The Clock Radio and Its Moment in Consumer Technology
I knew I was looking at something special, ten years ago in a Goodwill somewhere on U.S. 1 between Baltimore and Wilmington. I collect clock radios, and I had read about this one before but not yet seen one. It was a General Electric, model 7-4885: the “Great Awakening.” Weighing several pounds and resembling a home police scanner or tiny computer, its defining feature was a keypad, numbered 1-9, allowing you to directly punch in the current time, wake time, and even a radio station. In other words, if you want to listen to adult contemporary in the Washington, D.C. area, you press the “FM” button and then punch in “9-7-1.”
Goodwill wanted five bucks for it. I would have paid, well, a few more. A very nice 7-4885 on eBay can sell for close to $200. The keypads often stop working due to corrosion of exposed contacts, but some very careful sandpaper work can restore them completely. There’s a small community of enthusiasts for these devices, and I’ve restored more than one of them so far.
Clock radios were, and still are, fascinating to me. They’re less collectible, and seemingly less interesting, than other electronics, like retro video game consoles, vintage stereo gear, or early home computers. One of the most common devices in American homes for decades, clock radios came in a dizzying variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. They were also a sort of trickle-down beneficiary of a great deal of innovation that took place higher up in the electronics industry.
I can illustrate this just with my own personal collection, which is large but by no means exhaustive of clock-radio history. There’s a General Electric model that uses amber-burning nixie tubes for its time display, possibly the only clock radio to ever do so. There’s a small flipping-digit clock with a little plastic window on top under a small lightbulb compartment, which somehow projected the time onto the ceiling. Sony designed a line of clock radios dubbed EZ, which featured a set of dials for setting the hour and minute for the time or alarm, just the way you’d dial to a temperature setting on your stove. Panasonic had a cube-shaped clock whose front was a mirror. Powered off, you only see yourself. Powered on, the time and radio dial appear behind the glass. Another Panasonic used a complicated record-like mechanism to electronically read aloud the current time at the touch of a button, without the aid of a digital voice synthesizer.
The 1970s were the heyday of the clock radio. For some reason, the analog units from the ’60s weren’t terribly stylish, and their inexpensive clock movements are prone to failure today. The ’70s saw the mainstreaming of digital clock radios. But not, in the initially odd formulation used later in the early ’80s, “electronic digital.” The ’70s were the era of mechanical flipping-digit clocks, or “flip clocks”—think of the clock that plagues Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, a white plastic Panasonic model released in 1976. Or the faux-woodgrain model that wakes up Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Some flip clocks were wonderfully built, and, mimicking the home hi-fi components of the day, some even had solid wood cases. The clock radio, while common, was still expensive enough to be a platform for innovation and showmanship.
But back to the Great Awakening.
First released in 1979 and sold for a few years into the early ’80s, the Great Awakening series came at a crossroads in consumer technology. At the time, the only consumer devices with direct-entry numerical keypads were touch-tone phones, calculators, a few expensive microwaves (most still used dials), and the odd police scanner or personal computer keyboard, still a rarity in American homes. Even high-end stereo receivers and tuners usually retained plain old radio dials. With the Great Awakening, GE was selling a clock radio, but the company was also showcasing what technology could do.
Yet looking back, there was only a very brief period in which punching a time or radio station directly into your clock radio was actually a marketable novelty—or really a novelty at all. As the price of semiconductors rapidly fell, computers became increasingly affordable. And as the electronics inside of consumer devices got smaller and cheaper, the overall products did too. With today’s technology, it would cost pennies to implement the functionality of the Great Awakening clock radio again. But aside from nostalgic adults and a few young fogeys, it probably wouldn’t find much of a market.
In 2011, Sony effectively exited the shrinking clock radio market when it discontinued its iconic Dream Machine brand. Aside from a few cheap plastic boxes and a handful of high-end curiosities, very few clock radios are still made and sold—and for much the same reason that many people stopped wearing wristwatches in the last dozen years: A smartphone does everything, and more. A stylish and exquisitely designed clock radio is no longer a symbol of a middle-class household, nor is a must-have in a bedroom.
But the smartphone, exactly because it is so multifunctional, is a constant source of distraction. You are never more than one tap away from all your various work and leisure apps, whether you’re checking the time or date, setting your alarm, or calculating a tip. The virtually endless digital possibilities in that little black rectangle of glass may actually foreclose some of the creativity that might come from interacting with the variety of distinct analog and electronic objects that used to perform these functions.
This multifunctionality, and the devices which make it possible, are examples of what economists call dematerialization. In environmental terms, it’s a good thing. It means more economic value for less natural resources. Think of all the hefty devices that a smartphone renders redundant or obsolete, which no longer need to be manufactured, shipped, and discarded. But with this dematerialization of consumer goods has come a sort of dematerialization of everyday life. We no longer use terms like “cyberspace” or “information highway” unironically—these days, we use the term “meatspace” unironically—but whatever these liminal spaces are and whatever we call them, they consume more and more of our time.
The resurgence of interest in obsolete but tactile technologies like typewriters, Polaroid cameras, vinyl records, and even cassette tapes is driven in part by a gnawing sense that too much of our lives are mediated through screens. These old technologies are, as journalist David Sax dubbed them in his 2016 book The Revenge of Analog, “real things.” To that initial list, I would add clock radios.
The Great Awakening clock radio, in a way, forecast the ultimate uselessness of clock radios. But it was also a unique and inventive way of demonstrating that cutting-edge technology could be a servant and not a master.