On April 26, 1944, the 72-year-old Orville Wright posed for a photograph at the controls of a Lockheed Constellation, a triple-tailed, four-engined behemoth that could reach 340 miles per hour and had a ceiling of 24,000 feet. Only four decades earlier, Wright had taken the Flyer, a fragile creation of wire, wood, and muslin, on the first controlled, powered, and human flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. He noted that his first wobbling flight of 120 feet had been shorter than the Constellation’s wingspan.
“Now you don’t have to miss ‘Kojak’ because you’re watching ‘Columbo’ (or vice versa),” crowed 1976 Sony Betamax ad copy that drew millions of people to buy a revolutionary new device called the videocassette recorder (VCR).
While its initial pull was home video recording, most VCR users didn’t know how the set the clocks on their decks and so couldn’t record a thing. The flashing “12:00” on the VCR became a national punchline. It was clear that Americans wanted VCRs so that they could rent and watch prerecorded movies, not record programs.
Apple’s iPhone was not the first cell phone with an integrated music player (the Samsung Uproar, 2000), nor the first with a touchscreen interface (LG Prada, 2007). And phones with touchscreens had been available for nearly a decade. The iPhone wasn’t even the first on which a user could download and install mini applications (the Palm OS–powered Handspring Treo 180, 2002). So what was so special about it?
After 18 hours of labor on June 11, 1997, Sonia, the wife of 45-year-old software engineer Philippe Kahn, finally kicked him out of her Santa Cruz, California, maternity ward room. So he adjourned to a nearby desk and started fiddling with his laptop, cell phone, and digital camera. He’d planned to take pictures of their newborn, transfer the pictures from the camera to his laptop, post the pictures to a Web site, and e-mail his friends—all of which was then relatively advanced, technologically speaking.
While some technologies are easy to explain—the video recorder, wireless telephony, or the portable computer, for instance—others require a bit of explanation and hands-on experience before users “get” it.
Reaching the portable computer intersection of uniting smallest effective size with highest reasonable usefulness has tortured personal computer makers for 30 years. Over the last decade, the functionality side of the equation has won out. As soon as portable PCs could match the full functionality of a bulky stationary model—becoming so-called “desktop replacements”—laptop sales started to take off.
Food riots shook the Egyptian textile manufacturing center of El Mahalla El Kubra in the spring of 2008, and a 29-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate journalism student, James Buck, was covering and photographing them. In the early evening of April 10, police detained him. While sitting in his cell with his cell phone, Buck surreptitiously tapped out Arrested.
In the space of just three years, soon after the accuracy of the 30-year-old global positioning system (GPS) was narrowed to just one meter in 2004, sales of personal navigation devices (PNDs) exploded by 200 percent—and that doesn’t include the equally expanding market for cell phones equipped with GPS capabilities. The new generation of large-screen smartphones is advancing the spread of this suddenly indispensible technology.
Normally night spreads from east to west with the rotation of the earth, but the evening of November 9, 1965, was different. Darkness also spread from north to south. Southern Ontario went dark first, much of New York State a few seconds later, then most of New England, and finally New York City. By 5:28 P.M., thirty million people were stumbling toward any light available. Subways stopped and furnaces chilled, and America briefly lost one-fifth of its electricity. What was the cause?
My father had a concept he called “gadget value”—the intrinsic interest of machinery unrelated to its use. I have found plenty of it over the years in steam locomotives, steamboats, theater organs, and interurban cars, but never so much as in the cable car. In graduate school at the University of Chicago, I became interested in the city’s cable-car system, which had been the biggest in the country.
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk, a slightly built, forty-year-old research professor from the University of Pittsburgh, became a hero. On that morning, before one hundred and fifty news reporters and five hundred scientists and physicians crammed into an auditorium at the University of Michigan, “amid fanfare and drama far more typical of a Hollywood premiere than a medical meeting,” according to an account in The New York Times, it was announced that Dr. Salk had developed a vaccine that had been found effective in preventing poliomyelitis.
Elting E. Morison, Killian professor of humanities emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of technology. Though a great fan and chronicler of America’s industrial growth, he takes a clear, unawed view of his favorite subject.
We have all been taught to be critical of the written word, but we tend to let the omnipresent graphics of our era pass without close scrutiny. This we do at our own loss and peril. Graphics are rich stores of information, but often they lie about quantitative information and are unnerving and confusing when they could be aesthetically pleasing. In his recent book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward R. Tufte tells us what we should treasure, reject, and censor in graphics—and much more.
When Halley’s comet returns to our quarter of the universe this year, the great 200-inch Hale Telescope, perched high on Palomar Mountain in California, will follow it across the sky. In fact, the 200-inch, the world’s largest telescope for a full three decades after its dedication in 1948, was the first telescope to detect the comet during its current return, back in 1982. We can always expect the phenomenal from the 200-inch.
Suddenly, a four-inch-thick “flat-screen” LCD or plasma HDTV is considered fat. In the last year or so, nearly every HDTV manufacturer has introduced a “slim” model, usually around an inch and a half thick or thinner.
It seems downright absurd to describe a four-inch-thick TV as obese and déclassé. Less than a decade ago, the dominant big-screen TVs were refrigerator-sized 20-plus-inch-deep rear projection models.
Consider the perfection that is a book. It is a product virtually unchanged for more than 600 years: completely random access and searchable; a universal and open format; not copy-protected; forward and backward compatible. It doesn’t have any special storage requirements. It can be bought, leased, or loaned in person or online. It never runs out of power.
No tale in all the chronicles of American invention would seem to be better known than the story of Thomas Edison’s incandescent electric light. The electric light, after all, quickly became the epitome of the bright idea, and its creator was for more than fifty years the living symbol of America’s inventive genius. But in truth it is only in recent years that we have begun to piece together the complete story of history’s most famous invention.
"If I have seen further,” wrote Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, “it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Today we all stand on the shoulders of giants who not only have extended our vision of the universe but also, by deftness of mind and technique, have actually invented the modern world.
ON NOVEMBER 7,1940, LEONARD COATSWORTH, A REPORTER FOR the Tacoma News Tribune, earned a small place in history as one of the last people on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. In the four months since its opening, the bouncy bridge had become a bit of a tourist attraction. People came from miles around for the thrill of driving across the galloping span. But Coatsworth was no tourist, just a local toting a earful of beach gear and his daughter’s cocker spaniel. And that morning the bridge was no fun at all.
MOST PEOPLE IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA—or eighteenth-century anywhere, for that matter—never saw pictures of themselves, not even once in their lives. Photography lay decades ahead, and only the wealthy could have their portraits painted. Even they usually had no more than one in a lifetime. So when a portrait was made, it was never a simple likeness but rather a lone chance to convey how you wanted to be seen and remembered, and your pose and attire and attitude and surroundings were all very carefully chosen. The idea was to show the best you could be.