The age of adapters

Two disparate conversations got intermingled in my head this week. One was a long discussion about the days of AM radio and only AM radio in cars, and the other was a day where multiple people asked about various dongle issues, USB-C vs. USB3 vs. Thunderbolt or Thunderbird or whatever the hell Apple calls USB-C now. Anyway, both of these things make me think of how in general, we’re so adapter-free now, and can generally shoot music and videos and photos straight through the air at each other, at the cloud, at machines like TVs and printers and coffee machines. I promise this isn’t the usual “these damn kids don’t know what it’s like to hunt for the right DB-9 to DB-25 RS232 cable” old man rant, but these two things made me think of the ubiquity of adapters in the seventies and eighties as the landscape of tech rapidly changed.

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Example one: car stereos. For decades, the standard was AM radio, and that’s it. In the US, the AOR FM stations started their reign in the late 60s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that there were more FM stations than AM, and a lot of them were simulcast stations of the same programming. I think by the time I was sentient enough to have my own radio and listen to my own music, the top-40 stations in my area were FM, but FM radios were still an upgrade option for most cars back then.

I remember my former stepdad had an old Buick, maybe a 71 or 72, and it had the stock AM radio. But he’d upgraded this for the bold new future of AOR programming by buying a little Radio Shack box, a Realistic FM tuner. It sat below the all-metal skull-crusher dashboard of this giant beast of a car, somehow spliced into the old wiring, so it would pump high-fidelity FM stereo sound into a single three-inch paper speaker. Seems like it would have been easier to rip out the stock radio and slap in a Krako tape deck with an AM/FM tuner, but maybe that cost an extra ten dollars. Also, leaving in the old radio wouldn’t lower the value of the vintage $500 vehicle, I guess.

Another big thing was that in the late sixties/early seventies, nobody could decide on what physical media format was the king of mobile applications. Spoiler alert: the cassette won, and there were suddenly millions of vehicles on the road that couldn’t play them. One “adapter” approach was to go to Radio Shack or K-Mart and pick up an under-dash tape player, much like the external FM tuner, and wire that up so you could play your Barry Manilow cassettes through your stock sound system.

What I always found funny, although I never saw one in person (I did read a lot of Radio Shack and JC Whitney catalogs as a kid, so I knew of them) were the 8-Track to cassette adapters. If you were an early adopter of the bigger and quickly obsoleted tape system, you could buy a plug-in adapter, which looked like a really long 8-Track tape, but the part that stuck out of the dash had a cassette player mounted horizontally in it.

(For a quick look at all of these options, take a gander at this 1976 Radio Shack catalog.)

I never really bought into this adapter madness — I either went to the junk yard and bought a tape deck out of a junked car for twenty bucks, or just brought a jambox and put it in the passenger seat. But that was when I was still spry enough to crawl around under the dashboard of a subcompact. Maybe I’d think differently now that my back is out, who knows.

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Much later, the cassette was dethroned from the top of the heap of the physical media world, and then the argument resurfaced on how you get your various iPods and DiscMans and whatever to talk to your tape-only car stereo.

The very first time I bought a portable CD player in 1992, it actually shipped with the solution in the box: a little fake cassette with a cord dangling out of it that plugged in the headphone jack of the CD player. I used a system like this for years, first for that CD player, but later for the MiniDisc and iPod. I didn’t have a car during the heyday of in-car CD players in the early 00s, but I rented cars quite a bit on vacation. And of course, I’d always forget that damn adapter and would have to buy another one for twice as much at an airport. So I have a big collection of those things in storage somewhere.

There was also a much worse adapter for cars that didn’t have tape decks. It was basically a Mr. Microphone but it took the signal from a headphone cable and broadcast it over channel 88.1 with like a milliwatt of power, so you could tune in a car radio and magically listen to your CDs.

I got stuck with one of these when I was Hawaii in 2003. It was basically like this scene in Spinal Tap. I’d be driving around the island, happily listening to an album on MiniDisc, and I’d zip by some volcano park or whatever the hell that would blast out weather advisories at a million megawatts on the same exact channel as the adapter, interrupting my song for the next few minutes. I finally gave up and bought a Skynard CD at a gas station and listened to that for the rest of the trip.

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The adapter thing was also big in the beginning of personal computers. Both Atari and Mattel had popular game systems, and then Apple and Commodore came out with home computers. The popular thinking of parents at that time was that kids needed to learn about computers so that by like 1995 when paper was obsolete and the world was run by artificially-intelligent mainframes, the kids would be able to get good jobs to afford flying cars and robot butlers. So why buy a gaming system and later buy a home computer, when you could take your existing gaming system and magically turn it into a home computer with a plug-in box like that FM radio tuner?

Atari had a few different approaches. They came out with a BASIC cartridge, which was laughably bad, given it could only use 64 characters of memory for programs, and you had to type in programs with gamepads. Next they tried to release the Atari Graduate for the 2600/VCS gaming console. It plugged into the cartridge port and had a membrane keyboard that sat on top of the 2600, adding 8K of RAM and the ability to hook up peripherals like a tape deck, a modem, and a printer. This was supposed to be a $79 add-on, but never shipped because (allegedly) of some arguments between Atari management and the third-party team developing it. There was also a third-party thing called the CompuMate that shipped, but didn’t take the world by storm, probably because you can’t do much with a 10×12 character screen.

Mattel was a bit more infamous about this, because they promised a computer add-on and never delivered, which got the FTC to slap a $10,000 a day fine on them, and lit the fire to for them to come out with anything that could legally be called a computer and dumped on a small test market at a loss, which is exactly what happened.

The Entertainment Computer System was an add-on home computer for the Intellivision, which was a small external chicklet keyboard and a box that plugged into the side of the Intellivision, and was probably 75% the size of the actual Intellivision, and had its own power supply. The thing added BASIC, 2K of RAM (but you couldn’t use all 2K for your programs), another sound chip, extra controller ports, and the interface for a cassette recorder. They also came out with an add-on synthesizer keyboard — this was the heyday of Mattel’s Synsonics instruments. The whole thing got the FTC off their backs, but didn’t entirely catch on, and then Mattel imploded a year later.

Coleco also did this with the Adam computer, which was available as a standalone or as an adapter that plugged into the ColecoVision console. I don’t know the architecture of the add-on or how well it worked, because the only things I ever heard about were the Adam’s other major shortcomings, like the gunfire-loud printer; the fact that the power supply was in the printer so when the printer died, the whole system died; and the slow cassette system built into the main unit, and a burst of EMF at start-up would nuke any tape in the drive, even though the instructions told you to put the BASIC tape in the drive when you booted.

The more interesting one was that Coleco came out with an adapter that would enable your ColecoVision to play Atari 2600 games. This wasn’t some kind of sophisticated emulator or anything; it was functionally an entire reverse-engineered Atari 2600 that hooked onto the front of the ColecoVision and used nothing more than the video connection and power from the ColecoVision. The expander has a 6507 CPU, memory, and the whole deal. You had to unplug your Coleco joysticks and plug them into the expander (or I guess buy some Atari sticks, if you wanted the same feel.) Coleco got sued by Atari about this and Atari lost.

Likewise, Mattel also had an Atari compatibility “adapter” that was also a near-complete 2600 that plugged into an Intellivision. And Atari did the same thing themselves with a near-complete Atari 2600 that plugged into the Atari 5200. These were major marketing coups in that they radically increased the other systems’ library size. The downside was they increased their libraries with really bad games. I don’t think people remember how bad Atari 2600 games were, even compared to the 5200 or Intellivision.

The whole thing is bizarre though. It reminds me of in the 1950s, the Air Force built this giant B-36 bomber, and when they decided there was no way to bolt enough guns onto the 200-ton behemoth, they thought, “hey, let’s just hang entire fighter planes on the big plane and have the best of both worlds.” (That never really worked out, BTW.)

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Now we’ve solved the upgradeability problem: everything is sealed shut with glue, and when you want a better version with newer features, you throw the old one in a landfill. Sometimes I wonder if this adapter fetish of last century was some holdout to the days when a TV or a radio was a piece of furniture you kept forever and serviced with in-home repairmen, like a furnace or a car. Maybe people thought they would invest in a system and then it would slowly grow and evolve over time.

(Oddly enough, Apple embraced this for a time, and you could upgrade early Apple machines with an upgrade kit that replaced the logic board, but kept the old case. For example an Apple IIe could be upgraded to a IIgs, or a Mac 128 could be upgraded to a Mac Plus. I don’t know who did this, and you were basically replacing the entire machine but keeping the old yellowed case, so why not just pay more and get the whole thing. Maybe schools did it. I could see a school administration making a bone-headed investment like that. I bet I’m still paying off tax bonds from when my local school did this in 1977.)

I think these various false starts caused the adapter appeal to dwindle. The last one I really remember is the Sega 32X, which was a stopgap measure to put two high-speed CPUs, a GPU, and more memory onto the 16-bit Genesis, which allowed it to run… well, virtually no games, because nobody supported it. Anyway, it seems like now the thing is to own one of every console, or just run the things on your phone. People aren’t as up in arms about o “teaching computers” to kids like they did when they thought “computer technician” was a vocational skill like a cabinet maker or TV repair person. Everyone seems to know how to use a computer off the bat, or instinctively know how to move a mouse or swipe a screen. And our homes are filled with computers, whether we know it or not. The webcam sitting on my monitor probably has a CPU orders of magnitude faster than some of the mainframes I used in college. Just let the kid screw with the old iPad, and they’ll figure it out, I guess.

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Anyway. Dongles: USB-C is a subset of Thunderbolt 3. They use the same size connector, but TB3 can be twice as fast and use half the power, depending on the device and the cable. That’s all. Enjoy not having to buy another device that costs 90% of your first device to play another manufacturer’s games.