12 Tech Flops of the 1970s and '80s That Were Ahead of Their Time

Before Their Time

Courtesy of darkroastedblend.com

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Before Their Time
Courtesy of darkroastedblend.com

Before Their Time

The 1970s and ’80s were filled with innovations such as VCRs, cordless phones, and personal computers that changed the way we live. It was also a time of tech flops and marketing missteps even from companies known for innovation, including Apple, Polaroid, and Sony. The irony is, these so-called failures were also successes, anticipating smartphones and other technologies we now take for granted. Most of the originals have long since been consigned to the trash, but if you can find one in your basement or attic it might be worth big bucks.

Related:21 Things We Use All the Time That Didn’t Exist 10 Years Ago

Apple Lisa
Courtesy of appleworld.today

Apple Lisa

Produced 1983-85
Nothing looked like Apple’s Lisa computer when it was released in 1983. It was the first PC with a graphical user interface and a mouse, allowing people to point and click their way through files and programs. Despite its radical operating system — a more refined version would soon power the first Apple Macintosh and, arguably, change personal computing forever— the Lisa was doomed from the start. For one, it retailed for $9,995, or roughly $26,400 in 2021 dollars, an amount few were willing to spend. For another, it was almost immediately eclipsed by the Mac, which debuted the following year at the relative bargain price of $2,495. 

The Mac was also faster, had a more reliable OS, and you could expand its memory. Hoping to capitalize on Macintosh’s popularity, Lisa subsequently was renamed the Mac XL, but several hardware and software upgrades couldn’t save it from the scrap heap. Today, a Lisa in good condition can sell for $1,000 to $2,000 to a collector; one first-gen model sold at auction in 2017 for $50,300.

Related: 12 Historic Failures by Successful Billionaires 

At&t Picturephone
Courtesy of bonhams.com

AT&T Picturephone

Produced 1970-72

Bell Telephone (as AT&T was known) unveiled a prototype video telephone, the Model 1 Picturephone, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, and a few public pay-videophones were operational throughout the decade. But it wasn’t until June 3, 1970, that Bell introduced its first commercial Picturephone service in Pittsburgh. Despite a big promotional push — including a press conference between then-Mayor Pete Flaherty and Alcoa’s chairman John Harper — the service never really caught on. Price had something to do with its failure; AT&T charged $160 per month (over $1,000 today) for the equipment and service, plus a per-minute charge on calls. 

Unlike Skype and other online video chat services today, the Picturephone’s camera wasn’t designed for a room full of people — it was intended for person-to-person calls, which limited its usefulness. The Mod 1 and succeeding Mod 2 sold only a few hundred units, and AT&T expanded service only to Chicago before pulling the plug on the operation a year or so later. AT&T tried twice more to make a go of video calling, in 1982 as a teleconferencing service for businesses and in 1992 with the VideoPhone 2000 for home use. Both were commercial failures. In March 2019, a pair of Mod 2 Picturephones sold for $7,575 at a New York auction. 

Related: You Won't Believe How Much These Collectibles Fetched at Auction

Coleco Adam
Courtesy of nightfallcrew.com

Coleco Adam

Produced 1983-85

In the summer of 1983, companies from Atari to RadioShack competed for a share of the emerging home computer market. When Coleco — best known for Cabbage Patch Dolls and its ColecoVision gaming system — announced it would unveil a home PC in time for the holiday shopping season, people went crazy with anticipation. Advertised for just $600, the Adam boasted 64K of RAM, twin tape drives, and a daisy-wheel printer; it was a steal compared with PCs made by Apple and IBM that sold for twice as much. But Coleco couldn’t keep up with holiday demand, angering retailers and consumers alike. 

Early units also were plagued with quality-control issues, including tape drives prone to erasing the data cassettes and a design quirk that required the printer to be on to use the PC. Coleco lost millions as unhappy consumers returned defective units and refused to buy replacements, and threw in the towel in early 1985. Three years later, partly as a result of Adam-related financial losses, Coleco filed for bankruptcy. You can find used Adams on eBay for about $200 today.

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Fisher-price Pxl-2000
Courtesy of justabeat.com

Fisher-Price PXL-2000

Produced 1987-88
The home video revolution was in full swing in 1987 when Fisher-Price decided to introduce a camcorder for kids. It used blank audio cassettes, not VHS videotapes, and recorded low-resolution audio and video: a black-and-white, pixelated image. Priced at about $180, it was far more expensive than other electronics aimed at kids and teens (a Nintendo Entertainment System sold for about half that amount). Fisher-Price sold fewer than a half-million PXL-2000s, but the camera developed a cult following among experimental filmmakers in the 1990s. Today, a working Pixelvision camera can sell for $100 or more on eBay, and you can find all sorts of short videos made with PXL-2000s on YouTube.

Kodak Disc 4000
Courtesy of thephoblographer.com

Kodak Disc 4000

Produced 1982-88

“No other camera looks or works like it,” Kodak ads proclaimed when it launched the Disc camera. Designed to fit in the back pocket of your jeans and about the size of a paperback book, the camera required an entirely new film format, which Kodak also created. It was compact, but compromised. To fit 15 shots onto one film disc, each negative could be only 10mm wide, far smaller than the standard 35mm film most people were accustomed to shooting (a roll of which held up to 36 shots). 

The smaller negative had to be enlarged dramatically to make prints, resulting in grainy or fuzzy pictures that looked lousy compared with “regular” film prints. Kodak stopped making the cameras in 1988, although it continued manufacturing Disc film until 1998. The Disc camera wasn’t Kodak’s only commercial misstep. Polaroid sued the company for patent infringement after Kodak introduced its own instant film camera in 1976 — the case, which Polaroid eventually won, dragged on until 1985. Except for sentimental value, Disc cameras are virtually worthless today.

Related: Twinkies, Polaroids, and Other Popular Products That Have Been Revived

Mca Discovision
Courtesy of http://laservideodisc.tripod.com

MCA DiscoVision

Produced 1978-82

Laserdisc technology arrived in the late ’70s with the unfortunate name of DiscoVision. Introduced just one year after VHS and Betamax hit stores, DiscoVision offered far sharper picture and better audio. But it was expensive, bulky, and clunky, and you couldn’t record movies and TV shows to them. Laserdiscs were the size of records, and like records you had to flip them over (a typical feature-length film fit on four DiscoVision discs). 

MCA abandoned DiscoVision after a few years. Phillips and Panasonic continued to produce laserdisc players until the 1990s, but it was never more than a niche format that appealed to devoted home-cinema enthusiasts. Today’s 4K televisions and high-definition video streaming made laserdiscs — like DVDs after them — more or less irrelevant as a viable media format and barely a collector’s item.

Sony Betamax
Courtesy of engadget.com

Sony Betamax

Produced 1975-2002
Sony’s Betamax home video recorder arrived in stores nearly a year before JVC’s VHS player. Both systems could record and play back TV shows and movies, and although Betamax promised a (somewhat) better picture, VHS had other advantages. For one, VHS tapes could hold up to two hours of content, meaning consumers could (in theory) record a whole movie on one tape, while Betamax could record for only 60 minutes. 

Sony also made the mistake of not licensing its Betamax format early on to other manufacturers the way JVC did with VHS. By the early 1980s, VHS became the dominant home video format as manufacturers raced to offer better and cheaper models, and most Hollywood studios began releasing movies for sale and rent only on VHS. Sony continued to manufacture Betamax players until 2002 and tapes until 2016, but the format quickly became irrelevant as it was surpassed by numerous other video formats, including Super VHS, High 8, and miniDV.

Related: 32 Products You Never Thought Would Be Obsolete 

Polaroid Polavision
Courtesy of collection.maas.museum

Polaroid Polavision

Produced 1977-79

Polaroid dominated the ’70s and ’80s with “instant” photography decades before digital became ubiquitous. Riding high on the success of their SX-70 and One Step cameras, Polaroid founder Edwin Land decided to enter the home movie market, which was then dominated by Super 8 film (invented by rival Kodak in the late ‘60s). Unlike Super 8, which had to be sent to film lab for processing, Polavision cartridges were designed to expose and develop the film in just minutes. Those cartridges, which looked a bit like small videocassettes, could be screened on a special tabletop viewer or — if you removed the reel of film inside — shown on any Super 8 projector. 

Unlike Polaroid’s film cameras, however, Polavision was a dud. You had to shoot in very bright light, colors were flat and the picture muddy, and it couldn’t record sound the way some Super 8 cameras could. Consumers stayed away in droves, and Polaroid killed the money-losing project — its first real commercial failure — within two years. On eBay, cameras and Polavision ephemera sell for anywhere from $25 to $100 or more. 

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Reynolds Premier
Courtesy of modernclassics.info

Reynolds Premier

Produced 1988-89

We all know smoking is unhealthy, but that hasn’t stopped companies from trying to find a “safer” way to take a puff. Decades before vaping was a thing, Reynolds thought they had the answer with Premier, which it touted as a “cleaner smoke.” Instead of burning tobacco, Premier cigarettes used a heated carbon tip to toast the tobacco, sending vapors through a flavor capsule as the smoker inhaled. 

Despite investing $300 million in research and development, Premier never got past the test-market stage. Smokers hated it, complaining that it tasted like charcoal and smelled like burning plastic. Health advocates also criticized Premier, calling it a blatant attempt to persuade people that smoking was safe. Reynolds pulled the product from shelves a year later. 

Related: The Truth About What Vaping Does (and Doesn’t Do) to Your Body

Sansui Quadraphonic Sound
Courtesy of youtube.com

Sansui Quadraphonic Sound

Produced 1972-78
Sansui’s four-channel home audio system was a radical departure from the two-speaker stereo systems people listened to in the early ’70s. Although record labels and musicians had experimented with four-channel recordings since the late ’60s, Sansui was the first electronics maker to develop and sell a quadraphonic amplifier, the QS-1, for the home market. It retailed for $200 (about $1,200 today). Competitors such as JVC, Panasonic, and Sony also introduced quadraphonic systems, some with joystick-like controllers that allowed listeners to toggle the audio balance left to right and front to back to dial in that sweet spot. 

Record companies got behind quadraphonic sound, too; Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, and others released albums mixed for four-channel stereo. But many consumers couldn’t justify buying a new receiver and two extra speakers, and eventually the music industry moved onto the next big thing: digital recording. Today, working quadraphonic receivers can sell for $200 or more on the vintage audio market.

Related: 22 Locations From Famous Songs That You Can Actually Visit 

Seiko Tv Watch
Courtesy of buzzufy.com

Seiko TV Watch

Produced 1982-83

The success of Sony’s Walkman portable cassette player unleashed an early ‘80s wave of portable consumer electronics. One of the coolest (and clunkiest) was the Seiko TV watch. It looked like a normal digital wristwatch, but with a 1.2-inch LCD screen embedded in the face. The company promised you could watch broadcast television just like at home; there was also an FM radio tuner. 

The catch? The wristwatch needed to be connected via cable to a pocket-sized TV/radio tuner that looked very much like a Sony Walkman. You also needed a separate earpiece or headphones to hear the sound. And it cost $495. Despite a star turn in the 1983 James Bond film “Octopussy” and a mention in the Guinness Book of Records as the “smallest” TV set, the Seiko didn’t sell well. Collectors today ask $1,500 or more on eBay for a working TV Watch.

Timex Sinclair 1000
Courtesy of geekvintage.com

Timex Sinclair 1000

Produced 1982-83
Seiko wasn’t the only watchmaker to make an ill-fated leap into another industry. Timex put its name on this computer made by Britain’s Sinclair Research — the first personal computer that cost less than $100. For that price, consumers didn’t get much; early versions of the computer had only 2 kilobytes of memory, meaning users couldn’t do much beyond BASIC programming. The membrane-covered keyboard buttons were smaller than a standard computer keyboard, and many owners found them hard to type on. 

Later models could be upgraded to 16 KB of RAM with a cassette-tape drive, allowing for simple word processing and gameplay, but Timex offered only a few software titles, including chess and a crude flight simulator. Having offered a device too limited for serious programming enthusiasts or home office use, Timex retreated quickly to making the watches it knew best. Sinclair, stung by this failure and others, stopped making computers entirely in 1986.

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