Stylophone - Odd & Cheap Synthesizer
The Stylophone is one of the earliest consumer electronic instruments. The palm-sized unit features a row of metal pads instead of a keyboard. To play, you touch a pad with the metal-tipped stylus (hence the name), and you hear a friendly little buzz from the little speaker. Friendly little monophonic buzz, of course.
The Stylophone is a little thin on features. Besides the two volume settings of... er... "on" and "off", the pictured model also features a "vibrato" switch. Other effects were suggested by the helpful leaflet of directions, including such nuances as cupping your hand over the internal speaker to change the sound.
That's pretty much it, but it was enough to get serious artists like David Bowie and Kraftwerk to use it in several famous compositions of the 1970's. The little beeps may seem unimpressive, but once you slide the stylus into a nice beepy glissando, you'll see what all the fuss is about. The simplicity of the instrument didn't stop Dubreq from launching an impressive assortment of add-ons such as music books & records, an amplifier, and even different case finishes for various tunings of the instrument. There was even a professional two stylus model made that's still available today.
The Stylophone didn't make much of a mark here in the states (though it was popular enough for a Chicago company to bootleg the one seen above), but Brits of many ages become instantly nostalgic at its reedy buzz. Millions were sold since their introduction in the late 60's, and every friend I have in the UK seems to have had one. The one pictured above was even played with by Doctor Who's Colin Baker who remembered his brother breaking theirs.
I was lucky enough to find my Chicago built Stylophone at a thrift store for $3, but they are also easy to find on Ebay for around $30. The pro model is much rarer, and can still be obtained for a fair hunk of coin from Stylophone.com.