The digital camera meant photography was no longer a relatively expensive, materials-intensive activity and enabled the sea of photos we’re awash in today. One of the leading photo sharing sites, Flickr, holds upwards of 4 billion photos, and an estimated 2.5 billion photos are uploaded to Facebook every month. The first true digital camera — one that saved images as a digital file — was the Fuji DS-1P, featured in a 1989 issue of Popular Mechanics, while the first commercially available model in the U.S., the Dycam Model 1, came on the market in 1990.
In the same way that digital cameras have led to an explosion of still images, digital camcorders have led to seemingly every event being recorded for posterity. They’ve brought down politicians and revealed official misbehavior; they’ve also let us watch teenage girls unpack their shopping bags. The first shoulder-carried video camera that didn’t require a separate recording deck debuted in 1983, but the market really took off with the hand-held Sony Handycam in 1989. Video cameras that fit in your shirt pocket date to the introduction of the Pure Digital Point & Shoot in 1996, now known as the Flip.
The personal computer debuted in the 1970s, but the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh set the standard for how they would operate from then on. A Mac-like computer had debuted a year earlier — the Lisa — but at nearly $10,000, it was a flop. At $2,495, the Macintosh wasn’t exactly cheap by 1984 standards, but it revolutionized the way people interacted with their computers, establishing the interface and metaphor that every current OS uses.
For our money — get it? — this is probably the most revolutionary gadget in the list. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the money you had in hand by 3 PM on a Friday afternoon was all the money you had for the weekend. Experiments with cash-dispensing and deposit-taking machines at individual banks started in the early sixties, but it was in 1963 that the first networked ATM made its debut. Nightlife would never be the same.
These days we can always know where we are and how to get where we’re going, thanks to the portable satellite receiver known as a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit. The system was first conceived by the U.S. military in the 1970s, and the satellites that let the units triangulate their locations were launched between 1989 and 1994. Magellan claims to have been first out with a hand-held unit, in 1989.
First introduced in 1963, the VCR may now be almost obsolete, but it revolutionized Americans’ relationship with their TV entertainment. We no longer had to make sure we watched something when it was first broadcast or risk missing it forever, and it enabled us to watch our shows whenever we wanted rather than when the networks thought we should.
It might come as a surprise that the microwave has been around for more than 60 years, but in fact, there was a commercial model (almost 6 feet tall and weighing 750 pounds) on the market in 1947, two years after a chocolate bar melted in the pocket of an engineer working around a source of radio waves. College students and harried homemakers everywhere owe their ability to eat something resembling real food to that happy accident in 1945.
Digital Video Recorder (DVR)
The DVR took the trend started by the VCR to another level. Providing the same time-shifting and programming choice capabilities as the VCR, the DVR was easier to program and eliminated the need to rewind a tape to find the show you wanted to watch. The first DVRs were introduced in 1998 by TiVo (whose name has practically become a synonym for their use) and ReplayTV. They’ve raised what we demand from our TV service to another level and put pressure on networks and advertisers to meet our new standards.
Our modern world would not exist without the personal computer, full stop. (For one thing, you wouldn’t be reading this.) It’s hard to settle on a firm date for its invention. The first commercial unit that didn’t require assembly from a kit made its appearance in France in 1972. That Micral N would be followed by the Commodore PET and the Apple II in 1977 and in 1981 by the machine that lent its name to the whole category: the IBM PC.
“Mobile” phones were available for cars in the mid sixties, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the first truly hand-held model came along (not that it would fit in your pocket). The first call was made by Motorola researcher Martin Cooper to his rival at Bell Labs, Dr. Joel S. Engel. Current estimates are that there are more than 4.5 billion mobile phones in use today.
One can object that there were other MP3 players before Apple’s iPod, and one would be correct: the Audio Highway Listen Up was the first on the market, in 1996. But how many people did you know that had one before the iPod arrived on the scene in 2001? The integration with an easy way to buy and download music plus the gadget’s iconic advertising vaulted the iPod over all other contenders and established it as the leader in a category it still dominates.
The iPhone makes this list because it’s so much more than a mobile phone. When it debuted in 2007, it revolutionized the notion of a web-enabled phone and launched a million — well, several hundred thousand — apps. It’s done the most so far of any gadget to fulfill a gadget-lover’s dream of a full-fledged computer in your pocket and as such, it defined a new category.
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