Retro Gadgets That Were Surprisingly Ahead of Their Time

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Time Travelers

In an era where technology evolves at lightning speed, it's easy to forget the trailblazers who paved the way for today's innovations.

Long before smartphones and smartwatches, there were gizmos that, while maybe basic by today's standards, broke the mold and set the stage for the tech we can't live without. 

Here are nine retro gadgets that were surprisingly ahead of their time:

Edwin Land with the Sx-70 Polaroid camera
Joyce Dopkeen/New York Times Co./Getty Images

1. Polaroid Camera (1948)

The Polaroid camera was the Instagram before Instagram, minus the hashtags and filters. Invented by Edwin Land and introduced in 1948, this gadget made every moment instantly shareable. During World War II, Land, an avid photographer, was inspired by his daughter, who asked why she couldn't immediately see the photo he had just taken. This simple question led to the creation of a camera that could develop film within minutes, a process that previously took days. 

The first model, the Polaroid Land Camera, was an instant hit, and by the 1970s, the SX-70 model became iconic for its foldable design and high-quality images. Lately, Polaroid cameras have made a notable comeback, driven by a mix of nostalgia and the craving for tangible memories in our digital world.

PalmPilot organiser
Rama & Musée Bolo / Wikipedia

2. PalmPilot (1996)

The PalmPilot was the OG smartphone — a pocket-sized marvel introduced in the mid-1990s that could manage your calendar, contacts, and notes with a stylus and a tiny screen. Back then, it was the must-have gadget for the business-savvy, making everyone feel like a tech-savvy executive. 

The PalmPilot, especially models like the PalmOne m130 released in 2002, was ahead of its time with its color screen and compact design, making scheduling meetings and jotting down ideas a breeze. It was a glimpse into the future of mobile computing, showing that powerful tech could fit in your pocket, even if it didn't have Angry Birds.

Related: Products You Never Thought Would be Obsolete

Sony Aibo
KKPCW / Wikipedia

3. Sony Aibo

The promise of a real dog-like robot that wouldn't chew up the furniture or poop everywhere made Sony's Aibo an instant hit. When Sony unleashed Aibo, the world's first robot dog, in 1999, 3,000 units in Japan sold out in just 20 minutes. This robotic pup was clearly barking up the right tree.

The mastermind behind Aibo, Toshitada Doi, spent six years perfecting this techno-canine while serving as Sony's senior vice-president. Aibo was a really good boy and it could bark, walk, growl, wag its tail, and even play with a ball—the perfect pet without the mess.

Despite its hefty $2,500 price tag, Aibo became a sensation, even starring in RoboCup, the four-legged Robot Soccer League.  

Sony discontinued Aibo in 2006, but it made a triumphant return in 2017, now equipped with AI and advanced robotics, capable of recognizing faces, learning tricks, and developing a unique personality over time.

Related: Are We Panicking Yet? These 11 Jobs Could Soon Be Replaced by AI and Bots

IBM ThinkPad
NickW1129 / Wikipedia

4. IBM ThinkPad (1992)

The IBM ThinkPad, with its iconic red TrackPoint nub, was the laptop that meant business in the ’90s. It looked like a black brick but was a powerhouse of productivity. If you saw someone with a ThinkPad, you knew they were serious about their spreadsheets.

This laptop wasn’t just for crunching numbers, though, it was a workhorse that could take a beating. The ThinkPad's durable design, often described as "built like a tank," included features like a spill-resistant keyboard and a hard drive shock absorber, making it ideal for frequent travelers and clumsy coffee drinkers alike.

Commercially, the ThinkPad series was a massive success, selling millions of units worldwide.

The HP-01 was the smartwatch of the ’70s, combining a digital watch with a calculator. Released in 1977, it had tiny buttons that required a stylus to press, but it was the ultimate geek chic accessory. Forget checking the time; you could solve math probl
Stahlkocher / WIkipedia

5. HP-01 Calculator Watch (1977)

The HP-01 was the smartwatch of the ’70s, combining a digital watch with a calculator — because who wouldn't want to solve complicated math problems on their wrist while checking the time?

Introduced in 1977 by Hewlett-Packard (HP), it was dubbed "wrist instrument" and featured a digital display powered by 7 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) per digit in a 7-digit plus decimal point arrangement. A wearer could calculate a time zone change, determine the number of days between calendar dates, or compute the anticipated cost of a long-distance phone call. It came with a battery replacement kit and a ball-point pen with a stylus on the rear end for operating its 28 recessed buttons. It was the ultimate geek chic accessory — a marvel of miniaturization that made wearing a calculator cool — sort of. 

While was undeniably sleek, but the calculator watch era was short-lived, with production ceasing in 1979.

SEGA Dreamcast
himaio12 / eBay

6. SEGA Dreamcast (1999)

The SEGA Dreamcast was the console that dared to dream big in 1999. It had internet connectivity, downloadable content, and graphics that blew everything else out of the water.  It had features that would become standard in gaming years later, like online play and virtual memory units.

Despite its innovations and a dedicated fan base, the Dreamcast struggled against the impending launch of the PlayStation 2 so SEGA discontinued it in 2001. 

 It was a console ahead of its time, and even today, it holds a special place in the hearts of gamers who remember its revolutionary spirit.

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Apple Newton MP100
Wikimedia Commons

7. Apple Newton (1993)

The Apple Newton was the iPad’s quirky, misunderstood ancestor. Michael Tchao pitched the idea to Apple CEO John Sculley in 1991 during a flight, dreaming of a handheld gadget that could take notes, store contacts, and recognize handwriting. It was the first "personal digital assistant" (PDA) —a term Apple came up with just for it. The Newton was designed to fit in a pocket and came with a stylus for input, making it perfect for on-the-go use.

However, it had a major flaw: its handwriting recognition was horrendous—more  "guess what I wrote" than "know what I wrote," and it became the butt of jokes.

 Even though later models got better, the initial problems and Steve Jobs' dislike for the project led to its cancellation in 1998.  Despite its flaws, the Newton was ahead of its time and showed that the idea of a pocket-sized digital assistant was possible, even if it wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

Nintendo Game Boy
Public Domain / Wikipedia

8. Nintendo Game Boy (1989)

Nintendo's Game Boy was the handheld gaming console that turned kids into gamers and parents into battery buyers. Launched in 1989, it brought pixelated joy to our fingertips, making long car rides and boring lectures more bearable. With classics like Tetris and Pokémon, it was basically a small, grey box of happiness.

Despite its monochrome display, the Game Boy was a portal to different worlds. You didn't need high-def graphics to have fun,just a set of AA batteries and a game cartridge.

Related: 11 Vintage Electronics That Now Sell for a Pretty Penny

Original Sony Walkman TPS-L2 from 1979
Original Sony Walkman TPS-L2 from 1979 by Binarysequence (CC BY-SA)

9. Sony Walkman (1979)

The Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979, revolutionized how we listen to music on the go. Before iPods and smartphones, this portable cassette player let you bring your favorite tunes anywhere. It transformed personal music consumption, making it possible to have a soundtrack for your life, whether you were jogging, commuting, or just chilling out.