In 2013, the official attendance numbers for CES – the Consumer Electronics Show – were just over 150,000, down from 2012, which saw the highest ever (156,000) according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the professional organization that produces CES. Behind the scenes of the massive, multi-day show held every January in Las Vegas, though, many industry insiders and media have been whispering of the “death of CES” – and large tech trade shows in general – for several years now. Less hyperbolically, the industry is certainly undergoing a lot of changes, and huge shows with dozens of major product launches can seem less important than they have in years past. Many companies have scaled back the number of products they launch each year, and often have their own launch events to maximize attention and press coverage. Over its 46 year history, however, CES’s attendance numbers have grown steeply, and this year’s CES, will likely be attended in larger numbers than ever before. As we move toward CES 2014, we decided to take a retrospective look at the history of the industry’s largest trade show. Here are some fantastic and weird photos of CES through the years.
Editor's note: Originally published in January of 2012, this feature was updated on January 4, 2014.
The first Consumer Electronics Show was held in June of 1967 in New York City. There were 14 total exhibitors, including LG, Motorola, and Philips, with about 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. CES was an offshoot of the Chicago Music Show, which had been, until then, the largest exhibit of consumer electronics in the world.
Even in 1967, there were "booth babes," here referred to as "CES Guides." The first CES was notable for the increasing dominance of solid-state electronics and an influx of Japanese manufacturers.
Held in the same NYC hotels as the previous year, CES ‘69 saw the remarkable demonstration of Panasonic’s 1.5-inch screened television which weighed only two pounds, as well as FM stereo headphones which made the wearer look like a "man from Mars," according to the New York Times.
The 1969 show was dominated by radio and television, and also by the Chairman of the FTC voicing concerns that the industry was not doing enough to curb "unfair and deceptive" trade practices for consumers.
In 1971, CES moved to Chicago, where it would continue until 1977. 1970’s CES had seen the debut of the Sony U-Matic VCR, which hit the market in early 1971.
The biggest item on show by far in 1971 was audio equipment, including 8-track cassettes, and blank, recordable audio tape. Headphones were also a staple as they shrunk in both size and price – though they were still expensive by our standards – with the average pair costing around $50 (that would be well over $150 today). That CES had over 275 companies with exhibit space.
By 1972, attendance to CES had grown to nearly 40,000 people, more than double its first year, and 300 companies were on hand to show off their wares. Car stereos were big this year, as they would be in 1973, with further advances in audio tape and yes, headphones. Beginning in 1973, CES was held twice a year.
The laserdisc player made its American debut at CES in 1974, though it wouldn’t be available commercially until 1978. 1974 also saw the first partnership at CES with the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM), a trade association for the recorded music industry.
1975’s CES was still dominated by music, but significantly saw the demonstration of the Pong home console, a successor to Atari’s breakout arcade hit.
By 1977, CES attendance had grown to over 50,000, with more than 700 exhibitors at the Winter Show. 1977 saw an influx of cheap digital watches starting with Texas Instruments’ $20 model in 1976.
1978 saw the first exhibition of CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, where it continues to this day. From that year through 1995 a summer show would be held in Chicago, with a larger winter show in Las Vegas. The first Vegas CES had nearly half a million square feet of exhibit space.
The summer of ‘78 Chicago show continued to be dominated by music equipment, with the public attendance growing exponentially each succeeding year.
Atari showed off two 8-bit personal computers at the winter CES in 1979, the Atari 400 and the Atari 800.
1980 was the first year that the CEA added a "Promotion and Advertising" Showcase, with the goal of helping the industry find innovative ways to advertise consumer electronics on radio and television.
1981 saw the debut of both the compact disc and the personal camcorder at CES, while 1982’s show was notable for the first appearance of the landmark Commodore 64 and Western Technologies’ Vectrex.
1984’s CES attendance at both the winter and summer shows hit all time highs with nearly 100,000 people at each. Scott Mace, writing for InfoWorld, said it felt to him, however, like attendance was down. Mace might have been the first CES-bound journalist to note a sense of malaise, rather than innovation, within the industry, describing "mediocre" edutainment software and games, and wishing for the glory days of CES past. That year did, however, see the launch of the Amiga home computer.
CES of ‘85 is notable for the launch of a landmark home gaming console: the Nintendo Entertainment System, albeit under the name (later changed) Nintendo Advanced Video System.
The winter 1988 CES show was notable for the debut of Tetris, which led to its publication by Henk Rogers, and thus the eventual bundling of the game onto every Nintendo Game Boy in 1989.
By 1990, as noted in Popular Mechanics, the winter Las Vegas CES had far eclipsed the summer Chicago show in popularity. That show, the article points out, was attended by more than 1,600 journalists. This marked a trend which continues to this day, with CES now an event which is increasingly populated with journalists, rather than off-the-street consumers.
1992 was the last year that Apple appeared at CES in an official capacity, when John Sculley introduced the Newton in a keynote presentation. 1993 saw the introduction of Sony’s MiniDisc, a small storage disc player which was capable of holding up to 74 minutes of audio, an astounding amount for the time. The MiniDisc was officially discontinued in 2011.
While there were four CES shows in ‘94 — one in Vegas, two in Chicago, and one in Mexico City — 1995 was the last year the show was ever held in the Windy City. That year, there was also one in Philadelphia.
1997’s Vegas CES saw more than one million square feet of exhibition space for the first time, and it’s been hovering at about that size ever since. There were also smaller shows in Atlanta and Dallas, but from 1999 on, CES became a once a year, Las Vegas extravaganza.
Once the 1999 reboot of CES had fully sunk in, the show ballooned in attendance, exhibitors, and star power. 2003 began a long series of shows where Microsoft was the keynote performer, often with CEO Bill Gates as the presenter. 2003 also saw the introduction of Blu-ray.
By 2005 CES was by far the largest technology event of the year, with nearly 150,000 attendees, and liveblogs rising to fill in the online mass of readers with up to the minute coverage. Celebrity appearances had become commonplace. Microsoft’s Bill Gates continued his streak of keynote presentations until CES 2008, when he announced his retirement.
Microsoft continued its keynotes without Gates until 2012, which was announced as the last CES the company would attend in an official capacity. That show, which had more exhibition space than ever before, and the highest recorded attendance ever, signalled the changing landscape in consumer electronics, as large scale shows like CES continue to evolve.
CES 2013 was The Verge’s second outing at the show. One of the true highlights of it was the Qualcomm Keynote and Samsung’s 4K TV. We managed to give out a lot of "best of" awards though, and 2014 will likely (hopefully) deliver some legitimate surprises of both the impressive and the insane variety.
As a fun exercise, we've composed attendance figures and some other fun facts into the graphic below. Enjoy!
All images courtesy of and copyright the CEA and The Verge. Do not republish without permission.
Graphic by James Chae.