Introduce Your Kids to '80s Tech in 'Stranger Things'

Record players, walkie talkies, and ham radios are not just historical oddities and museum pieces.

By Beth Bartlett

The runaway hit Netflix show Stranger Things is a winner with fans both young and old, but the young ones may look at the '80s-era technology with confusion. Why are the phones so enormous? Why don’t they just stream music?

Make sure your kids are comfortable, safe, and warm before you tell them about something scarier than a Demogorgon: In 1983, there were no pocket-size phones. There was (gasp!) no Wi-Fi. After the tears and shudders subside, you’ll be ready to delve into the retro tech mysteries of long ago.

Record Players

The great thing about older technology is that it’s easier for small hands to handle, so record playing is a great hobby for the family to share.  And record players have lots of cool moving parts.

Netflix/Stranger Things

Kids can actually see how it works: Once the record is placed on the base and an arm containing a tiny needle is gently placed on the outer edge of the record, the needle spirals slowly toward the center of the revolving disk, riding the grooves and playing the music they contain.

And don't neglect telling your kids about the packaging, which was just as important as the music itself. Albums were more than just vinyl platters; the art was carefully considered, and sometimes came with booklets that told listeners more about the musicians and their songs.

Record players are coming back in style, and you can often find a used stereo and records at thrift stores. New music is also being released on vinyl, too, so everyone can find something they like.

Walkie-Talkies

Walkie-talkies were sort of like cell phones, except they worked (usually in pairs) over a much more limited range because each device "talked" directly to the other one. There was no communications grid, wireless tower, or satellite to help transmit the signal.

Toy walkie-talkies were essentially two-way radio transmitters and receivers matched to a certain frequency. The walkie-talkies on the TV show, however, were top-of-the-line radios that could access 40 different channels.To talk on one, you had to be on the same channel as the person you wanted to reach. You would hold the button down, and then release it so you could hear the other person talk. If two people tried to talk at the same time, they didn’t have much of a conversation.

These devices could reach each other at distances of no more than a few miles at best, and they used frequencies set aside for public communications, or Citizens Band (CB) radio. Just as with today’s phones, battery life on these devices went quickly.

Modern walkie-talkies are still available today, and can be great fun on camping trips or long hikes. Best of all, there are no games or social media to distract anyone from conversation.

Ham Radios

Amateur, or ham, radio is a step up from the world of CB walkie-talkies. Ham radio uses a wide spectrum of frequencies. To talk on one, you have to be licensed or you have to be under the supervision someone who is.

Ham radios aren’t always a large tabletop set like the one at Hawkins Middle School. Some are handheld mobile units, like walkie-talkies. Depending on the frequency they use, ham radio operators can talk to friends a few miles away or to people on the other side of the world. These radio waves can be passed from tower to tower, or even bounced off the moon or weather phenomena.

Only Eleven could make radio waves reach into the Upside Down, but ham radio operators have a long history of helping out in times of emergency, passing messages back and forth between family members when hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters have knocked out other communications media.

Ham radio operators also talk to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, which is a great way to get your kids interested in it. Check your area for local user groups and events.

Image credits: Netflix/Stranger Things.