Retro Tech Spotlight: Light Organs

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at light organs.

Is this the 1970s in a single picture?

If you’re of a certain age (and if you’re reading this, chances are that you are), then you probably owned one of these. Hell, I’m only 52 and I owned one of these. They were as ubiquitous as blacklight posters, lava lamps, beaded curtains and stem remnants caught in the shag carpeting. Maybe you called it a “light box” or a “color organ,” but it was the same thing. And it didn’t do one thing to add to the music, at least not sonically. But it sure looked cool, didn’t it? Hey, don’t bogart that j, man!

Light organs existed before the 1970s, of course, but it took that decade for its particular brand of kitsch to finally find its niche. Some models were relatively cheap, just white lights behind colored panels that would react to any sound in its general vicinity. But other models were quite intricate, with particular lights wired to react specifically to different sound frequencies and intensities.

They were also relatively simple to make yourself, which led many a hobbyist to take a crack at making their own light organ. I have a cousin that, back in the mid-’70s, got a hold of a traffic light as a teenager (How? I was a dozen years his junior and I didn’t ask. It was the ’70s.) and wired it to work as a light organ. Folks are still doing this now, only now with computers and coding, like this fella below.

I don’t know, using a computer seems like cheating …

More common, though, were store-bought models, of which there were plenty. Radio Shack (Realistic) and Spencer Gifts were popular places to pick up a light organ, but really they were everywhere. Some added interior mirrors to give dimensionality to the visual perspective, and other higher-end models featured LEDs. Some had patterns that flashed on and off within the box. JCPenney offered a whole page of options in their 1976 Christmas Catalog.

#14 retailed for $39.99 in 1976. That’d be $185 today. Were they high?
HINT: The operative phrase here is “in 1976.”

Point is, these were a very popular accessory for music heads in the ’70s, one that transcended rock and found its way into the disco scene, with its lighted dance floors and strobe lighting. But as the ’70s faded into the ’80s, so did the popularity of light organs. I remember getting mine in 1983 on clearance from Radio Shack, by which time they were firmly out of vogue, but I’d always wanted one. It didn’t make it with me to college and either got trashed or sold in a garage sale.

But light organs have never really gone away. In the mid-’80s, videotapes of rudimentary fractal graphics to play while you got stoned listening to music (particularly the Dead) enjoyed a popular underground market. Media players on computers in the ’90s often came with visualization programs that sought to add sight to your sound. Even today, there are a number of music visualizer programs available on the Internet for you to play with, both free and for purchase, and 4K fractal videos on YouTube that would’ve made those ’80s Deadheads trip balls.

The viewing of this video without the use of strong hallucinogens is strongly discouraged.

And of course, if you’re feeling really crazy, you can build one yourself. There are a multitude of kits available online, and a plethora of instructional videos on YouTube. So if you’re feeling really bored some weekend and looking for a project that’s relatively pointless, crank up that stereo and get cracking on building yourself a light organ. And hey! Don’t bogart that j, man.

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