12 New Technologies in the 1980s

­Do you remember having a walkman and watching VHS?

If you lived through the 1980s, then you know it was an amazing decade. It seemed like every month some cool new technology came onto the market. Many of the most popular consumer products today made their mark in the 1980s.

To see just how much happened in this decade, here are a dozen technologies that became popular in the 1980s:

  • Personal computers
  • Graphical user interface
  • CDs
  • Walkmans
  • VCRs
  • Camcorders
  • Video game consoles
  • Cable television
  • Answering machines
  • Cell phones
  • Portable phones
  • Fax machines


Get started with the first technology gadget from the 1980s on the next page.

Personal Computers
The Apple II with a 6502 processor running at 1 MHz.
The Apple II with a 6502 processor running at 1 MHz.
Image courtesy Dave Freeman, The PC Museum

Let's start with personal computers. Certainly, personal computers have had a gigantic effect on our world. Today they are as common as cars, telephones and television sets. Without personal computers, the World Wide Web would be impossible, and you probably wouldn't be reading this article.

Personal computers were born in the 1970s, shortly after the development of the microprocessor chip. The Apple I came out in 1976, and the Apple II appeared in 1977. It had a 6502 processor running at 1 MHz. The 6502 was an 8-bit microprocessor chip, and in the Apple II it had a maximum RAM space of 48 kilobytes. (In contrast, today's least expensive Apple, the Mac mini, has a processor that runs at 1.5GHz with a 60-gigabyte hard drive and 512 megabytes of RAM.)

Then in 1982 came the IBM PC. It is hard for us today to realize how big a deal this was, but you have to understand the reputation IBM had at the time. IBM made big, mainframe computers for major corporations. By introducing the PC, IBM gave personal computers real credibility. Since the PC came from IBM, it had a strong reputation behind it.

­The IBM PC, although pathetic by today'­s standards, was very powerful for its time. It had a 16-bit 8088 processor running at 4.77 MHZ. This was a blazing clock speed for the time, almost five times faster than the Apple II or IIe. That, combined with the fact that it could handle 16-bit calculations, combined with the ability to add on the 8087 math co-processor, along with a maximum memory space of 640 kilobytes, made the PC a very powerful machine.

I bought a real IBM PC in 1982. It cost about $2,000. It had 64 kilobytes of RAM and a single 360K 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. It had a monochrome screen and ran DOS 1.0. There was a BASIC interpreter built into ROM and I had bought a word processing program called Volkswriter. And I had an Epson MX-80 dot matrix printer. With all of that I had a "complete" home computer system.

The thing you first noticed when you used a PC was the keyboard. It was built like a tank and weighed more by itself than some laptops do today. The second thing you noticed was the clarity of the characters on the monochrome screen -- 40-character screens were much more common at the time. And then there was the floppy disk drive. Compared with a cassette tape, it was amazingly fast and stored a gigantic amount of information.

At the time, this setup (or a similar setup built around an Apple II) was an absolute miracle. It was amazing that a person could sit at home, write programs and do word processing on a $2,000 machine.

IBM's machine spawned two revolutions:

  • First, there was a software revolution. Real companies began to produce a wide array of software products for the PC. Many of these were business programs and included word processors, spreadsheets, CAD tools and more.
  • Second there was the hardware revolution. Compaq was the first company to "clone" the PC, creating a complete system that could run all of the PC's software. Many other companies started doing the same thing. The competition brought prices down and increased the pace of innovation.

­Soon there were thousands of hardware and software companies competing in the PC space.

During the '80s, Intel released the 80286, the 80386 and then the 80486 -- a 32-bit processor which had more than a million transistors on a single chip, a clock speed of 25 MHz and a 4-gigabyte memory space. Hard disks, which really didn't exist in the personal computer marketplace in 1980, became inexpensive and ubiquitous as the decade progressed. By the end of the 1980s, PCs were everywhere.

See How PCs Work for details.

Graphical User Interfaces
The IBM PC Jr. with an 8088 processor running at 4.77 MHz.
The IBM PC Jr. with an 8088 processor running at 4.77 MHz.
Image courtesy Dave Freeman, The PC Museum

When IBM released the PC, it came with an operating system called DOS. Like just about every operating system at the time, DOS had a command-line interface. You typed in commands like DIR or COPY, and the operating system would respond. The advantage was that these systems were simple to program and they fit well with the character-based screens that were common at the time. But "normal people" (meaning, non-geeks) had a lot of trouble feeling comfortable with DOS.

Then in 1984 there was an event that changed everything. Apple released the Macintosh computer with its unbelievable Graphical User Interface (GUI). Because we all use GUIs every day, it is hard for us to understand today how revolutionary the Mac was. But if you ask people who lived through the transition, many of them can actually remember the day they saw their first Mac. I do.

A local computer store in Albany, NY had gotten a Mac in stock and had it on display. Four of us got in a car and drove there to see it. When you first saw the Macintosh, you felt as though you were looking at an alien creature that had landed on the planet. The form factor was completely different from anything on the market. The screen was crisp and paper white with black characters (nearly every screen you looked at in 1984 was black with white or green characters). And then there was the mouse.

When you first held the mouse, you realized that it was shockingly easy to use. It took your brain about three seconds to understand how the mouse mapped to the cursor. But since no one had ever seen a mouse before, it was not obvious how "dragging" or "double clicking" worked. Once the salesperson showed one of us, however, we immediately understood it. At that point, you could use the machine. How do you delete a file? It was obvious -- drag it to the trashcan. How do you move a file? Drag it from one place to another. How do you open a file? Click it. You did not even need to know the name of the application, which was essential in the PC world (so you could type it into the command line). Drawing on this beautiful, paper-white screen using the mouse was a dream. So was typing, because the Mac had actual fonts rather than block characters. What you typed looked like you were reading a book. It was absolutely, utterly amazing.

It was so amazing, in fact, that everyone uses a GUI today. We would be lost without the graphical user interface. The thought of trying to navigate the Web from a command line is too painful to even contemplate.

The GUI did not become ubiquitous in the 80s, however. Microsoft did not get Windows figured out in any real way until version 3.0 in 1990, and version 3.1 was where things really took off. That was not until 1992.

Next we'll look at some technology that made music more portable in the 1980s: CDs and Walkmans.

Before compact discs, you had to rewind and fast-forward to get to a particular bit of information.
Before compact discs, you had to rewind and fast-forward to get to a particular bit of information.

Like the GUI, it is hard for us to imagine life before compact discs, or CDs. It is also hard to imagine just how revolutionary the CD was at the time. But you can get a sense of it by thinking back to the way that people got their music during the 1970s.

The two major formats for holding music in the 70s were the Vinyl LP and the cassette tape. You could also get music from an AM or FM radio station. The 8-track tape was still common in 1980, but it was on the way out because the "compact cassette" was so much better, and you could record your own cassettes to boot.

One thing that all of these formats had in common was hiss. Whether you were playing an LP or listening to a tape, you would hear the hiss. It was just something that everyone expected.

So when the CD came out around 1983, the thing you immediately noticed was the total lack of hiss when you played the CD. I had an audiophile friend at the time, and I remember going to his house to hear one of the first CDs. He had paid well over $1,000 for the player. He put in a CD, cranked the volume, hit the play button and you heard nothing. Then the music absolutely exploded out of nowhere, and it was unbelievably clear. The whole experience was breathtaking.

The other thing about CDs was the absence of wear. Cassettes stretched and broke. The oxide flaked off. The capstan that pulled the tape past the head would suffer from "wow and flutter." Albums had problems with dust, scratches, warping (from heat) and "wow and flutter" as well.

At the time, the best turntables had massive platters (to reduce "wow and flutter") and tone arms counterbalanced like a precision chemistry scale (to try to reduce wear). You would use little anti-static guns and sprays to try to reduce dust. You would record the album to tape and listen to the tape so that you didn't have to take the album out of its sleeve. It was nuts.

The CD came along and did away with all of that. All of the problems with dust, scratches, stretch, heat, motors, etc. completely disappeared. What you had was pure, clean digital sound. And the CD held over an hour of music. And CDs were rugged -- you could stick them in the dishwasher if you wanted to. This whole collection of goodness seemed like a miracle at the time.

The funny thing is that the core technology of a CD is so simple. The CD is nothing but a mirror. On that mirror are billions of tiny scratches. The CD player shoots a laser at this mirror, and the laser either hits one of the scratches or it doesn't. A sensor can sense whether the laser hits clean or scratched mirror by the strength of the reflection. That different lets the scratches represent a binary zero and the mirror represent a binary one. With a one and a zero, you are set to encode digital information. See How CDs Work for more information.

Walkmans played cassette tapes.

Today everyone is walking around wearing headphones or earbuds as they listen to their iPods. We take the idea of "personal listening" and "portable music" completely for granted. But there once was a time when these were completely unknown concepts. The transition occurred in the 1980s.

The change started with the release of the Sony Walkman, and two things about it were revolutionary. First, Sony managed to shrink a cassette player down to a size that you could fit in a pocket. This was surprising by itself, but it was also cool because people were making their own music cassettes by mixing together songs that they taped off different albums. These custom cassettes were the first play lists, and they were perfect for a Walkman.

The second thing was the headphones. In 1980 there were two kinds of headphones -- little plastic "earphones" that sounded horrible, and heavy, bulky headphones that covered each ear with a cup the size of a cereal bowl. Sony changed all that by creating a pair of headphones that had great sound but weighed less than two ounces. Sony was able to do that because of an invention called the samarium-cobalt magnet. Without these tiny, powerful magnets, the Walkman headset would have been impossible.

When the Walkman first came out, it was expensive. In 1981, I won a Walkman in a raffle, and it had a list price of $300. It was very cool -- it could both play cassettes and record using a pair of microphones built into the case. There was also a button you could press that would lower of the volume of the music and let you hear the "outside world" through the headphones. This saved you from having to take off your headphones -- it was ridiculous, sure, but still very cool. I gave that Walkman to my sister for Christmas that year. Prices came way down a year or so later as other manufacturers entered the fray.

­­No one uses cassette tapes much any more, and CDs are on the way out. Everything has gone digital and you can download all your music from the Internet. But the Walkman showed us for the first time what it was like to have portable, personal music, and people loved it.

To learn more about cassette tapes and cassette players, see How Tape Recorders Work.

We'll look at some television-related technology next: VCRs, camcorders, cable TV and video game consoles.

The VCR sparked the creation of video rental stores and first allowed movies to be sold on tape.
The VCR sparked the creation of video rental stores and first allowed movies to be sold on tape.

­While you are trying to imagine a time when you didn't have a personal computer or a portable music player, try to imagine this: There once was a time when there were only three TV stations, and there was no way to watch a movie at home unless one of those three stations broadcast it (full of commercials, of course). It really is hard to believe that there was a time when you couldn't "rent a movie" on a Friday night. But that's what it was like in the early 1980s. The Blockbuster video store chain did not open its first store until 1985.

Two things happened in the 1980s that changed the face of TV forever. The first was the VCR, and the second was cable TV, which we will talk about later in this section.

The VCR uses the same technology that a Walkman does, so it doesn't seem like recording on video tape should be that hard. It's the same kind of magnetic tape, and the same kind of recording head in both devices. The problem is, if you tried to store video information in a linear track like you do on a normal cassette music tape, the video tape would have to be about 50 miles long to hold a two-hour movie. The tape would be moving over the head at more than 25 miles per hour. A 50 mile spool of video tape would be as big as the tire on a car.

The genius of a VCR is that the tape is wide, and the recording head is on a drum that spins at 1,800 RPM. Each frame of video data is written on the tape as a long diagonal stripe, like this:

By doing it this way, the head is moving over the tape at 25 miles per hour, but the tape only moves at 1.31 linear inches per second.

All of this technology was figured out long before the 1980s, but it was bulky and incredibly expensive. What happened in the 1980s was the development of the mass-produced video cassette, cheap manufacturing in Asia and cheap microprocessors to control everything. With those three things in place, VCR prices could fall below the magic $1,000 mark.

Because of the microprocessor inside, the new VCRs could record shows even if you weren't there. So anyone could record anything off of their TV for the first time. Never before had people been able to "time shift" a show, or fast-forward through commercials. It gave people an incredible amount of control over TV and it felt great.

Movie studios saw an opportunity to make more money, and they started to sell movies on tape. These tapes were expensive - sometimes as much as $70. So the whole idea of the video rental store quickly appeared. Now you could watch just about any Hollywood movie in your home for just a few dollars. This gave birth to the whole new idea of a "home theater." The first primitive projection TVs came out about the same time and made the home theater idea that much more appealing.

It is hard to imagine just how much freedom people gained from the VCR, and how good that freedom felt. But here is one way to think about it. In 1980, there were exactly two ways to watch a movie. Either you saw it in a movie theater, or one of the "Big Three" TV networks broadcast it (with commercials) on "Million Dollar Movie" night or something like that. Thousands of Hollywood movies had been made, but no one had any way to see them. The VCR and the video rental store completely changed that.

For more information on VCRs, see How VCRs Work.

A camcorder with the VCR unit exposed
A camcorder with the VCR unit exposed

If you miniaturize a VCR just a bit, and then add a video camera and a big battery to it, and put it all in a case that you can sling on your shoulder, what you get is a camcorder. And if you were a middle class parent in the 1980s, you HAD to have one.

To understand why camcorders took the world by storm in the 1980s, you have to understand what they replaced. At the time, you used an 8mm movie camera to make "home movies." You had to buy a 25 foot long roll of 16mm film, put it in the camera (preferably in the dark), thread it and shoot two minutes of film. Then you opened the camera up again, turned the roll of film over in the camera, rethreaded it, and shot another two minutes. Then you sent it in to be developed. The lab would slit the film along its length and then tape the two pieces of film together to create a 50-foot reel, four minutes long.

The problems with this format were immense. An 8mm image is tiny, so the picture was grainy. Having to shoot in two-minute increments was a pain. If you dropped the roll, it was ruined from being exposed to light. The film was pretty expensive and so was the processing. To watch the film you had to get out a big, clunky and temperamental projector, plus a screen. And to cap it all off, these movies were silent.

Enter the camcorder. You stick in a standard VHS tape that you had laying around anyway (or purchased for $5). You could shoot two hours of video. It had sound and decent resolution. And when you got home you simply popped the tape into your normal VCR to play it. No waiting and no processing. It was a miracle!

The 8mm camera disappeared in no time, and everyone had a camcorder.

To learn more about camcorders, see How Camcorders Work.

Cable Television
The setup for most early cable TV systems
The setup for most early cable TV systems

­ At about the same time that VCRs and rental stores were changing the world of TV in the home, another phenomenon was changing network television. That force is called cable TV, and it really took off in the 1980s.

Cable TV had been around for a long time. People in the mountains would use cable just to get TV reception. A company would put big antennas on mountain tops and then run cables down to the houses in the valleys so that people could watch TV. The same technology also worked in big cities where skyscrapers blocked reception.

The problem was, these early cable systems were small and the quality was bad. They used coaxial cable from the antenna all the way to the house, and the coax needed an amplifier every thousand feet or so. This meant that there might be 30 or 40 amplifiers between the antenna and the customer, and each amplifier degraded the signal a little bit. By the time the signal got to the house, the picture often looked terrible.

Technology solved this problem however. Fiber optic cables came into the market, and cable companies started using them for all the trunk lines in the system. The number of amplifiers fell from 40, to five or six, and then down to two or three. Because of fiber optic cables, the signal was great and it cost a lot less to deliver it.

At the same time, a whole crop of new "cable channels" started to pop up. CNN, MTV, HBO and many others all appeared in the early 1980s. HBO was a miracle. You paid a small fee per month and could watch dozens of commercial-free movies. MTV brought something totally new for young viewers -- the music video. Teenagers and college students would crowd around TVs to see the newest videos when they came out.

With all this new content, cable TV became a "must have" item. Where there had only been three TV channels before, now there were dozens. New channels popped up all the time, AND you could record all your shows on your VCR and watch them later. It made you feel like George Jetson.

For more information on the technology of cable TV, see How Cable TV Works.

Video Game Consoles
The Atari 2600
The Atari 2600

There were video game consoles prior to the 1980s, but they weren't that popular. Video games were in arcades (and running on computers like the Apple II) in the late 1970s, and even simple video game consoles with games like "Pong" were available. Atari released the Atari 2600 in 1977, but sales were slow. In 1979, the 2600 started to gain momentum, and then in 1980 it exploded because of the game "Space Invaders" and falling prices. By 1982, Atari was selling 8 million units a year and video games were everywhere. "Pac-Man," released in 1980, was exploding at the same time.­

These early consoles were incredibly primitive by today's standards. The Atari 2600 used a 6507, a primitive 8-bit processor running at 1.19 MHz. The graphics resolution was about 160 x 190 pixels and 128 colors, but you could only have four colors per line. The console had 128 bytes of RAM. A game cartridge contained a 4,048-byte ROM (although later cartridges could have 32 kbytes divided into eight 4K pages).

What this meant is that the games on the Atari 2600 were very simple. Just a few moving objects, 2-D sprite-type animation, a handful of colors on a mostly black screen. There simply was not enough processing power or memory available to do much else.

Even so, these early games got something right, because games like "Space Invaders" and "Pac-Man" are still popular today. Sort of like a deck of playing cards, these early games seem to survive because they are classics.

For technical details on today's most modern video games, see How Video Game Systems Work.

Next, we'll look at advances in communications technology: answering machines, cell phones, cordless phones and fax machines.

Answering Machines

Can we even imagine a time before answering machines and voice mail? Probably not. But there once was a time when, to use a telephone, both people had to be on the phone at the same time. You actually had to pick up the phone when it rang.

The answering machine changed all that, and it really was a miracle. The basic machine had two cassette tape decks -- one for the outgoing message and one to record all the incoming calls. A microprocessor controlled everything so that you could listen to your messages, skip from one to the next and erase them. The two-cassette model then got simplified to a single cassette, and eventually the whole thing was simplified even more by using computer memory.

Being able to manufacture and control the cassette decks cheaply was a big part of the answering machine boom. But the other part was the breakup of AT&T. Prior to the breakup, you had to rent an answering machine from the phone company and have it installed. After the breakup, anyone could buy an answering machine and plug it right in. Asian manufacturers produced cheap machines and the flood gates opened. By the mid-1980s, "everyone" had an answering machine.

It's funny to think back to that time, because there was a whole social etiquette thing that people had to work out. Especially when the machines were first flooding the market, those who sat at home and "screened their calls" were considered pretentious snobs. It really was considered bad form to not pick up the phone if you were actually at home when it rang. Today, of course, no one cares.

Cell Phones
Analog cell phones were born in 1983 when the FCC approved the AMPS standard.
Analog cell phones were born in 1983 when the FCC approved the AMPS standard.
Photo courtesy Motorola, Inc.

The cell phone is one of those rare science fiction technologies that actually made it into the real world. We may not have flying cars, personal jetpacks or m­oon colonies yet, but we all now carry the handheld communicator made popular by the "Star Trek" TV show in the 1960s.

Because we ALL have cell phones today, it is hard to imagine a time when we would take a walk, go shopping or drive somewhere without the ability to make an instant phone call. How did we ever survive when we were so disconnected?

I can remember driving with a realtor in the early 1980s. He had the predecessor of the cell phone -- an in-car radio phone. The way this worked was simple. There was a big radio tower in the middle of the city. The car had a big radio in the trunk -- This was a huge 25 watt radio transmitter/receiver. Inside the car was a handset and a button panel that let you choose between one of four different channels. Yes, in the early 1980s, the entire city of Raleigh, NC was served by four radio telephone channels. That's how rare car radio phones were at that time. They were incredibly expensive.

The genius of the cell phone idea was that you could break up a city into many small cells. Each cell would have a tower holding the antennas, and that tower would be able to transmit only two or three miles. Inside each cell there would be about 100 different radio frequencies in use, allowing about 50 simultaneous calls. Then, those frequencies could be reused in cells across the city by spacing things out properly. The system had huge capacity compared to the radio telephone system. Instead of one tower with four channels serving a 40-mile radius, you could have dozens of cells in a city with 50 callers in each cell. Because the towers were always just a mile or two away, the phone could get by with a one-watt transmitter. This meant the phone could be small and the battery life would be reasonable.

The cell phone system for a city was going to be expensive, because companies had to build all those towers in each city. And the initial cost of the phones was nuts. The first real, portable, battery-operated handheld cell phone was called the DynaTAC and cost $4,000. It was as big (and almost as heavy) as a brick. And the cost per minute was a dollar or more. But there were lots of rich people (stock traders, for example) who really needed the service, and they were willing to pay. There were also car phones that were cheaper, but not cheap. In the early 1980s, if you were talking to a person with a car phone, a bag phone or an actual handheld "brick" cell phone, you knew you were talking to an "important person."

As with everything else involving technology, prices fell. Today you get the phone for free, and the call only costs a dime per minute. Long distance and roaming are usually free -- something that definitely wasn't the case in the 80s. When these systems were first created, each city was an island. Companies like Sprint and MCI were tiny businesses. It wasn't until prices fell and thousands of "normal people" started subscribing that things like nationwide roaming and free long distance became possible.

For more information on cell phone technology, see How Cell Phones Work.


Cordless Phones

The portable telephone was another "must have" technology in the 1980s. When these phones came on the market, everyone had to buy one. Maybe it was cell phone envy? Who knows.

When they first came out, these phones were incredibly simple. The handset was, essentially, two walkie-talkies in a case. One walkie-talkie handled your voice, while the other handled the voice of the caller. That way you did not need the push-to-talk button of a normal walkie-talkie. Theses phones used the standard 27 MHz and 49MHz frequencies that walkie-talkies and baby monitors use. That meant short distances and a fair amount of interference, along with the fact that your neighbors could listen in on your calls.

Even so, cordless phones were popular because you could get rid of the cord and walk around the house or yard while talking on the phone.

The reason these phones exploded in popularity, by the way, is not because of the technology. Walkie-talkies had been around for decades. As with the answering machine, the explosion came from the breakup of AT&T and the deregulation of what you could connect to a phone line.

See How Cordless Telephones Work for more details.

Fax Machines
Before e-mail, a fax machine first allowed people to send a message to someone anywhere in the country in seconds.
Before e-mail, a fax machine first allowed people to send a message to someone anywhere in the country in seconds.

­ As we've seen, the 1980s and the breakup of AT&T brought a flood of new devices. People connected their answering machines and portable phones. They also ran a phone wire to the computer so they could log into bulletin board services -- the precursor to the Internet.

The other thing that appeared in the 1980s was the fax machine. The technology had been around for a long time, but it became cheap in the 1980s because of the microprocessor, inexpensive heat-transfer print heads (which could print on special heat-sensitive rolls of paper) and cheap optical sensors that could read a page of text.

Once fax machines reached a critical price point, they took off. Millions of people bought them, because they represented a miracle. With a fax machine, you could send a sheet of paper to someone, anywhere in the country, complete with a signature, in seconds. E-mail really didn't exist yet (except in military and university environments), so the fax machine was amazing. During the "golden age" of the fax machine in the 1980s, people faxed everything. Lunch orders went into restaurants by fax rather than being phoned in. Ads and brochures could be sent out by fax. Nearly every legal document got faxed once it was signed. People traded recipes and personal letters by fax rather than sending them in the mail.

All of this activity has now been replaced by e-mail and e-mail attachments, but the fax machine gave us an early taste of what that would be like.

See How Fax Machines Work for details.

There are many other new technologies that arose in the 1980s: Satellite television, laser disks, the first simple home robots (like the Heathkit Hero), bulletin board systems for computers, the space shuttle (first launched in 1981) as well as the first shuttle disaster (1986), the MIR space station (1986), digital music synthesizers, the Rubik's cube and the DeLorean car. There were so many firsts, and it is truly surprising how many of these technologies are still with us today. That is part of what made the 1980s such an amazing decade.

For lots more information on the technology in this article, check out the links on the next page.


Virtual Reality Helps Distract Kids from Painful Medical Procedures

Virtual Reality Helps Distract Kids from Painful Medical Procedures

Virtual reality makes it easier — and a little more fun — for sick kids to deal with painful medical procedures. Find out more at HowStuffWorks.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles