Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The 10 Gadgets That Changed the World


RCA Model 630TS TV (1946)

When soldiers returned home from World War II, they could finally kick back and watch TV. More often than not, they flipped on this set, which sold for a cool $350 –- that’s $3,600 in today’s dollars. With a 10-inch black-and-white screen and enormous speakers packed into a fine wooden cabinet that weighed almost 100 pounds, the Model T of televisions was the first mass-produced postwar boob tube. The set could receive a dozen broadcast channels, including the ill-fated Channel 1, and was considered the standard until 1954, when RCA's 12-inch color set took center stage. It was the golden age of television: Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I Love Lucy were all on the air, and TV became the center of the family room.


Western Electric 500 Desk Telephone (1949)

The clean, functional design of this rotary telephone quickly became iconic. Even the first touch-tone phone, introduced some 15 years later, was a curve-for-curve copy of the 500 –- except the dial was replaced with buttons. Nearly every phone that followed, from wall-mounted versions for kitchens to the bedroom-specific Princess model, took design cues from the 500. As the cheap, stylish objects made their way into every room of the house, they drove massive investment in the telecommunications infrastructure: Transcontinental calling became possible in 1951, and overseas calls began in 1956. Western Electric survived until the restructuring of AT&T in 1984; imitators still sell homages to the 500, dial and all.


Kodak Brownie 127 camera (1953)

The Brownie dates back to 1900. The original -- named after a popular cartoon character -- was just a cardboard box fitted with a meniscus lens. That model helped launch photography as a hobby, shipping 150,000 units the first year. By the 1950s, cameras were staples of parties and family vacations. The Brownie 127, a British import molded from Bakelite, disassembled so you could load a spool of 127-size film. And, at about 5-by-3-by-3 inches, it could be wedged into a coat pocket. It also featured a 1/50-second shutter speed, fast enough to grab pics in most situations. More than a million 127s were sold over the next few years, paving the way for the snapshot camera and the point-and-shoot ethos of personal photography.


Bell & Howell Director Series model 414 Zoomatic 8-mm Movie Camera (c. 1962)

For the first 40 years of their existence, moving pictures were the exclusive purview of the film industry. The 35-mm format was the single standard, film stock was expensive (and prone to bursting into flames), and the equipment was enormous. When affordable 8-mm cameras arrived in 1932, America started shooting, and the cult of Junior’s first steps was born. By the mid-1950s, Bolex, Canon and others were producing cameras for 8-mm film, but none shot more famous footage than this Bell & Howell. Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder used his to film a presidential motorcade in 1963. Today, his camera is in the National Archives. His film showed that anyone could capture history, as in the Rodney King clip and 9/11.


Amana Radarange microwave (1967)

Look around your kitchen. Since the invention of the modern household refrigerator in 1927, not much has changed in the way we store and prepare food, with one exception: the microwave. It works by using, uh, microwaves to excite the molecules in water, heating food much faster than conventional ovens. The first commercial model, in 1947, weighed hundreds of pounds, was almost 6 feet tall and cost as much as $3,000. But by 1967, the appliance had slimmed down, and the idea of cooking dinner in a matter of minutes instead of hours caught on in harried suburbia. Amana's countertop Radarange cost $495 and was sold Tupperware-style. A small army of genteel sales ladies would make roasts and burgers while touting the oven's "space-age wonder." Today, find that rare Luddite home without a microwave, and you have to wonder how they make popcorn.


JVC HR-3300 videocassette recorder (1976)

Say you had to attend a birthday party the night that Battle of the Network Stars was on. What were you supposed to do, miss seeing Melissa Gilbert run the obstacle course? JVC had the solution. With the market's first home VHS recorder, you could tape a show and watch it when you wanted. You could also do the unthinkable: Pause the show to grab a snack, or fast-forward through the commercials. As they overtook the sleeker, smaller, better-quality Sony Betamax with lower prices and wider availability, VCRs highlighted the dangers of proprietary formats. They also marked the first assault on the big TV broadcasters' control over our viewing habits. Cable, video games and the internet weakened the networks' stronghold even more: Prime-time network viewership has plummeted 60 percent from 1952 levels.


Atari 2600 video computer system (1977)

Home gaming started with Pong, but Pong got old fast. You'd blow your allowance at the arcade, come home and play your one-game console unit. But then what? How about unlimited games, for free, in the comfort of your very own rec room? The year it was launched, the $199 Atari 2600 VCS was a much-hyped Christmas gift, and by 1979 it had become a cultural sensation. When an arcade-faithful version of Japan's Space Invaders arrived in 1980, sales of the 2600 doubled. As the home-gaming industry grew, copycats like ColecoVision and Intellivision hit the scene, and Atari rolled out more-advanced consoles. But none endured as fully as the 2600: Atari didn't officially retire the box until 1992, a 15-year lifespan unheard of today. The thing we miss the most: its groovy wood-grain paneling.


Sony Walkman TPS-L2 portable cassette player (1979)

Sony has a reputation for ramming formats down consumers' throats, yet the wild success of the Walkman was due in part to the company's embrace of the royalty-free cassette format from Philips Electronics. Never mind that the sound quality was crap or that the tapes had a maddening tendency to unravel, crease and break. What mattered was that a cassette was much smaller than a vinyl record or an 8-track. The original Walkman could pop into a jacket pocket or a bag, and that forever changed the way people listen to music. The Walkman might be the most popular gadget brand of all time: Almost 30 years and 350 million units later, more than 300 different Walkman-branded portables, including CD players, TVs and cell phones, have successfully isolated their owners from noisy commutes or co-workers.


IBM 5150 personal computer (1981)

Apple often gets credit for starting the personal computer revolution, but the Macintosh, which debuted in 1984, was not the original mass-market PC. On Aug. 12, 1981, IBM launched the 5150 and changed home and office life forever. The system packed a 4.77-MHz Intel 8088 processor and up to 256 KB of memory, weighed 25 pounds with "diskette" drive, and sold for $3,000. It wasn't unreasonably bulky or expensive, and its boxy form factor remains the standard for PCs. Legions of schoolchildren and small-business employees began learning the already popular VisiCalc spreadsheet along with a new operating system called DOS. Starting in 1983, on-the-go professionals opted for a Compaq, the first fully compatible PC clone and the first portable clone. Windows, multi-gigabyte hard drives, the internet and the 3-pound laptop followed. It all started here.


Motorola StarTac cell phone (1996)

Before the StarTac, cell phones were monstrous bricks that few people bothered to use outside the confines of a car. Motorola changed all that with the groundbreaking StarTac, a streamlined handset that turned the cell phone into a status symbol. As light as 3.1 ounces, it seemed impossibly small, and the flip-phone design made it simple to stow. It was also the first phone with a vibrate function, which Moto lifted from its pager division. The little StarTac did have a big flaw: a mere 90 minutes of talk time. That meant many users were forced to carry a second battery. But even if the phone did go dead, it was still a conversation piece, marking the advent of personal electronics as fashion.

By Christopher Null


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