw an import copy of Duran Duran’s first album, the one where they’re wearing pirate outfits and look like a bar band from Blade Runner. I’d never heard them before, but I somehow knew that they were “for me”. I became a huge fan, and around my birthday in 1983 they released a “video album” containing all their videos. I just had to have it. I had to own it. Unfortunately, the two video shops in my rinky-dink Atlanta suburb thought I was insane. “You want to buy a video tape? Like… own it?” (keep in mind that this was back when most rental places still charged you a “membership fee”,  and there were almost as many Betamax tapes available as there were VHS ones). My mom called around to many video stores, but no one seemed to grasp the concept of wanting to buy a tape, not rent one. And for those of you snickering out there, we rarely got far enough in the conversation to even mention Duran Duran, so it wasn’t just video store people questioning my taste in music. We finally found a store about 25 miles away that said they’d order it for us. We drove all the way out there, and the clerk just couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept of people wanting to own a videotape. He called over another employee, and they discussed it for several minutes. They then phoned the owner of the shop, and he asked that they put my mother on the phone. They talked for several minutes so that he could be sure that yes, we wanted to buy, not rent, the tape. The phone was passed to the original clerk, my mom gave the guy $49.99 plus tax ($113.44 in 2012 dollars) and the tape was ordered. It finally came in six weeks later, and we had to drive all the hell way out there to pick it up. It’s hard to believe that only a year later the first “priced to own” VHS movies started coming out, and then shortly after that Flashdance came out for the then-amazing low price of only $39.95.

Walkmen – Long before the iPod, the Walkman revolutionized music. You could take albums and singles and dump your favorite songs to a cassette. You could then use the headphones to listen to your tunes anywhere: on an airplane, in a car, while exercising… the sky was the limit… and it was glorious! Unfortunately Walkmen were expensive. I went through a few “mid-range” (RCA? Magnavox?) units before my parents finally got me an Aiwa model on a whim one day. A week or two after Gwinnett Place Mall opened, the whole family went there on a Sunday afternoon to check it out. There was an electronic gadget store on the second floor, by Rich’s, and for some reason, Dad was in a shopping mood that day. [If any Duluthians remember the name of that store, I’d be in your debt if you’d share!]


Mine was silver, like the one in the front. It was mostly metal and was not much bigger than a plastic cassette case. And the damn thing was almost indestructible! The thing lasted for years, and even survived my teenage boy “clumsy period”. Sadly, Aiwa went bankrupt, and was bought out by Sony, who killed the brand. Man, Aiwa made good stuff back in the day!

GamelineGameline was an oversized cartridge for the Atari 2600. It looked much like the GameShark, a cheat device that would come out several years later. But Gameline had a built-in modem that allowed you to download and play all sorts of games for a monthly fee.


On one hand, it was amazingly cool – you didn’t need to own the Fantastic Voyage game cartridge… you could just download it. And if you didn’t like it, you could just download something else. But, on the other hand, it kind of sucked, because it took 20 minutes to download a crappy 2600 game, and the company never worked out the licensing for the “big” games. The service had nice touches, though: I remember playing games all day for free on my birthday!

Computer classes – I got an Apple II+ for Christmas in 1979 or 1980. I had fun programming on it, but never really got all that far with it. I’d just gotten in to Pascal when a neighborhood “friend” broke into my house and stole all my software and cassettes while we were away at Six Flags (strangely, that wasn’t the only time someone broke into our house while we were at Six Flags). Anyway, four years later, I was forced to take a “computer class” as an elective in 8th grade… using the same (now discontinued) Apple II+ computer I’d already used for years. I’d get my crappy textbook and do a whole week’s worth of assignments at home in a couple of hours on a Sunday. During actual class time I’d amuse myself by making as realistic-looking login screens as I could (yeah, I did some light hacking back then, so I knew what they were supposed to look like). It never failed that my teacher would walk behind me and see






and literally scream. Like, two or three times a week. I’d have to calm her down and point out that there were only two cables coming out of the computer – the power cords for the computer and monitor – and that without a modem or network connection it was impossible for me to “hack” anything. I’d even show her the damn code I’d written to create the screens, but I’m not sure she ever really believed me… because she’d see the next one and scream again! (You young’uns who don’t remember the Cold War and the WarGames phenomenon might not appreciate the humor.)

Tube Testers – OK, so it’s not exactly “80s tech”, but I remember drug stores having tube testers, where you could pull a tube from a TV or radio, insert it into the tester, and buy a replacement if necessary:


Lisa doesn’t remember these at all. By the time I was a little kid, the machines were usually tucked into a corner and dusty from lack of use. But still, it’s interesting to me that she doesn’t remember them at all, whereas I’d always play with them while my mom shopped or waited for a prescription.

29 Replies to “80s Tech Memories”

  1. LOL, that was the first cable box we had! Or if you clicked the buttons and held it half way down you could unscramble channels….my first glimpse of porn!

  2. the only thing here I don’t remember is that Gameline thing.. must have missed it.. i did tape videos… except my fam only had 1 vcr.. so it was basically watching MTV with the WIRED remote in hand and cutting off a sec or 3 of the start.. but WTF… it was the 80’s Remember Night Flight on the USA network..that was a fav show of mine to cop videos from..and I too went through Walkman knock offs like charlie sheen goes through hookers..

  3. Who was the art teacher at DHS when we were there? Didn’t she transfer from the middle school to the high school when we went from 8th to 9th grade? I ask ‘cos I’m 99% sure that she was the computer class teacher who FLIPPED OUT when she saw the silly login screens I used to make.

  4. Yep… Coach Cecil Morris. I hated PE, and especially hated having him for a teacher. So I didn’t dress out, and was failing the class. However, someone (NOT ME! HONEST!) mysteriously stole his gradebook about 3/4 of the way through the semester. So he started over grade-wise. I was able to dress out for like, three weeks, and pass the class!

  5. i just remember a dark haired busty art teacher that would throw me outta her class daily…i can see her face but the name may nave been Stubblefield… great name for a big titted art teacher

  6. hmmm.. no clue… and of course I don’t have any old yearbooks… But Neal does… this was our freshmen year right??? I will ask him later tonite

  7. Coach Morris was a trip… that voice.. to this day I still laugh about My idea for a coach morris talking car.. HEY NOW,, THE DOOR IS AJar…. YOUR GOING TOO FAST… and of course his grunting of HEY HEY it doesn’t work in print but if you were here hearing me do it.. you would be in stitch’s

  8. Smitty RULED.. I remember Mr. Holland trying to keep a straight face while busting my chops for giving Smitty a 976 number to call my folks,,, AND HE CALLED.. i come into class the next day and he says go to the office and you owe me 5 dollars..In my defense I really didn’t think he would call… 976-talk…

  9. Thanks so much for posting the old style cable remote! I was trying to explain it to a buddy today.

    Never heard of the toothpick trick. We found that if you pushed down two channels at once you could get the scrambled ones to come in. 3+9 used to bring in Playboy and I think 35+37 would get Pay Per View (we used it for wrasslin’). It would be green and scrolling but occassionally it would come in clear for a few seconds.

  10. “During actual class time I’d amuse myself by making as realistic-looking login screens as I could…” Oliver Wendell Holmes, is that you?

  11. Hello
    I am a post-doctoral fellow in Canada. I would like to publish your photo of the vintage “cable box” in my thesis, which will be submitted shortly. Of course, I will mention the source. Would you please give me permission to do so?
    Thank you in advance.
    Karine B. Sherbrooke (Qc) Canada
    p.s. your blog is really great!!

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