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12 technologies that changed the world

From a TV remote to broadband

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 until Henry Ford's 1912 Model T, which made mass-produced cars affordable to ordinary people, appeared that the technology actually took off. And that in turn affected everything from where we live and work to the sustainability of our planet's natural resources.

For good or bad, the following 12 technologies changed our lives - and sometimes entire industries - in ways both simple and profound.

1. Zenith Flash-Matic TV Remote (1955)

When was the last time you got up to change the channel? Or, for that matter 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 and watch until the the test card appeared. TV remotes arguably helped pressure broadcasters to produce better shows and more channels. Now you can use an iPhone app to control not only your TV, but your PVR, computer, home audio gear, the lights in your house, burglar alarms, and certain models of cars. You may never have to get up again.

Photo: Courtesy of tvhistory.tv

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 aluminium 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 US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, or ARPA).

"ARPA had a licence to look for visionaries and wild ideas and sift them for viable schemes," writes Howard Rheingold in his book The Virtual Community.

"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 organise 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.

Photo: Courtesy of the Astronomical Society of Western Australia

NEXT PAGE: Atari Pong

  1. From a TV remote to broadband
  2. Atari Pong
  3. The IBM ThinkPad 700C
  4. Apple iTunes
  5. Capacitive touchscreens


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