History Column

Your Engineering Heritage: “Old Days” in Chicago

By Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society, an offshoot of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society. Readers of Today’s Engineer are probably familiar with the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held every January in Las Vegas, probably the premier venue for the marketing of consumer electronic technology. Products that have debuted at that venue in just the past 20 years include the DVD, the Microsoft Xbox, the plasma TV, HD radio, the Blu-ray DVD, and 3D HDTV. However, who among us remembers that the first CES was actually held in New York City in June 1967? This had a lot to do with the consumer electronic product cycle at the time, and the knowledge that Christmas makes or breaks the success of any consumer product in the United States. Interestingly, CES had grown out of the Chicago Music Show, and in 1971 it returned to Chicago, still scheduled for June. It was not until 1978 that a winter spin-off was held in Las Vegas in January. From 1978 until 1994, there was a Winter CES in Las Vegas and a Summer CES in Chicago, with other, smaller, spin-offs held in a variety of U.S. cities. A number of factors, including globalization, changing product cycle, and increased competition, led to the weakening of the Chicago show, even as the Las Vegas show thrived. For example, video games had been a significant presence at Summer CES since the 1980s, but in 1995 a separate trade show for video games, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was scheduled for June. Until 1998, CES continued to run smaller shows around the country. In 1999, CES became the annual Las Vegas extravaganza that we know today.

Since the city of Chicago was incorporated almost exactly one-hundred-eighty years ago (12 August 1833) and since the AIEE Chicago Section was established sixty years later in 1893 (in October, and it did not meet until the following year; for historical purposes, it was the first “IEEE Section” outside of the main organization in New York), it seems only fair to remember just a few of the technological breakthroughs that were introduced in the Windy City at the Summer CES.

In 1974, MCA and Phillips unveiled a new digital recording medium called the LaserDisc (LD), the first commercial optical disc for storage. The LD was not released to market until 1978, and had a relatively short run until it was replaced by the DVD (LD, a more expensive, playback-only but higher-quality format did remain a niche product for some time), but the technology behind the LD was critical in the development of the CD, DVD, and Blue-ray.

In 1981, Sony premiered the Betacam. The single camera-recorder unit gave much greater freedom of movement to the operator than early video recording systems. It developed into a major player in the field and, in fact, an improved version, Betacam SP, became the standard recording format for professional broadcasting.

In 1982, General Consumer Electronics (GCE) introduced a video-game console called Vectrex that had been developed by Western Technologies/Smith Engineering. Its innovation for a home game console, successful at the time but never duplicated, was to have an integrated vector monitor. This gave the games higher visual quality, and allowed for the first 3-D graphics in home entertainment. The popularity of this unit led entertainment giant Milton Bradley to buy out GCE.

In 1985, Nintendo showed a U.S. version of its “Famicon” home video game console, which it called the “Nintendo Advanced Video Game System.” Released the following year as the “Nintendo Entertainment System” (NES), it revolutionized leisure time in the American household.


But perhaps the most exciting development at the CES in Chicago occurred back in 1978, the very first year that its Las Vegas sibling had premiered earlier in the year and attempted to upstage the original venue. Instead, Chicago remained the tech capital of the world for at least one more year. Because that summer, almost exactly thirty-five years ago, Texas Instruments demonstrated the Speak & Spell. To call this a revolutionary product is an understatement. First of all, although it was an educational toy, Speak & Spell represented the first commercial use of TI’s TMC0280 chip, the first single-chip voice synthesizer. Digital signal processing was to transform the consumer electronics market, from talking alerts in cars to cell phones. It was also the first “talking” toy not to utilize tape or a phonograph record; its lack of moving parts making it both more durable and more adaptable; and it was also, in a way, the first, electronic, hand-held, interactive entertainment device. In this sense, it was the ancestor of so many consumer electronics that we take for granted today. The importance of Speak & Spell led it to be named an IEEE Milestone, and it allows us to remember the Chicago roots of the consumer electronics.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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