The 1980s was an amazing time for technology. The very nature of what we think of as the modern age stems from the digital technology put in place during this era. From personal computers and the rise of cable television, through to the brick-shaped machine that made music much more portable and personal - we explore the most important inventions to come into existence during the tech boom.
The IBM Personal Computer
Technically, the PC came into existence during the late ‘70s, as the most important by-product of the newly-created microprocessor chip. Apple released the first two personal computers in 1976, and ’77 - but the computer boom didn’t kick off until IBM released their game-changing PC in 1982.
The $2,000 machine boasted 64kb of RAM, a monochrome monitor, and a sexy 5.25 inch floppy drive. It heralded the start of the software boom, with many companies quickly creating business programs, video games, and word processing software. Schools used the computer as an educational tool. Competitors soon flooded the hardware market as well, driving prices down with ‘IBM-Compatible’ machines that ran the same software at the same speed. The future was here, and soon it would be controlled by a weird thing called a mouse.
The Sony Walkman
You always know a product is successful when its trademarked name becomes synonymous with an entire range of similar products. When the Walkman was introduced to Americans in 1980, it was the promise of private, portable music that most captured the public imagination. Think of how much more pleasant your bus-trip could be when lost in a world of your own curated music?
Two pieces of technology had to rise in order to make the Walkman the success it was: the samarium-cobalt magnet, which made lightweight headphones a possibility, and affordable tape dubbing equipment, which allowed people to make their own mix tapes. “There’s a revolution in the streets”, claimed the now-famous marketing campaign - and there was.
The compact disc
In 1982, the compact disc was born. For kids born into the world of streaming, it will be hard to understand just how ubiquitous these shiny little discs were during the ‘80s, and throughout the subsequent decades when they became used less for music and more as a storage system. The things seemed so delicate at first, with one little smudge or scratch seeming fatal. The discs were oddly resilient though; it’s rare to find even first-generation CDs that have major issues playing some three decades later.
At first, CD players were priced at over $1,000, but despite the price jump from vinyl, over 400,000 players sold in the US in 1983 and 1984 alone - with the format overtaking vinyl by 1988. It’s funny to think of being nostalgic for a CD skipping, but it’s beginning to happen…
Pacman, Space Invaders and the rise of home video games
The Atari 2600 was released in 1977 and enjoyed a small audience of enthusiasts. Then Space Invaders was released on the system in January, 1980, and sales quadrupled. In 1982, Atari released a port of popular arcade game Pac-Man, which sold over 7 million copies, in turn pushing sales of the 2600 to over 10 million units. Kids were co-opting the family television with these weird graphically-driven games, and the market was soon flooded with competitors, to the point where the entire video game industry crashed in 1983. Many factors were pointed at for this swift decline: competition from PCs, inflation, over-saturation of low-quality games - even fed-up parents. By 1985 Nintendo had risen as a new market leader and saved the format, a position they would hold throughout the rest of the 1980s, although not without some fierce competition by Sega.
The VCR format wars are about function over form, accessibility over ability, and about the importance of competition. JVC created the VHS. Sony created the Betamax, a high-quality, expensive video format which could only record an hour’s worth of material. Sony wanted to control the market, and refused to licence the Betamax format to third-party player manufactures. JVC let anyone make a compatible VHS player You already know what happened. The much longer-running, much cheaper, and more widely-available VHS format flourished, while the differences in quality that Betamax boasted of were supplanted by the reality of consumers who would rather save money, and be able to tape an entire film or sporting match then brag about picture resolution. Great quality visuals mean nothing when the end of Die Hard didn’t record.
The rise of cable TV also meant that there were more options, and therefore more stuff to bank on tape and watch later - further giving rise to the format. Pesky commercials were also a thing of the past, now you could fast-forward right past them
Celebrate the technology revolution of the 1980s with an episode dedicated to the tech of The Eighties on Wednesday 8 March at 8:30pm on SBS. You can stream this episode and previous episodes of The Eighties on SBS On Demand: