Sunday, January 20, 2013

Was the Nintendo Light Telephone inspired by the Astro-Phone?

The Nintendo Light Telephone is one of the vintage toys that, to me, embodies the spirit of Nintendo in the 1970s: a great mix of engineering, creativity and drive to stand out from the competition through novel ideas.

Nintendo Light Telephone (1971)

Now, it has recently been brought to my attention that ten years before Nintendo released the Light Telephone in the Japanese market, a similar toy already existed in the United States.

It is called the Astro-Phone and was released by American company Infrared Industries, Inc in 1961.

Astro-Phone by Infrared Industries, Inc (1961)

It is unknown whether or not Nintendo's design staff, headed by Gunpei Yokoi, actually was aware of the Astro-Phone when they created the Light Telephone. It is quite possible that they arrived at the Light Telephone independently, as Nintendo's team was experimenting a lot with light sensitive cells in the early 1970s. This resulted for instance in the Kousenjuu light gun series.

On the other hand, these toys are quite similar in design, though the Light Telephone looks a bit more serious, less toy-like. The Light Telephone also includes a telescope, to aim the transmission.

So, what do you think: was it an original idea by Nintendo to turn this technology into a toy, or was the Light Telephone inspired by the Astro-Phone? Whatever the answer to that question, the Light Telephone is an unique item in the history of Nintendo.

More on the Light Telephone here. Images of the Astro Phone by kind permission of Erik Wrobbel. His excellent website can be found here.


  1. More about this technology here:

    Somewhere else i also read that many (spy)agencies, probably also CIA used this for a long time.
    Still quite fascinating that even Nintendo picked this up and made it available for everyone.

  2. Thanks and you are right; it is not an original invention of neither Nintendo nor Infrared Industries. Bell laid the groundwork many years before that. What I was wondering was: who was the first to turn this technology into a toy. Will rephrase the post to make this more clear.

  3. I had the Astro-Phone toy in 1963 or so. There were two infrared filters. The larger upper filter covered a large parabolic reflector, similar to a flashlight reflector, except the infrared photo sensor was at the focal point instead of a light bulb. This was connected to a simple germanium transistor audio amplifier, which drove a simple crystal earphone that plugged into the back.

    The smaller infrared filter below covered a small flexible aluminized mirror that reflected light from a flashlight bulb. There were no electronics to modulate your voice onto the light beam. The "microphone" was simply an opening to the back leading to the flexible mirror, which vibrated with your voice, in turn modulating the reflected light beam.

    The think could send and receive voice about a block away at night. The smaller transmitter IR filter could be slid down half way so the light beam could be seen for aiming purposes. This greatly increased the range, compared to full IR "stealth" mode.

    Operation was half-duplex, i.e. push-to-talk like a walkie talkie.

    I used to hold the receiver up to TV sets, street lights, and fluorescent tubes to hear the 60 Hz buzz from the flickering light.

    I think ths cost around $20.00 in 1963, for a set of two. I think mine were "purchased" with S&H green stamps!

    1. Thanks for the explanation! I love how they designed this with minimal components, especially the microphone making the mirror vibrate!

  4. I had this device and it was full duplex.
    By pointing it in front of a mirror you could hear yourself in the earphone.