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KING OF THE GADGETS; EXCLUSIVE 75 YEARS AGO.. ..TVs, phones and by Perkal

IT HAD a tiny 10in screen, the picture was lousy and it cost - in today's money - a mighty pounds 4,975. But George Hollingbery guessed that one day it was going to catch on.

He was right... With his talent for spotting a popular gadget - like the first TVs - George made a fortune and built an empire. This week the Comet electrical chain celebrates the 75th anniversary of the day in 1933 George put the Comet name over the door of his cluttered workshop in Hull.

He sold washing machines that looked like spacecraft, wireless sets as big as wardrobes, radiograms that would fill a bungalow and kitchen stoves that could sink a battleship.

All museum pieces now. Back then, the musthave innovations of the time.

"The age of electrical appliances was arriving, but very few people had them," says technology historian Professor David Edgerton. "It took someone like George to make them available to the mainstream."

Today, George would be amazed to see his shops stocked with music players that can fit a shirt pocket, cookers that prepare a meal in seconds and TVs that hang on the wall. Things move fast in the gadget market. He might not have realised it, but his chain of shops turned out to be a story of changing Britain.

He started in 1933 re-charging the huge batteries families needed to power their wirelesses. But he soon spotted that the future lay in supplying goods, not servicing them. And if his customers couldn't afford to buy their gadgets, George rented them out instead.

He was just in time to catch the consumer boom after the war. A 12in black and white TV was tumbling in price to pounds 68 5s - the equivalent of pounds 1,235 - a labour-saving toploading washing machine was pounds 81 6s (pounds 1,684) and that new-fangled appliance the fridge was pounds 31.5s (pounds 771).

In his first retail shop, George had 20 TVs and 30 wireless sets and radiograms in stock. Three-quarters of a century later, Comet's flagship megastore, not far from where he started in Hull, has 3,000 products. And the firm's panel of experts forecast even more staggering developments in the showrooms, by 2083...

Three-dimensional TV: This will quickly become commonplace. In fact, it's already being tested and could be on sale in time for the 2012 Olympics. All eight Star Wars movies are being converted into the format.

Digital Delia: A downloadable hologram that will stand alongside you in the kitchen, guide you through the recipe and, presumably, put on a schoolma'am-ish voice when you go wrong.

Only real enthusiasts will bother preparing the food themselves though. The next generation of cookers will do it automatically, while a kitchen robot serves the food and then loads the dishwasher.

Real communication: Video phones were only the start. As electronics link up to the human nervous system, it will be possible not just to see someone in a phone call, but to touch, hug and kiss them.

Double-glazing sales people might become even more of a nuisance - but scientists stress the technology is for personal use, rather than business.

Electronic wallpaper: There's already a patent granted for wallpaper embedded with conducting strips so it can power any device that's hung on it.

The next step is for the whole wall to become a virtual window - showing changing scenes, such as Manhattan by night, or the Sahara at dawn. And no, you won't be able to see the joins.

Object faxing: Has the hinge broken on something? Simply have a new one faxed over.

It might sound like pure sci-fi, but prototypes which can fax solid objects in 3D are already up and running. They work by "printing" with fine powders of plastic, resins and metal that build in layers.

No-noise technology: The ultimate answer to loud neighbours. Instead of banging on the wall, install a "sonic curtain" which measure sound waves coming in (no doubt from next door's 3D TV) and neutralises them by producing their exact opposite.

If it all sounds too far-fetched, the scientists point out we should remember the predictions made in the Ladies Home Journal of 1900.

By the year 2001, it said, photos would be telegraphed from any distance, people would see around the world with screens connected electronically, and wireless telephone circuits would span the globe.

Some people might have said it was fanciful...

But in his Comet workshop, no doubt, George was thinking: "Camphones, internet and wi-fi."

This article was published on Friday 03 October, 2008.

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