When You Got Your First VCR

1980 VCR

As I sit back and watch my episodes of The Sopranos that my DVR automatically records every Wednesday night from A&E, I sometimes think about days long ago when you either watched a show on TV, or you missed it. If you were watching Bonanza, and the telephone rang, or company came over, you didn’t see the ending. Your only hope was catching the rerun.

If you can recall TV from the early 50’s, even THAT was not an option. It was live, and the only recordings were kinescopes, which were films shot by pointing a camera at a television monitor.

The first kinescopes were useful for preserving performances for posterity, but they weren’t suitable for broadcasts, although they would be later used to air shows three hours later for west coast audiences.

This all changed in 1975. That was the year Sony introduced the Betamax. This machine was instrumental in turning the world into commercial-skippers, thanks to that handy remote control. It also meant that you could watch TV programs ANY TIME YOU WANTED TO. That was pretty profound stuff the first time we realized it.

Of course, that convenience would cost you. The Betamax recorder, which came with a 19″ Trinitron TV, cost $2495 in 1975. Yikes.

But VCR’s were the devices that taught us that when something cool and expensive comes out, just be patient. It will soon get INexpensive, and still be cool!

By the next year, you could get a rival VHS recorder for less than a thousand dollars. By 1985, when I finally sprang for one, it was down to $299. And it played back in stereo, too, so I could watch movies like Days of Thunder and listen to the stock cars roar by from the left side of my living room to the right!

It also came with a digital clock, which, if you’ll recall, usually flashed all zeros.

That leads to another new concept which arrived shortly after the VCR’s themselves: renting movies.

We rented movies because they were too stinking expensive to buy. A movie on tape circa 1978 could cost over a hundred dollars. As a result, we signed up at video rental outfits, and didn’t mind shelling out as much as fifty bucks to sign on! That seems outrageous today, but I recall my older brother, who obtained a VCR about 1980, ponying up that cash to join a store that required a 15 mile drive to get to.

Betamax VCR

Oh, and the movies we watched. Years before the world wide web, VCR’s allowed you to watch ANYTHING you wanted to. The result was that many video rental places had a special “back room” that was opened to you by request only. You can guess what sorts of films were available in there. And, they generally were quite regularly rented.

In the meantime, Hollywood, in a rare moment of conscious thought, realized that the pricing structure for taped movies would have to be changed. Movie prices dropped dramatically, with many rental places being put out of business since you could buy a film for twenty bucks, the price of renting it four times. Paid memberships were also gone by the mid 80’s.

The buyers of the original Betamax machines, which had visibly better picture quality, were dismayed to see the VHS format win out. By 1998, you had to go to Japan to find a new one. But Sony kept cranking out a few each year until production finally ceased in 2002.

Today, the same situation exists in the high-definition DVD field with Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD. If you invest in a player for either format, which are incompatible with each other, you run the risk of putting lots of bucks into a dead technology.

That’s okay. My standard DVD looks pretty darned good on my modest 30″ high-def TV. I’ll be happy to wait a few years while the two technologies slug it out. When I finally sprang for a VCR in 1985, it was clear who the winner would be.

When You First Tried a Home Computer

Operating Commodore VIC-20

Okay, this is a no-brainer. If you can read this, it means you have mastered a few things. One, you know how to use a computer. Two, you have figured out how to connect to the internet. And three, you have figured out how to go to a certain website, or at least read your email.

Congratulations. Had the you of twenty years ago seen you now, he or she would be quite proud.

Computers have been quite a leap in technology for Baby Boomers who grew up with black and white televisions. Indeed, some of us (myself included) have lived in areas that didn’t have telephone service. And just look at us now! Interacting instantly with people on all sides of the globe.

But with each of us, it all started with nervously typing on a keyboard for the first time somewhere.

In my case, it was 1982. I was working in a Montgomery Ward’s in Amarillo, Texas in general maintenance. My crew would get to the store at 6:00 in the morning and get the place ready for the daily rush of customers (yes, Montgomery Ward’s used to do lots of business). While sweeping the floor, I stopped at a display that featured a Commodore Vic-20. You could type up a little BASIC routine that would flash a message on the screen. There was an instruction sheet that stepped you through it. My boss, call him Jim, was an evil little troll to work for. When I walked away from the computer, it was dutifully flashing “Jim sucks! Jim sucks!”

The experience taught me that I could master a computer.

Many of us got our first computers thanks to the lure of games. Indeed, games were the driving force behind the sales of Ataris, Commodores, and TRS-80’s. Prices were all over the map, depending on how much of a computer you were willing to buy. You could obtain a Timex Sinclair with a single K of RAM that required a television for use as a monitor for less than a hundred dollars. Or, you could spring $999 for a TRS-80 Model 3 with dual floppies, 16K of RAM, and built-in monitor.

As much of a geek as I turned out to be, it was sort of surprising that I waited until late 1993 to spring for my own smart box. I could just never justify the expense, and I wasn’t too much into games. But it was the writing urge that finally made me cough up 1500 bucks for an IBM slc2-66 (basically, a 386 that had been tricked into thinking it was a 486). A couple of months later, I sprang for a 2400 baud modem and connected to my first BBS. Life would never again be the same.

I loved using a word processor that caught things like spelling and grammatical errors, and joining AOL gave me access to people looking for writers.

I long had a paid gig producing a daily column for FamilyFirst.com. I decided long ago that while being a full-time writer was feasible, I enjoyed my job as a geek too much to pursue it. So it was a nice little diversion on the side, thanks in large part to a Commodore Vic-20 I encountered 25 years ago.

When We Learned to Dial Direct

Direct dial advertisement

Long distance phone calls are made without a second thought nowadays. I have a very reasonably priced cell phone plan that allows me to converse with my brothers, who live a long ways from me, for no added charge. You can buy cards in convenience stores that give you long distance for pennies a minute. In fact, international calls have gotten cheap. And many take advantage of Skype and similar services to talk to friends and relatives all around the world for next to nothing.

But go back to the 60’s, and many of us were having to speak to an operator to make a call outside our immediate area. And those calls didn’t come cheaply, either.

The first direct-dial long distance phone call was made in 1951 when the mayor of Englewood, NJ called the mayor of Alameda, CA. Before that, most long-distance calls required an operator at both the calling AND receiving end.

But AT&T launched the direct dial system, which necessitated the adoption of area codes, and the long distance operator began a slow but sure path to extinction.

1960’s operators

Once upon a time, you will recall, you began your long distance call by dialing 0. When the operator answered, you told her (most of the time, although male operators have existed since the early days) what number you wished to dial, in what city, and what method you preferred. Your choices were person-to-person (expensive, but if your party was unavailable, free) or station-to-station (cheaper, but a voice, ANY voice, on the other end meant the meter began ticking).

Of course, the person-to-person method allowed imaginative individuals to communicate free of charge. Placing a call to “Joe S. Aboy” would announce the gender and name of a newborn free of charge to a relative in Minnesota circa 1965.

By the 1970’s, most of the country was capable of dialing directly, although many chose to do it the old fashioned way. I recall AT&T running many commercials about the reduced cost of 1+ long distance in the early years of that decade.

My thrifty father picked up on the new technology early in the game, insisting that in the unlikely event that a long distance call WAS necessary, it must be made by dialing directly. We were on a party line in Centerton, Arkansas when it finally made it to our home, and the operator would ask you what number you were dialing from, and that was the end of the dialog. After that, you had your own direct long distance connection, “untouched by human hands” (as a local potato chip maker liked to advertise about their wares).

So if you remember JFK, there’s a good chance you also recall when a long distance call meant dialing 0, instead of 1.

When We Dialed Telephone Numbers

Dial telephone

Try this experiment: tell your grandchild to dial a telephone number. Do you get a puzzled stare back?

Indeed, many of our grandchildren are oblivious to such telephone antiquities as cords, dial tones, answer machines (which are still newfangled things to many Boomers) and, of course, dials.

For many of us, a quantum leap in modern technology was the colored phone. Our parents grew up with (if they had phones at all) a black chunk of bakelite that weighed five pounds or more. It was leased from the phone company, and likely was manufactured by Western Electric, thanks to a sweetheart deal with Bell System. Actually, it wasn’t so much a sweetheart deal as a monopoly, since Bell and Western Electric were actually under the same corporate umbrella.

Indeed, for many years, it was a breach of Bell contract terms for a homeowner to plug any device into the phone line except for the leased brick phone that Ma Bell provided. Inspectors would check the lines for any devices that varied from the peculiar voltage requirements of WE’s phones, and any customer with the chutzpah to do such a thing would be threatened with disconnection.

Princess telephone

My best friend’s sister had one of those pink Princess phones in the mid 1960’s. It was a nice act of generosity on the part of her parents, because it too was leased, and cost extra since it was (1) an extra phone, and (2) a fancy phone. Remember, back in those days, it was one basic phone per house, unless you wanted to shell out more bucks.

But this column is creeping a bit. It’s not about leasing phones, it’s about when dialing a phone number meant DIALING a phone number.

Push-button phones appeared as early as 1963 in urban areas, but since I (and many of you) grew up in small-town America, they really weren’t an option. No, that familiar clicking sound would count off each number dialed through the earpiece as the spring-loaded dial reliably did its job, with just the right amount of resistance to the finger as we patiently entered in five or seven numbers.

Some of the older phones, like the one my grandparents in Texas had, would have a strange silent spring-like resistance, and wouldn’t make the familiar dialing sound until your finger was released. I never could get used to that.

Dial payphone

Bell continued to have a leased-phone-only policy throughout the 70’s. But prices must have dropped precipitously on colored phones, because I remember my thrifty parents sprang for a harvest gold model in the middle of that decade. It had a dial, of course. While touch-tone phones were available in northwest Arkansas in the mid 70’s, they cost extra, hence not in OUR house!

In 1983, the reorganized and split-up AT&T allowed consumers to connect their own phones to their network. That meant that suddenly K-Mart and the like began marketing extremely cheaply-made phones, in contrast to the massively rugged Western Electric models that we paid for many times over through leasing. And it was cheaper to make push-button phones than dial-up types, so the venerable dial began disappearing at that point.

No touch-tone service? no problem. The phones all had switches on them that would cause the pressed keys to make clicking sounds just like dialer phones, so you didn’t have to pay the extra five bucks or whatever a month to make them work.

Unlike many of the wonderful long-lost things we grew up with, dial-up phones can still be used with most phone companies. They have maintained backward compatibility so that you can dig out your mother’s avacado green bedside phone, affix the proper plug, and use it to dial out on the same wires that might be providing you with high-speed DSL service.

It’s nice when an occasional thing doesn’t change.


Vintage Whee-Lo

It amazes me how many of our toys involved endless repetitive motion. Take the Whee-Lo, for instance.

The Whee-Lo was a wire loop which held a rotating wheel that was magnetically attached at its axle. It would traverse its metallic circuit endlessly, powered by gentle motions of a child’s wrist. That yellow plastic hoogus could be slid up and down the handle to vary the speed of the wheel.

The toy was introduced way back in 1953 when a company called Maggi Magnetics began selling them. This was a surprise for me in doing my research, because I remember the toys appearing in stores in Miami, Oklahoma in 1968. Soon, every kid in town was sending the spinning wheel around its course as they walked to school in the mornings.

The endless looping of the wheel was a natural accompaniment to sitting in the back seat during long automobile trips. We made annual sojourns of 500 miles to my grandparents’ homes in Iowa and Texas. I remember nearly wearing out that Whee-Lo on one of those trips.

The toy came with cardboard disks that you could stick on the wheel to provide some variety. But it really wasn’t necessary. The toy provided a Zen soothing effect as you watched it repeatedly traverse its steel route.

In fact, I could use some of that today. I may just have to buy one to add to my cubicle toys collection. A Whee-Lo in hand during a long, mindless conference call should provide me the same therapeutic benefit that it did in the back seat of that Plymouth on the road to Iowa in 1968.

You can still buy Whee-Lo’s at this site, as well as several others. Try a Google search.

What We Did Before Computers, Part 2

Early 70’s calculator

Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far, far away, we didn’t have computers at home. How did we cope?

If a Butlerian Jihad should occur (if you don’t grasp that term, either read Frank Herbert’s Dune or simply look it up in Google), we would be lost, at least for a while. But in the old days, when you had to be a serious geek to own a computer, we managed just fine.

For example, take balancing check books. In 1994, I installed Quicken on my computer for the first time. I’ve used it ever since, although I will probably be switching to a Linux-based alternative soon. That means I have 13 years of financial records archived. That’s pretty amazing. So is the fact that balancing my bank accounts takes minutes, instead of the laborious process that I engaged in long ago when the bank statement came in the mail.

Solitaire, with real cards!

I discovered in high school a love of writing. Who knows, if I had pursued a career in it, I might have done well.But circumstances were such that such a scenario never played out. However, my love of the art persists.

In 1994, I browsed into AOL’s Writer’s Forum and discovered that there was a demand for writers. There weren’t any gigs that you would get rich on, but you could get paid for writing. So I responded to a few ads.

Within a year, I was producing a self-syndicated column on billiards that was published in three different magazines, one of them in Australia! Cool stuff.

The dot com crash put all three of them out of business, but I am proud of the fact that there have been quite a few magazines that have found my writing worthy of modest pay.

Today, many of us affected by the writing muse are blogging. And we’re not doing it for free, either. If you have a website that gets good traffic, there are many ways to earn steady income from it. When Kim Komando made I Remember JFK a daily pick last March, I received over 17,000 visits in one day. I also made nearly 500 bucks. While traffic has stabilized at a level far below that, I still get a nice daily paycheck from the modest (I hope you agree) advertising I do here.

And finally, reader and friend David Paleg reminds me of something else we did before we had computers: We PLAYED SOLITAIRE WITH REAL CARDS!

What We Did Before Computers, Part 1

Writing a letter

We Boomers have proven to one of the most adaptive of generations, haven’t we? For instance, my eldest brother, who can remember baking powder submarines and Howdy Doody, just succeeded in installing Ubuntu on two different laptop computers. And he’s not NEARLY as geeky as I am. Even though the Linux users among us are still in the minority, most Baby Boomers have a personal computer in the house that they use for everything from writing letters to running businesses.

So it makes you wonder, what the heck did we do before we became enslaved to the smart boxes that now live in our homes?

Well, we used to write letters. On paper. Or maybe we didn’t.

My eldest brother left home when I was five years old. His career as an air force pilot, later as a FedEx flyer, put him all over the world. I may have written three letters to him in my entire life. Yet, we email daily, sometimes several times a day.

I’m not sure why emailing is so stinking much easier than writing a letter. But it’s not unusual for me, between my job and being home, to write 20 or 30 emails a day. I guess it’s because a letter requires lots of commitment. First, you have to find paper, an envelope, and a stamp. Then, you have to FILL UP that piece of paper. Imagine sending someone a letter that simply said “ROTFLMAO!!!!!” Nope, a letter is definitely a more scholarly project.

World Book encyclopedias

Another thing we parents and grandparents would be doing if we didn’t have computers would be buying sets of encyclopedias. I have to do lots of research for many of my columns, and Wikipedia is my favorite source of information. But when we were younger, research involved learning how to use the library’s Dewey Decimal System. Or it involved our parents’ shelling out of hundreds of dollars for the latest Encyclopedia Britannica.

And of course, the information would quickly begin to show its age as governmental regimes toppled, natural disasters occurred, and records were broken.

And I’m reasonably sure about one factoid: I’ll bet you don’t watch as much television as you did when you were younger.

When I was 25 years old, I bought my first VCR. WGN was showing Hill Street Blues every night at 10:30, and I would record them all and watch them in a Saturday marathon. EVERY WEEKEND. Where did I find the time?

Today, in the world of DVR’s, television is much more easily recorded than ever. But I don’t watch as much as I did then. Instead, I spend lots of time staring at my computer monitor.

Now, to be honest, I’m not usually playing. I manage a handful of websites, provide editorial content for a few more, and generally stay busy working. But many more of you use the computer for entertainment, whether surfing the net or playing games. And the television isn’t being watched as much by the average Boomer, seeing how that PC needs attention.

Tomorrow, more on what we did before computers.


Wham-o toys

One thing virtually every Baby boomer who grew up in the US has in common is a shared recollection of having various Wham-O toys out in the yard.

Wham-O produced the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee, and the SuperBall, of course, but they also made a whole slew of other toys that were very popular, though not the sensations that the previously mentioned trio were.

Wham-O was founded in 1948. Its first product was a slingshot. The founders, Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin, were into falconry. They would hurl meat up into the air to train the birds. The idea of a forked stick with flexible straps to propel small objects just occurred to them. Thus was born the little window-breaker that would soon be in the hands of kids all over the country.

Of course, Wham-O hit it big with the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee. But they also made numerous other products that would populate the memories of Baby Boomers.

For instance, there was the Wheelie Bar for banana-seat bicycles. I never had a Wheelie Bar myself.

Other Wham-O creations include Super Elastic Bubble Plastic and The Bubble Thing, which made HUGE bubbles.

Perhaps you weren’t aware that Wham-O dabbled in the firearms business. But sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s, they manufactured a single-shot .22 pistol! I was surprised to hear that, but guns really didn’t carry as much of a negative stigma back in those days as they seem to now. I grew up with a house full of guns for hunting, as did many other Boomers in rural and small-town areas.

Wham-O Air Blaster

But Wham-O made lots of play guns, too. One of the most amazing was the Air Blaster that could blow out a candle twenty feet away. To be shot with an air blaster would be to experience getting smacked with a ball of compressed air. Weird and fun.

Wham-O is also responsible for the Water Wiggle, the Slip and Slide, the Hacky Sack, and Silly String, all of which appeared during our lifetimes. They also sold (I believe) a rubber ring with a ball attached at the end of a stalk. You would slip a foot through the ring and twirl it, jumping over the swinging stalk. Perhaps a reader could enlighten us as to what it was called, as I couldn’t find anything.

Wham-O Instant Fish

But not everything Wham-O sold was a raging success. One of the founders took an African safari in the early 60’s and was amazed to see a species of fish that laid its eggs in mud which would become completely dry. The next rainfall would see the eggs hatch.

Thinking he had his next big product, Melin brought a bunch of egg-laden mud back to the States. His idea was that he would sell a little mud with instructions for an instant aquarium. In fact, according to Wham-O’s website, millions of orders were taken for Melin’s latest product.

Alas, the fish, as temperamental as panda bears, wouldn’t reproduce well in captivity. So that’s why you don’t remember Mudfish, or whatever they would have been called.

So here’s to Wham-O, a wonderful toy and gadget company that is still alive and doing quite well. Our childhoods just wouldn’t have been the same without Frisbees, Hula Hoops, Slip and Slides and the like.

Weather Radar of the 60’s

TV radar image from 1965

As regular visitors to this site already know, I grew up in Miami, Oklahoma, not in the heart of tornado alley, but certainly within spleen distance ;-). I remember being terrified with break-ins on TV shows from the likes of KOAM and KODE with reports of tornadoes in the area, complete with scary, indecipherable radar screens that showed ominous big white images against a black background.

What I was looking at was state-of-the-art of its time. Our parents grew up with absolutely no way to know bad weather was on the way except to look for signs like all of the cattle gathered up in one area facing the same direction. Perhaps they would look for a red sky at morning. Radio stations would help, but weather forecasting was still more art than science.

In 1957, a quantum leap was taken in the forecasting and tracking of bad weather. The first WSR-57 was commissioned at the Miami Hurricane Forecast Center. WSR stood for weather surveillance radar, and 57 stood for 1957, duh!

The radar unit was basically a WWII vintage piece of equipment, domesticized to look for cloud masses instead of enemy bombers. While a large advance in the science of meteorology, it didn’t show windspeed. It also only showed the thickest cloud masses, making subtleties like rotation difficult or impossible to discern. The parts were 40’s vintage, and repairs often consisted of scrounging through old boxes of stuff to find the right tube.

The WSR-57 radar units began spreading across the United States. One went up in downtown Kansas City in 1959. Key West, Wichita, Cincinnati, Galveston, and St. Louis all received units in 1960. The next year, Amarillo, Detroit, and Fort Worth got theirs. Weather hotspots were beginning to receive an additional tool to forecast bad conditions, and the hope was that local residents would be given opportunity to prepare for any onslaughts.

The WSR-57’s served our country well. Many of them were still functioning as good as new thirty or more years after deployment. The last of them was taken offline on December 2, 1996, at Charleston, SC, after an amazing 37-year run. Not bad for something that was essentially pieced together from parts that were manufactured to see action in WWII.

Hurricane caught on radar, 1961

What ultimately replaced the original radar units was a new technology called 88-D. This stands for Doppler 1988. That was the year that the smart technology of measuring approaching and receding wind speeds to determine rotation was launched.

Of course, there were many other hi-tech features of Doppler radar. For one, computers were extensively used in the background, making for better alerting, compiling of data over time, and preservation of historical records.

The WSR-57 would flash blips on the screen, which would disappear with each rotation of the antenna. Operators made grease pencil markings on the screen to track the movements of cloud masses. Doppler would actually display a map, showing precise locations of cloud formations, which did NOT disappear with each pass.

Radar usage involves varying power output, adjusting antenna rotation speed, and also antenna pitch. It wasn’t unusual in the early days for operators to make these tweaks via cranks that turned huge rheostats. It took good physical stamina to be a meteorologist back then.

It also took serious training to make sense of the high-contrast white blips on the black screen. Thus, a kid already deathly afraid or tornadoes was further terrified by the ominous images that would be flashed up on TV by local weathermen Earl Ludlum or Lee George during the interminable breaks in network programming while we were experiencing bad weather.

But it was certainly an advancement, one our Depression-raised parents appreciated. My father had no problems understanding the weatherman and the radar display, thus, he never ordered us to take cover during the years that I have memories of Miami, Oklahoma, from 1963 to 1968. We had tornadoes hit close, I remember one tearing up some trees north of town, but our little tract home remained safe.

Nowadays, a colorful live radar display is depicted in the lower right corner of our high-def television, and the fine detail lets us see exactly where the squall line is while we’re enjoying a rerun of Andy Griffith on a weekday evening.

But those of us old enough to remember JFK can also recall when radar weather tracking was very much an art, subject to the interpretation of an educated user.

Water Rockets

Water rocket packaging, 1950’s

I certainly didn’t hurt for toys when I was a kid. However, I didn’t have EVERY toy.

Witness the Texaco Fire Truck. Another cool toy that sadly never made it into my toybox was the water rocket.

I saw hundreds of ads for water rockets in various comic book ads.

One day at junior high school, for a science demonstration, I finally got to witness a water rocket in action.

Pretty cool stuff! So cool, that nowadays there is a passionate online following of homegrown water rockets. Read on.

The water rocket was allegedly created in 1930 by future professor Jean LeBot in Rennes, France. While still a student at school, he experimented with a champagne bottle (designed to hold high pressure) filled partially with water and pressurized by compressed air from a bicycle pump fed through a cork with an inner tube valve at its center. The rocket was launched from an inclined plank forming a ramp.

It flew well, but the bottle would smash on impact.

Vintage water rockets

At some point after that (the details are very sketchy), toy manufacturers began marketing water rockets made from high-impact plastic. The rocket would sit on a plastic hand pump and launch with a trigger pull.

I found photos of some rockets that were manufactured in Germany in the early 50’s and that looked just like the V-2 models that rained down on Great Britain.

Later models included curved fins that would put a spin on the rocket, causing it to fly higher and straighter.

Once you pumped the launcher enough times to achieve optimal pressure, you pulled the trigger and were rewarded by a rocket shooting skyward, accompanied by a satisfying hissing sound and a jet trail of water and water vapor.

Then, the device would plummet to earth (the nicer models included a rubber padded nose cone to absorb the impact).

The comic book ads we grew up with are long gone, but water rockets continue to exist today, looking very much like we remember them.

However, there is a passionate following of home-built water rockets out there on the web. Most of the rockets are made out of plastic two-liter soda bottles. The lightweight cylinders can withstand high pressure, and are thus ideal for aeronautical flight. Not only that, they don’t shatter like glass champagne bottles when they land.