If you want to find a geek in a British shopping center and you don’t fancy braving Games Workshop, one of your best options is Maplin. It’s a specialist electronic products and components store that is roughly equivalent to Radio Shack.
Maplin is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and has marked the occasion in its latest catalog with a series of product listings from past catalogs, many of which look a little odd or unlikely in hindsight, though some were definitely trendsetters. They include the following, listed at their original prices and not adjusted for inflation. The prices don’t include VAT (a sales tax), which was 15 percent for most of the years covered here.
VHS Video Alarm (1994, £22.95, equivalent to approximately US$35)
This was a motion-sensitive alarm hidden inside the casing of a fake VHS cassette. The idea was that you put it in or on top of your VHS player, meaning that it only protected one specific item from thieves. It’s hard now to imagine that VHS players once offered the perfect value-to-portability ratio for a thief, particularly now that some British supermarkets have been known to sell DVD players for less than some DVD movies. As with many vintage Maplins products, you could save money by buying and assembling it from a components kit.
Hard Disk Drives (1994)
These were in the “current industry standard” IDE format with manufacturers including Seagate, Connor, Western Digital and Micropolis. Models ranged from 43 megabytes (£93.61, $145) right up to 670 megabytes, right around the capacity of a CD-R (£800, $1,240.)
ZX81 Hi-Res Graphics Module (1988, £29.95, $46)
The computer had been out for several years and surpassed by numerous more powerful alternatives at this point, but the graphics add-on was designed to give it a bit more life. It allowed you to draw your own graphics at up to a 256 x 192 pixel resolution, albeit in black and white only. The possibilities were not quite endless according to the catalog: “draw lines, circles and triangles, and produce fillings and textures.”
Morse Code Key (1982, £1.57/£4.57, $2.43/$7.09)
This came in beginner and professional editions, the latter having a cast metal base, fine adjustment tool and over ride switch.
Quadrophonic Synthesizer (1979, £17.35, $26.92)
This device — with the glorious brand name of the Brazennose Quodaptor — was a pre-Dolby Surround way of simulating surround sound audio using your existing hi-fi and an extra couple of speakers. In effect, it was the forerunner of the Dolby Pro Logic 2 component of modern A/V receivers, so at the equivalent of about $80 at today’s prices you can see why some people might have gone for it.
Hero Jr Robot (1986, £499 kit/£749 assembled, $775/$1,160)
With 32K ROM and an optional 16K of ROM or RAM, this was ideal for people who wanted to recreate the parts of Rocky IV that even Stallone fans can’t defend. It doesn’t really seem that Hero did much apart from move about and recite pre-programmed songs and poems, though for an extra £120 you could buy an infra-red motion detector.
Fiber Optic Table (1979, £123.38 small/£147.00 large, $191/228)
This isn’t any more exciting than it sounds: it’s a glass-topped table filled with whirls of fiber optic cables that make up a changing “swirling” color effect. That said, the manufacturers deserve credit for coming up with the creative selling point that you could unscrew the legs and hang it as a piece of wall art.
MAPSAT Weather Satellite Receiving System (1990, £58.95, $91)
Yep, all you needed to do was find a way to get the antenna in the right position (the 2012 catalog notes a broom handle and sticky tape was one option) and you could pick up signals from US and Russian weather satellites and output the images to a BBC B or Amstrad computer or even copy to video tape to watch on television.
Nickel Cadmium Battery Charger (1980, £7.85, $12.18 not including battery)
The basic concept hasn’t changed over the years, but efficiency certainly has. In the worst example, using this to charge a D cell (“flashlight”) battery took 45 hours of charging to get 28 minutes of use.
Peritelevision A/V Interface Cable (1992, £7.95, $12.34)
The name of this then-now product isn’t familiar today, but this is what is better known as a SCART lead and was — until the emergence of HDMI — the most common all-in-one connector in Europe, if not as popular elsewhere. It has 21 pins and allows you to carry composite, component, S-Video and stereo audio signals over a single cable with a standard connector, heavily reducing cabling headaches.
Light Emitting Diode (1973, 44p, 68c)
This was one of the flagship products in the first ever Maplin catalog (and, ironically, on our shopping list on our last visit to the store.) It was available only in red and white: as we covered on the 50th birthday of the LED, it took many years to figure out how to produce the increasingly higher wavelengths for each new color.