Sometime in 1894, while his Great Lakes steamer W P. Thew lay tied to a wharf on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, Capt. Richard P. Thew whiled away many hours as men laboriously unloaded his iron ore cargo onto the wooden docks. While pacing the wheelhouse, he watched with curiosity and then puzzlement as a railroad steam shovel took one clumsy scoop of ore after another and dumped it into a hopper car sitting on nearby railroad tracks. During the shovel’s motion, the bucket’s teeth gouged the dock’s timbers and left much of the ore behind.
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.
Lawyer Leo Connors had always thought that his office on the 30th floor of Providence’s art deco Bank of America (“Superman”) Building was at the very top. So when he found an unmarked door opening on a narrow upward stairway, he naturally set out to explore. Passing through two more doors, he entered a dusty, unused rectangular room fitted out like a dirigible cabin, with wicker chairs, dark leather-lined walls, vintage light fixtures, fine brass fittings, and a liquor closet.
This issue you’ll notice that a new word appears on the cover: Innovation. Sitting around an editorial meeting recently, we decided to add the subtitle, “The Magazine of Innovation,” because that’s exactly what we’ve been giving you for the past 23 years—a broad range of fascinating stories ranging from long-ago Mayan astronomers to the two Bell Labs physicists who recently won the Nobel Prize for profoundly changing our lives with the invention of the CCD, or charge-coupled device (see “The Miracle of Digital Imaging.”)
In less than a decade, “iPod” has become nearly synonymous with the digital music player, an extraordinary accomplishment shared by only a handful of other consumer brands—such as Band-Aid, Kleenex, and Frigidaire—whose trademarked names have come to describe a generic product.
In the years following the Civil War, few towns across the United States matched Troy, New York, in prosperity, owing to the industry of its citizens and its access to great water highways.
After subduing Czechoslovakia and dividing Poland with the Soviet Union in 1940, Adolf Hitler began laying plans for conquering the rest of western Europe. He determined that the most effective route around the Maginot Line and into Holland, Belgium, and France would be to open a gap through the Belgian line of fortifications between Liege and Maastricht. Hitler ordered 11 of a 42-glider attack force to touch down on a half-mile-long stretch of grass near the edge of a limestone cliff overlooking the Albert Canal.
Director Stanley Kubrick couldn’t figure it out. In 1974 a company named the Cinema Products Corporation sent him a reel of film, all shots that seemed beyond the capacity of the day’s filmmaking equipment.
The camera moved fluidly after a man who was running around a golf course and followed a woman as she jogged up and down a wide stone stairway—without the bumping and jiggling characteristic of handheld footage. Kubrick also knew he wasn’t seeing a simple dolly shot, where the camera is attached to a wheeled platform and moves along a set of metal tracks.
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.
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.
Few decades, if any, can compare with first 10 years of the 21st century for such extraordinary technological leaps in the field of consumer electronics. Even more remarkable is how blithely most people integrate new technologies into their daily behaviors—and then wonder how they ever got along before they had the latest widget.
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 .
At about five o’clock one morning this past October, the retired physicist Willard S. Boyle received a scientist’s ultimate wake-up call. At first he couldn’t bestir himself—who could be calling at this ungodly hour?—but the phone was insistent, so his wife dragged herself out of bed.
A couple of minutes later, she was shaking him awake. “Stockholm is calling.”
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?
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.