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101 Gadgets that changed the world - Part 10 of 10







It entertaines billions


There are 1.3 billion phone lines in use around the world


What do the Vacuum Cleaner, the spectacles and the TV remote controlhave in common? They are gadgets that changed the world. This is part 10 of a series of 10 articles in which you will learn about the 101 gadgets that changed our world from prehistory to today.


1. Radio, 1895

We were nearly denied radio by an uncharacteristic lack of foresight shown by one Heinrich Hertz who, while demonstrating electromagnetic waves in 1888, told his students, "I don't see any useful purpose for this mysterious, invisible electromagnetic energy." Fortunately, Alexander Popov, a Russian, and the Italian-Irish inventor Guglielmo Marconi, saw the potential in the technology and separately sent and received the first radio waves. Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio message (three dots for the letter "S") in 1901.

2. Spectacles, 1451

The correcting qualities of stone have been known for millennia – Emperor Nero was thought to use emerald to watch (presumably green-tinted) gladiatorial games. Modern glasses were first depicted in a 1352 portrait of Hugh de Provence, and the first evidence of their sale dates to 1450s Florence. The US founding father Benjamin Franklin is credited with the invention of bifocals in 1784 and useable contact lenses followed in 1887. Today, an estimated 75 per cent of UK adults sports a pair of specs.

3. Telephone, 1876

Frenchman Charles Bourseul first proposed transmitting speech electronically in 1854, but he was ahead of his time and it took another six years before Johann Reis used a cork, knitting needle, sausage skin and a piece of platinum to transmit sound, if not intelligible speech (that took another 16 years). Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell raced to make the first working phone in the 1870s, Bell winning in a photo-finish. Today there are 1.3 billion phone lines in use around the world.

4. Television, 1925

Without it there would be no Celebrity Love Island, no Extraordinary Breastfeeding (Channel 4, 2006), no Chantelle. OK, so it hasn't all been bad – television has helped connect people around the world, entertained billions, and kept generations of children occupied on lazy Sunday mornings. Not that CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, was impressed. He said in 1920: "Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it." Scotsman John Logie Baird first demonstrated TV to the public in 1925.

5. Thermometer, 1592

It is difficult to place the thermometer in the history of modern invention; it is one of those devices that would inevitably appear – the product of no single mind. Galileo Galilei is most commonly credited, but his clumsy air thermometer, in which a column of air trapped in water expanded when warmed, was the culmination of more than 100 years of improvement. The classic mercury-in-glass thermometer, still in use today, was conceived by Daniel Fahrenheit in the 1720s.

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6. TV remote control, 1950

It is no surprise that the first remote control, made by the US company Zenith Electronics, was quickly nicknamed "Lazybones". The device, originally linked to the television by an unsightly wire, enabled generations of channel hopping couch potatoes to sit back and zap. In 1955, Zenith released the first wireless remote, the "Flashmatic", which spawned the family of remotes that now crowds the average coffee table. Universal remotes, made by One For All, followed in 1987.

7. Vacuum cleaner, 1901

Cumbersome contraptions that required the user to crank a handle while pushing them along the floor were sucking up dust in the US as early as the 1860s. The first powered vacuum cleaner arrived in 1901 but Hubert Booth's huge device relied on a five horse-power engine. The American cleaner James Spangler refined the vacuum in 1908 with the introduction of a pillow case to collect dust. He sold the rights to a saddle and leather company by the name of Hoover. The rest, along with dust in millions of homes around the world, is history.

8. VHS recorder, 1976

For more than 30 years after TV broadcasting as we know it appeared in the 1930s, viewers were forced to cancel dates and delay dinners if they wanted to catch the latest episode of Coronation Street (well, the Coronation of King George VI, anyway). Video recording in fact dates back to 1927, when John Logie Baird used wax discs, but it wasn't until JVC won the video format war with Sony that its VHS format became the standard, bringing the power to record into every home.

9. Walkman, 1979

Today we take music on the move for granted – naturalists have even speculated that future iPod generations will evolve headphone jacks where our tails used to sprout. Well, not really, but most of today's music listeners will not remember a time when mobile music meant groaning under the weight of a ghettoblaster. Sony came up with the first popular personal stereo cassette player, although the German-Brazilian Andreas Pavel had patented a similar device called the Stereobelt in 1978. The Walkman was commissioned by the firm's opera-loving chief, Akio Morita (see CD), who wanted to access all arias on plane flights.

10. Mobile phone, 1947

There are more than two billion mobile phones in the world, and the EU is home to more "cells", as the American's call them, than people. It is difficult to quantify the economic and social impact of the device – of all the gadgets in the average person's arsenal, it is surely the one we would be worst off without. Those who disagree can blame Bell Laboratories for their invention; the firm introduced the first service in Missouri in 1947. Widespread coverage in Britain did not begin until the late 1980s.

11. SMS, 1992

Linguist purists H8 txtspk. The Short Message Service (SMS) has developed the thumbs of a generation of communicators who have devised their own shorthand, textspeak, to stay in touch (and uncover extra-marital affairs). The British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first (unabbreviated) text 15 years ago. It read: "MERRY CHRISTMAS". Their popularity exploded in the late 1990s and now in the UK alone we send millions every day (a record 214 million last New Year's Eve).


Read more about the 101 Gadgets that change the world in Parts 1 to 9 of this series of articles.  

The content for this series of articles is gathered from various online resources.


See all 14 articles in category Gadgets and Technology Products



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