The alarm clock, the personal computer, the smartphone, the radio… You know the greatest gadgets of all time (and you’ve probably owned most of them), but which has changed the world more than any other? To make our list of 101, a gadget had to be something you could hold in your hands, mechanical or electronic, and a mass-produced personal item. The rest was up to the judges. Check out our selection and see the 101 gadgets below.
101. Duct Tape
NASA astronauts have used it to make repairs on the moon and in space. The MythBusters built a boat and held a car together with the stuff. Brookhaven National Laboratory fixed their particle accelerator with it. And enthusiasts have used it to make prom dresses and wallets. You might say it’s a material, not a gadget, but trust us: Duct tape is the ultimate multitool.
100. Fiberglass Fishing Rod
When hostilities in Asia curtailed bamboo imports, rod producers like Shakespeare, Phillipson, and Montague needed a new material to keep anglers equipped with low-cost, quality tackle in the ’50s and ’60s. Fiberglass fit the bill.
No office supply has enjoyed a star turn quite like that of the stapler, which had its breakthrough role in the comedy Office Space. Much of the movie’s plot revolved around Milton Waddams’s beloved red Swingline, but it was only in 2002, three years after the film’s release–and in response to demand from fans–that Swingline went to market with a red stapler.
Before it unveiled the Roomba Floorvac for the home market in 2002, iRobot built land-mine-clearing robots, which used the so-called crop circle algorithm. This very same technology was adapted to make the Roomba circle and sweep autonomously. Within a year of its launch, iRobot’s Roomba Floorvac was the top gift request on American wedding registries, and sales of the revolutionary vacuum cleaner surpassed the combined total number of all mobile robots previously sold.
97. Aerosol Spray Can
In 1941, the USDA’s Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan used the newly discovered refrigerant, Freon, to enable the deployment of a lethal (to critters, anyway) mist by American troops fighting on insect-infested fronts. The “bug bomb” cocktail, held in a 16-ounce steel canister, consisted of Freon-12, sesame oil and pyrethrum (the last is a natural insecticide derived from chrysanthemum blooms).
96. Quick-Release Ski Binding
Prior to the introduction of this gadget, the ski hill could be an unforgiving place. Strapped to two planks, the skier was always one tough tumble away from catastrophic injury. It was one such break–a severe spinal fracture–that motivated Norwegian-American skiing champion Hjalmar Hvam to conceive the first safety binding in 1937. “When I came out of the ether I called the nurse for a pencil and paper,” he once wrote. “I had awakened with the complete principle of a release toe iron.” Subsequent developments in safety bindings changed the perception of skiing from a high-risk endeavor to a leisurely pursuit, and the sport boomed.
95. Super Soaker
Originally dubbed the Power Drencher when it debuted in 1989, the Super Soaker was the brainchild of NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson. The idea for the world’s greatest squirt gun grew out of Johnson’s lab work on a heat pump. He told the AP in 1992, “I was watching the stream of water come out of the nozzle and stream across the bathroom and strike a towel. The curtains were swirling around the bathroom. It was pretty impressive. I thought, ‘That would make a pretty neat water gun.’” Since, no fewer than two dozen Super Soaker models have contributed to backyard mayhem–and none is more coveted than the CPS 2000 Mk1. The most powerful water gun ever manufactured, it shoots nearly 1 liter of water per second up to 50 feet. The Mk1 was discontinued soon after its release, but it’s available on eBay for a cool $350.
Stephen Poplawski invented the blender in 1922, but his name is not the one most often associated with the gadget. That honor belongs to Fred Waring–an orchestra leader in Pennsylvania who, in 1936, offered financial backing to a tinkerer named Frederick Osius who was developing a similar invention. One reason for Waring’s interest: He could use Osius’s widget to puree raw vegetables for the ulcer diet his doctors prescribed. The Waring Blender debuted in 1937 and cost $29.75; by 1954 one million of the devices had been sold.
As a publishing luminary of the expatriate bohemian scene in late-’20s Paris, Caresse Crosby helped launch the careers of D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. Years earlier, as a 19-year-old Manhattan socialite, she laid the groundwork for a fashion revolution when she and the family maid used two silk handkerchiefs, pink ribbon, and a cord to produce a forerunner to the modern bra. She patented her “backless brassiere” in 1914 and then sold the patent to the Warner Bros. Corset Co. the following year for $1500. Writing later in life, she said: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”
92. Picinic Cooler
As the American populace went forth after World War II into the woods to camp, onto the lakes to fish, and into the parking lots to tailgate, it required a gadget capable of keeping beer cool and food from spoiling. The portable cooler, patented in 1953 by Richard Laramy and popularized by the Coleman Company, was that obvious, but essential device.
91. Digital Video Recorder
When ownership of this gadget crept past 1 million in 2002, TV and advertising execs worried aloud that DVRs, by enabling viewers to skip commercials, were surefire TV killers. “There’s no Santa Claus,” one CEO said. “If you don’t watch the commercials, someone’s going to have to pay for television and it’s going to be you.” Fast forward to today: 40 percent of households have a DVR; whether out of habit or laziness almost 50 percent of DVR users still watch ads; and the networks have, on average, seen ratings jump 10 percent, thanks to playback.
The Zippo, that stalwart status symbol of the smoky second half of the 20th century, was born in 1932 in the most inauspicious of settings: a rented room over the Rickerson and Pryde auto shop in tiny Bradford, Penn. Equipped with a kitchen hotplate for soldering, a used welding kit, and a punch press, founder George Blaisdell and two employees went to work. In the first month of production, January 1933, they produced 82 lighters. In February, output jumped to 367. By 2006, the total number of Zippo lighters surpassed 425 million lighters. And now, there’s a Zippo app for the iPhone and the Droid phone that allows users to recreate the Zippo moment–when a concert audience raises its lighters in the air. The digital Zippo operates just like the real thing, opening with a flick of the wrist, lighting with a swipe of the flint wheel and mimicking real flame movement as the user waves his phone in the air.
89. Teflon Pan
In 1938 Roy Plunkett discovered PTFE, or polytetrafluoroethylene, at the DuPont research laboratories while working with gases related to Freon refrigerants. He accidentally froze and compressed a sample of tetrafluoroethylene gas into a white, waxy solid, creating a polymer so slick that virtually nothing sticks to it or is absorbed by it. Today, manufacturers apply it to cookware by roughening a pan’s surface through sandblasting. A nonstick coating–often referred to as DuPont’s proprietary Teflon–is embedded in a primer that’s applied to the roughened surface.
88. Flash Drive
Toshiba engineer Fujio Masuoka developed the concept of flash memory–so-called because the erasure process reminded a colleague of a camera flash–in the early 1980s. But the good ship flash drive needed a way to dock. Intel’s Ajay Bhatt and his Universal Serial Bus (USB), which was introduced in 1996, provided part of the solution. But data still didn’t travel well until 2000, when the first USB flash-drive stick, with 8 megabytes of storage, arrived.
87. Ginsu Knife
Originally known as the “Eversharp” brand of blades from the Scott Fetzer Co. of Freemont, Ohio, Ginsu knives could cut through nails, tin cans, radiator hoses–and still slice a tomato paper thin. But wait–there’s more! The company’s multibillion-dollar success was as much about the marketing as the product. The late-night ads begun by Ed Valenti and Barry Becher in 1978 ushered in the era of the infomercial, and made Ginsu the most memorable brand ever hocked on American TV.
86. Hearing Aid
According to the National Institutes of Health, only one out of five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wear one.
Ten years after founding the Foster Grant plastic company in 1919 to make hair accessories for women, Sam Foster switched his focus to a new consumer product–sun-blocking eyewear. Targeting the throngs of beachgoers in Atlantic City, Foster started selling his wares–America’s first mass-produced plastic lens sunglasses–at the Woolworth’s on the oceanfront boardwalk. Foster’s business boomed, prompting him to adopt the manufacturing technique known “injection molding” in 1934, which revolutionized American plastic production.
84. Drip Coffeemaker
In 1972, the Mr. Coffee machine simplified a brewing process that had been long dominated by traditional percolators. The machine’s success, however, was also an early example of celebrity spokesman ship: When Joe DiMaggio became the face of the brand, Mr. Coffee machines became the runaway best-selling model in the United States. (Its success was even spoofed in the 1985 film Back to the Future: The DeLorean time machine is powered by a “Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.”) Today, approximately 14 million drip coffee makers are sold each year in the U.S.
People have been toasting bread since the days of the Holy Roman Empire; for a thousand years, the job was done by simply holding the bread over an open flame. In 1919, however, a plant mechanic in Stillwater, Minn., finally got fed up with the burnt toast in his company cafeteria. So, Charles Strite built a box that incorporated heating elements that browned both sides of the bread at once, a variable timer and springs to eject the bread. Originally intended for restaurants, the toaster is now in 90 percent of American homes; 12 million of the gadgets are sold annually.
Although a flashlight is a relatively simple device–a small electric bulb with a power switch–it wasn’t invented until 1896 simply because it required a portable power source: the dry cell battery. Early carbon filament bulbs were inefficient and the batteries weak, mustering just enough current to keep the light on for a few seconds at a time–hence, flashlight.
81. Leaf Blower
Lawn care never proved so easy–or sounded so bad. Portable leaf blowers evolved from 1950s-era blowers intended to spread chemicals on crops, when owners found the powerful air stream more efficient than sweeping or raking. Almost immediately after leaf blowers became available in the United States, however, cities began to ban them because of noise complaints. But they’re still handy in other ways. In 2007, the first-ever game of leaf blower hockey was played in Toronto when the Windbreakers took on the Fallen Leafs. Each player strapped on a backpack-style leaf blower and pushed a ball over a rain-soaked outdoor “rink.” Try that with a rake.
80. Spincast Fishing Reel
In 1949, the Zero Hour Bomb Company faced extinction, with its patent for an oilfield time bomb running out. Then R.D. Hull, an itinerant watchmaker, barber, and inventor, presented the company with plans for an easy-to-use, enclosed-spool fishing reel. Zero Hour rebranded itself as Zebco and stayed in business, selling thousands of the reels.
79. Swiss Army Knife
Carl Elsener, a Swiss journeyman cutler, thought it was a disgrace that Swiss soldiers carried German-made knives. In 1890, he introduced the first Swiss Army Knife, the Modell 1980, which had a blade, an awl, a can opener and a screwdriver.
78. Can Opener
Canned food was invented for the British Navy in the early 1800s–but the modern can opener didn’t come along until 1870, when American William Lyman created a simple device with a cutting wheel that rolls around the can’s rim. Previously, can-opening instructions for British sailors read, “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.”
77. DVD Player
The prototype DVD player, developed in 1994 by Toshiba, was a pile of circuit boards nicknamed the “fire watchtower.” Though unstable, it proved that DVD quality crushed that of VHS. Players came out in 1996; the first DVD movie release, Twister, in 1997.
76. Chain Saw
Enormous “tree-cutting machines” date back to the 1920s, but 30 years later, backyard warriors were using solo saws to prune trees and cut firewood.
75. Electric Blanket
Breakfast-cereal inventor and Battle Creek Sanitarium superintendent Dr. John Harvey Kellogg devised dozens of alternative medical treatments for his patients, and advocated sleeping outdoors to promote general wellness. His “thermo-electric” blanket enabled residents–Warren G. Harding, Amelia Earhart and Henry Ford among them–to enjoy the benefits of fresh air regardless of the season.
74. Safety Razor
King Camp Gillette did not invent the safety razor–that honor goes to the Kampfe Brothers, circa 1880–but his company, founded in 1901, quickly became the foremost name in facial hair removal. Advanced manufacturing methods, low prices and shrewd promotion–for example, Gillette arranged to have his safety razors issued to every American soldier during World War I–changed the practice of shaving from the exclusive domain of skilled barbers to an everyday act that any man could perform from the comfort of his own bathroom. And according to Gillette, his blade saved money and time, too. From the March 1918 issue of The Gillette Blade: “Every razor sold by the Gillette Company represents a saving of half an hour of time spent in a barber shop, without saying anything about the money paid for service and tips. With an approximate number of 10 million customers this would represent a saving of 10 million half-hours per day, or a saving of 5 million hours which might be devoted to study or labor and which represents 500,000 working days of the labor of 500,000 men constantly employed, which is nearly twice the number employed by the U.S. Steel Corporation, which at $3.00 per day represents a saving of $1,500,000 per day, or for a year of 300 days, a saving to the United States of labor equal to $450,000,000.”
Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet cost $3500 when it came out in 1984. Today, lasers are cheap, but their ammo isn’t–a toner cartridge for a $100 laser jet costs $68.
When the TAG Heuer Mikrograph stopwatch was invented in 1916, it allowed the measurement of time with unprecedented accuracy–down to 1/100 second. This precision led to major changes in the sports world, including records such as the world’s first sub-4-minute mile by the U.K.’s Roger Bannister (3:59.4, May 6, 1954). Digital stopwatches accurate to 1/1000 second debuted in 1971.
71. Kodak Carousel
Unveiled in 1961, it was not the first 35-mm slide projector–merely the best. Before the Carousel, projectors tended to be problematic machines. Other projectors at the time relied on temperamental mechanical parts to move the slide out of its stack and in front of the light, and jamming was a regular occurrence. According to Todd Gustavson, the George Eastman House’s curator of technology, “The Carousel was the first projector to use that most dependable system of slide delivery: Gravity.” But adman Don Draper put the Carousel’s cultural impact best in his pitch to Kodak execs in an episode of the ’60s-set show Mad Men: “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.” He waxed poetic while clicking through images of his family life before it unraveled. “It lets us travel the way a child travels–around and around and back home again.”
Invented in the late 1970s, it took the party to the streets, channeling hi-fi audio tricks into hip-hop rebellion. Said Fab 5 Freddy in 2009: “The boom box was instrumental. Here’s the key reason: In the beginning of hip hop, the way the music was spread around the city was by the cassette tape. Many great DJs recorded their sessions at parties in the Bronx. The way most people in the city had any inkling of this new music was by cassettes, which actually came from the mixing boards at the party, or somebody in the party with a boom box recording live. If you didn’t hear it there, then somebody you knew, if they were cool enough, might have had a tape at one of those parties.”
69. Electric Toothbrush
U.S. Navy submariners didn’t have much to smile about: Subsisting on mushy canned food for months on end, they got almost zero gum stimulation. Electric toothbrushes came aboard in 1959, solving the problem. They later found a wider audience–and inspired the invention of another vibrating device (but that’s a gadget for an entirely different article).
68. Coleman Lantern
When W.C. Coleman debuted his Quick-Lite lantern in 1916, he marketed the device to farmers looking to stretch the workday. As electrification spread to rural areas, he rebranded the device as an outdoorsman’s essential, and when the popularity of camping skyrocketed after WW II, Coleman lanterns lit up the woods. As the Saturday Evening Post wrote: “Except for Thomas A. Edison, Mr. Coleman may be responsible for the creation of more bright light than any other man.”
Pre-1941, binoculars were an expensive specialty product. Handmade by master lens crafters, the best glasses came primarily from Germany. America’s entry into World War II necessitated the development of a stateside mass producer: The Universal Film Company, which reconfigured its film manufacturing process to make binoculars for the military. When hostilities ended, the capacity to make quality field glasses quickly and cheaply, contributing to the post-war boom in hunting and bird watching.
66. Tape Measure
The modern, spring-loaded tape measure was created by Alvin Fellows in 1868. Fellows’ work improved upon an earlier model by encasing the tool in plastic and attaching it to a spring clip to lock the tape in place until its release. Yet despite the spring tape measure’s timeless utilitarianism, it didn’t start outselling the wooden ruler until the 1940s; the gadget sped up construction during a major building boom: 14.1 million houses in a decade.
When inventor and farm implement salesman Whitcomb Judson unveiled his newly patented “clasp-locker”–which featured a central guide that hooked together the fastening clasps when pulled upward–at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the odd-looking and ungainly device failed to impress. The modern zipper didn’t come about until the 1920s, when Goodyear put an improved version of the fastener on its Zipper galoshes.
Before counterfeit Rolecks watches and knock-off Goach bags, there was the derringer pistol. Philadelphia gunsmith Henry Derringer made his first short-barreled, high-caliber pistol in 1825, and spent the next 40 years defending his trademark product. The most common circumvention method was adding an extra R to the brand name. In 1865, a landmark ruling by the California Supreme Court established Derringer’s exclusive right his trademark. That same year, on April 14, John Wilkes Booth used a Derringer to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. The authenticity of the gun, on display at Ford’s Theater, came into question in 1997 after members of a defunct burglary ring claimed to have stolen the original in the 1960s. FBI forensic tests proved that the gun was the one used in the assassination.
A fixture on American work sites since the 19th century, the lunchbox became a cultural sensation at the midpoint of the 20th century. Between 1950 and 1970, 120 million branded lunchboxes shot off store shelves. The origin of the lunchbox boom dates to 1954, when Aladdin Industries launched the Hopalong Cassidy-branded kit ($2.39). In the first year alone, Aladdin sold 550,000 units more than it had the previous year.
62. Charcoal Grill
For George Stephen, there was no joy in grilling. Every time he fired up his open-top backyard brazier pit, de rigueur in 1951, he “was smoking up the neighborhood and burning up half of what I cooked.” A welder at the Weber Brothers Metal Works, Stephen built a solution by adapting materials typically used to make steel buoys for Chicago’s harbor. A year later, the Weber kettle was born.
61. Smoke Detector
When Duane Pearsall founded the Statitrol Corporation in the 1960s, lifesaving wasn’t his motivation–it was curbing static, specifically in photo dark rooms. But during prototype testing of their static control device, Statitrol’s technicians noticed that a meter measuring ion concentration flat-lined whenever cigarette smoke hit it. “By accident, we had discovered how to make an ionization smoke detector,” Pearsall said.
60. Moog Synthesizer
Robert Moog debuted his synthesizer, which used analog circuits to generate sound electronically, at the Audio Engineering Society Convention of 1964, but the $15,000 instrument was slow to catch on among musicians. It was only in 1967, after Moog’s West coast sales team, comprised of electronic music enthusiasts Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, demonstrated it at the Monterey Pop Festival that the innovative keyboard became a must-have for the biggest names in rock-and-roll. Without it, the Doors’ Strange Days, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends and the Beatles’ Abbey Road would have sounded much different.
Early computer games required multiple floppies; Alone in the Dark, for example, took four. The CD-ROM, packed with huge stores of animation and gaming data, allowed kids to upload one disc and disappear into the Mist.
58. Outboard Motor
Ole Evinrude. It’s the first name in outboard motors, and his 1909 two-stroke boat motor practically created the industry. However, it was Cameron Westerman, a Yale engineering student, who built the first outboard motor in America. Waterman patented his four-stroke outboard in 1905, and went on to sell hundreds of motors before Ole Evinrude founded the company that took outboards to the masses.
57. Hair Dryer
The concept for the handheld hairdryer developed during the 1920s in Racine, Wisc., where engineers at Hamilton Beach–tasked with developing motorized mixers for making malted milk shakes–realized the potential utility of a handheld device capable of blowing heated air. Early models were heavy, though, and susceptible to overheating. Today, 96 percent of the hotels in America have hairdryers in every room, according a survey by the American Hotels and Lodging Association.
56. Tape Recorder
The concept of recording audio on tape didn’t reach the U.S. until after World War II, when Jack Mullin of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps brought two German recorders home in 1945. Three decades later, President Richard Nixon used as many as nine devices to record 3700 hours of phone calls and meetings between 1971 and 1973. The most controversial aspect of Nixon’s tapes was the 18.5-minute gap, allegedly erased as part of the Watergate scandal.
55. CB Radio
Established by the FCC in 1949, citizens band radio only exploded in popularity with the onset of 1973 oil crisis. Hamstrung by a nationwide 55 mph speed limit, big rig drivers took to the CB to organize convoys and scout speed traps. As word of CB’s utility spread, the general public quickly embraced the medium. In 1974, a million Americans had CB licenses. By 1977, 20 million were operating. That same year, CB radio starred alongside Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit, the eighth highest grossing film of 1977.
54. Ballpoint Pen
The Reynolds Rocket, America’s first ballpoint pen, cost $12.50 when it went on sale at Gimbels in 1945. Adjusting for inflation, $12.50 in 1945 dollars equals about $150 today. At $3.29 per dozen, that’s 546 Bic pens.
53. Car Jack
Richard Dudgeon invented the compact, portable hydraulic jack, in 1851. when he was just 32 years old. Now a staple of every auto shop and pit row in the land, its original habitats were shipyards and railroad repair shops.
52. Kindle E-Reader
Unveiled in 2007, the Amazon Kindle transformed digital book delivery from niche to mainstream. Its key innovation was built-in wireless that enabled users to access a massive e-book store. While the Kindle changed the game, it by no means created it. Early versions like the Rocket eBook and SoftBook prompted PM to write in August 1999, “One of these electronic books may be the last book you ever buy.” Even Oprah Winfrey loves her Kindle: “I’m not a gadget person at all, but I have fallen in love with this thing,” she said shortly after its release.
51. Push Lawnmower
More land in America is devoted to growing turf grass than any other plant–and the rise of suburbia after World War II created millions of new homeowners who suddenly needed to maintain that verdant landscape. Enter Edwin Budding, a British engineer who, in 1830, devised a grass-cutting apparatus based on a carpet cutter. Prior to 1946, U.S. homeowners bought roughly 140,000 of lawnmowers. Five years later, 1.2 million mowers had been sold. Today, the EPA estimates that five million new gas-powered mowers are sold here each year.
50. Cassette Tape
Invented by Philips in 1962, this format began outselling vinyl on a per capita basis in the U.S. in the early 1980s before yielding later in the decade to the CD.
49. Circular Saw
The quest to downsize and repurpose the spinning blades used in sawmills led to the 1923 invention of the worm-drive circular saw by one Edmond Michel. The Michel Electric Handsaw Company was later renamed Skilsaw Inc., hence the early nickname for all circ saws.
48. Game Boy
Today, portable gaming is a fact of life–most people have games like Angry Birds and Bejeweled on their smartphones. But when the original Nintendo Gameboy was released in 1989, there had never been a successful cartridge-based portable game system. Perhaps it was the decision to bundle a little-known puzzle game called Tetris with the gadget, but Gameboy went on to become one of the most successful video game platforms ever released, with more than 150 million systems and half a billion games sold worldwide.
Invented in 1983 by Tim Leatherman, the Pocket Survival Tool (PST) has 14 tools, including a can opener, pliers, a file and four screwdrivers. Today, the Leatherman Surge features 21 tools.
46. Fire Extinguisher
The first model (1723) sounds more dangerous than the fire: a cask that held liquid and a pewter gunpowder chamber connected to fuses. At the first flicker of flame, the alert 18th-century homeowner lit the fuses to ignite the gunpowder, which exploded, scattering the liquid retardant. Today, U.S. homeowners douse 13 million fires every year with extinguishers that use compressed air to spray foam, soda acid or carbon tetrachloride.
45. Sony Walkman
Sony’s portable personal stereo pioneered the use of headphones. When the Walkman was introduced in Japan in 1979, Sony sold out the initial production run–30,000 units–in eight weeks. The gadget made its American debut in 1980 and became so ubiquitous that in 1986 the word “walkman” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. By the time the line was retired in 2010, more than 220 million units had been sold.
44. Floppy Disk
In days of yore, when microcomputer hard drives were still a gleam in Seagate’s eyes, early adopters loaded operating systems and programs via floppy disks, which IBM introduced in 1971. Floppies kept evolving–from 8 pliable inches to 3.5 rigid ones–but the rise of CD-ROMs assured their extinction. But that doesn’t mean the floppy is forgotten. “The floppy’s most lasting inheritance [is] the ‘save’ and ‘save as’ disk icons you see in the toolbars and menus of many applications,” Washington Post technology reporter Rob Pegoraro said in a 2010 column. “Even when software developers rewrite interfaces from scratch, they keep going back to the same old floppy-disk icon.”
43. Polaroid Camera
In 1943, Jennifer Land, 3, watched her father, Edwin, take photos: “Why can’t I see the pictures now?” Her plea was answered in 1948, when Polaroid–the company her father headed–began selling instant film and cameras. It spent 10 years and $250 million developing the iconic SX-70, which debuted in 1972. The expenditure nearly sank the firm, but by 1974 the camera was a hit: It spit out 1 billion prints that year.
42. MP3 Player
Though iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, it was certainly the most successful: Apple has sold nearly 300 million units since the device debuted in 2001; it has appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek and inspired the iPhone and other products. Copywriter Vinnie Chieco named the device, which reminded him of a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” The iPod–and the iTunes music store–helped create the MP3 era. iTunes broke the record-company mold, allowing more artistic freedom. It was profitable, too: The online outlet has sold more than 10 billion songs since it launched in 2003.
41. Pocket Calculator
Math nerds couldn’t slip the first all-transistor calculator (1957) into their shirt pockets: The three-unit IBM 608 weighed 2400 pounds. Anyway, at $83,210, it was too pricey. By 1976, four-function pocket calculators weighed a few ounces and cost a few dollars.
40. Wi-Fi Router
Since its introduction in 2000, Wi-Fi has made its way into more than 9000 devices, from phones to TVs. According to a Wi-Fi Alliance poll, 75 percent of young Americans say they would give up coffee before Wi-Fi.
39. Electric Drill
Loosely modeled after the grip of the Colt .45, the first electric power drill was introduced in 1916 by Black & Decker. Forty-five years later, the company released a cordless version.
38. Digital HDTV
In 1987, Japanese engineers showed off their MUSE hi-def system in Washington, D.C. Policymakers responded by pushing for new broadcast standards, and after much debate and many delays, HDTVs arrived in stores in 1998. Today, they are in more than half of all U.S. households.
In 1901, while celebrating in Paris after winning a prize for circling the Eiffel Tower in a dirigible, Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked his friend Louis Cartier to design a watch that would permit him to time aerial maneuvers and still keep his hands on the controls. Three years later, the Santos men’s wristwatch, with a leather strap and buckle, went on sale. Santos-Dumont was wearing it on Oct. 23, 1906, when he made the first successful airplane flight in Europe–and the first one anywhere in a craft with no detachable landing gear.
36. 8mm Camera
It’s the most famous home movie in history: 486 frames that record on Kodachrome II safety film the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Abraham Zapruder had left his Bell & Howell 414PD Zoomatic camera (shown here) at home that day, but at his assistant’s urging, he drove 14 miles round-trip to retrieve it. Each winding of the mechanical camera’s mainspring lasts 30 seconds; the footage that became critical evidence in the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination is 26 seconds long.
Though developed in 1876 for use in the telephone, the microphone showed its full cultural force in music. Beginning in the 1920s the mic migrated into nightclubs and recording studios with dramatic results. For instance, it amplified the voice of the string bass, which bumped the tuba from jazz-combo lineups. But that’s just a blip compared to the seismic shift that the microphone caused among vocalists. Early adopter Bing Crosby used the mic to develop a more natural and intimate singing style called crooning–and lo, the frontman (and woman) was born, eventually gaining iconic status thanks to a lineage that includes Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, James Brown and Mick Jagger.
34. Digital Camera
Logitech introduced the first consumer model, the Fotoman, in 1990. Because of its popularity and that of other models, Kodak retired its Kodachrome film format in 2009 after 74 years of service.
33. Microwave Oven
From the accidental discovery file comes the tale of Percy Spencer, an engineer with Raytheon Corporation in the mid ’40s. During testing of a new vacuum tube for radar systems, Spencer noticed that the candy bar in his pocket melted. Experiments with popcorn kernels and an egg proved the cooking power of the magnetron, which Raytheon employees nicknamed Speedy Weenie. The first gadget-size countertop microwave hit stores in 1967–and stayed there. But initial radiation fears couldn’t beat the reheat: By 1975, microwaves outsold gas ranges.
32. Computer Mouse
Initially, it more like an elephant: The first trackball, which was invented by researchers in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1952, started life as a duckpin bowling ball. Other inventors created smaller prototypes, but it wasn’t until Apple paired its Lisa computer with a small controller 31 years later that the mouse assumed the basic design it has retained for decades.
Russian Oleg Vladimiovich Losev invented the first LED in 1927, though no practical use was found. Nick Holonyak, Jr., of GE pioneered the first practical visible-spectrum LED, in 1962. Since then, LED efficiency has doubled every 36 months.
30. CD Player
In 1984, just one year after the introduction of the CD, Sony released the first portable CD player–the first step from analog to digital media. The device sold so well that other companies soon brought out similar products. By 2007, 200 billion CDs had been sold worldwide.
JVC introduced the first video camera and recorder in 1984, and there is no better indicator of this gadget’s success than America’s Funniest Home Videos. The home-movie clip show came on the air in January 1990 and by March had become the No. 1 series on TV, unseating 60 Minutes. In the early 1990s, producers received 2000 videotapes a day.
28. Electric Guitar
The electric guitar was invented in 1931, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that radio repairman Leo Fender built and mass-produced a Spanish-style solid-body electric guitar. He called it the Broadcaster; due to a copyright infringement claim, it was renamed the Telecaster. By the 1960s, rock-and-roll had firmly taken root–and electric guitarists were the stars of the show.
In 1909, scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla wrote a piece for The New York Times–later quoted in Popular Mechanics–that essentially predicted the BlackBerry. “It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that an individual can carry and operate his own apparatus,” Tesla wrote. The BlackBerry was introduced in 1999; by 2009, 50 million of the devices had been sold.
26. Crescent Wrench
In 1907, the Crescent Tool Company was officially incorporated in Jamestown, N.Y., by Swedish emigrant Karl Peterson. It had one product–a wrench that could handle periodic brake and clutch adjustments on early automobiles, and replace an entire set of dedicated-size wrenches. Its popularity didn’t end with car owners, however. After his historic transatlantic flight in 1927, Charles Lindbergh was quoted as saying he carried only “gasoline, sandwiches, a bottle of water, and a Crescent wrench and pliers.”
The 1950s boom in high-fidelity gear revealed a new breed of consumer–gadget buffs masquerading as music purists. The first integrated hi-fi receiver, the Festival D1000, was designed by Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon of Harman/Kardon in 1954.
24. Sewing Machine
Eighty years after the first mechanical stitcher cut the time it took to sew a shirt from 14 hours to 1, Singer unveiled a portable version (the 11-pound Featherweight) at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress fair.
In the age of the MacBook Air, a computer weighing more than a few pounds seems like a desktop. But the most successful early laptop was the 11-pound GRiD Compass 1101, a clamshell computer that went on sale in 1982. The gadget spurred innovation; today, 59 percent of U.S. adults own a desktop and 52 percent own a laptop. In the 18- to 34-year-old demo-graphic, seven in 10 are laptop owners.
Video cassette recorders, or VCRs, which became commonplace in the late 1970s, sent Hollywood into a tizzy over copyright concerns. In a 1982 congressional hearing, Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, “We are going to bleed and hemorrhage Ö unless Congress at least protects one industry Ö whose future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine. I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” The legal battles dragged on until 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally okayed home taping.
21. Answering Machine
Released in 1971, the Phone-Mate Model 400, the first widely used answering machine, was a blessing and a curse. Its tapes could capture 20 messages, enabling selective communication. The downside: phone tag, screened calls, and annoying recorded messages. Pop culture had many takes on the gadget, but a 1997 Seinfeld bit stands out: To avoid talking to his girlfriend, George repeatedly listens to his own outgoing message, a parody of the Greatest American Hero theme, as calls from other people pour in. By the fifth time, it’s downright tragic–not unlike George himself.
20. Remote Control
The first remote control, invented in 1950 by Zenith, was a simple device called the Lazy Bones. It was connected to the TV by a wire. Later remote controls, which also had colorful names like Flashmatic and Zenith Space Command, clicked when operated, hence the device’s early nickname-the “clicker.”
19. Brownie Point and Shoot Camera
Inexpensive and easy to operate, the Brownie was one of the first box cameras and brought the snapshot to the masses when it hit stores in 1900; 100,000 units sold that first year. Ansel Adams’s parents gave one to their son during a 1916 trip to Yosemite National Park, when the future landscape photographer and environmentalist were 14. While setting up his first photo, Adams tumbled off a tree stump and inadvertently pressed the shutter. He rated the accidental image “one of my favorites from this, my first year of photography.”
18. Vacuum Cleaner
James Murray Spangler invented the first practical vacuum, in 1907, using an electric fan, a pillowcase, and a rotating brush to loosen debris. Spangler sold his patent to William Henry Hoover, who redesigned the device-he added a steel casing, casters and attachments-and named it the Model O, which went on sale in 1908. At $60, it was expensive (that’s about $1473 in 2010 dollars), but prices had dropped sufficiently by the mid-1950s to make upright vacuums a middle-class staple.
17. Handheld GPS
Before GPS was a road warrior’s tool, it was the navy system for actual U.S. military warriors. The government opened up GPS for civilian use in 1983, after the Soviets downed a Korean airliner in a no-fly zone. Magellan sold the first handheld unit in 1989.
16. Transistor Radio
“World’s first transistor radio” is too modest. By replacing vacuum tubes with transistors, the Regency TR-1 became the first portable media player, in 1954. It cost $49.95, and approximately 100,000 units were sold in 14 months.
In 1949, the first modems converted U.S. Air Force radar data into sounds and squawked them over phone lines. A receiver then translated the noises back into data. (“Modem” draws its name from the first letters of the words describing the process: MOdulation and DEModulation.) Transmission was slow until the late 1990s, when it hit 56 kbps, fast enough to learn that you’ve got mail.
Early writing machines jammed easily and were “full of caprices, full of defects-devilish ones,” early adopter Mark Twain wrote. In the 1870s, Christopher L. Sholes studied letter-pair frequency (which letters are used together most often, such as the) and reorganized the letterkey layout. The resulting qwerty keyboard, introduced in the Remington Standard 2 typewriter in 1874, prevented type bars from crossing up-and survives to this day as a computer keyboard.
The first nonpoisonous match wasn’t invented until 1910. Before that, a book of matches packed enough toxic white phosphorus to kill a person.
The invention of the Rover safety bicycle in 1885 led to paved roads and, eventually, technology used in cars. It also gave Western women unprecedented mobility. “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” suffragist Susan B. Anthony told the New York World in 1896. “I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
11. Dry Cell Battery
Unlike wet cell batteries, which had a liquid solution that tended to spill, Carl Gassner’s dry cell battery contained electrolytes in paste. This 1886 innovation made today’s portable electric gadgets possible.
10. Light Bulb
It was invented by as many as 23 people, most notably Thomas Edison, who patented his system in 1878. His first bulb used a carbon filament and lasted 13.5 hours; early incandescent bulbs were assembled by hand.
9. Alarm Clock
Alarm clocks predate the Seth Thomas brand by centuries, but the clockmaker’s 1876 model fit on a nightstand and helped drag the Industrial Revolution out of bed.
Thomas Edison came upon the concept of recording and reproducing sound while trying to automate speech sounds for the telephone. He gave a demonstration of the phonograph for Scientific American magazine in late 1877. “The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: “Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?’” The device liberated music from live performance, bringing it to a mass audience and promoted the worldwide popularity of another uniquely American idiom: jazz. The machines first recorded on tinfoil cylinder, later moving to wax and, eventually, played vinyl records.
Alexander Graham Bell’s interest in the education of deaf people-he began teaching at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes in 1871-led him to invent the microphone and, in 1876, the telephone, which he called the “electrical speech machine.” In a 1912 issue of Popular Mechanics, Bell said, “To tell the truth, as a practical man, I did not quite believe it; as a theoretical man, I saw a speaking telephone by which we could have the means of transmitting speech and reproducing it in distant places. But it really seemed too good to be true, that one could possibly create, by the action of the voice itself, electrical impulses intense enough to serve any practical purpose.” The device debuted at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, leading Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro to exclaim: “My God, it talks!”
6. Portable Air Conditioner
At the World’s Fair during the hot New York summer of 1939, Willis Haviland Carrier and his scantily clad female assistants demonstrated the first room air conditioner. In 1953, Americans bought more than 1 million window a/c units; over the past five years, manufacturers have shipped 41 million.
5. Personal Computer
The forerunners of modern personal computers were introduced in the mid-1970s as kits. Little did pioneers like Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who wrote programming language for the MITS Altair 8800 kit, or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who designed the skeletal Apple I, know what was in store. The Apple II, which debuted in 1977 with color graphics and an attachable floppy disk drive, ushered in a new technological era-and when IBM introduced its Personal Computer in 1981, the PC began its slow acceptance as a crucial business tool instead of merely a geeky toy. In 1983, there were 10 million personal computers in the U.S.; today 80 percent of American households have a notebook or PC, creating unprecedented levels of efficiency, capability, and access to news, music and entertainment.
4. Hypodermic Syringe
The promise of the hollow needle, invented in 1844, was realized a century later as injected vaccines spared millions from polio, tuberculosis, rabies and more.
The origins of television stretch back to the late 19th century, to a time before it was even technically feasible. In 1877, civil servant George Carey was already sketching drawings for a “selenium camera” that would allow people to “see by electricity;” at the same time, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were theorizing about telephones that could transmit images along with sound. Modern television was demonstrated in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair-and soon TV beamed dramatic images of the Civil Rights movement; political debate and casualties of war; astronauts, pop musicians, sports heroes and more directly into American living rooms. In 1949, fewer than 1 million U.S. households had a TV; four years later, that number had ballooned to 25 million. For a half-century, TV has stood as the No. 1 source for Americans’ news and entertainment, and today, 99 percent of U.S. households have a TV. We spend an average of 2.8 hours per day watching them.
Police switchboards jammed. Drivers fled cities. Doctors volunteered to treat the injured. Why all the ruckus? On Oct. 30, 1938-the day before Halloween-Orson Welles presented a radio play he based on H.G. Wells’s sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds. The Mercury Theatre on the Air presentation sounded like a news broadcast of a Martian invasion, complete with fake bulletins that interrupted dance music. The resulting hysteria dramatically revealed the power of gadget No. 2, the first instrument of instant mass communication. Patented in England in 1896 as “wireless telegraphy” by Guglielmo Marconi-who based his work on technology developed by Nikola Tesla-radios were in 80 percent of U.S. homes by the time those aliens landed in New Jersey.
With origins tracing back to Finland and Japan in the ’70s, mobile phones have fast become the most widely used gadgets in the world. The first billion units sold in 20 years, the second billion in four and the third billion in two. By the end of 2010, the subscription rate stood at 5 billion, or 75 percent of all people on earth. The tech leaped forward in 1983 with the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the first truly portable cellphone. The smartphone, with us since 2000, is now a pocket-size PC. Wireless and GPS- and multimedia-enabled, it facilitates instantaneous personal connections that make phone conversations seem like cave paintings. People of developing nations, even those without an electrical grid, can tap into the world’s commerce and culture. After a scant 11 years of development, the device seems to have limitless potential.