101 gadgets that changed the world

101 gadgets that changed the world
Picture by Jamie Chung
Date:1 August 2011 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The answering machine edges out the sewing machine. The electric guitar trumps the electric toothbrush. But from alarm clock to zipper, all of the items on our list have cultural signifi cance that belies their physical size. Ground rules: A gadget is something you can hold in your hands. Mechanical or electronic, it is a mass-produced, personal item that evolves from novelty to necessity and ultimately shows its paradigm- shifting power. All were selected and ranked by PM, HISTORY and a panel of esteemed inventors, designers and tech gurus, including a moon-walking astronaut. Let the countdown – and the inevitable debate – begin.
By the editor

1. Mobile/ Smartphones

The judges argued over all but one ranking: the smartphone was an easy top pick. With origins tracing back to Finland and Japan in the ‘70s, mobile phones have fast become the most widely used gadgets in the world. The first billion units sold in 20 years, the second billion in four years and the third billion in two. By the end of 2010, the subscription rate stood at 5 billion, or 3 of every 4 people on Earth. The tech leapt forward in 1983 with the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the first truly portable cellphone. The smartphone, with us since 2000, is now a pocket-sized PC. Wireless and GPS- and multimedia-enabled, it facilitates instantaneous personal connections that make phone conversations seem like cave paintings. People of developing nations, even those without an electrical grid, can tap into the world’s commerce and culture. After a scant 11 years of development, the device seems to have limitless potential.

2. Radio

Patented in 1896 as "wireless telegraphy" by Guglielmo Marconi – who based his work on technology developed by Nikola Tesla.

3. Television

Conceptualised in 1877 by Edison and Bell and patented by inventor Philo T Farnsworth in 1930, television spread rapidly after World War 2. Except in South Africa, that is, which got the goggle box only in 1975. Less than four decades later, SA was beaming the FIFA World Cup 2010 to billions worldwide.

4. Hypodermic Syringe

Invented in 1844, among other things it's spared millions from polio, TB and more via injected vaccines.

5. Personal computer

Altair’s 8800 debuted in 1975 as a hobbyist kit. Two months later, Bill Gates released a programming language for the Altair, and by 1977 the Apple II revealed the PC’s true potential: it shipped with the video game Breakout.

6. Air conditioner

See "Gizmo expos".

7. Telephone

"As a practical man, I did not quite believe it; as a theoretical man, I saw a speaking telephone by which we could have the means of transmitting speech and reproducing it in distant places. But it really seemed too good to be true…" – Alexander Graham Bell, POPULAR MECHANICS, 1912

8. Phonograph

see "Music Machines".

9. Alarm clock

Alarm clocks have been around for centuries, but clockmaker Seth Thomas's 1876 model, planted on the bedside table, helped drag the industrial revolution out of bed.

10. Lightbulb

see "Faceoff".

11. Dry cell battery

See 82 TORCH

12. Bicycle

Chain-driven safety bikes trumped bigwheel "ordinaries" and gave mobility to the masses – particularly bustle-wearing women.

13. Match

The first non-poisonous match wasn’t invented until 1910. Before that, a book of matches packed enough toxic white phosphorous to kill a person.

14. Qwerty keyboard

Christopher L Sholes studied letter-pair frequency and his resulting keyboard layout, introduced in the 1874 Remington Standard 2 typewriter, not only prevented type bars from crossing up, but lasted into the computer age.

15. Modem

In 1949, the first modems (MODulation/ DEModulation) converted air force radar data into sounds and squawked them over phone lines.

16. Transistor radio

See "Music machines".

17. Handheld GPS

After the US military system was opened up for civilian use in 1983, Magellan sold the first handheld unit in 1989.

18. Vacuum cleaner

Although early models were expensive, prices had dropped sufficiently by the mid-1950s to make upright vacuums a middle-class staple.

19. Brownie camera

Inexpensive and easy to operate, the Brownie brought the snapshot to the masses.

20. Remote control

see "Tube Toys".

21. Answering machine

Released in 1971, the Phone-Mate Model 400 was the first widely used example. It was a blessing and a curse: its tapes could capture 20 messages, enabling selective communication.

22. VCR

See "Tube toys".

23. Laptop

A successful early laptop, the GRiD Compass 1101 – a clamshell computer of 1982 – weighed a whopping 5 kilograms.

24. Sewing machine

See "Gizmo expos".

25. HI-FI

See "Music machines".

26. Shifting spanner

See "Man at Work".

27. Blackberry

"It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages so simply that an individual can carry his own apparatus," inventor Nikola Tesla said in 1909. The BlackBerry arrived in 1999.

28. Electric guitar

Leo Fender designed the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, the Telecaster, in 1951.

29. Camcorder

At its height, America's Funniest Home Videos was getting 2 000 tapes a day, testimony to the success of JVC'S 1984 creation.

30. CD player

See "Music machines" (pg 31).

31. LED

See "Faceoff".

32. Mouse

First paired with Apple's Lisa computer in 1983, it retains the same basic design.

33. Microwave

See "Cook-o-matic".

34. Digital camera

Kodak retired Kodachrome film in 2009 after 74 years of service as this gadget, introduced in 1990, took off.

35. Microphone

A single word explains its role in bridging East and West: karaoke.

36. 8 MM Camera

It's the most famous home movie in history: 486 frames that record on Kodachrome II safety film the assassination of US President John F Kennedy.

37. Wristwatch

In 1901, while celebrating in Paris after winning a prize for circling the Eiffel Tower in a dirigible, Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked his friend Louis Cartier to design a watch that would permit him to time aerial manoeuvres and still keep his hands on the controls. Three years later the Santos men's wristwatch, with leather strap and buckle, went on sale.

38. HDTV

See "Tube toys".

39. Electric drill

See "Man at work".

40. WI-FI Router

Wi-Fi has made its way into more than 9 000 devices, from phones to TVs, since its introduction in 2000.

41. Pocket calculator

The first all-transistor calculator was too heavy to fit into a shirt pocket: the IBM 608 weighed 2 tons. By 1976, four-function pocket calculators were cheap – and pocket-friendly.

42. MP3 player

See "Music machines".

43. Polaroid camera

In 1943, 3-year-old Jennifer Land asked her father Edwin, "Why can't I see the pictures now?" Five years later, Land's company, Polaroid, began selling instant film and cameras.

44. Floppy disc

See "Saving the world".

45. Sony walkman

See "Music machines".

46. Fire extinguisher

The first model (1723) sounds more dangerous than the fire: a cask that held liquid and a pewter gunpowder chamber connected to fuses. At the first flicker of flame the occupant lit the fuses to ignite the gunpowder, which scattered the retardant. We’ve moved on since then.

47. Multitool

See "Faceoff".

48. Game boy

Among the most successful gaming systems ever, with 118 million units and half a million games sold.

49. Circular saw

See "Man at work".

50. Cassette tape

See "Music machines".

51. Lawnmower

See "Man at work".

52. Kindle e-reader

"I'm not a gadget freak, but I have fallen in love with this thing." – Oprah Winfrey

53. Car jack

Richard Dudgeon devised his first hydraulic jack in 1850 for, would you believe it, shipyards and railway repair yards.

54. Ballpoint pen

Hungarian newspaper editor Laszlo Biro took out a patent on the first practical ballpoint in 1938.

55. CB radio

The CB craze of the 1970s was epitomised by Smokey and the Bandit, but like hula hoops, it's now restricted to a tiny minority.

56. Tape recorder

In 1935, AEG came up with a tape-based improvement on existing wire recorders. It wasn't until the next century that digital tech overtook tape in everyday use.

57. Hair dryer

These personal-care staples were created by engineers engaged in building blender motors.

58. Outboard motor

Ole Evinrude's outboard motor was patented in 1911, but it wasn't until post-World War 2 that powerboating became the choice weekend recreation of the upwardly mobile.

59. CD-ROM

See "Saving the world".

60. Moog Synthesiser

Among the first widely used electronic instruments, the Moog had analogue circuits to generate sound electronically. Without it, the Doors’ Strange Days, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends and the Beatles’ Abbey Road would have sounded very different.

61. Smoke detector

Duane Pearsall wanted to curb static in photo darkrooms but noticed that a meter measuring ion concentration on his staticcontrol device flatlined whenever cigarette smoke hit it. By accident, he had discovered how to make an ionisation smoke detector.

62. Charcoal grill

There's a good reason it looks like a buoy. Chicago metal-shop owner George Stephen borrowed the same shape – and material-  used in a harbour guide when he built the first Weber kettle in 1951.

63. Lunchbox

When Aladdin Industries launched the Hopalong Cassidy kit in 1950, it kicked off the lunchbox boom: between 1950 and 1970, 120 million lunchboxes shot off US shelves as the youth scrambled to get the latest in branded boxes.

64. Derringer

The derringer used to assassinate US president Abraham Lincoln was actually a deringer with one r. Renowned pistol-maker Henry Deringer's original Philadelphia Deringer, produced from 1852 through 1868, spawned copycats worldwide, and the name – albeit misspelled . became a generic term for any small, large-calibre handgun.

65. Zipper

See "Gizmo expos".

66. Tape measure

See "Man at work".

67. Binoculars

After Pearl Harbour, the Universal Film Company reconfigured its film manufacturing lines to mass-produce binoculars for use in fields where birders dared not tread.

68. Coleman lantern

WC Coleman marketed his Quick- Lite to farmers in 1916, but as electrification spread to rural areas, he rebranded the device as an outdoorsman's essential.

69. Electric toothbrush

US Navy submarines didn't have too much to smile about: subsisting on mushy canned food for months on end, they got almost zero gum stimulation. Electric toothbrushes came aboard 1959, solving the problem. They later found a wider audience – and inspired the invention of another vibrating device (but that's a gadget for an entirely different article).

70. Boombox

See "Music machines".

71. Kodak carousel

Adman Don Draper said it best in his pitch to Kodak execs in an episode of the '60s-set show Mad Men: "This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine." He waxed poetic about the Carousel, the ingenious 35-mm side projector, while clicking through images of his family life before it unravelled. "It lets us travel the way a child travels . around and around and back home again."

72. Stopwatch

When the TAG Heuer Mikrograph stopwatch was invented in 1916, it allowed the measurement of time with unprecedented accuracy . down to 1/100 of a second This precision led to significant changes in the sports world, including records such as the world's first sub-4-minute mile (3:59,4 by Roger Bannister on 6 May, 1954). Digital stopwatches, accurate to 1/1000 of a second, debuted in 1971.

73. Printer

Hewlett-Packard's Laserjet cost about R20 000 when it came out in 1984. Today, lasers are cheap, but their ammo isn't: a toner cartridge for a R750 laserjet costs R500.

74. Safety razor

Stay with us now: "Every razor sold represents a saving of half an hour spent in a barbershop… with an approximate number of 10 million customers, this would represent a saving of 5 million hours… (or) 500 000 days of the labour of 500 000 men. (A)t $3 per day (this) represents a saving of $1,5 million per day, or for a year of 300 days, $450 million." – King Camp Gillette, inventor, Gillette Safety Razor, 1918

75. Electric blanket

Breakfast-cereal inventor and sanatorium director John Kellogg advocated sleeping outdoors to promote general wellness. His "thermo-electric" blanket enabled residents to enjoy fresh air regardless of the season.

76. Chain saw

See "Man at work".

77. DVD player

See "Tube toys".

78. Can opener

See "Cook-OMatic".

79. Swiss army knife

See "Faceoff".

80. Spincast fishing reel

In 1949, the Zero Hour Bomb Company faced extinction, with its patent on an oilfield time bomb running out. Plans for an easy-to-use enclosed-spool fishing reel prompted a company name change to Zebco – and the rest is history.

81. Leaf blower

See "Man at work".

82. Torch

The invention of the dry cell battery (11) in 1886 paved the way for the torch, released in 1898. Early versions earned the moniker "flashlight" for their inability to provide a steady beam.

83. Toaster

See "Cooko- matic".

84. Drip coffee maker

See "Cook-o-matic".

85. Sunglasses

Regardless of which Ray-Ban Aviator icon you pick . General Douglas MacArthur during World War 2 or Tom Cruise in Top Gun – it all started in 1929 on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Sam Foster hawked America's first mass-produced plastic sunglasses to beachgoers.

86. Hearing aid

According to the USA's National Institutes of Health, only one out of five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one.

87. Ginsu knife

For better or worse, the ads for these blades ushered in the era of the infomercial tout: "But wait – there's more."

88. Flash drive

See "Saving the world".

89. Teflon pan

See "Cook-o-matic".

90. Zippo

The Zippo moment . when a concert audience raises its lighters in the air – has been rocking the power ballad since the '60s. In 2008, the company introduced an iPhone app for that: the digital Zippo operates just like the real thing, opening with a flick of the wrist, lighting with a swipe of the flint wheel and mimicking real flame movement as the user waves his phone in the air.

91. DVR

See "Tube toys".

92. Picnic cooler

That tub you use to chill beer was patented in 1951 as a "Portable ice chest for storing foods and the like".

93. Bra

"I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it." – Mary Phelps Jacobs, who in 1914 used handkerchiefs, ribbon and cord to create an early vision of the bra.

94. Blender

See "Cook-o-matic".

95. Super soaker

Since 1990, no fewer than two dozen Super Soaker models have wrought backyard mayhem, but none is more coveted than the CPS 2000 Mk1. The most powerful water gun ever manufactured, it shoots nearly a litre of water per second up to 15 metres. The Mk1 was discontinued soon after its release, but it's available on eBay for a cool R2 000.

96. Quick-release ski bindings

Champion skier Hjalmar Hvam invented the Saf-ski system while recuperating from an accident aggravated by fixed ski bindings. Local relevance: the ubiquitous clipin pedals used by cyclists were pioneered by Look, who drew on their own experience in clip-in ski bindings.

97. Aerosol spray can

In 1941, Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan used the newly discovered refrigerant Freon to enable the deployment of a lethal (to bugs, anyway) mist by troops fighting on insect-infested fronts. The "bug bomb" cocktail, held in a 500 ml steel canister, consisted of Freon-12, sesame oil and pyrethrum (the last is a natural insecticide derived from chrysanthemum blooms).

98. Roomba

Before it unveiled the Roomba Floorvac for the home market in 2002, iRobot built landmine-clearing robots, which used the so-called crop circle algorithm. The same tech was adapted to enable the Roomba to circle and sweep autonomously. The device is far and away the best-selling mobile robot.

99. Stapler

Said to date back to the 17th-century French court, the stapler as we know it was patented in the 1800s.

100. Glass fibre fishing rod

When hostilities in Asia curtailed bamboo imports, rodmakers needed a new material to keep anglers equipped with low-cost, quality tackle in the 1950s and 1960s; enter glass fibre.

101. Duct tape

Astronauts have used it to make repairs on the Moon and in space. The Myth- Busters built a boat with the stuff. And enthusiasts have used it to make party dresses and wallets. You might say it's a material, not a gadget, but trust us: duct tape is the ultimate multitool.

Panel of experts
Drawing from the fields of design, technology and invention, Popular Mechanics and History assembled a panel of experts who helped select and rank the 101 most significant gadgets.

Buzz Aldrin
Apollo 11 astronaut

Greg Allgood
Director, Children’s Safe Drinking Water at Procter & Gamble

Paola Antonelli
Curator of architecture and design, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Bianca Bosker
Technology editor, Huffington Post

George Davison
Founder and CEO of Davison International

James Dyson
Inventor, Dyson Dual Cyclone vacuum

Shawn Frayne
Inventor/president, Humdinger Wind Energy

Lauren Goode
Producer/reporter, The Wall Street Journal Digital

Lonnie Johnson
Inventor, Super Soaker

Brian Lam
Editorial director, Gizmodo

Tim Leatherman
Inventor/founder, Leatherman Tool Group

John Maeda
President, Rhode Island School of Design

David Pogue
Technology columnist, The New York Times

Elspeth Rountree

Digital strategist

Witold Rybczynski

Martin and Margy Meyerson professor of urbanism and professor of real estate, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Tim Wu
Professor of law, Columbia University; author, The Master Switch

Music machines
This gadgetry tracks the rise and fall of formats – both recording and playback – and the spread of different genres

8. Phonograph
When Thomas Edison unveiled the first device to record and play back sound in 1877, he foresaw – brace yourself – automated messages delivered over phones. Luckily, Edison’s embossed tin cans gave way to the wax cylinders and vinyl discs that spawned the recording industry.

Transistor radio
Regency TR-1 of 1954 replaced valves with transistors. (16)

HI-FI
The 1950s boom spawned gadget buffs masquerading as music purists. (25)

Cassette tape
Birth of the bootleg. (50)

Walkman
Music gets personal. (45)

Boombox
We take the party to the streets. (70)

CD player
Having supplanted vinyl, overtook cassette in the 2000s. (30)

MP3 player
Spending on music dropped drastically as digital downloads broke the record-company mould. (42)

Gadgets that will change the future
Personal robots

The first mass-market home robots are not multifunction servants, but rather purpose-built autonomous machines. So, in future we’ll be served by intelligent appliances, not the mechanical “people” we’d envisaged.

Faceoff

INCANDESCENT

 

LED (31)

131 Age 49
Multiple (usually Thomas Edison) Inventor Multiple (usually Nick Holonyak of GE credited with the first practical visible-spectrum LED)
R9 Average cost per bulb R200 (est)
1 500 hours Life hours 60 000 hours
14,5 lumens/watt Efficiency 65 lumens/watt
Original heavyweight now generates more heat than light Split decision Low-watt upstart odds-on favourite as the future of lighting.

Gadgets that will change the future
Inductive chargers

Now available as accessories from companies such as Powermat and Energizer, plugless chargers will soon be integrated directly into devices, making power as wireless as data currently is. Future systems could run small appliances and even TVs.

Tube toys
We submit: the gadgets that make television easier and more fun to watch rival the invention of the TV itself

20. Remote control
Zenith’s Lazy Bones, invented in the 1950s, use a wire; the fi rst wireless remote, the Flash-matic, used a beam of light.

VCR
Sony’s first Betamax VCR in the mid-1970s started a court battle lasting in the 1980s about the legality of home taping. (22)

DVD Player
The first DVD movie release was Twister, a year after the fi rst player came out in 1996. (77)

Digital HDTV
Since it arrived in shops in 1998, High-def has steadily gained ground: more than half of US households have HDTV. (38)

Digital video recorder
The DVR didn’t kill the TV advertisement – it just made people watch even more TV. (91)

Gizmo Expos
Come one, come all to the world’s fair and marvel at the optimistic, futuristic tech

24. Sewing machine

Eighty years after the first mechanical stitcher cut the time it took to sew a shirt from 14 hours to 1, Singer unveiled a portable version (the 5 kg Featherweight).

Domestic air conditioner
In 1953, Americans alone bought more than a million window a/c units; over the past five years manufacturers shipped (gasp!) 41 million. (6)

Zip
The button’s dominance began to slip in 1921, when B F Goodrich used a “separable fastener” in its Zipper boots. (65)

Man at work
These gadget turned home into diy castles

26. Shifting spanner
Invented in the 1800s, the shifter is still a go-to home repair tool.

Electric drill
The workshop’s most common power tool was introduced by Black & Decker in 1916, with a grip loosely based on the handle of the Colt – 45. (39)

Circular saw
The quest to downsize and repurpose the spinning blades used in sawmills led to the 1923 invention of the worm-drive circular saw by Edmond Michel, whose company later became Skilsaw. (49)

Lawnmower
The essential garden gadget was inspired by a factory tool: the carpet cutter. (51)

Tape measure (66)

Chain saw
Backyard warriors have been using solo saws to prune trees and cut fi rewood since the 1950s. (76)

Leaf blower
Petrol-powered models are noisy and air-polluting, but that hasn’t stopped their proliferation: they do, after all, reduce garden-maintenance time. (81)

Gadgets that will change the future
Motion-capture devices

The Microsoft Kinect Xbox peripheral is the first mass-market motioncapture device; its tech pioneered a new gestural computer interface. In the future interactions with computers will be conversational – and facial expressions may take the place of a mouse.

Saving the world
When it comes to digital storage, size cuts both ways – ever smaller devices with ever greater capacity. Here, 40 years of growth (and shrinkage)

44. Floppy disc
Introduced by IBM in 1971, now-extinct floppies live on in the Save icon on dropdown menus.

CD-ROM
killed the floppy with huge storage capacity. (59)

Flash drive
In the early 1980s, Toshiba engineer Fujio Masuoka developed flash memory, so named because the erasure process reminded a colleague of a camera flash. The f rst USB memory stick arrived in 2000 with all of 8 megabytes of storage. (88)

Faceoff
Leatherman (47)   Swiss Army Knife (79)
Tim Leatherman, engineer The inventor Karl Elsener, cutler
Frustration. A European vacation and the inadequacy of a mere
pocketknife to turn a stripped radiator handle.
The motivation Nationalism. Elsener was upset that Swiss soldiers carried German-made knives.
The Pocket Survival Tool, introduced in 1983, had 14 tools, including pliers, four screwdrivers, a can opener, an awl and a blade. The start The Soldatenmesser, introduced in 1891, had four tools: a blade, an awl, a can opener and a screwdriver.
The Surge has 21 tools
and two drill bits.
The stats The SwissChamp has 35 tools, including a chisel.
A hard-charging contender for the top spot. The winner A timeless tool that has
the edge for now.

Gadgets that will change the future
Mobile hotspots

Receivers such as the Novatal MiFi hotspot, which takes long-range cellular signals and turns them into short-range Wi-Fi networks may, in future, allow highspeed Internet access to reach areas where broadband infrastructure cannot.

Cook-o-matic
1950s kitchens were testbeds for innovation

78. Can opener
GE rolled out the automatic electric can opener in 1958.

Toaster
The pop-up toaster came of age in the ‘50s, using heat sensors, not timers, to deliver perfectly browned bread. (83)

Blender
In a 1949 TV commercial, blenders became more than drink mixers: the Vita-Mix created a meal from peanuts, carrots, apples and eggs – shells included. (94)

Teflon pan
DuPont says the coating it debuted in 1961 has “the world’s most slippery substance”; 50 years’ worth of eggs agree. (89)

Microwave
The first countertop microwave hit shops in 1967 – and stayed there. But radiation fears couldn’t beat the reheat: by 1975, microwaves outsold conventional stoves. (33)

Drip coffee maker
Mr Coffee brought filter coffee into the US home in 1972, rendering the percolator obsolete. (84)

Gadgets that will change the future
Wireless health monitors

Healthcare communications products such as the Bosch Health Buddy have the potential to help tame out-of-control healthcare costs by reducing expensive doctor’s-office visits and enabling remote diagnostics.

Gadgets that will change the future
Tablets

Apple’s iPad is already a commercial success, but we are only beginning to see the effects of its influence. Tablets represent a new leanback computing platform that is changing the design of everything from games to fine literature – yes, PopMech has a tablet edition!