Before even discussing the most influential, important developments of the technology age, the simple transistor must claim its rank near the top. Or, more accurately, the incredible shrink-ability of said transistor.
In 1947, the world’s first working example of a transistor, a crude-looking assembly seemingly made up of various bits of wire, assorted spare parts, ample doses of solder, and what looks like an ancient Indian arrowhead, sprang to life in a nondescript room at Bell Labs’ Murray Hill, New Jersey facility. That transistor would evolve – and shrink – quite substantially over the course of the next three decades, and by 1979, Intel engineers had figured a way to incorporate an astounding 29,000 of them into its landmark 8088 processor. But that number positively pales in comparison with today’s Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, which features 10,000 times as many (291 million), and Intel’s upcoming eight-core processors, which will sport an astounding 2.3 billion.
But we won’t bore you with a lengthy discussion of the transistor, nor the silicon chips upon which they reside. Instead, we’re going to offer up a look at what we feel are the most revolutionary products of the miniaturized transistor age – those benchmark tech-related hardware goods that have helped shape the world in which we live today. One prerequisite: Each item must have been available to the average consumer via regular retail channels. So, despite the fact that we think the invention of USB was pretty damn cool, USB ports were generally attached to other devices, and so they won’t make the list.
Granted, your list may be quite a bit different than ours. After all, there’s a ton of stuff from which to choose. Nevertheless, when it comes to popularity, adoption, revolution, and evolution, there’s little doubt the following ten products played – and in many cases, continue to play – lead roles.
The Desktop Computer
Prior to the late 1970’s, when upstart Apple Computer, Inc. released its Apple II microcomputer, and early 1980’s when Intel finished development of its now-famed 80286 processor (known colloquially by many as the “286”), home computers were generally incapable of serious tasks or serious entertainment. The oft-used term “glorified calculator” may be overstating the simplicity of early machines such as the Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore PET 2001, but with rinky-dink processors, pint-size keyboards, puny monochrome displays, software compatibility issues, and a distinct absence of a pointing device, they were far removed from the multitasking, fully-connected powerhouses of the following two decades.
In the course of the next three decades, as desktop computers became infinitely more powerful and capable, increasingly easier to use, and substantially more affordable, there was a momentous shift in the way they were viewed. Somewhere along the way – around about the turn of the millennium, when Microsoft released Windows XP and surveys showed that women made up the majority of new Internet users – they became less an option and more a necessity. Though laptops and smartphones have already supplanted the desktop computer for some folks, there’s no denying how it has forever altered our society.
The Video Cassette Recorder
A video recorder that uses tapes that degrades with time and forces you to endure the painstaking process of rewinding and fast-forwarding seems archaic today, but forty years ago the very notions of recording television programs to watch at later dates and renting uncensored, commercial-free movies were downright mind-blowing.
In development since the 1950s, the video cassette recorder concept experienced (and perhaps set the template for) the same teething pains as so many succeeding tech products: inordinately high initial pricing, copy protection issues, and format wars (the battle between JVC’s VHS and Sony’s Betamax is cited even today when describing particularly nasty technological rivalries). Yet when the smoke cleared and prices had dropped to affordable levels, the VCR was a household must-have.
DVDs have since become the preferred medium for renting, buying, and watching movies, and digital video recorders such as TiVo have supplanted VHS for recording television broadcasts. Yet the VCR remains a staple in many homes even today, another reason why the technology that single-handedly and powerfully altered our video viewing habits deserves a spot in our top ten.
The Gaming Console
According to the Entertainment Software Association, two-thirds of American heads of households play video games. If that doesn’t amaze and astound you, check this out: Nearly a quarter of game players are now over the age of fifty. And finally: Until just last month, when video game sales finally exhibited the impact of the recession, the video game industry as a whole had been considered one of the most recession-resistant sectors in the entire high-tech marketplace. Sales of video and computer games in 2008 hit a record $21.8 billion.
So when Magnavox and Atari introduced versions of Pong to living rooms around the world way back in 1975, they were clearly onto something good. Mattel followed not many years later with its excellent Intellivision, then Coleco with its ColecoVision, and the race was on. We’ve never really turned back since, and some believe the gaming console may soon form the basis of a new breed of mainstream computer that won’t be confined to the home office.
Can we even doubt the importance of the Internet? From its humble beginnings as a semi-secretive military communications and networking system in the 1960s, to the social, information, retail, and communications juggernaut it is today, the Internet is one of the most powerful developments in the annals of mankind. But in order to take advantage of it, you must access it. And that’s where the modem comes in – turning all that data into ones and zeroes for transmission, then turning it all back into data at the other end.
The Smartmodem, developed in 1981 by Hayes Communications, paved the way for today’s modems by being the first to offload the connection process into the computer, automating and streamlining what had been a two-step process into a single step. It also spurred the rise of the BBS, effectively the most popular method of social interaction and remote computer-to-computer communication in the days before the Internet became accessible to the public at large.
The Computer Mouse
Noted tech commentator John C. Dvorak does not harbor a lot of love for Apple. Nor does he refrain from shooting off his mouth – often to his own detriment. One of the most notable of many notable Dvorak quotes appeared in 1984 when he blurted, “The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a ‘mouse.’ There is no evidence that people want to use these things.”
How wrong can one man be? Originally developed in the early ‘60s, but not commercially available until the rise of the desktop computer two decades later, the computer mouse took off and has yet to be replaced. We’ve since seen trackballs and magic wands and a wide variety of purported mouse successors, but nothing has proven to be as convenient or as natural. Mechanical, optical, corded or cordless – you likely have one in your hand right now, don’t you?
Though technologies such as voice recognition and/or touch screens may eventually threaten its dominance, we think it’ll be a long time before this seemingly simple, yet oh-so-effective device is rendered obsolete.
The Laser Printer
We know, we know. Personal printers existed far before the advent of the laser printer, in the form of the dot matrix. And, in some people’s eyes, the laser has since been bettered by inkjets. So why do we include the laser printer in our Top Ten? For a few reasons, really.
First, the technology behind it, whereby a laser beam transfers an image to a photosensitive drum that then attracts negatively charged toner particles to that image, is way cool – particularly considering that the concept was born back in the early 1970s, when many lasers were confined to Pink Floyd concerts. Second, seeing that the first laser printers were the size of small apartments and that the first commercially available units cost tens of thousands of dollars, we see no reason on Earth why today’s pint-sized, sub-$50 machines can be considered anything but an astounding bargain. And finally, we have an affinity for any printing technology that’s so accurate it can rival lithography, so fast that it can pump out a finished product in a couple of seconds, and so maintenance-resistant that you never need to worry about annoyances such as clogged nozzles.
The Laptop Computer
The development of portable computers didn’t lag too far behind that of the desktop. Indeed, the concept of portable computing was first brought to light in the early 1970s, and the first commercially available machines followed later that decade. Of course, precious few could afford to drop ten grand on a cumbersome, battery-draining device that couldn’t effectively do much more than a calculator. By 1990, laptops had improved dimensions, weight, and capabilities, and the big guns of today’s laptop scene had already entered the fray.
We all know what’s happened since then, though special attention must be given to the events of the last few recessionary years in particular, in which prices have tumbled and capabilities have increased so dramatically that your new desktop may well be a laptop. How can a device that ultimately improved upon the technology era’s greatest device not be in the Top Ten?
The Digital Camera
There are holdouts – those who believe the art of photography was forever lost when the ones and zeroes of the digital age chased analog film and analog cameras forever to the great darkroom in the sky. And you know, they do have a point.
However, for the vast majority of us, the digital camera made photography less an art form than a key part of our daily lives. Before the digital camera, how often would you consider grabbing, say, a shot of your best buddies at the local watering hole, developing the film, scanning it into your PC, and emailing it to all your other friends? Similarly, would you ever consider snapping 40 or 50 film photos of a single subject just to ensure you captured that perfect shot? We didn’t think so.
The Cell Phone
Though it’s easy to look back on the earliest cell phones – monstrous obelisks with equally monstrous antennas – and laugh at the wanton nerd-ism so clearly on display, there’s little doubt that life has changed dramatically since the advent and widespread adoption of the cell phone. Even those who didn’t want to adopt were pretty much forced to as pay phones around nation quite suddenly disappeared.
And what about those places where pay phones never did exist? Places like that beautiful mountaintop, where you feel so compelled to call someone just to tell them how beautiful it really is? Or places like that steep path you take to reach mountaintops, where, before the cell phone, no one would ever know if you’d fallen and broken your leg.
The concept of wireless communications was with us over a century ago. One question. What took so long to put it into practice?
A camera. A cell phone. A GPS device. A wireless Internet browser and email facilitator. A portable gaming system. A music player. An e-book reader. And a handheld PC with, in the case of the Apple iPhone, more than 20,000 available applications.
Less a revolutionary leap forward than a natural convergence of virtually every other technological advancement detailed in this article, the smartphone may soon become that rare device that none of us can do without. A substantially more frightening prospect for many of today’s high-tech manufacturers: the likelihood that many of us will eventually wave bye-bye to a variety of standalone devices. We wonder if IBM fully envisioned the repercussions when it debuted a prototype of what is commonly accepted as the first smartphone, the “Simon,” way back in 1993.
Now, if only we could do something about the price of those monthly plans…