The Magic of C.E.S.

A Quasi-Fictional Tale of a Trade Show

The soothing sonata of chatter in the convention hall swelled to a crescendo of voices as people piled into the Paleotronic booth ahead of the 1983 Consumer Electronic Show’s umpteenth product announcement of the day — but hey, there was more free champagne to be drank, so the herd had happily (and somewhat drunkenly) moved on to here from the previous presentation once the last glass was empty.

Besides, some of these were actually interesting; most weren’t, but some were, and Jan was just happy to be partying a bit on the company dime, instead of her daily grind of filing purchase orders and returns, browsing an endless sea of supplier catalogues, and gazing into the crystal ball at the bottom of her coffee cup in an attempt to predict what “the next big thing” could be that would ensure the Christmas receipts for the small chain of American electronics retailers she worked for brought them into profit for the year, rather than end it with a loss.

Business was tough; but for now, it was about having a drink with the people she would spend the other 364 small-talking with over the telephone. And maybe someone might show something truly game-changing — but Paleotronic’s new “product” probably wasn’t it. Their line had typically been filled with cheap knock-offs of desktop calculators and handheld LED sports games, stuff you could fill your discount bins with and make shoppers think they had gotten a deal, while the retailer still made a couple of bucks. Impulse buys and second-chance items, not anything anybody made an effort slogging into a store when it was thirty below to get “before supplies ran out”. Penny-ante junk.

However, their champagne was good and there was a lot of it, so it was worth being packed in like cattle and sweating like swine to learn a little about what she probably wouldn’t buy, but would applaud and cheer anyway, because free booze. And then they would move on to the next. Maybe Coleco or Atari or Mattel might have a new something to carry the next Christmas day. Who knows? For now, who cares!

Jim from Acme Distributors was droning on in her ear about how they were partnering with a new shipping company, blah blah blah, and Jan was starting to become hypnotised by the combination of background babble and the comforting monotone of Jim’s baritone. Does what happens in Vegas really stay in Vegas? Jim’s moustache and bushy caterpillar-like eyebrows were becoming oddly attractive. Probably the wine, but still, the way they moved as he talked was like some kind of weird ballet of facial hair, and Jan was entranced by it. Wait, where was she again?

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice shouted over the crowd, at first polite and then repeating his attempt at getting the mob’s attention more insistently, and with a growing undertone of irritation. Glasses were clanked, and then the air-horn came out.

That did the job. Jan remembered where she was, and even Jim shut up. The crowd turned to the makeshift podium under the Paleotronic banner and made some effort to look like they were actually listening, even though they probably wouldn’t remember a single word of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for attending our presentation! (everyone said that… it’s because of the free wine, stupid!) We’re so pleased to be able to give you a first look at (a sneak peek of, an exclusive introduction to, the chance to see…) our latest hot (awesome, incredible, amazing) new product. But first, we’d like to briefly remind you of our interesting (boring, meaningless, pointless) corporate history…”

Jan almost fell asleep on her feet, but Jim steadied her before she toppled completely over, and Jan half-smiled in a “thanks, but don’t think this means anything” sort-of way. There was a brief moment of panic when she realised her glass was empty, but Jim grinned and produced a full one with his left hand. “Magic,” he mouthed silently, and Jan laughed not-so-silently, getting a stern look from the corporate shill currently espousing what made their company oh-so-much better than any other, which was seriously nothing.

“Nobody cares about your stupid origin story!” Jan wanted to shout, “Just get on with it!” But she didn’t, because then she might get kicked out, and then there wouldn’t be any more free wine. She was really liking the wine.

“Okay, so enough of that,” the presenter said, winding up that segment of his spiel to a few cheeky cheers and applause. “Hey,” he grinned, trying to lighten the mood, “this gig pays by the minute!” A few stifled laughs. “Aw, everybody’s a critic,” — with faux-hurt feelings. The chattering of the crowd started to grow, and he realised he had to stomp on it quickly. “So, the moment you’ve all been waiting for!”

It was a computer. They called it the “microM8”. It had cartridges that allowed it to be compatible with other computers. You could buy a Commodore cartridge, an Atari cartridge, even an Apple cartridge, and then run disk or tape software for whatever computer’s cartridge you stuffed into it. It also had a cartridge for Paleotronic’s own arcade system, so users could develop games for it, and a dedicated on-line service with a downloadable software library via the computer’s in-built modem.

It was really something. But it was expensive, and the system cartridges were expensive, and Jan and the rest of the herd had been there to find out about cheap bargain things, not some (likely fruitless) attempt at global home-computer supremacy. The crowd muttered and murmured, rendered their judgment with their ambivalence, and then moved on. And that was that. The microM8 was a flop, to likely be forgotten by the end of the day, like so very many other CES product launches.

But that was the game: you put in your silver dollar (with your product name etched on it) and pulled the handle. And you won or you lost. Paleotronic lost.

Jan and Jim would drink a great deal more wine, and… well, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But Jim’s company wouldn’t distribute the microM8, and Jan’s chain of electronics stores wouldn’t stock it. It would be relegated to relative obscurity, carried by a few niche computer stores for a few years before it faded away. If only it had just been a little cheaper, a little less fancy, a little more… budget. If only.

But we’re not here to talk about failures like the (admittedly fictional) microM8 (well, maybe one or two, but you’ll have to dig into our departments to find out about those.) No, we’re here to talk about the magic of the Consumer Electronics Show, and that magic stems not from its infamous (and not so infamous) flops, but from its successes — both the success of some of the more noteworthy products to be demonstrated there, and the success of the show itself and its enduring nature.

Cue a bit of corporate shill-styled historical minutia: (Jan would probably sip her glass of wine and glance lazily over this next bit, but if you could stay with me, that would be great! I get paid by the word…)

Held in June 1967 in New York City, the first Consumer Electronics Show was actually a spinoff from the Chicago Music Show, where the emerging electronics industry had previously been showcased. Attendees got to see the latest pocket radios, and the first televisions with integrated circuits (known as “solid state”, meaning that they used solid semiconductors instead of valves AKA vacuum tubes, as they had earlier.)

The show was popular, and it went on the following year, with radios the size of wristwatches and the first portable “executive” telephones, which were weighty both in price and, well, weight, at more than US$2000 1968 dollars (US$14,000 in 2018) and almost 9 kilograms (19 pounds). Talk about heavy conversation!

1970 saw the first VCR (see the Entertainment Centre on page 13 for more on that), and in 1972 the show moved to Chicago. But the pace of the consumer electronics industry was increasing, and in 1973 organisers opted for two shows, summer and winter. But who wants to hang around Chicago in the middle of winter?

In 1978 the winter CES was held in Las Vegas, a much more hospitable and attractive place to be in January, and that schedule would hold until 1995, when organisers decided to start moving the summer show around due to Chicago’s waning popularity — with mixed success, eventually cancelling it in 1998. But the Vegas show would remain, and run every year to the present (and presumably far beyond, since today it is one of the top two biggest shows in the Nevada-desert mecca, its rival focussed on the construction industry.)

And with that, we end our brief look at the history of the Consumer Electronics Show itself (after all, who wants to talk about the wrapping when we’re all wondering about the gift inside?) But rather than continue this (already long) article with a summary of the various hits and misses the show has seen (as you might expect), what we’ve decided to do instead is dedicate this issue’s various departments to CES debuts that are relevant to their area of interest, and leave the details (and available pages) to them.

For example, Arcade Rats (page 19) will be looking back at Atari’s Pong (the home version of which was demonstrated at 1975’s CES) and Tetris (first shown in 1988). Our 8-bit computing department Loading Ready Run (page 53) will examine the premieres of the Commodore 64 (1982) and the Atari 800 (1979). And so forth.

There are so many departments, and so much ground to cover, so let’s leave Jan in 1983 to recover from her well-earned hangover (maybe with Jim? who knows…) and continue with our celebration of the Consumer Electronics Show, and the bounty it has brought to our lounge rooms, bedrooms, classrooms and beyond.

As for me, I’m off upstairs. They’re saying Compaq is having a party to rival the ages. There’s a cowgirl riding a mechanical bull! Should be awesome…

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