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Widget Of The Week

Novelty AM/FM Computer Shaped Radio, 1994

The original IBM PC, on which the majority of the world’s desktop and laptop computers are based, dates back to 1981. Early examples have become highly collectible and can fetch tens of thousands of pounds, and, one day, this might be good news for owners of miniature PC styled radios like this, though its present value is probably only just into double figures…

 

Unfortunately, in common with many late twentieth century novelty radios there is no brand or maker’s name (though there may be a clue to its origins, more about that in a moment), but the point is they were often short-lived promotional items, cheap gifts or givaways and entirely disposable commodities, so establishing the precise date of manufacture can be quite tricky. It is not helped in this case by a slightly bizarre mixture of styling cues and technologies, which means that it could easily come from a year or two either side of that 1994 guessimate.

 

It definitely wasn’t made before 1992, though. This is because the tuner circuit, built into the base or system unit, is manually tuned and uses an LA1800 single chip radio (coupled to a 7 transistor amplifier), and this first appeared in 1992. It also suggests a possible end date of 1998, or thereabouts, as by then most cheap novelty radios were FM only and using a new generation of inexpensive, digitally based receiver chips. These dramatically reduced manufacturing costs and simplified the design by requiring fewer ancillary components and features like push button volume and auto-scan tuning.  

 

The design of the system unit is a bit strange as it clearly shows two 5.23-inch floppy disc drives (and they really were floppy); these had become virtually obsolete by the early 90s, replaced by smaller and more convenient 3.5-inch rigid floppy diskettes. This suggests that the mould for this part, at least, was made some years earlier, or it was designed by someone whose only reference was an old PC. Now we come to the monitor, which looks more recent and closely resembles a chunky, mid 90’s CRT multimedia model, with built-in stereo speakers. The final clue is what’s showing on the fake computer screen. The display, a printed card behind a clear plastic sheet, shows a Windows 3.1 desktop. This operating system first appeared in 1992 and was sold until 1994; Windows 95 replaced it, in August 1995. It’s a fair bet that the manufacturers wanted it to look as up to date as possible and it would have been given a Win 95 desktop makeover as soon as it was released, which brings us back to that 1994-ish manufacturing date.

 

Otherwise the design is fairly straightforward. There are only three controls, the on/off volume thumbwheel is on the right side of the system unit, the tuner thumbwheel is on the left and the right and left buttons on the ridiculously out of scale mouse select AM or FM wavebands. There are a couple of LEDs on the front of the monitor indicating AM or FM reception. The batteries, three AA cells, fit into a compartment with a sliding cover on the base. When new it probably came with a miniature keyboard, though this does not appear to have been attached to the unit in any way so it probably parted company with the radio quite early on.

 

I found this one at a Sunday flea market in Brighton. In was in a pretty grubby state and tangled up with some other junk but the stallholder’s asking price of £1.00 seemed very fair so I didn’t bother haggling. I reckoned there was a 50 - 50 chance of it working; the battery compartment was clean and it didn’t look as though it had been interfered with; as it turned out luck was on my side and it fired up first time. Sound quality is dreadful, not through any fault, but an inevitable consequence of a cheaply designed receiver, small 55mm speaker squirting sound through slots on the side of the monitor screen, built into a case that vibrates and rattles. But that is not what it is all about; it is super cute and all it took to get it looking like new was a quick strip-down, clean out, and a wipe over with a soapy cloth.

 

What Happened To It?

Although there is no branding or model number anywhere on the case there is a design number on the back and a little digging around on the Internet turned up the name Gold Winny Electronics, based in Hong Kong, as the likely maker, but the trail goes cold at that point and aside from a few patent notices for other novelty radios there is no mention of the company after 1996.

 

That’s not the end of the story, though and by the looks of it PC shaped novelty radios with CRT monitors were still being made until relatively recently, judging by what’s on ebay. I have seen several fairly distinct styles, though none of them exactly like this one.  Most of the later examples have the speaker, behind a grille, set into the front of the monitor, instead of a phoney desktop display, which rather spoils the effect. These also tend to be FM only types with autoscan tuning, though I have seen the odd AM/FM model as well.

 

In the world of proper grown up computers the rapid change from CRT to flat screen monitors, which began in the early noughties, probably marked the end of the line for these little radios, and it’s not hard to understand why. The problem with a flat screen is that there is nowhere to put the speaker and flat screens just aren’t as visually interesting, which could be great news for collectors. Clunky old style boxy PCs and CRT monitors are already well on the way to becoming museum pieces and my guess is that in another ten years or so it will be difficult to persuade anyone from a generation who’s only experience of personal computers has been smartphones, tablets and wearable gadgets, that this was how we did things in the bad old days, and hopefully items of retro kitsch, like this neat little radio, will soar in value…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1994

Original Price         £5?

Value Today           £10 (1114)

Features                 AM/FM Tuner, thumbwheel tuner & volume on/off, press-button waveband selection on dummy mouse, LED waveband indicators, 55mm speaker

Power req.                      3 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                    112 x 87 x 125mm

Weight:                           260g

Made (assembled) in:      China (Hong Kong)

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    6


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