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Retro Tech: 8 Gadgets That Used To Cost A Fortune

(photo: Gregory Moine)

Everything that could be invented was already invented in 1899, according to Charles H. Duell, then the Commissioner of the U.S. Patient Office. He made that comment at the turn of the 20th century, and shortly ate those words for breakfast (with the invention and popularization of cold cereal just after this statement). Surely, you can think of a few other inventions that have come about since the early 1900s.

Revisiting the gadgets of yesteryear can be nostalgic and humorous, unless you happened to drop 20 to 100 times the current cash price on them back when they were new. Here are a few retro gizmos that cost a pittance in comparison to when they first arrived:

1891: Phonograph for $150 ($4,000 today)

Before the iPod and even the CD player, we played music on vinyl disks with sharp needles. Some people still keep old records as mementos; younger generations use them to decorate their apartment walls. Just like CDs, records played on record players were easy to damage, hence the extinction of their production.

According to this document in the Library of Congress, prices for the phonographs, an early incarnation of the record player, were around $150 in 1891, which would be just under $4,000 in today’s dollars.

Today, you could buy an RCA RP3013 Personal CD Player, new, for just $22.99 at Digitaletc.com. Double that and you can get the latest version of the iPod Shuffle ($49) and fit it easily in your pocket.

1946: Computer for $500,000

(photo: John Morton)

We’ve all heard about how the first computers were large enough to fill a room. The U.S. Army’s ENIAC copmuter in 1946 was 80’x8.5’x3’, making it 680 square feet, 30 tons, and half a million bucks. In 1975, IBM introduced their 5100 Portable Computer at prices ranging from $9,000 to $20,000. Almost ten years later, IBM models ran at starting prices of around $1,500. For the small amount of memory they held, even those are pricey by today’s standards.

Since those days, we’ve gone from home computers, to portable laptops, to even more portable netbooks. Today’s netbooks cost as little as $300 and pack more power than a whole house full of old, room-sized IBMs.

1968: Calculator for $4,900

(photo: crabchick)

The calculator doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. Since the inception of the first practical desktop calculator, prices have dropped by several thousand dollars. In 1968, Hewlett-Packard released their desktop calculator at $4,900. Today, when people shop for a calculator, they make sure to have a $5, or maybe a $10, bill on hand.

And if you really want to go cheap, just use the calculator you got free on your phone or computer.

1968: Digital Wrist Watch for $2,100

(photo: Mat Honan)

Wrist watches became popular in the 1920s, but weren’t digitalized until 1968. A wrist watch is considered a very basic technology when compared to today’s geeky innovations, so you’d think it wouldn’t take a rock scientist to invent it.

Actually, that’s pretty much what it took.

NASA engineer Peter Dimitroff Petroff created the first digital watch, and marketed it for $2,100 through Hamilton Watch Company. Today, you can purchase a digital watch that looks just as nice as a Hamilton for under $50. In fact, on Amazon you can get the Armitron Men’s Black Dial Dress Watch for just that price.

Of course, more expensive watches are out there today (think: Rolex). But imagining that a Casio cost the equivalent of $13,000 back 40 years ago is, well, shocking!

1970: Videocassette Recorder for $5,000

(photo: deltaMike)

The first VCRs were around $5,000 in the 1970s, which would be over $25,000 in today’s prices. That’s like buying a car nowadays — one that might even include a DVD player.

The Samsung BD-C5500 Blu-ray disc player – a modern analog to the VCR – is $85 on eBay, and $111 at your local Target. And that’s not even their lowest-price model.

The best part: no tracking fuzz.

1991: Digital Camera for $13,000

(photo: gisleh)

Once something has been invented, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. Take digital cameras. Before these were invented, people were spending significant money on cameras, and then had to constantly pay for replacement film and batteries.

Thanks to Steve Sasson, the recognized inventor of the digital camera in 1975, all we have to pay for now is the camera itself. His Electronic Still Camera weighed 8 lbs with a laughable megapixel resolution of 0.01. This wouldn’t sell next to today’s models, even for a buck.

In 1991, Kodak developed their first digital camera model and mounted it on a Nikon F-3 at 1.3 megapixel resolution, and sold it for $13,000. Today, you can easily buy Kodak’s EasyShare C143 Digital Camera with over 10x the megapixels for $79.95. That’s 0.6% of the cost 20 years ago.

1980: Vacuum for $1,200

(photo: monkeysox)

Vacuum cleaners haven’t been the most cost-efficient gadgets through the years. Several models, including the Royal Vacuum, have more than tripled in price. However, the average vacuum is much, much cheaper than it was 30 years ago.

“The Lindhouse Company was started by a family in Italy. Their average vacuum was between $1,000-1,200 25 years ago,” says Zack, a service department employee at Brady’s vacuum shop in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Today even an expensive vacuum typically costs less than $400. A generic one: $75.

1995: Global Positioning System (GPS) for $1,200

(photo: mroach)

Perfect for traveling near and far in unfamiliar territory, GPS systems give you reliable time information and directions by triangulating your coordinates via satellites. This information is free to anyone with a GPS receiver, which was exactly the catch 15 years ago. Back then, a GPS with standard capabilities cost $700-$1,200.

Today’s GPS receivers get you more capabilities for less than a quarter of the price. You can get the GolfLogix Garmin GPS new from Amazon.com for $159.76. Most smartphones have GPS capabilities built in.

Prices for new tech toys like iPods and Xboxes are dropping constantly. Perhaps our little trip down gadget memory lane reminds us all that if you’re into saving money, waiting a year or two to buy the next gadget will often yield half price or less. Even better: wait for your phone plan to expire, and you’ll probably have the latest go-go-gadget capabilities for free on your next iPhone, Android, or whatever gets invented next.

Shane Snow is editor and cofounder of Contently.com, which contributed this post exclusively for Mint.com.