New technologies emerge all the time, but only a handful change everything that follows in their wake. And they're not always the first of their kind.
For example, Gottlieb Daimler may have invented the prototype gas engine vehicle in 1885, but it wasn't a game changer.
Henry Ford's 1912 Model T was the game changer because it made mass-produced cars affordable to ordinary Americans. And that in turn affected everything from where we live and work to the sustainability of our planet's natural resources.
For good or ill, the following 12 technologies changed our lives--and sometimes entire industries--in ways both simple and profound.
Did we miss anything major? We're sure you'll let us know in the comments below.
1. Zenith Flash-Matic TV Remote (1955)
Think about it: When was the last time you got up off your duff to change the channel? Or, for that matter, manually opened a garage door, used a key to open your car, or turned a knob on any piece of consumer electronics?
Thank the Flash-Matic, the first wireless TV remote, which used flashing lights to turn the set on and off, control volume, and cycle between channels.
Introduced in 1955, it was shortly followed by the Zenith Space Command, which used ultrasonic waves to channel-surf and dominated the lives of couch potatoes until infrared remotes took over in the early 1980s.
Before the remote, TV viewers were likely to pick one channel (of the three available) and watch until the test pattern came on. TV remotes arguably helped pressure broadcasters to produce better shows and more channels (though somehow we still ended up with "Gilligan's Island" and "The Biggest Loser"). They also changed what we expect from our devices.
Now you can use an iPhone app to control not only your TV, but your DVR, computer, home audio gear, the lights in your house, burglar alarms, and certain models of cars. You may never have to get off your duff again.
2. Sputnik (1957)
Like any massively successful project, the Internet has many fathers. But the earliest claim to paternity may belong to an 183-pound hunk of aluminum hurled into orbit on October 4, 1957. Sputnik not only launched the space race, it also started a technological cold war that led to the creation of the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, or ARPA).
"ARPA had a license to look for visionaries and wild ideas and sift them for viable schemes," writes Howard Rheingold in his book The Virtual Community (Chapter Three is called "Visionaries and Convergences: The Accidental History of the Net"). "When [MIT professor J. C. R.] Licklider suggested that new ways of using computers ... could improve the quality of research across the board by giving scientists and office workers better tools, he was hired to organize ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office."
Licklider and his successors at ARPA sought out "unorthodox programming geniuses"--the hackers of their day. The result: ARPAnet, the precursor to today's Internet. Without the space race, the Net might not yet exist. Other side benefits of that massive R&D infusion: advanced microprocessors, graphical interfaces, and memory foam mattresses.
3. Atari Pong (1972)
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Back in the early 1970s, no sane person would have predicted that swatting a small "ball" of pixels pinging between two rectangular "paddles" would spawn a $22 billion home gaming industry. Pong was not the first home video game system, but the massive popularity of its home version (introduced in 1976) lead to the first home PCs, as well as to our current console-game universe.
Yet Pong is far from just a museum piece. Last March, students at the Imperial College of London announced that they had developed a version of Pong that could be controlled using only your eyes.
A Webcam attached to a pair of glasses uses infrared light to track the movements of one eye; software translates that into the movement of a rectangular paddle on a screen. The idea is to make computer games more accessible to the disabled. Even today, Pong continues to be a game changer.
4. IBM PC Model 5150 (1981)
Before IBM unleashed the "PC" onto the world in August 1981, there were perhaps a dozen completely incompatible personal computers, all of which required their own software and peripherals. Shortly after August 1981 there were just three: the PC itself, the dozens of clone-makers doing their best to copy IBM's open design, and those pesky Apple guys.
The IBM label turned personal computers from a toy for hobbyists and gamers into a business tool, while software like Lotus 1-2-3 and Wordstar gave businesses a reason to buy them.
The PC's open architecture enabled software vendors and clone makers to standardize on one chipset and one operating system--driving down costs, making the PC ubiquitous, and completely changing the nature of work. Give credit to the Apple II (and VisiCalc) for proving personal computers were more than just playthings, but thank IBM for turning them into an industry.
Next: Cell phones get heavy, PCs get mobile, we all get connected, and malware gets real.