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Your Parents Holiday Gifts

cchana on flickr

If you’ve looked at our 2022 STEAM gift guide in the last print issue, or online, then you have an idea what you might ask for as a holiday gift: maybe Sphero RVR robot, or Piper build your own computer kits? Maybe a family game like Robot Turtles? But here’s a fun question to ask your parents, teachers, and other adults in your life: what electronic gifts did they get at your age?

What we have today has not been around for that long. Over the years, and as technology evolves, electronic toys change. People want the newest thing. While there are similarities in gifts from the old days to today, there are big differences. We’ve collected a few tech gifts that were popular back in the day. Maybe the adults in your lives will recognize some of them!

Talking Dolls

Talking Dolls were big. Teddy Ruxpin, in the picture at right, was a talking bear with a built-in cassette player. He was the must-have toy for 1985 and 1986. His bear behind had enough space for the two audio tracks on a tape cassette. One audio track played the bear’s speaking lines, while the other was used to encode commands such as moving the toy’s mouth or eyes. Simon Sez, in the picture above, was, well, just creepy.

Slot Cars

Joe-Haupt, flickr

A slot car is a small toy car whose wheels move using a motor. The car is steered by a slot carved into the track like a railway. Slot cars had a massive boom in popularity in the 1960s, which persisted into the 1970s.

Hand-Held Games

Xabi Vazquez, flickr

In 1980, Nintendo and Nelsonic released a line of hand-held games. Each toy featured a single game and a clock function. Donkey Kong, from 1982, marked the first use of the cross-shaped D-pad design which has become a feature of modern gaming consoles. Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback was big news in 1978. It let you play a very basic version of a US football game with only a quarterback and two blockers. There were several competitors, but only Electronic Quarterback let the quarterback pass a ball. Cool!

Erector Sets

Dave-Parker, flickr

Know an engineer? Chances are they played with an Erector set or a Meccano set if they grew up in Europe. Both toys involved connecting metal girders with nuts, bolts and screws. Kids could build moving sets with motors and mechanical parts.


Wilton Taylor, flickr

The classic memory game with four colored buttons in a ring. The buttons light up in a sequence that gets longer every time the player successfully repeats it. Later iterations shrank the product,
making it more clearly a handheld electronic game.


Joe Haupt, flickr

Before there was the Raspberry Pi and electronic kits like Kano, there were Heathkits that let you build home audio receivers, TV receivers, amateur radios, robots, and the first real Computers.

Transistor Radios

Joe Hapt, flickr

Once upon a time, it was a big deal to receive your very own radio. Many a budding engineer took their radios apart to see how they worked.


Jamiecat, flickr

This is what Virtual Reality looked like fifty years ago. Slip in a disc of images in transparency form, push the lever to advance to the next image, and with a bit of imagination, you could be in a sorta-3D version of the Grand Canyon, ancient Egypt, or any number of places.

Toy Robots

nefasth, flickr

Robotics technology has come a looooong way. In 1960, Mr. Machine was huge. Follow the directions to assemble him and voila!, your own robot, of sorts. Going back even further, there was Atomic Robot Man. More of an action figure than a real robot, at least it was kinda cute.

Learn More

Smart Toys


Teddy Ruxpin


Speak and Spell


Erector Set


Slot Car


Electronic Quarterback


Handheld Electronic Game




Game Watches


Game Watch






IEEE Engineering Milestones