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Archive for the ‘Toys’ Category

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The Farmer Says

Posted by Big Boo on January 13th, 2012

The Farmer SaysWhen I was about 7 or 8 I had a friend who happened to have a younger sister of toddler age. One day whilst playing over at his house, his sister came in clutching her “The Farmer Says” toy. I had never seen one before but something about it just piqued my interest enough that I couldn’t resist having a go with it, despite being well out of the intended age range of it.

It consisted of a circular piece of plastic that had pictures of different animals running around it. In the centre of the toy there was a plastic arrow with a picture of a farmer on it. You turned the arrow to point at a particular animal, let’s say the cow, then pulled a string on the side which caused the arrow to spin around like mad and for the toy to utter the words “The cow says… Moo!”.

Somehow this toy mesmerised me. Perhaps it was the hypnotic spin of the arrow, or more likely just the crackly pronunciation of the recorded voice, but I sat there twisting the arrow and pulling the string until I had heard everything the farmer had to say, much to the annoyance of my mate who probably wanted to go off and play with toy cars or something with me.

A little on the history of this toy then to finish off. The first version was released in 1965 by Mattel and the sounds were stored on a little plastic disc, a bit like an old vinyl record. It has undergone surprisingly few revisions over time, with the first major change being replacing the pull string with a lever in the late Eighties. This change occured after a little girl was blinded by the string snapping and flicking into her eye.

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Posted by Big Boo on November 30th, 2011

Synthesizer Yamaha DX7Whilst the origins of the Synthesizer Keyboard lie in the early to mid twentieth century, it wasn’t really until the Sixties and Seventies that they really started to become used by musicians, mainly due to the reasons of reliability and cost.

In 1964 that started to change, with the release of the Moog (named after its creator Robert Moog) which was the first commercially available instrument of its kind. The first band to release an album featuring Moog created music was The Monkees, but they were soon followed by other notables including The Rolling Stones, The Doors and The Beatles.

The Moog created its sound by allowing the user of it to layer together simple waveforms of different kinds, such as sine waves. In doing so the sound created by the instrument could be changed to achieve a wide number of different effects.

In 1979 the Synthesizer market was shaken up again with the release of the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) as it took a different approach. The advent of micro computers allowed the Fairlight to work by using sampled sounds of real instruments, meaning that in theory at least it could sound like any instrument you wanted it to.

However the Fairlight and similar synthesizers still cost a huge amount of money when they first appeared, so remained the preserve of professional musicians, with probably Jean Michel Jarre being the artist who is most often linked with the Fairlight.

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Posted by Big Boo on November 28th, 2011

Skip-ItYou have to admire the person who came up with the idea of turning a device for restraining prisoners into a child’s play thing? Taking an item like a heavy ball and chain and converting it into a keep fit toy was a stroke of genius!

I’m talking about the Skip-It, which basically consisted of a rotating plastic ball on a length of flexible plastic that was attached at the other end to a plastic ring. You placed one foot into the ring, then by skipping up and down you could get the ball rotating around your leg. You then had to skip over the long chain-like part of the toy whenever it came round by your other foot.

Whilst I can’t prove that the ball and chain was the inspiration behind this toy, it seems pretty likely given that it looks exactly like one and was worn in the same way!

The Skip-It first appeared in the Eighties and became one of those instant fad toys that everyone wanted to have, and before long there were many badly constructed but cheaper copies of it in the shops, and children up and down the country were tripping over themselves trying to master the action required to keep the ball in motion.

In the early Nineties the popularity of the Skip-It was on the wane, but the makers then had to great idea of adding a counter to the ball which kept track of how many times it had been swirled round your ankle. A great idea, assuming it was accurate of course, as it then meant you had the aim of trying to beat your highest score, and you could compete with your friends to be the playground Skip-It champion too!

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Posted by Big Boo on November 16th, 2011

StarbirdWhen I was growing up there were two big electronic toys that I really wanted to own. The first was the awesome programmable Big Trak, and the second was the slightly less educational, but just as fun, Starbird.

Starbird was a space ship toy which looked the business. It was sleek and groovy looking, just like one of the ships from Star Wars, and it could be pulled apart and converted into a smaller mini space ship as well. Best of all those was the fact that it made sound effects!

After switching Starbird on it would start to make a futuristic sounding engine noise. Tip the nose of the ship upwards though and the noise changed to sound like it was accelerating to climb higher, whilst tipping the nose down made it sound like it was decelerating. OK, this was all a bit nonsensical for a space ship, but it sounded cool.

Even better though was the little button on the top that fired the Starbird laser cannons. As well as playing a laser blast sound, some little lights under the lasers came on as well.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, the Starbird even went through a little revamp and was re-released as the Starbird Avenger. This had all the same functions as the original, but could also send and receive infra-red. It came with a reflective target which you could then practice shooting at, in a similar manner to the way Laser Tag worked.

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Stocking Fillers - Suppliers to Father Christmas
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Posted by Big Boo on September 5th, 2011

GobotsWhen you think of mighty warrior robots that can transform into vehicles (and other things) most people would immediately think of the Transformers range. There’s no doubt that this brand captured the market, spreading from toys to cartoons to videogames to Hollywood movies. However, there were another set of contenders for the robot toy crown, and they were the Gobots.

Gobots actually started life in Japan (where else) as the Machine Robo series of toys, slightly before the Transformers even came into existence. In 1983 western toy manufacturer Tonka licensed the toys for the US market, and renamed them Gobots in the process.

Sales of the toys were initially very good, as the concept resonated with many a young lad. However, when Hasbro launched Transformers the Gobots suffered. This can be attributed to many things, but ultimately the Transformers toys were just a whole lot cooler. The Transformers looked more robotic an futuristic in many cases that their Gobot cousins, and they had better names too. Where the Transformers had Optimus Prime and Starscream, Gobots had Scooter and Tank (no prizes for guessing what they transformed into).

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Speak & Spell

Posted by Big Boo on August 26th, 2011

Speak & SpellThe Speak & Spell is one electronic toy that anyone old enough to remember the original theatrical release of E.T. will definitely remember, if only because the film used one to great effect when E.T. builds his device to communicate with his spaceship.

Created by Texas Instruments in 1978, the Speak & Spell became one of the most recognisable and popular educational toys during the 1980s. As its name suggests, it was intended to help children learn how to spell. Spelling is one of those areas that was hard to turn into a toy, since it’s not like you could print “Spell Librarian” on a card and give it to a child, since they’d then have the correct spelling right there in front of them. Again, as the name suggests, this problem was solved by making the toy speak.

Speak & Spell used a technique called speech synthesis in order to make itself heard. This was a very new area of technology back when the toy was created and was not without its flaws (indeed, even today synthesised speech is quite often blatantly obvious due to mispronounced words) so whilst it was incredibly clever, it was also not exactly that easy to be able to make out what word the device was actually asking you to spell. You often got quite a few wrong answers simply because you were entering the correct spelling of the wrong word.

If you want to hear what I’m talking about then head over to the Speak & Spell Online site, which features an emulator of the Speak & Spell which whilst it may not be functionally complete (its missing game modes for example) it sounds exactly like the original.

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Oric-1 and Oric Atmos

Posted by Big Boo on August 15th, 2011

Oric-1The Eighties was without doubt the age of the home computer. Now we might just be limited to two real choices for a computer in the home (either a PC or an Apple Mac) but back then there were more different computer systems available than you could shake a stick at.

For most of the Eighties, in the UK at least, there were four main contenders – the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum, the Amstrad CPC and the BBC Micro – but there were many more besides including the Dragon 32, the ZX81, the Vic-20 and today’s spotlighted machine, the Oric-1.

The Oric-1 was created by UK computer firm Tangerine Computer Systems, although it was marketed under the company name of Oric Products International. It was aimed fair and square at the ZX Spectrum end of the market, as it was of a similar size and shape, and came in both 16K and 48K versions, just like the Spectrum did, and was even sold for just about the same price.

It did also improve on the Spectrum in many ways too. First it had a better keyboard than the original Spectrum (although that wasn’t really that hard an achievement!) although it has to be said the keys were a lot smaller in size. It had better sound capabilities and a higher resolution screen too.

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Water Pistols

Posted by Big Boo on August 1st, 2011

Water PistolOne toy that I’m sure most people must have had as a child is the good old fashioned water pistol. Those little hollow plastic guns that you fill with water to soak your mates have been around seemingly forever.

There’s something completely irresistible about these toys. Put them in the hands of even the biggest pacifist and the urge to pull the trigger whilst aiming it at somebody to give them a little squirting becomes near impossible to stop.

The fact that the average water pistol was made out of transparent plastic is also a master stroke, as it means a quick glance is all that is needed to see whether you should be planning a quick retreat to the nearest tap for a reload any time soon.

In my day you couldn’t get much more than a simple pocket money water pistol like the one that illustrates this post, but these days water pistol design has really gone to town with things like the Super Soaker range.

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