Tuesday, October 08, 2013

What's your favourite gadget from the last 100 years? The best invention or physical innovation?

When Radio Ulster's Talkback got in touch mid-morning with the question it set my mind racing. (With Wikipedia – and using an old-fashioned Google search as backup – it’s very straightforward to find out their history and uptake.)

A lot of the gadgets that immediately come to mind fell into the category of entertainment. Yet the ones that make most impact are those that are labour saving. Many early inventions have opened up the possibilities for further innovation.

A Channel 5 Gadget Show survey found zips to be the number one gadget. (Patented in 1917, though invented fifty years before.) Via the burr, zips have morphed into another fastener: Velcro, the zipperless zip.

My personal top three home-related gadgets (in no particular order and subject to change!) would be:
  • electric kettle (1922): fast access to tea, and freeing up the need to keep a stove lit;
  • electric blanket (1912): a real luxury, yet avoids the need of pouring boiling water into a hot water bottle;
  • smoke detectors (lower cost battery models only started to become available in 1965): saving lives with radioisotopes screwed to your ceiling.
The internet, Excel and more recent techie gadgets are deliberately absent from my list! But it also still overlooks:
  • Cats eyes (1933 and still going strong);
  • Push button phones introduced by AT&T in the US in 1963 have led to all kinds of other push button devices;
  • Cordless phones (remember those dodgy innovative pre-DECT analogue handsets) and baby monitors (allowing doors to be closed and sound to come out but not enter a room);
  • Wireless doorbell – we’ve lived in a string of houses where the mains doorbell didn’t work;
  • Double glazing took off in the US in the 1950s yet it was the 1870s and 1980s before it started saving heating bills in the UK;
  • Credit Cards (plastic cards appeared in 1950s) and networked cash machines/ATMs (1969) have not only changed how we access money but have also changed how we think about spending;
  • the Walkman freed people from listening to music in a particular room; the MP3 player freed them from having to owning physical content;
  • for me, the MP3 player offers time-shifted radio (podcasts) in the same way Tivo first offered time shifted TV without having to juggle tapes;
  • Space invader games (popular in the early 1980s) that ate batteries or required a DC adapter, led to Game Boy and Nintendo DS, and now game apps on phones;
  • Soap dispensers eliminating messy, slippery soap bars from sinks;
  • the Brownie camera in the first half of the twentieth century, Polaroid instant photos (1948) and now digital cameras everywhere (taking picture with the freedom to neither print them nor look at them again);
  • Cardiac pacemakers, external in the 1930s-1950s, but implantable from 1958;
  • the Mouse … which is slowly being replaced with the Finger!
I wonder if Talkback could cope if the digital clock hadn’t been invented?


Anonymous said...

Generally: radio, closely followed by television. But the "gadget" that made a huge difference to my life, as a child with quite bad asthma, was a Ventolin (salbutamol) inhaler.

Reymos said...

Interesting...I enjoyed reading it.