20 gadgets that changed the world

By on August 1, 2013
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20 gadgets that changed the world

Game-changing tech

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1, Judging by Apple’s recent job postings and trademark filings, it seems inevitable that the company is planning to launch an iWatch in the near future. When it does arrive, it’ll join a host of new and exciting technology, including 4K television sets, bendable mobile phone screens and more – but will it have the same dramatic impact as the iPod, iPhone and iPad did? We’ve gathered together a gallery of some of the very best gadgets that really did change the world. Each one of these technological innovations has ensured its place in history by transforming the way we live our lives and communicate with each other – from the Morse code-powered telegraph machine to the smartphone, there’s a lot of pioneering technology to explore.

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2, If you know your computing history, you’ll know that mainframe machines used to take up a whole room or two. Today, most of us have a desktop or a laptop in the home, but it took us a long time to get to this stage. The Commodore PET (1977) shown above, the Apple II (1977) and the IBM PC (1981) were all significant early PC models that helped bring computing to the masses. Windows 1.0 first showed up in 1985, and subsequently played a large part in the transition from typing commands into a computer to pointing and clicking with a mouse instead. Perhaps the first ‘killer app’ for the PC – in other words, the app that would make you go out and buy a full computer just to use it – was the spreadsheet, capable of crunching numbers and outputting data much faster than a human being and a calculator.

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3, The invention of the mobile phone and the original telephone before it have changed the way we communicate forever. Since Alexander Graham Bell called out ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you’ in March 1876 we’ve been able to hold conversations in real-time across rooms, countries and continents. Skype, FaceTime and other apps are now utilising the power of the Web to develop instant face-to-face communication even further. And then there’s the mobile. Originally a blocky, cumbersome, inconvenient device, it’s now an essential gadget for billions of users across the globe. No longer do we have to be at home to talk – we can be anywhere in the world – and as mobiles have become more powerful they’ve transformed contact management, Web access and digital photography too. Mobile telephony technology stretches back to the start of the 20th century, but the first call on a hand-held mobile phone was made on the 3 April 1973 by John Mitchell of Motorola’s portable communication products division.

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4, You’re able to read this feature because of the internet and the connections it makes between us. Trying to pinpoint one gadget as the centre of all of this connectivity isn’t easy, and there are many different candidates that have sprung up down the years. The humble modem is near the top of the list – it may have been painfully slow, and would block your phone line whenever you were online, but for many of us it was the first taste we had of connecting to a digital world outside the realm of our own PCs. Today’s Wi-Fi-enabled routers have had a big role to play too, pouring out Internet access all across the home so you can hook up your laptop, tablet, phone and web-controlled alarm clock. These routers have made home networking idiot-proof, changing the way we get our information and content from the Internet and share it between devices.

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5, Pioneering devices like the portable cassette and CD players produced by Sony deserve some of the credit here, but it was the introduction of the MP3 player that truly revolutionised the way we listen to music on the move. For the first time it became possible to take hundreds and thousands of songs on the go, and shuffle between them as required. The likes of Creative, Cowon and Archos all brought MP3 players to market at the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s – the Creative Nomad Jukebox shown above offered 6GB of storage via a built-in laptop hard drive. As it would do with phones and tablets, it was Apple who played a significant role in popularising the technology. The first iPod, launched in 2001, wasn’t compatible with Windows, but the 2002 edition was. The MP3 technology itself played a part too, making it easier to share and store songs in a smaller file size without a dramatic loss in quality.

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6, The Game Boy, with a little help from an obscure game called Tetris, proved that hand-held gaming could work. Up until the Game Boy’s release in 1989, companies had been frustrated in their attempts to get us all gaming on the move. Despite stiff contemporary competition from the likes of the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear (both boasting colour screens, no less), the Game Boy came to dominate the market. Together with its successor, the Game Boy Colour, it went on to sell over 188 million units worldwide. Hand-held gaming is enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to the capabilities of the mobile smartphones we all carry around with us now and titles such as Angry Birds, but the Game Boy was the true pioneer, and is one of Nintendo’s biggest ever successes. It also proved that long battery life, ease of use and gameplay can win out against a straight head-to-head specifications comparison.

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7, Apple wasn’t the first company to make a mobile phone – in fact it arrived very late to the smartphone party in 2007. However, its curved slimline device changed the way we use mobiles forever: not only did it usher in the era of touchscreen phones (you’d be hard-pressed to find a physical keyboard on a phone now, but they were all the rage in 2007), a year later it opened up the App Store to third-party developers. That decision, later followed by Google, Windows Phone, BlackBerry et al, meant that anyone could write an app for a phone, and mobile operating systems suddenly became as diverse as their desktop equivalents. For anyone who has grown up with the tech, not being able to tap at a phone screen or install a Facebook app would seem very strange indeed. Back in 2007, Engadget’s Ryan Block was blown away by the iPhone’s ‘paradigm-shifting interface’, and the repercussions of the device’s launch are still being felt today.

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8, E-readers were around for a long time before Amazon got into the game – Sony’s Digital Data Discman, for example, came out in 1992 – but it was the inexpensive, finely crafted Kindle that finally persuaded a serious number of us to ditch the paperbacks and hardbacks for digital equivalents. As with many of today’s gadgets, the origins of the e-reader are oft debated and argued over, but they have now made an indisputable impact on the way in which we consume novels, short stories, poetry and other written content. The E-Ink Corporation and Sony both played significant roles in helping develop e-book technology at the beginning of the 21st century, and it was this work that Amazon built on with the launch of the first Kindle in 2007. The New York Times’ David Pogue called it ‘an e-book reader that just may catch on’, and its subsequent success – the first generation device sold out in five hours – have since proved him right. The most recent model, shown above, is the Kindle Paperwhite.

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9, We had the VHS recorder, then the DVD recorder, and now there’s the Digital Video Recorder to keep all of our favourite programmes stored for when we’ve got time to watch them. Set-top boxes from the likes of Sky, Virgin and YouView not only enable you to record something on TV if you’re out at your weekly dancing class, but also to watch shows on-demand whenever you want to — it’s this smart, Internet-enabled functionality that sets these recorders apart from the VHS/DVD boxes of the past and which is helping to usher in a new way of consuming content. Combined with smart TV apps from the likes of Netflix and the terrestrial channels themselves, these digital video recorders are making television listings less and less important. It’s no longer necessary to sit down in front of the box at a certain time to watch a new show (unless you want to join in the chatter about it on Twitter, of course) – in years to come you may be able to watch anything you want, past or present, at the push of a button.

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10, With increasing broadband speeds and Wi-Fi coverage, the USB flash drive is already being phased out in favour of cloud-based syncing services like Dropbox – such is the pace of technology development – but these little devices have played a major role in storing and transferring data over the past decade. Super-fast solid-state flash memory has been around since the 1980s, and when the Universal Serial Bus standard arrived in 1996 the stage was set for a revolutionary new device. The very first USB flash drive, holding a whopping 8MB of storage, appeared in 2000, although (as with almost every gadget in this gallery) there’s some controversy over who came up with the idea first. As speeds and storage space increased, the humble USB stick became an invaluable tool for getting data from one place to another, whether across the country or across the office. Today they can be used to run portable apps and even boot up an operating system as well as storing files.

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11, The Fuji DS-X, released in Japan in 1989, was the first consumer digital camera. Of course, it wasn’t very good, but the revolution that it sparked has had all kinds of repercussions – we can now take thousands of images without changing rolls of film, see pictures instantly (and delete them if required) as well as share them in a snap across computers and the Web. The tech has crept into our mobile phones too, meaning we all have a camera with us at all times to capture a moment. The history of digital camera can be traced further back to 1975, when Kodak’s Steve Sasson put together a prototype that took 23 seconds to record a digitized image to a cassette tape. Thanks to the work of engineers like Sasson, as well as pioneering early models like the DS-X, the Logitech Fotoman and the Kodak DCS-100, we now have access to an overwhelming number of photos and videos, captured and stored digitally.

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12, Not only did the transistor radio put the radio in your pocket for the first time, it also laid the foundations for the portable media players we carry around in our pockets today. In 1954 the Regency TR-1 became the first commercially manufactured transistor radio to go on sale, bring music and audio to the masses wherever they happened to be massing. The trick of the transistor radio was to use transistors instead of the traditional vacuum tubes as amplifier elements: this meant the devices could be much smaller, more durable and required much less power to run. The Regency TR-1 ushered in the era of portable audio, whether it was keeping up with sports scores on the beach or enjoying music in the car. The second transistor radio – the Raytheon 8-TP-1 followed in 1955, and the first transistor car radio, the Chrysler Mopar 914HR, appeared in 1955 as an $150 optional extra for the Chrysler and Imperial line up of 1956.

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13, Has the humble mouse really changed the world? Well, you’ll find it attached to 99% of desktop computers, and many laptops too – as personal computers moved from text commands to a graphical user interface, the mouse played a crucial role in making this possible. The fact that the mouse’s design has changed very little since its introduction in 1973 is testament to the quality of the original concept. It has become more ergonomic, swapped lasers for mechanics, and gained a few more buttons along the way, but the principles remain the same. Before the arrival of the computer mouse, input was largely done via keyboard and in some cases a trackball. Douglas Engelbart and Bill English were responsible for designing the first computer mouse prototype, naming their invention after its appearance – at that time the cord trailed out of the back of the mouse rather than from the front.

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14, In the olden days, we would pore over unwieldy maps, argue with each other and – if the worst came to the worst – ask a passer-by for directions to get where we were going. The satnav has transformed the way we drive from A to B, removing many of the associated stresses and strains (although it has introduced one or two problems of its own). Not only that, it can help us avoid traffic and roadworks at the same time. Satnavs have been around in one form or another since 1909, when the Jones Live-Map was patented – it incorporated a wheel and a pointer holding a series of paper map discs. The modern satnav was built on developments in the fields of both digital mapping and GPS technology, though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the first in-car consumer model appeared. Steven Lobbezoo’s Homer system was showcased at the Hannover Fair in 1985 and was based on a gadget in a James Bond movie but it wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that the devices became widely available (and were accurate enough to be of any use).

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15, The invention of the remote control is about much more than saving you the trouble of getting up off the sofa. It’s about the convenience of operating anything from a distance, whether it’s your hi-fi equipment or the locks on your car. The first TV remote control was sold in 1950 by electronics company Zenith – called the Lazy Bones, it was connected to the television by a wire, but it still enabled you to change the channel without moving from your seat. As devices got more complicated, so did the remotes used to control them. The first infrared TV remote hit went on sale in 1980 and was manufactured by Viewstar. The ability for viewers to change channels in an instant has had a profound effect on the way broadcasters show credits and advertisements, and helped to fuel the development of interactive television too, from Ceefax to smart apps.

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16, You may not like talking into them, but the answering machine – and its successor the voicemail – has certainly changed the world for good or bad. You can trace its origins back to the end of the 19th century, and after a few false starts the first commercially successful model was the Ansafone, created by Dr Kazuo Hashimoto, which went on sale in the US in 1960. Solid-state memory and cloud servers have replaced cassette tape, but the principle remains the same: since the 1960s the telephone has been about more than real-time conversation. Whether it’s phone hacking scandals or the admirer who leaves you sixteen messages every day, the answering machine and voicemail systems are now an integral part of modern life. Quite where the technology will go next as all our communication platforms join up on the Web remains to be seen.

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17, Telegrams seem antiquated by today’s technology standards, but for many decades they were an essential way of communicating urgent news over long distances – births, deaths, marriages, military orders and many other communications would have taken much longer to reach the intended recipient without the telegram. Telegraphy was first used to refer to line-of-sight signals: semaphore, smoke signals or beams of light that would pass messages across large distances. The first electrical telegraph systems appeared in the 1830s, and the term ‘telegram’ was born. By the 1900s, Brits were sending millions of telegrams every year (peaking at 82 million in 1913), underlining how essential this form of communication had become. You might be surprised to learn that telegraph operators used shortened abbreviations (very similar to today’s ‘text speak’) to keep messages as short as possible: the phrase ‘hw r u?’ dates not from the mobile phone era but from telegrams sent back in the 1890s.

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18, The electromagnetic wave technology inside our microwaves has helped to transform the way we eat and prepare food and means we can move at an even faster pace through life. Whether it’s reheating last night’s pizza, cooking a packaged meal for one or preparing popcorn, the microwave has a multitude of uses and has managed to find a home in most kitchens. What you might not know is that its invention came about by accident. Electronics engineer Percy Spencer, already well-known and well-respected in his field, stopped by one of his lab magnetrons (part of a radar set) and noticed the chocolate bar in his pocket begin to melt. Next he tested it with some unpopped popcorn. The first microwave oven he developed was five and a half feet tall and was sold in 1947, but it had plenty of shortcomings – a consumer-standard microwave did not arrive until 1967.

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19, It goes without saying that the field of science owes a huge debt to the microscope, a gadget that first appeared at the end of the 16th century (though there is some confusion over the inventor) and which is now a mainstay in any laboratory. During the 17th century the microscope was refined and became more widely used – red blood cells and micro-organisms were discovered by scientists using microscopes during this time. In the years that followed, alternatives to the original microscopy technique were developed, including electron microscopy and scanning probe microscopy which offered even greater levels of detail. The most common kind remains the optical microscope, and the device is now an essential tool for spotting and treating illness as well as discovering more about the world around us. From theories about quantum physics to new species of fungi, the microscope continues to have a huge influence on scientific research.

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20, Nowadays we take our televisions for granted, and can call up hundreds of channels’ worth of content at the press of a button, but none of this would be possible without the introduction of the very first television for the home in 1928. The Baird Model C was a primitive radio add-on based on scientific work from across the globe, and it was succeeded by the Televisor (shown above) which sold around a thousand units between 1930 and 1933. Units fitted with superior cathode ray tube technology (the predecessor to the flatscreen monitor and TV tech we have today) made their appearance in Germany in 1934. After the Second World War, television production and use began to take off in earnest.

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21, Let’s finish where we came in, with the wristwatch and wearable gadgets. Wristwatches became popular in the 1920s, building on the pocket timepieces carried by gentlemen of the time. They first proved their usefulness in the military, allowing soldiers to get an accurate idea of the time without having to dig out a cumbersome watch and chain from their pockets. Hans Wilsdorf, the founder and director of Rolex, was one of the earliest advocates of the wristwatch, and his work helped to increase accuracy and introduce other innovations such as waterproof casing. Analogue wristwatches were joined by digital equivalents, and now we have Bluetooth-operated devices like the Pebble to consider to. If the rumours are to be believed, the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung are all rushing to bring the next-generation of smart watches to the market, demonstrating not only the breakneck pace of technological innovation but also the prominent position that the wristwatch has in our lives today.

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