Posted in: Features | March 2005

The Top 100 Gadgets of All Time

pola_landcamera.jpgWhether they're strapped to our belts, sitting on our desks, or jammed in an overstuffed closet, we absolutely love our gadgets.

So it wasn't exactly easy coming up with the definitive list of the 100 best gadgets ever unleashed. In the weeks we spent debating the entries, tempers were flared, fingers were pointed, chairs were smashed over heads, and feelings were hurt. But we emerged, like Moses from the mountain, with the world's most authoritative ranking of the best gadgets of all time.

But let's lay some ground rules before we get started. What defines a "gadget" anyway?

- It has to have electronic and/or moving parts of some kind. Scissors count, but the knife does not.
- It has to be a self-contained apparatus that can be used on its own, not a subset of another device. The flashlight counts; the light bulb does not. The notebook counts, but the hard drive doesn't.
- It has to be smaller than the proverbial bread box. This is the most flexible of the categories, since gadgets have gotten inexorably smaller over time. But in general we included only items that were potentially mobile: The Dustbuster counts; the vacuum cleaner doesn't.

In the end, we tried to get to the heart of what really makes a gadget a gadget.

bedazzler.jpg100. NSI BEDAZZLER, 1970s
Developed by Long Island-based NSI Innovations, the BeDazzler has been turning humdrum garments into glitzy gear for years. Whoever thought a souped-up stapler would become synonymous with anything adorned with rhinestones? So far, millions have been sold, so it looks as if it's here to stay.

99. SWINGLINE 747 STAPLER, 2002
Stapling technology dates back to the 1700s, when an unknown inventor created a stapler for King Louis XV of France, but staplers came to the everyman with the Swingline magazine stapler, invented in 1938. Of these, the most iconic is Milton's fire-engine red Swingline from the movie Office Space, first manufactured in 2002 due to demand from the film.

pez_yoda.jpg98. PEZ DISPENSER, 1927
Pez isn't the mystery ingredient that makes this candy so tasty; it's an abbreviation for the German for Pfeffermintz (peppermint). Today, Pez comes in lots more flavors, but who cares? We just like the little poppin' head dispensers.

97. MATTEL INTELLIVISION, 1980
Intellivision had better graphics than the Atari 2600, but not nearly as many games. Its keypad interface was just too sophisticated for its time, like the three-button mouse.

96. OLYMPUS ZUIKO PEARLCORDER, 1970
What device promised as much for the budding Bob Woodward as the pocket microcassette recorder? You could grab impromptu interviews, record off-the-cuff memos, capture brilliant thoughts on the fly, and have your friends tape class lectures you were too lazy to attend yourself. Sheer brilliance! It almost didn't matter that recordings sounded as if they'd been made at the bottom of a lake.

95. CARL ZEISS VICTORY 8 X 42 T*FL BINOCULARS, 2004
Most telescopes show images upside down and backward: Fine for stargazing, but really disorienting if you're trying to track a red-breasted nuthatch on the wing. Binoculars put the image right-side up using a pair of prisms inside each lens barrel, which also makes them more compact. And you don't have to squint to use them. Historians credit Italian Ignacio Porro with inventing this prism system in 1854; by 1894, commercial binoculars were available from Zeiss. The company's $1,550 Victory binoculars are still the lustworthy top of the line for birdwatchers, hunters, and urban Peeping Toms.

schick2.jpg94. SCHICK ELECTRIC RAZOR, 1931
Jacob Schick believed that men could live to the age of 120 by shaving the right way, every day. To further than end, Schick invented the electric razor in 1928 and released the first commercial one three years later ... before dying in 1937 at the age of 49. Today, 30 percent of men use electric shavers.

93. COLUMBIA GRAPHOPHONE DICTAPHONE, 1907
Edison invented it, but Bell made it better. While the phonograph made audio recording possible, the Dictaphone brought voice recording to desktops everywhere.

92. POPEIL POCKET FISHERMAN, 1950s
This fishing rod (which is still manufactured today) folds up to a remarkable 9 inches long, thus freeing the world from the tyranny of poles. This was the first invention of the Popeil family; Ron Popeil would later go on to found the infamous Ronco company, which sold other innovations such as the Veg-O-Matic, the Smokeless Ashtray, and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scramber (#84).

91. POLAR WIRELESS HEART RATE MONITOR, 1977
On a cross-country skiing trip, Professor Seppo Saeynaejaekanga met a ski trainer who knew about the professor's interest in measurement of human vital signs. The trainer suggested that a heart-rate monitor would be a huge improvement over taking his pulse manually; Saeynaejaekanga invented it, and training for high-level and serious recreational athletes entered the gadget age.

90. MAELZEL METRONOME, 1816
The scourge of piano students; the eternal hope of music teachers; the last, desperate attempt of suburban white boys to get some sense of rhythm before they grew up to become insurance brokers or restaurant managers: The metronome was all this, and more.

rubiks_cube.jpg89. RUBIK'S CUBE, 1974
Invented in 1974 by Hungarian Erno Rubik, the Rubik's Cube hit America in 1980 like the avian flu, infecting millions and temporarily treating most ADHD symptoms before petering out in 1983.

88. BLACK & DECKER DUSTBUSTER, 1979
Corded handheld vacuums have been around since the 1920s, but it was the Dustbuster that broke us free from tethers.

87. RADIO SHACK TRS-80 MODEL 100, 1983
Not the first portable computer, nor the most advanced, the Model 100 distinguished itself through simplicity, ruggedness, and portability. For $800 you could outfit yourself with this 6-pound mobile typing machine (a real featherweight compared with the 20-pound Osborne and Kaypro portables). The specs weren't impressive: 8KB of RAM, an eight-line-by-40-character display, no hard drive, a 300-baud modem, and a 2.4MHz Intel CPU. But two AA batteries gave it enough juice to run for 16 hours, and it was tough enough to ward off falls, bumps, spills, and filthy language, making it a perfect choice for newspaper reporters and cops. Radio Shack sold 6 million between 1983 and 1991.

86. TAMAGOTCHI, 1996
Could the overwhelming success of this pocket-size virtual pet -- 40 million were sold worldwide -- make this the strangest cultural phenomenon ever?

hohner_harmonica.jpg85. HOHNER HARMONICA, 1857
Riding the rails gets awful boring -- and downright lonely -- unless you have a traveling buddy to help you pass the time. Hohner has been keeping hobos entertained for nearly 150 years with its 10-hole mouth harp, or, as we know it, the harmonica. It's guaranteed to liven up any junkyard barbecue.

84. RONCO INSIDE-THE-SHELL EGG SCRAMBLER, 1978
Sick of dirtying forks just to make scrambled eggs? Tired of having to clean out your scramblin' bowl? Get the Ronco Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler.

83. ACCUSPLIT MEMORY STOPWATCH, 1972
Before the digital stopwatch, when you timed something, you had to do it on a wacky round device that ticked and was just as hard to read as a wall clock. But in 1972, Accusplit introduced the digital stopwatch. Gone were hands and tick marks, replaced by easy-to-read numbers. Better yet, the thing expressed time in hundredths of seconds, a boon to athletes and scientists.

82. ALLIANCE GENIE GARAGE DOOR OPENER, 1954
This first-ever radio-controlled garage door spared millions the terror of having to manually haul up and down dangerous doors that can weigh up to an astonishing 400 pounds. (Although today, 20,000 people annually still manage to be injured by run-ins with garage doors.)

zippo.jpg81. ZIPPO WINDPROOF LIGHTER, 1932
Deep in the Great Depression, America yearned for a way to light the cigarette butts discarded by the remaining fat cats, even in the harsh wind tearing through a block-long bread line. Fortunately, George Blaisedell was there, introducing the first Zippo windproof lighter in 1932. Since that time, the Zippo lighter has grown to superstar status, the favorite of firebugs and chain-smokers alike. The preponderance of cheap, disposable butane lighters can't touch the elegance and charm (and lighter tricks) that the Zippo affords. As a testament to its popularity, more than 400 million Zippos have been sold, and countless fan clubs have sprung up to celebrate this ingenious incendiary.

80. FISHER SPACE PEN, 1967
Spurred by the space race, the Fisher company spent years inventing a pen that could write upside down, underwater, and in zero gravity. What did the Russians equip their cosmonauts with? Pencils. Still, Fisher's Space Pen -- in the classic "Chrome Bullet" body developed in 1948 -- is the ultimate portable writing machine.

79. TASER X26, 2003
Though Jules Verne wrote about a gun that shot electric bullets in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Taser's name comes from another book, written by Victor Appleton in 1911, called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Our senior acronym cryptologist broke down the name as follows: Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, or Taser. The original Taser-like device was patented in 1972, but the gadget didn't really take off until the 1990s. Today, the Taser X26 is the nonlethal weapon of choice. Because it doesn't kill the target (usually), cops are pretty much free to use it on any type of perp, from the drug-addled Hell's Angel to the frightened but disruptive 6-year-old. Just remember: Tasers don't tase people, people tase people.

78. KORG WT-10 ELECTRONIC TUNER, 1975
Nothing sounds worse than a band whose instruments are mistuned, unless it's Ashlee Simpson trying to demonstrate that she actually can sing. Fortunately, with an electronic tuner, even a deaf person can keep a guitar in tune: Just play a string and see if the needle lines up straight.

Lite20Brite.jpg77. HASBRO LITE-BRITE, 1967
Who knew that all those happy hours spent punching multicolored pins into black paper were actually preparing us for a rewarding career designing web page bullets and desktop icons?

76. HP OMNIBOOK 300, 1993
Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook 300 weighed 3 pounds and packed a 386 processor and enough battery life to handle most domestic flights, but the real innovation was the "pop-out" mouse that you could pull from the right side of the machine, attached to a thin strip of plastic. The pop-out mouse died in 1999.

75. LASER POINTER, 1980s
By 1998, laser pointers were so popular that they were not only banned in schools, but laws were passed in many states to levy a $1,000 fine on anyone who pointed the red dot into someone's eye. Although professionals and teachers had used laser pointers for years, it wasn't until they dropped from $100 to less than $30 in the late '90s that kids were able to grab them and terrorize cats and moviegoers alike.

Minute_Timer.jpg74. LUX MINUTE TIMER, 1936
For centuries, humans used hourglasses to time their souffles, midnight trysts, and bouts of fisticuffs. But it was only with the invention of the countertop timer -- available in a wide variety of whimsical designs -- that we reached the peak of civilization: The perfect poached egg.

73. TRAXXAS T-MAXX RC CAR, 1999
The remote-control car had seriously humble origins: Models were tethered by wire to a remote handset with two controls: Go forward, or go backward in a slight curve -- the only way to get out of a corner. Today's cars are highly modded machines, with freak cars pushing 100 mph and higher.

72. MASTER LOCK PADLOCK, 1924
In a dim, one-room workshop, locksmith Harry Soref and five employees manufactured the first Master Lock. Based on the banded steel that reinforced ship hulls and bank vaults, the Master Lock had a clear advantage over other locks of the day. More than 80 years later, the Master Lock has thousands of incarnations, from laser locks to the combination lock you use at the gym (if you go), and the Master name is a household word.

elmo.jpg71. TYCO TOYS TICKLE ME ELMO, 1996
Press his tummy, he giggles. Press it again, he giggles a bit louder. Press it a third time, and Elmo goes into an epileptic conniption fit. Kids love it, but what separates Elmo from every other plush electronic toy? Rosie O'Donnell. After O'Donnell started throwing dozens of Elmos to her audience in 1996, the toy became that year's hot craze -- and one of the biggest ever -- driving black-market prices as high as $2,000.

70. ATARI PONG C-100, 1976
It played only one game, and that game sucked, but how much time did we burn in front of our little black and white TVs, spinning paddles and watching that tiny block bounce around? Ah, memories.

69. CUISINART FOOD PROCESSOR, 1973
Carl Sontheimer's most famous creation allowed harried cooks to slice, chop, and mix so easily that "Cuisinart" became the generic term for the food processor.

SKH-88.jpg68. NOKIA 5100 SERIES CELL PHONE, 1998
It was nothing special under the hood, but snap-on covers in hundreds of colors and designs turned the boring phone into a fashion accessory.

67. LEATHERMAN PST, 1983
Put simply, Leatherman tools blow ordinary pocketknives out of the water. Pliers. A wire cutter. A file (and, in later models, whole saw blades). Plus the usual jackknife accoutrements: knife blade, screwdrivers, bottle opener, and awl. And, on top of it all, there's the appeal of wearing a compact toolkit in a leather holster on your belt. There aren't too many other objects with equal appeal to the pocket-protector crowd and the hard hats.

66. IRIDIUM SATELLITE PHONE, 1998
Score one for a good idea and brash determination: Iridium put 66 satellites in orbit around the globe and charged $3,000 (plus $1.99 a minute) for its 1-pound handset. The goal: Make and receive calls from anywhere on the planet. The reality: Iridium went bankrupt after little more than a year, though sat-phone vendors are still using them.

Mattel-Football2.jpg65. MATTEL FOOTBALL II, 1978
Mattel's first handheld football game was good; this sequel was a classic. Finally, you could throw passes to your little LED teammates, while enjoying the shrill electronic cry of "Charge!"

64. U.S. ARMY P-38 CAN OPENER, 1942
Who says the government can't make good products? This opener let millions of GIs crack their C rations, not to mention the dozens of other uses they found for it in the field, from cleaning their rifles to gutting fish.

63. MAGLITE FLASHLIGHT, 1979
It was originally marketed just to police officers and firefighters, but soon everyone had one of these nearly indestructible, adjustable-beam flashlights.

62. SONY WM-F5 SPORTS WALKMAN, 1983
Mobile electronics were fragile, delicate creatures until this rugged, water-resistant, yellow beast came along.

motorola_pager.jpg61. MOTOROLA BRAVO NUMERIC PAGER, 1986
17708173 96 15 50 6000! While the pager has been around since 1962, it wasn't until the Bravo that it hit the masses. The top-reading, numbers-only, belt-loop-clipping pager even spawned its own language. (If you need a translation of the above, let us know.) Pager code pushed this model to be the world's best-selling ever.

60. ABACUS, 190 A.D.
Nearly 1,800 years before the first electronic calculators, the Abacus let its user multiply, divide, add, subtract, and calculate square and cube roots ... in both decimal and hexadecimal.

59. SEXTANT, 1731
Yar, matey! Whar we be? Fetch me a sextant, get a fix on the North Star, and you'll know your latitude right quick. The sextant's mirrors and precision scales were the state of the art for accurate celestial navigation for more than two centuries. Avast, ye GPS-usin' gobs! Now how about some rum and a lime?

58. PANASONIC TOUGHBOOK 18, 2003
Tablet PCs are a great idea, but they're fragile -- not exactly for the rough-and-tumble, knockabout type. Panasonic changed that when it introduced its Toughbook 18 in 2003. This flat-bellied, steely eyed tablet is wind-, water-, and dust-resistant, and its design precludes the need for some sissy notebook bag.

pola_landcamera.jpg57. MATTEL MAGIC 8-BALL, 1946
Is this really one of the most important gadgets ever? Signs point to yes.

56. POLAROID POLAVISION LAND VIDEO CAMERA, 1978
During the rise of color VHS, Polaroid introduced Polavision to the world as a budget competitor to the dying 8mm film camera. Polavision used three-minute, nonrewritable cartridges of film instead of reels. After you ran out of film, you popped the cartridge into a dedicated projector unit, which automatically developed the film for you. There was no sound, image quality was terrible, and playback on a 12-inch screen was unsatisfying. Polaroid quickly gave up on it, but this bold experiment in moving pictures that automatically develop was one that many of us still remember fondly.

super_scissors.jpg55. SUPER SCISSORS, 1990s
The first record of scissors dates back to the 14th century B.C., but scissorlike implements were likely used even before that. In the past 34 centuries, scissors have evolved into myriad designs, from nose-hair trimmers to hedge clippers. The most advanced scissors we've encountered are undoubtedly Super Scissors, which can cut everything from fabric to chicken bones, and they can even cut a penny in half (but why you'd want to make a near-worthless coin even more worthless, we can't say).

54. THE CAR ALARM KEY FOB, 1990s
The guy who invented the car alarm? We have no idea. With any luck, he's roasting in hell. The one who invented a way of turning those alarms off wirelessly? No idea, either, but we nominate him for sainthood.

powellGolubScope150.jpg53. POWELL & LEALAND COMPOUND MICROSCOPE, 1861
Lensmaker Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was the first person to see yeast cells, protozoa, and even bacteria, and his discoveries opened up a vast miniature world just waiting to be explored. But it wasn't until the 19th century that microscopy really went into high gear, as British manufacturers like Powell & Lealand developed high-quality microscope optics, which in turn led to huge advances in medicine, biology, geology, and more.

52. SONY CFS-5000 BOOM BOX, 1980s
Before the iPod made everyone more clandestine, real jive turkeys were trucking down streets with a boom box perched on their shoulders. The advent of removable speakers in the '80s meant that you could get wicked stereo sound for listening to Floyd in your basement or dorm room while totally stoned, but still be able to pack up the rig to take on the subway in the morning.

51. IROBOT ROOMBA, 2002
Forget the broom and vacuum -- no device in the history of mankind has been able to terrorize pets (and clean floors) as efficiently as the Roomba, the first household robot for many buyers. Artificial intelligence lets the device do all the tidying and terrorizing while you're away, so your shell-shocked cat sees you as savior rather than tormentor. The latest Roomba, the Discovery (pictured here), has a longer run time of 120 minutes, a faster charging time, and it returns to its charging station when it's almost out of juice.

50. ETCH-A-SKETCH, 1960
Though devoid of circuitry, we think it's safe to say that this was the world's first handheld with a fully graphical user interface.

cassiopeia.jpg49. CASIO CASSIOPEIA E-10, 1996
The first Windows CE gizmo was the original Casio Cassiopea A-10, a notebooklike clamshell unit that challenged Palms with a better interface, based on Windows 95. The Windows CE device soon morphed into a primitive, boxy PDA (the E-10, pictured here) that resembled the Palm but retained the superior interface -- it even included pocket versions of Word and Excel. Soon the new platform, dubbed Pocket PC, eclipsed the Palm in features and functions, including a color screen, stereo sound, a removable storage slot, and later, Wi-Fi. Now Palm's market share is dwindling and Pocket PCs are poised to take over. But in a cruel twist of fate, both branches of this evolutionary tree will likely be wiped out or consumed by the ever-smarter cell phone.

48. SONY DIGITAL MAVICA MVC-HD5, 1997
Until the Mavica, digital cameras were expensive affairs, with short battery life, tiny LCDs, expensive storage media, and no easy way to move photos onto your PC except through a painfully slow serial connection. The Mavica solved all these problems, with a $599 price, a huge 2.5-inch LCD, and by recording directly to floppy disks. Never mind that it was butt-ugly, in 1999 Mavicas accounted for more than half of the U.S. digicam market.

walkietalkie.jpg47. CANADIAN SIGNAL CORPS C-58 WALKIE TALKIE, 1943
Inventor Donald Hings first built a portable field radio in 1937, but it wasn't until World War II broke out that his invention became a commercial success -- and a critical component of battlefield communications. Tens of thousands of C-58 radio sets were made and used throughout Europe and Asia, paving the way for smaller, handheld radios in the postwar period. Walkie-talkies eventually became the indispensable sidearms of police officers, firefighters, and 7-year-old boys everywhere.

46. TEXAS INSTRUMENTS SPEAK & SPELL, 1978
This watershed device was the first toy to use voice synthesis on a single chip, setting the stage for toy makers everywhere who wanted to incorporate tinny robo-speak into their gizmos. The 128KB of read-only memory in the Speak & Spell was enough memory to keep kids edutained for hours. Aside from commanding the child to "speak it!" and "say it!" the device also made one-person hangman possible. Now that's progress.

45. SILVA COMPASS, 1933
What happened when a Swedish instrument maker named Gunnar Tillander hooked up with Sweden's most famous orienteer, Bjoern Kjellstroem? They invented the gold standard of compasses, which everyone from Boy Scouts to the military in dozens of countries still rely on.

fuzzbuster.jpg44. FUZZBUSTER, 1968
Smokie never had it so bad. After getting what he thought was an unwarranted speeding ticket, Dale Smith of Dayton, Ohio, whipped up a box that detected the radar signals cops used to clock drivers. The Fuzzbuster was a sensation, especially after the federally mandated 55 mph speed limit went into effect in 1974, providing protection to lead foots everywhere.

43. HANDSPRING VISOR, 1999
Founded by Palm inventors Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, Handspring did more than launch the category of wireless handhelds. It also started Palm on the road to licensing its operating system and eventually splitting the company into two.

42. H4 MARINE CHRONOMETER, 1761
Until the late 18th century, transatlantic navigators were sailing half-blind, able to determine their latitude from the stars but entirely unable to determine their exact longitude. John Harrison's chronometer was the first timepiece accurate enough to work aboard a ship, losing just 5.1 seconds over the course of a two-month sea voyage -- insanely accurate for the era. With the chronometer, sailors could compute their longitude based on what hour, in Greenwich Mean Time, the sun rose. That, in turn, facilitated the accurate mapping and colonization of the New World by adventurers such as Captain Cook (an early chronometer customer).

RIM950_sc99.jpg41. RIM INTERACTIVE PAGER, 1996
Technically not the first two-way pager (it was barely beaten to market by Motorola's TextWriter), the RIM Interactive Pager was the forerunner to the now-nearly-ubiquitous BlackBerry.

DustOff.jpg40. FALCON DUST-OFF, EARLY 1970s
By the mid-'80s, enough people had computers for long enough that dust, hair, and dander started collecting on the machines' insides, endangering the sensitive equipment. Lucky for them there was Dust-Off.

39. APPLE NEWTON MESSAGEPAD 120, 1994
Nobody's disputing that the Palm changed mobility forever. But two years before the Pilot 1000 blazed onto store shelves, Apple dropped its own handheld on the world. The Newton MessagePad 120 did everything the Palm Pilot did, except sell.

4mb_CF.jpg38. SANDISK COMPACTFLASH CARD, 1994
SanDisk kicked off the flash-memory revolution more than 10 years ago with the CompactFlash card. Today, nearly all portable electronics from cell phones to notebooks come with some type of removable storage slot, be it CF, MiniSD, SD, SmartMedia, xD, or the several flavors of Memory Stick.

37. JVC GR-C1 CAMCORDER, 1984
Until 1984, shooting your own home videos on VHS tape meant lugging around a unit the size of a small gorilla, and sometimes two! The first portable video systems came in two awkward pieces, with the tape deck slung over your shoulder like a purse. The JVC GR-C1 changed everything. It was decidedly miniature for the era (using "compact" VHS tapes), offered instant playback, and sported a shocking red case. Videophiles fell in love with it, as did director Robert Zemeckis: The GR-C1 played a central role in 1985's Back to the Future.

pulsar_watch.jpg36. PULSAR QUARTZ DIGITAL WATCH, 1972
Shortly after the discovery of the stars for which it's named, the Pulsar digital watch took the guesswork out of timekeeping. Eschewing spring mechanisms, the Pulsar kept time through the precise vibrations of a quartz crystal buried in its innards. While its marketers may have been exaggerating when they called this a "time computer," we still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

35. SCREWPULL CORKSCREW, 1979
The first corkscrew appeared in the late 1700s, but it hadn't evolved much past the two-armed model in your parents' drawer until Herbert Allen, a toolmaker in the oil and aircraft industry, invented the Screwpull. His wife's struggle to open a bottle prompted Allen's invention of this baby and its Teflon-coated screw; there's no faster or easier way to crack open your cabernet.

garminGPSCOM170.jpg34. GARMIN GPSCOM 170, 1997
For the directionally challenged, 1997 was a banner year, as the GPSCOM 170 brought satellite navigation to the palm of your hand. It was the first device ever to combine GPS telemetry and navigation software into a single pocket-size shell.

33. BOSE QUIETCOMFORT HEADPHONES, 2000
Bose started research on active noise reduction in 1978, but it wasn't available to consumers until 2000, when these phones turned air travel from an onslaught of white noise into a sanctuary of silence.

32. RADIOLAN BACKBONELINK AND PC CARDLINK, 1997
Even from day one of 802.11 (aka Wi-Fi), companies have been fighting to spruce up performance with proprietary tricks. RadioLAN was the dirtiest fighter of them all, abandoning the 2.4GHz band for the 5GHz band, which gave its products roughly double the performance of its competitors and opening the door for a flood of "turbo" and "super" wireless products. RadioLAN also spurred the first Wi-Fi price war: At $999 for an access point and $449 for a PC Card, RadioLAN's products were actually bargains for the era.

31. TREK THUMBDRIVE, 1999
The basic technology hasn't changed much since, but the Trek Thumbdrive set the standard for flash-memory storage that fits in your pocket.

Hr-3300.jpg30. JVC HR-3300 VHS VCR, 1976
Early videotape machines developed by Ampex in the 1950s and 1960s were roughly the size of washing machines. It wasn't until 1976 that home video took off, with JVC and Sony launching the infamous war between VHS and Betamax (not to mention a handful of other long-forgotten formats). VHS grabbed the early advantage thanks to a much lower price ($885 versus $1,300) and longer tapes, and because Sony was distracted by its now-crucial lawsuit, which legalized VCRs. Thanks, JVC, for both revolutionizing entertainment and for saddling us with this awful technology for 20 years.

29. JOSEPH ENTERPRISES THE CLAPPER, 1982
Switches became a thing of the past in 1982, when the first Clappers went on sale, letting you clap your TV, lights, or toaster oven on and off. However, the product jingle may have had a far larger impact on society than the product itself. See if you recognize the song: "Clap on. Clap off. Clap on, clap off -- the Clapper!" Now that's going to be stuck in your head all day.

28. KODAK BROWNIE CAMERA, 1900
Artists were experimenting with photography in the 19th century, but it wasn't until the $1 Brownie, with its easily replaceable 15-cent film cartridges, that ordinary people could be shutterbugs, too. "Easily operated by any school boy or girl," the ads bragged. A century of awkward family snapshots was launched.

necultralite.jpg27. NEC ULTRALITE, 1989
Not only is this considered the first ultralight, this NEC's moniker stuck for the entire category of sub-5-pound notebooks.

26. GRID COMPASS 1100, 1982
The first clamshell notebook, the Grid Compass also shares the distinction of being the first notebook in space, used by the Columbia astronauts in early shuttle flights. However, the Compass was heavy, lacked batteries, and cost up to $10,000. For these reasons, few nongovernment users bought it, and it died in relative obscurity.

25. NINTENDO GAME BOY, 1989
Bundling inventor Gunpei Yokoi's Game Boy with the highly addictive Tetris ensured Game Boy's success in the early '90s. Selling over 32 million consoles in its first three years, the Game Boy has had a slew of offspring, but none will ever compare to the original.

24. BIRO BALLPOINT PEN, 1938
Hungary's Biro brothers -- one a newspaper editor, one a chemist -- combined like the Wonder Twins to create the first functional ballpoint pen, relegating the fountain pen to collectors and eccentric shut-ins and enabling billions of cheapo giveaways.

firstphone.jpg23. TELEPHONE, 1876
Though electronic communication existed before the telephone (for example, the telegraph), it was transmitting voice by electricity that changed the world. From this sprang radio, and later television and the internet. But no other device is as much a necessity as the humble phone: No snooty artist will ever look down his nose at you in disdain and proclaim, "Oh, I don't own a phone." Without the phone, there would be no crank calls, phone sex, telemarketing aggravation at dinnertime, or drunken, embarrassing calls to your ex at 3 a.m. However, nor would there be emergency calls to 911, friendly chats, or those vital calls to Santa that keep children in line.

22. APPLE POWERBOOK 500, 1994
The PowerBook 500 wowed the notebook market with a long string of firsts: The first touch pad; the first stereo speakers (with 16-bit sound); the first expansion bay -- and the first PC Card slot; the first "intelligent" nickel metal hydride battery, with a processor that communicated battery status to the operating system; and, last but not least, the first curvaceous case, with gratuitously swooped edges and corners instead of the boxy angles of previous notebooks. Make no mistake, this notebook set the agenda for the following 10 years of portable computer design.

CartierSantosCurrent.jpg21. CARTIER SANTOS WRISTWATCH, 1904
Alberto Santos Dumont, a pioneer in early aviation history, complained to a friend that he couldn't read his pocket watch while flying his aircraft. In response, his good friend Louis Cartier built the first wristwatch and named it after Santos.

20. SWISS ARMY KNIFE, 1891
Karl Elsener's first knife, which was distributed to Swiss enlisted men, featured a blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and a punch. Today, the company Elsener founded, Victorinox, and its competitor, Wenger, offer dozens of knives featuring up to 33 different tools. Meanwhile, the name has passed into cliche as an apt description of the knife's versatility.

IBM_butterfly_thinkpad.jpg19. IBM THINKPAD 701C, 1995
Never mind the specs, the crazy "butterfly" keyboard cemented IBM on top of the universe of notebook design. Closed, the machine looks like any notebook with a 10.4-inch screen from its era. Flip it open, and the keyboard expands to full size, making typing a breeze. This clever rig earned the 701C a place in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

18. MOTOROLA DYNATAC 8000X, 1983
Ten years after Motorola researcher Martin Cooper placed the world's first cellular call, the rest of the world got its shot. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X brought mobile calling to the masses (or about 300,000 very wealthy people) for just $3,995 plus outrageously high usage fees. Fortunately, the 8000X offered only one hour of talk time, so it was difficult to rack up stratospheric bills.

17. TOSHIBA SD-3000 DVD PLAYER, 1996
Toshiba was part of the consortium that invented the blessed DVD format, freeing us from the tyranny of analog forever. Its SD-3000 was the first consumer player on the market. As for the first DVD, four IMAX movies were released on March 19, 1997, including Africa: the Serengeti.

AcousticDataCoupler.jpg16. ACOUSTIC DATA COUPLER 300 MODEM, 1968
You kids today with your broadband connections. You make us sick. In our day, getting online meant loud, screechy modems like this 300-baud wooden monstrosity, which you hooked up to your old Bell handset to connect to other computers via telephone lines. But don't judge it by its looks alone; the ADC 300 made the dream of long-distance hacking a reality for the common geek.

15. HP-35 POCKET ELECTRONIC SCIENTIFIC CALCULATOR, 1972
It may not look like much, but the HP-35 scientific calculator was a tech trailblazer on two counts. Not only was it the first handheld scientific calculator, it was also the first device to use both integrated circuits and LEDs. Your Pocket PC would never have seen the light of day had it not been for this little number cruncher, which is still widely used today. If you're younger than 40, you can thank HP for the fact that you've never had to use a slide rule.

14. SONY CDP-101 CD PLAYER, 1983
Who can forget the crystalline, hiss-free blast of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" emanating from their first CD player? Let classical-music snobs debate the virtues of analog versus digital: CD players were practically made for the thumping bass and inescapable synthesizers of '80s pop music. Sony's CDP-101 was the first to hit the market, at $1,000, but cheaper models and the portable Discman followed the next year.

Sony-TR-63-red.jpg13. SONY TR-63 TRANSISTOR RADIO, 1957
Japanese entrepreneurs Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita and were among the first to grasp the true potential of transistor technology, which had been invented at Bell Labs in the late 1940s. Step one: Secure a license from Bell Labs. Step two: Start cranking out cheap transistor radios. The TR-63 was their first big success, turning their company, Sony, into a global audio powerhouse. And why not? Prior to the TR-63, radios were big vacuum-tube-laden affairs. Now you could carry one in a jacket pocket and listen to it all day. Fun fact: The red dots on the dial show where American Civilian Defense broadcasts could be found, in case of a nuclear attack.

12. APPLE IPOD, 2001
It wasn't the first hard-drive audio player, it was expensive, and it worked only with Macintosh computers. But the original iPod cracked the portable audio market wide open with its ease of use and to-die-for aesthetics. Some estimates peg Apple as now claiming an astounding 92 percent of the mobile audio market.

11. POLAROID LAND CAMERA, 1948
Edwin Land's first Polaroid camera introduced the United States to the delights of instant gratification. Of course, we had to put up with noxious chemical smells and bulky film cartridges, but that was a small price to pay for living on the cutting edge. Sadly, Land's company didn't stay on that edge; it milked its signature technology for decades while failing to come up with another big hit, and went into bankruptcy in 2001.

tivo_remote.jpg10. TIVO SERIES1, 1999
Like FedEx, Velcro, and Google, TiVo has joined that rare echelon of companies with names that have become synonymous with their industry. Today, we "tivo" instead of "tape," and 2 million TiVo enthusiasts have forgotten what TV commercials look like. Early TiVo units -- manufactured by Philips, Sony, and others -- were exorbitantly expensive (10 hours of recording cost $500), but competition with fellow upstart ReplayTV has steadily driven prices down. Now imagine what the world might be like had the product gone with its original name: "Teleworld."

atari.jpg9. ATARI 2600, 1977
We've got two words to describe the majesty of this device: Yar's Revenge.

diamondRIO.jpg8. DIAMOND MULTIMEDIA RIO 300, 1998
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was just 1998 when Diamond Multimedia released the first portable flash MP3 player, prompting a lawsuit from the record industry claiming that any MP3 player facilitated piracy. It might have sported a paltry 32MB of memory, but the Rio 300 was the first shot in the digital music revolution.

palmpilot.jpg7. U.S. ROBOTICS PILOT 1000, 1996
A string of companies tried to create handheld, pen-centric computers throughout the early 1990s, mostly to no avail. (Remember Zoomer? Neither does anyone else.) The Pilot 1000 was the first one to hit the sweet spot, and in so doing, it showed how successful simplicity and reliability could be. Despite successive name changes, many people still call their handhelds "Pilots" -- a testament to the power a single product had to create an entire industry.

casio_camera.jpg6. CASIO QV-10 DIGITAL CAMERA, 1996
Milestones in the digital camera world are astonishingly difficult to nail down. In the early 1990s, major camera manufacturers began tinkering with digital for the professional market. The first amateur digicams were notoriously bad, and it wasn't until Casio's QV-10 that consumers really thought they could give this digital business a go. The QV-10 could store up to 96 images with a resolution of up to 76,800 pixels on its 2MB of flash RAM, and offered a wacky newfangled LCD screen so that you could preview your pictures, which you could output to either your 486 or TV. All this for just $995! Pricey, but the QV-10 looked cool, worked reasonably well, and didn't have to be sent back to Casio for servicing that often. Digicams would be plagued with bugs and high prices for years to come, but the QV-10 really opened the door for digital cameras as a whole.

mouse.jpg5. CDI MECHANICAL MOUSE MODEL 4-101, 1970
Though the mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1965, it took a good five years for the idea to catch on. Computer Displays made the mouse marketable with its three-button Mechanical Mouse 4-101.

motorola_startac.jpg4. MOTOROLA STARTAC, 1996
Before the StarTAC, cell phones had become fashionable with teenagers and the belt-clip set, but it wasn't until this 3.1-ounce flip phone that people started to see the promise of a handset that could genuinely fit into your pocket. Far smaller than any phone that preceded it, the StarTAC was the ultimate status symbol of the late '90s and perhaps the best example of "geek chic" ever to exist. But most important, the StarTAC ushered in the wave of miniaturized phones, one that's still rolling today.

walkman2.jpg3. SONY WALKMAN, 1979
We're not saying the iPod isn't one of the coolest devices ever made, but Apple's little music monster would never have been possible without Sony's groundbreaking Walkman. The brainchild of Sony cofounders Masaru Ibuka, Akio Morita, and Norio Ohga, this portable cassette tape player made the dream of a mobile music collection a generation-changing reality and put Sony in the technological catbird seat.

zenith_remote.jpg2. ZENITH SPACE COMMAND TV REMOTE CONTROL, 1956
Remember having to get up off the couch to change the channel on the TV by hand? Of course you don't, thanks to Robert Adler's stunning breakthrough, the wireless remote control. Zenith had been meddling with remotes since 1950; its Lazy Bones remote (no, seriously, that's what it was called) simply ran to the TV with a wire. The first wireless remote came in 1955: The Flash-matic was basically a flashlight you shined at one of the TV's four corners, depending on whether you wanted to change the channel up or down. The problem: On sunny days, the TV would change channels by itself. In 1956, Adler had a better idea: Use ultrasonic sound to control the TV. His Space Command remote had four buttons that, when pressed, struck an aluminum rod located inside the unit. A receiver in the TV detected the sound, and depending on the pitch, changed channels or muted the volume. No batteries required. Various forms of ultrasonic technology were the standard all the way until the 1980s, when infrared took over.

powerbook100.jpg1. APPLE POWERBOOK 100, 1991
Never mind the Apple versus PC debate: Until Apple unveiled this 5.1-pound machine, most "portable" computers were curiosities for technophiles with superior upper-body strength. But the PowerBook 100's greatest and most lasting innovation was to move the keyboard toward the screen, leaving natural wrist rests up front, as well as providing an obvious place for a trackball. It seems like the natural layout now, but that's because the entire industry aped Apple within months. The first PowerBooks captured an astounding 40 percent of the market, but more important, they turned notebook computers into mainstream products and ushered in the era of mobile computing that we're still living in today.

Posted on Mar 1, 2005 at 4:17 PM | E-mail this entry

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