Vintage 'Digital Concepts' LED desk clock, $1.

I got this clock for a dollar because it doesn't work. As you're going to see, lots of older electronics will have eBay buyers after it whether it works or not. Certain types of 1970s LED technology fit right into that category, which means they're worth grabbing whenever you see them.

If you look at a contemporary digital clock or watch, you'll notice that the numbers and other characters are very dark in color. This is because they use the LCD, or 'liquid crystal display.' An LCD display employs two sheets of polarizing material with a liquid crystal solution between them. As an electric current passes through the liquid, the crystals light up in such a way that light can't pass through them. You can think of each crystal as a sort of shutter, either allowing light to pass through or blocking the light. Of course, it's not important that you know the technicals of how LCD displays work, just that you're aware that the LCD is the display technology used nowadays.

I hope that by now you're aware that people out there on eBay are fanatical collectors of all sorts of electronic gadgets, many of them specializing in the area of 1970s electronics, before the LCD display was around. Back then, the state-of-the-art digital technology was the LED, or 'light emitting diode.' Always keep an eye out for older electronics with the blocky, red digits, because there are loads of collectors out there searching for these devices!

If you look at a digital watch or calculator from the mid 1970's, you'll notice that instead of the LCD display we're used to seeing nowadays, the display is in red block characters that actually illuminate to create the display, hence the 'light emitting' part of the name. If you're at all familiar with electronic devices, you're aware that LED technology is still in use today, and is quite popular in such diverse applications as outdoor signs, automobile taillights, traffic lights and even flashlights. LED technology isn't obsolete by any means, it's just it's not the best solution for the little gadgets for which it used to be the only solution.

If the LED display had been the optimum display for small devices like watches and calculators, the switch to LCD probably wouldn't have taken place. But whereas the LED display may still be great for certain applications, it has some glaring deficiencies when used in other applications. First of all, the components used in LED displays are simply too big, which means that the display characters are always big and blocky.

Second, and most important, when compared to the miniscule power consumption of the LCD display, the LED is a virtual gas guzzler. As you can imagine, anything that sucks down the energy is going to wreak havok on appliances like watches and calculators, which have very limited battery resources to begin with. If you've ever had the opportunity to operate one of the old LED digital watches from the 1970's, you know how the display is not continuously illuminated; it stays off until you press one of the little buttons on the side of the watch, at which time the display illuminates to show the time, date, etc. The LED simply draws too much power to leave the display 'on' indefinitely.

Another interesting thing about these older electronic devices, and this clock in particular, is that back before the microminiaturization revolution, before digital watches could be produced for a penny apiece and given away in cereal boxes, these were relatively pricey items. The other day, I was leafing through a magazine from 1976, and on the back page I saw an ad for a digital LED watch that had been marked down from $279 to 'only' $99! As you can imagine, high price also meant that much more care was lavished on the construction of these old devices. This is why we see some very well made 1970's-vintage LED watches turning up nowadays, which were made by such esteemed companies as Seiko, Pulsar, Bulova and Longines.

All this brings us back to the little desk clock in our example here. As you check out the photo, notice that the case is teak or mahogany that's held together with brass screws. Notice also the high quality of the buttons and switches on the back of the clock. This clock was designed as a high-tech, high quality, upscale electronic gadget of the day. It appears to have been pretty much hand made right here in the U.S. and very likely cost several hundred 1970's dollars to buy new. And remember the general rule that the stuff from yesterday that collectors are most likely to be interested in today are those items that were the most expensive in the first place.

But why sell a broken clock? That's a good question, and I think the real reason this clock was still at the yard sale when I got there is because as soon as I picked it up, the seller called out to me that it didn't work. But there's something you must know about the collectors who'll be interested in these old devices, and about collectors in general. Collectors are often pretty obsessive about their particular field of interest, in that not only do they like to collect, but they also love to disassemble and repair non-working examples of whatever it is that they collect.

And the really great thing about older electronics like this clock is that they're easy to work on. You're not dealing with the tiny printed circuit boards full of a gazillion microscopic transistors that we have in today's electronics, but with big components the size of cigarette butts and peanuts, which were individually soldered onto a large circuit board. The collector knows that since these individual components can be tested, removed and replaced easily, the chances are very good that it can be fixed. So, I'm betting that someone out there wants my broken clock!

This little broken clock sold on eBay for $51.

Photo of vintage Digital Concepts LED desk clock