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.
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.
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.
Sixty miles east of Havana, along Cuba’s north coast, swimmers and skin divers like to gather at a squarish pit filled with lovely aquamarine water, hewn into the rugged basalt just off Matanzas Bay. From a distance it has the look of a Stone Age swimming pool, until one sees electrical wires protruding from aged concrete.
No one could doubt Robert Fry’s aviation experience.
He had already made national headlines in 1928 as a Marine pilot in China, when he wrestled his plane through a violent storm and made an almost impossible forced landing in the middle of a shocked force of hostile Chinese troops. There was therefore no question that he knew how to handle the TWA Fokker trimotor aircraft that departed from Kansas City, only a little delayed on the stormy evening of March 31, 1931.
Well before his inauguration, with a recession gripping the country, President-elect Barack Obama proposed plans for a massive federal stimulus package centered on a public works program. “We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” he said.
Malcom McLean wanted to increase productivity, and ended up revolutionizing the shipping industry. In 1937 McLean, working for his family trucking business, became frustrated after spending all day at Hoboken, New Jersey, waiting for dockworkers to empty his truckload of cotton and load it aboard ship. McLean thought how much easier it would be simply to take his entire trailer, contents and all, and just hoist it aboard.
On October 1, 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced one of the most famous and influential products in the history of American business. By the time the last Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1927, it had made the company and its founder famous, wealthy, and powerful—and altered American society forever. While long hailed for his innovations in mass production, Ford’s genius also lay in his ability to define clearly what Americans wanted in an automobile and then to build it using a combination of established and cutting-edge technologies.
In the first part of the 18th century, a wave of Lutheran and Reformed German immigrants started arriving in Pennsylvania, a good many of them bringing Old World gunsmithing skills with them. When they adapted their expertise to meet the necessities demanded of the New World, they invented a new kind of firearm, the Kentucky rifle, which would soon exert a major impact on the development of colonial North America.
On an evening cruise in 1979 aboard the 125-foot steamship Virginia V off Seattle in Puget Sound, a 32-year-old engine fireman heard the roar of steam ripping out of the engine, a noise that sends chills down the backs of steamship engineers. Keith Sternberg raced to shut off the boiler before the water level dropped further. A few minutes longer and the boiler’s pipes and tubes could have been irretrievably scorched, causing them to rupture or even explode.
Nineteen-year-old Harvey Henningsen’s heart sank in 1964 when his father announced his intention to scrap the engines of the Sturgeon’s Lumber Mill, a steam-powered operation in Sebastopol, California, 55 miles northwest of San Francisco. Harvey had grown up there, running errands for the millworkers as a boy; as a young man he had been thrilled by the boilermen’s stories as they stroked the massive furnaces powering the pulse of the single-piston, 1850 Atlas 30-horsepower steam engine, which shuddered so violently that it shook the mill floor above.
Bette Nesmith Graham didn’t set out to earn millions: she just needed a way to correct her frequent typing mistakes as a secretary at the Texas Bank & Trust in Dallas in the early 1950s. In the process this single mother invented and patented Liquid Paper, a product that transformed the working lives of millions of typists overnight. Her invention’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity. “Like a safety pin or a rubber band,” she said, “we wonder how we ever got along before without it.”
In early 2006 the 66-year-old retired nuclear engineer George Niederauer pulled his Ford Explorer into David Passard’s driveway in Van Nuys, California, after driving 800 miles from his home in Durango, Colorado. The house, garage, yard, and outbuildings were crammed with antique locomotive generators, lights, bulbs, and books stockpiled over four decades. Niederauer felt his heart race.