The clock radio and its moment in consumer technology

I knew I was looking for something special ten years ago in a Goodwill somewhere on US 1 between Baltimore and Wilmington. I collect clock radios, and had read about this one before but haven’t seen one yet. It was a General Electric, model 7-4885: the “Great awakening. Weighing in at several pounds and resembling a home police scanner or tiny computer, its defining feature was a keypad numbered 1 to 9, allowing you to directly enter the current time, wake-up time and even a station. radio. In other words, if you want to listen to contemporary adults in the Washington, DC area, you press the “FM” button and then enter “9-7-1”.

Goodwill wanted five dollars for it. I would have paid, well, a little more. A really nice 7-4885 on eBay can sell for almost $ 200. Keyboards often stop working due to corrosion of exposed contacts, but very careful sandpaper work can restore them completely. There is a small community of enthusiasts for these devices, and I have restored more than one so far.

Clock radios were, and still are, fascinating to me. They are less to collect and apparently less interesting than other electronic devices, like retro video game consoles, vintage stereo equipment, or early personal computers. One of the most common devices in American homes for decades, clock radios came in a dizzying variety of shapes, sizes and styles. They have also been in a way the beneficiaries of many innovations that have taken place higher up in the electronics industry.

I can illustrate this simply with my own personal collection, which is extensive but by no means exhaustive of clock radio history. There is a General Electric model that uses amber nixie tubes for its time display, perhaps the only clock radio to do so. There’s a little flip-up number clock with a little plastic window on top under a little bulb compartment, which sort of projected the time on the ceiling. Sony designed a line of clock radios dubbed the EZ, which featured a set of dials to set the hour and minute for the hour or alarm, much the same way you would dial a temperature setting on your stove. . Panasonic had a cube-shaped clock whose front was a mirror. Off, you only see yourself. When switched on, the time and the radio dial appear behind the glass. Another Panasonic used a complex recording-type mechanism to electronically read the current time aloud at the touch of a button, without using a digital speech synthesizer.

The 1970s were the heyday of the clock radio. For some reason, the analog units of the 60s weren’t very stylish, and their inexpensive clock movements are prone to failure today. The 1970s saw the generalization of digital clock radios. But no, in the initially odd wording used later in the early 1980s, “electronic digital”. The 1970s were the days of mechanical rotating numeral clocks, or “rocker clocks” – think of the clock that torments the character of Bill Murray in groundhog day, a white plastic Panasonic model released in 1976. Or the woodgrain model that wakes up Marty McFly in Back to the future. Some rocker clocks were wonderfully constructed and, mimicking household hi-fi components of the time, some even had solid wood cases. The clock radio, while common, was still expensive enough to be a platform for innovation and staging.

But back to the Great Awakening.

First released in 1979 and sold for a few years until the early 1980s, the Great Awakening series arrived at a crossroads in consumer technology. At the time, the only mainstream devices with direct-entry numeric keyboards were keypad phones, calculators, a few expensive microwaves (most dials still in use), and the bizarre police scanner or keypad. personal computer, still a rarity in American homes. Even high-end stereo receivers and tuners generally retained old radio dials. With the Grand Réveil, GE was selling a clock radio, but the company was also showcasing what the technology could do.

Yet in hindsight, there was only a very brief period in which pointing an hour or a radio station directly into your clock radio was actually a marketable novelty – or really a novelty at all. . With the rapidly falling price of semiconductors, computers have become increasingly affordable. And as the electronics inside consumer devices got smaller and cheaper, so did all the products. With today’s technology, it would cost a few pennies to implement the Grand Réveil clock radio functionality again. But apart from the nostalgic adults and a few young fogeys, he probably wouldn’t find much of a market.

In 2011, Sony effectively exited the shrinking clock radio market by abandoning its iconic Dream Machine brand. Aside from a few cheap plastic boxes and a handful of high-end curiosities, very few clock radios are still made and sold – and for the same reason many people have stopped wearing wristwatches over the years. last twelve years: a smartphone does it all, and More. An elegant clock radio with a refined design is no longer a symbol of a middle-class home, nor a must-have in a bedroom.

But the smartphone, precisely because it is so multifunctional, is a constant source of distraction. You’re never more than a tap away from all of your various work and play apps, whether you’re checking the time or date, setting your alarm, or calculating a tip. The virtually endless digital possibilities in this little black rectangle of glass may actually exclude some of the creativity that could come from interacting with the variety of distinct analog and electronic objects that performed these functions.

This multifunctionality and the devices that make it possible are examples of what economists call dematerialization. From an environmental standpoint, this is a good thing. This means more economic value for less natural resources. Think of all the heavy devices that a smartphone makes redundant or obsolete that no longer needs to be made, shipped and thrown away. But with this dematerialization of consumer goods came a sort of dematerialization of everyday life. We no longer use terms like “cyberspace” or “information highway” in a non-ironic way – nowadays we use the term “meat space” in a non-ironic way – but whatever those liminal spaces and what we call them, they consume more and more of our time.

The renewed interest in obsolete but tactile technologies such as typewriters, Polaroid cameras, vinyl records, and even Audio cassettes is partly driven by the gnawing feeling that too much of our lives go through screens. These old technologies are, as journalist David Sax dubbed them in his 2016 book The revenge of analog, “Real things”. To this initial list, I would add clock radios.

The Grand Réveil clock radio, in a way, predicts the ultimate uselessness of clock radios. But it was also a unique and inventive way of demonstrating that advanced technology could be a servant, not a master.

About Timothy Cheatham

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