Why is it that when people think of inventions and inventors, their minds automatically draw images of dudes like Thomas Edison (Ed note.—Jersey!). Yeah, his era built the foundation upon which our modern society currently rests, but damn! You know how much shit has dropped since the light bulb? Scratch that, you know how much stuff has come to be in the short time you’ve been on this earth? Think about all the stuff you use on the reg. Now think about when all that stuff was made. You’re probably drawing a major blank, so we’re going to help you out. If you didn’t know, August is National Inventors Month. And while that may mean less to you than a $3 bill, it made us think about what recent inventions affect our lives the most. From DVDs to MP3s, take a look back at the greatest technological inventions of the past quarter-decade—and be happy you weren’t born in the ’60s.
The history of hybrid cars goes back to the year 1900, when legendary engineer Ferdinand Porsche (yes, the guy that started Porsche) built the Mixte which used individual wheel motors. But it wasn’t until 1997 that improved lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride battery tech allowed the first mass-produced hybrid—the Toyota Prius—to hit the streets. Though plagued with problems at first, the Prius got better and an entire market was born. Every automaker either builds one, or plans to bring one to market. And it’s easy to see why: In 2009, hybrids accounted for 2.5% of all American car sales. It’s big business, kid.
Though a major hit in Japan, the MiniDisc never got the respect it deserved here in the States. Maybe it was because Sony insisted on using its proprietary ATRAC format. Maybe it’s because only a handful of artists chose to release their albums on MiniDisc. Or, it could have been the dominance of CDs. Whatever the case was, Sony’s MD delivered HD sound in a small package and allowed you to record high-def sound. At least they got Blu-ray right.
Color Plasma Display
It used to be that if you wanted the best possible picture from a flatscreen television, you would cop a plasma. The blacks were richer, the action was faster, and the colors were brighter. We can all thank the University of Illinois for that. It developed the technology Fujitsu used to build the first color plasma display. See, Lincoln’s home produced more than shady politicians. Hold ya head, Blago!
Optical Computer Mouse
Remember when you had to buy a special cleaner to wipe your (mouse) ball down every time it got a little grimy? If you don’t, thank you for making us feel super-old. If you do, then you also remember how crazy an optical mouse was. Optical mice work using either an LED or laser diode along with a image processor to track the surface it’s sliding across. Developed in the ’80s by two teams—one at MIT and one at Xerox—it wasn’t until 1998 when Travis N. Blalock, Richard A. Baumgartner, Thomas Hornak, and Mark T. Smith at HP Labs patented the technology that it became a hit with the masses.
Light-emitting diodes (LED) have been used for taillights, turn signals, and cabin lights for some time now. With the technology advancing to the point where an LED setup can produce more light than a traditional incandescent headlight while using less energy and producing less heat, carmakers like Audi are starting to use LED bulbs as their main source of illumination. What this means is greater, cleaner visibility, with a design way iller than anything we’ve seen so far.
Like a lot of other useful consumer tech, electronic toll collection (ETC) came from the armed forces. It was derived from the military-spec identification technology known as “friend or foe” (IFF), which allowed access for certain vehicles to enter certain areas. First implemented for regular people in Norway in 1986, ETC has spread around the world, making drivers still paying with hard currency pissed to all hell when they have to wait in a congested cash lane when the E-ZPass lanes are wide open.
Sony may have jumped the gun with its 10-inch OLED monitor, but we still think organic light-emitting diode may be the future of display technology. Well, it will be, as soon as someone figures out how to produce it for cheap. OLED is basically a thin film made up of organic compounds that come to life when an electric current passes through it. This allows devices based on the tech to be super-thin. And because it doesn’t use a backlight, colors come out bright and sharp. It has a faster response time than LCDs. Though there are a host of burdens to overcome besides the cost of production—five-year average life spans, outdoor viewing—the possible applications are limitless.
We have to admit, we at Complex still rock with regular ol’ DVDs. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the huge step forward the Blu-ray disc represented for digital media. With the ability to store 25 gigs of data on one disc, the amount of cool shit that movie and video game companies can give to the consumer is limitless. Yeah, many thought HD-DVD was better, and many more believe there’s no future in solid-state media, but thanks to the PS3, damn near 40 million people own a Blu-ray player. Combine that with the fact that 3-D content will be strictly Blu-ray and you have a format that we think is here to stay. Maybe we’ll make the switch…to Blu-ray, not to PS3.
Yeah, it’s not ideal to have when there’s a Nor’easter wrecking shit outside your window, but the ability to have afforable and practical premium television trasmitted to your crib via satellite was kind of a big deal when it hit our shores in ’94. That’s not so great, you say? Well, you probably had cable available in your area. For those living in the sticks or in a locale where Comcast or Time Warner weren’t available, satellite TV was your only option. Plus, with its plethora of exclusive sports packages (word to Season Ticket), DirecTV became the must-have for fans (and degenerate gamblers) nationwide.
Developed by Pioneer in 1997, DVD-R allowed consumers to record high-def content to DVDs and send ’em out to family members whether they wanted them or not. It also let burgeoning porn companies catch up to the digital age. Power to the people!
Lithium Rechargeable Batteries
Complex loves Mother Earth. We know the batteries disposed of by millions of people does more harm than good. That’s why we try our hardest to use only rechargeable batteries. That, and the fact that it saves us mad dough throughout the year. Never having to buy new batteries for your remote controls? Priceless.
In 1993, there were two competing digital-video disc standards duking it out for industry domination: Multimedia Compact Disc, backed by Sony and Philips (the guys behind Blu-Ray), and Super Density disc which was backed by Toshiba, Time Warner, Pioneer, and JVC. Thankfully, looking to avoid another format war, dudes at IBM decided to convince the two warring sides to come together and develop a single standard. What we got was the more acronym-friendly digital video disc. Able to hold up to 9.4 GB (double layer), it changed the way we watched video.
The ability to record CDs was the first chink in the RIAA’s armor. The CD-R empowered an entire generation of bootleggers. Canal St. and Jamaica Ave. owe a lot to Philips and Sony for introducing what was once called the CD WO (write once). Though developed and released in 1988, it wasn’t until 1990 that consumer systems able to record to blank discs were made available.
Online Stock Trading
Looking to take the middle man out of stock trading, companies that gave power to the individual began to sprout up in the mid-’90s. Now average Joes able to research their own stocks and bonds had the ability to invest in whatever they felt was about to pop. Who needs Wall St.?
If weather channels never moved over to pulse Doppler radar technology—a system that sends out multiple microwave bursts to determine density and severity of storms— knowing whether or not to wear your Jordans would be a complete guessing game. And, yes, they wouldn’t be able to accurately predict where large storms would hit. So, it’s a win/win.
Though still a developing standard, the last codec to come out of the Moving Pictures Expert Group allowed for people to compress HD video and send it around the Net. Think of any popular online HD video store, and you’ll find it uses a form of MPEG-4.
People thought Steve Jobs was crazy when he announced Apple computers would stop being built with floppy-disk drives. They also thought he was crazy when his MacBook Air had no CD drive. He knew that eventually we would all be using solid-state memory for our storage needs. And he was right. As the price goes down on flash memory, we’ll no longer only use it to transfer files between computers—it will replace traditional hard drives in our computers. The lack of moving parts means smaller applications and better durability. Sounds like the future to us.
Developed by Ericsson back before the brand became irrelevant in America, Bluetooth was meant as a way to wirelessly send files between your phone and your computer. Since then it’s gone through seven iterations and can now be used to stream music through wireless headphones. You can find it in everything from phones to fridges. And, of course, in the ears of every self-important douche bag able who can afford a wireless earpiece. Thanks, Ericsson!
This is another military technology brought to the masses. A space-based series of satellites that connect together to provide accurate location detailing, it was developed in ’73 so the armed forces could have better navi while overseas. It wasn’t until 1996, though, that it became available to us civilians when Billy Clint issued a policy calling for a dual-use GPS system. Fast forward to 2010 and navigation is a billion-dollar industry. No more getting lost in the hood for you.
Home Audio Editing
Some music historians say recorded music was the death of the real musician. Well, if that’s the case, digital audio workstations like Pro Tools must have finished the rest of them off. It gave you the power to professionally mix, master, and record, all from a single computer for a sliver of the price of an old studio. Wild, right? And it’s probably the single reason the music industry, with its yearly budget cuts, is still able to function today. Here’s a fun fact: “Livin’ la Vida Loca” was the first No. 1 single to be completely made in Pro Tools.
Home Video Editing
Spike Lee has said the reason he went to film school was because it was the only way for him to get time with editing machines and other equipment. If only he had Final Cut Pro. Computer-based non-linear video-editing systems allowed users to ability to edit their video with the same precision as licensed professionals. Nowadays, even professionals use digital non-linear systems like Final Cut and Avid, replacing an editing system that’s been in place since Ben Hur broke box-office records.
But what good would home video editing be without the ability to record your own content? Sony attempted to give consumers a camcorder based on its Betamax standard, but… it was Betamax. The camcorder as we know it popped off two years later when VHS camcorders hit the scene. Porn would never be the same.
Ever since Kodak modified a Nikon SLR body and passed it off as its own, the digital SLR field has grown tremendously. It’s the de facto standard for all photographers worth their weight in developer fluid. Working like a regular single-lens reflex camera, light enters the lens, reflects off the pentaprism, and hits the image sensor instead of film. DSLRs brought down the cost of being a photographer, making dark rooms, sadly, a thing of the past.
What’s better than one processor? More than one processor. Duh. The only problem with having multiple processors in your comp is the amount of heat the two chips can produce. This is where multi-core processors come in. The core of a processor is the part that does all the work, so a chip with two cores can do double the work. That is, if the software can support it. And in 2010, most do.
Who still listens to the radio? Well, we do when we’re on the road, but even then we wish we had satellite radio. Being powered by a geostationary space-based satellite means you can listen to the same Sirius or XM radio station from New York to Miami—without hearing the same Taio Cruz song 18 times along the way.
We may be showing our age with this one, but fuck it. Every time we see a StarTAC, we think about how crazy it was the first time we saw one. It was so small, so futuristic, so damn fly. After General Telephone & Electronics lost the patent for its Flip Phone—a house phone with a flip-down microphone—Motorola tried to snatch it up before launching the phone that would change the game.
It may seem like digital HDTV is just now starting to take off, but it’s been around since the mid-’90s when MIT, working along with a group of TV companies, developed a standard for digital high-definition broadcasting. It’s changed the way people watch TV. Imagine having your big-ass TV with no HD channels to support it?
There was a time when people used to only verbally communicate with each other. Then came instant messaging. The earliest form of IM’ing came about with Internet relay chat, which allowed people to communicate in forums and channels. Building onto that were peer-to-peer systems like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger, which allowed people to connect directly to each other. It also gave guys the courage to spit game to girls they would never even look at it in real life. Play on, playas.
Consumer Digital Cameras
It took a while for digital cameras to catch on, but once prices dropped in the mid-’90s, the market exploded. What used to cost a couple stacks now costs a couple c-notes. It has become one of the most viable consumer tech segments, with brands offering entire multi-tiered lineups and a camera for each and every price point. The only bad thing about everyone having a digital camera? It’s increasingly hard to get drunk and not have it wind up on the Internet the next day.
True photo-philes may decry the lossy image file format that has come to dominate digital-photo distribution, but where would we be without it? Without the JPEG there would be no Facebook, no online photo galleries, no easy way to save the photos you took with your digital camera, and no easy way to download porn. We owe a lot to the JPEG. Salute!
Who would have thought that combining a blog format with the direct-connectedness of instant messaging would be so big? Obviously Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and the 75 million users of Twitter. Microblogging services like Twitter that usually come with their own social network have begun to usurp traditional media-delivery services. You won’t hear anyone ask, “Did you catch the news today?” Only, “Did you check Twitter today?”
Many of you probably can’t fathom a time when you had to answer the phone without knowing who was on the other line, but before 1988 that’s the way it was. After a Brazilian inventor wasn’t able to secure a patent, Bell Laboratories, AT&T, and Western Electric came together to release what their marketing departments called “Caller ID.” Bill collectors have been pissed ever since.
Without International Mobile Telecommunications-2000, or 3G as we know it, the current state of mobile computing would be vastly different. 3G brought with it the ability to simultaneously talk on the phone while surfing the web or sending a text message. It also allowed people to surf the web at a much faster speed than they were used to. Although 4G is expected to take off within the next year or two, it was 3G that showed us that we can surf the web wherever the hell we pleased.
Call them what you want: web logs, online diaries, wastes of online space. We call ’em game changers. Blogs, by giving regular users the same-sized soapbox from which to preach, have completely turned the media game upside down.
Now that they’re available at every available price point, MP3 players have replaced CD players as the default portable music player. And it only took 14 years. Yeah, there were other MP3 players before the iPod. Nathan Schulof and his Audio Highway company dropped the first MP3 player in 1996. And there were plenty of other dope ones that came after. Remember the Rio? Or the Creative Nomad? They all set the way for Apple’s grand entrance into the market.
Electronic Word Processing
If you ever had to write a 15-page paper using a typewriter or an old-fashioned word processor, programs like Microsoft Word were a godsend. Instead of waiting until you’ve typed an entire page to see how it turned out, these new programs let you edit the page in real time, go back and correct mistakes, and even told you when you spelled a word incorrectly. We wonder if this did more damage than good to our scholastic discipline. *Kanye shrug*
Live television sucks. We prefer recording our favorite shows and watching them when we’re good and ready. Thanks to digital video records, we’re able to do that. Introduced by TiVo and ReplayTV at the ’98 Consumer Electronics Show, these set-top boxes allowed users to watch TV on their on terms—which, of course, pissed off big-money advertisers because they felt people would not see their commercials. They were right. We can’t remember the last commercial we watched in its entirety.
CSI owes a debt of gratitude to Sir Alec Jefferys. Without his genetic fingerprinting technique, a big chunk of their show would be mission. Thanks to Sir Jefferys, law enforcement can identify people based on any bit of DNA left behind at a crime scene. Though he made the technology commercially available in 1987, it took a few years for it to catch on. Even today, convicts can be released from prison if the DNA evidence proves them innocent.
Social Networking Service
You may not think of it as such, but Geocities was one of the first big social networks. Yeah, it was crude, but it sparked the idea that would help change the way people interact online. From there, services let people really express themselves with visible profile pages, and let them search for and invite friends. It also made everyone really, really easy to find and get in contact with. Hey, there’s two sides to every coin.
Though not an invention, the sequencing of the human genome was one of the biggest technological advancements in human history. The Human Genome Project, led by John Craig Venter, discovered a way to completely sequence the human genome, unlocking an unlimited amount of data about who we all are. Somebody clap for this dude.
Webmail (web-based email)
It’s a testament to how important electronic mail is that it’s still rocking, alive, and well in an age where people can text, instant message, and tweet each other faster than they can email. It’s been the backbone of online communication since it emerged in 1995 and, despite other companies’ best efforts, we don’t see it going anywhere. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing for Google Wave. No shots!
There was WebCrawler, Lycos, Infoseek, AltaVista, Dogpile, Ask Jeeves, and a bunch of other also-rans that helped us find what we were looking for on the Net. Technically virtual robots, web crawlers take your query and scan a series of links and web pages looking for anything that matches your search. The Web would have been untamable without such services. Imagine trying to find Kim Kardashian ass shots without a browser? Well, you would just have to come to us—but still, it’d be difficult.
What makes a phone smart? Is it the keyboard? Or the operating system that allows you to write memos, surf the web, and manage your calender? Or is it the ability to connect you to certain networks? Well, it’s all three. Since the early ’90s, mobile phones have been transforming into mini-computers, letting us do things we were once only be able to do from a desktop or laptop. With mobile operating systems and hardware getting more advanced, the line between phone and mobile workstation is about to blur even further.
SMS (Text Messaging)
According to Nielsen reports, texting among people aged 18 to 24 has outpaced that of voice-call minutes used in 2009. That means people are now texting more than they speak to each other. For some it’s the default mode of communication. How else would you holler at the girl you met last weekend?
The 802.11 standard set us free. No longer did we have to sit at computers or tether ourselves to a certain area to surf the web. With a wi-fi router installed in your house, you could roam around as you pleased. However, the real big deal will be when entire cities are completely covered in wi-fi Internet. Imagine that.
Brought to you by the people responsible for MPEG-4, MPEG-2 Audio Layer 3 let people make song files over 10 times smaller, making them easy enough to transfer over the Internet. We can get into the whole new-age bootlegging that the MP3 gave birth to, but we’ll focus on the fact that without MP3s, a lot of these rappers wouldn’t have record deals.
Remember when you had to wait for images to download bit-by-slow-ass-bit? Thankfully, those dial-up days are in the past. America may not have country-wide blazing fast Internet like Japan and some European nations, but since hitting our shores in 1996, cable connections and DSL have taken over as the dominant way of getting online.
OK, OK. So, personal computers have been around since the ’70s, but computers as we know them today didn’t come into their own until the mid-’80s. It was Apple and IBM that brought affordable, easy-to-use machines to the masses, allowing everyone to enter the digital age.
The World Wide Web
Despite what we may think of it today, the World Wide Web—a system of linked hypertext pages accessed over the Internet—was developed to be a “pool of human knowledge, and human culture, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas and all aspects of a common project.” Now, more than ever, that dream has been realized, with news stories breaking around the globe, people sharing photos and projects, and people using it, in lieu of their phone, to communicate with friends and family.