20 technologies that changed the world

17th Oct 2008 | 11:15

20 technologies that changed the world

We reveal the little things that made a big impact

Some new technologies are little more than shiny toys, but others change your life. Some of them can even change the world, spawning entire new industries and making everyone slap their heads and go "duh! Why didn't we think of that?"

The following 20 technologies range from the tiny to the shiny, but they've all got one thing in common: they've had, or will have, a massive impact.

The Transistor

Without the transistor, pretty much all the techno-toys we take for granted wouldn't exist - or if they did, they'd each be the size of Belgium. The basic building block of everything electronic, the transistor is widely credited to Bell Labs' William Shockley, who based his own research on findings by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in 1947.

The IBM PC

The first IBM PC was powered by an Intel 8088 microprocessor, was the size of a portable typewriter and packed 16K of RAM. It cost $1,565. It might look horribly dated now, but if it weren't for this first PC we might not have computers at all.

The PC brought computing to the desktop, and its influence lives on. When IBM stopped fighting clone manufacturers and licensed technology to them instead, it led directly to today's modular, upgradeable and customisable machines. When you're upgrading your ageing graphics card to play Crysis or swapping out your old DVD drive for a Blu-ray/HD DVD combo unit, you've got IBM to thank. Or curse.

TCP/IP

Developed by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early 1970s, Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol is the glue that holds the internet together. Without it we'd just have a bunch of networks that couldn't talk to one another.

The Apple iMac

The original iMac is one of the most influential designs of the last decade. In a world where computers were ugly, blocky and beige, Apple showed machine-makers a better way of doing things. And the iMac has influenced not just computers, but irons, vacuum cleaners and even baby bottle sterilisers. With the iMac, Apple rediscovered its mojo, giving it the platform (and the confidence) to design other icons of our time like iPods and iPhones. You may have heard of them.

The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web isn't the internet, but without it it's unlikely that your Gran would be looking at your Flickr pics or that you'd be chortling at things on Fark. Created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and released in 1992, the web took off in 1993 with the introduction of the Mosaic Web browser. Berners-Lee could probably have made enormous stacks of money from patenting and licensing his invention, but he gave it away instead. What a man.

The mouse

Invented by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute in 1963, the mouse changed the way we interact with machines - but sadly Engelbart didn't receive a penny in royalties for his invention, because his patents ran out before the mouse turned up in PCs. The mouse ball came along in 1972, making tracking easier, and while the nuts and bolts have changed - today we have wireless mice and laser mice, not to mention mice with more buttons than a tailor's shop - the mouse is still an essential part of our computing kit.

SMS

It may well have ruined the English language, but SMS (Short Message Service) has also transformed the way we communicate - and it's done so entirely by accident. While the idea was kicking around during the mid-1980s, nobody thought of it as a way for people to send messages to one another; instead, it was envisaged as a way to let people know they had new voicemails. The first mobile phone SMS was sent by a Nokia student engineer in 1993, and by 2000 the average user was sending 35 SMSes per month. We know people who send that many messages every few minutes.

The Sony Dual Shock Controller

How many bits of tech kit have won an Emmy award? Sony's 10-year-old Dual Shock controller got one for 'Peripheral Development and Technological Impact of Video Game Controllers' (Nintendo bagged one too for inventing the D-pad).

The Dual Shock enabled games to strike back, vibrating the controller in time with the onscreen action. The design is obviously so good that Sony didn't change it when moving from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3.

GPS

The Global Positioning System was clever enough as a military technology, but when GPS became available to the rest of us it changed the way we navigate - and probably made a lot of mapmakers redundant. Sat-nav systems are just the beginning, though: GPS in phones could herald a whole new era of location-aware sites and services.

The Nintendo Wii Remote

Even with the best will in the world, the Nintendo Wii is a last-generation console. Its guts are positively puny compared to Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360. But the Wii's secret weapon is the Wii Remote (dubbed 'Wiimote'), which turns old-school games - computer tennis? Come on, it's Pong with better graphics! - into perfect family entertainment. Particularly after a few beers.

According to Popular Science, the Wiimote works using an accelerometer, which consists of a miniscule silicon weight suspended between delicate springs. When the Wiimote is swung or flicked, this weight moves. A computer chip then calculates how fast and how far the weight has moved, transferring the data into onscreen movement. When games developers get the Wiimote right, as they have with Rayman Raving Rabbids or Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, it's pure gaming heaven.

Napster

No. Not today's neutered song seller. We mean the original, fun Napster. As if annoying Metallica wasn't enough, Napster and its successors made broadband worth having. Napster was amazingly easy to use and immensely useful, and it brought peer-to-peer file sharing into the mainstream. Without Napster there'd be no BBC iPlayer, no Joost, no iTunes, no Bittorrent and probably no Skype. Not bad for a fairly simple program written by a student.

The Sony Walkman

Without the original Walkman there'd be no Apple iPod, and possibly not any mobile music of any kind. Nobutoshi Kihara's personal mission - he wanted to listen to operas during long plane journeys - put headphones on the high street. The basic idea worked as well with CDs, MiniDiscs and MP3s as it did with cassette tapes. You can see the Walkman's DNA in pretty much every mobile music device. Don't believe us? Stick an iPod next to the original 1979 Walkman and they look like brothers.

Bittorrent

Created by programmer Bram Cohen in 2001, Bittorrent took the basic idea of peer-to-peer file transfer and kicked it up a gear. Its genius is that as soon as you have a bit of a file, you're sharing it - so files are shared before they're fully downloaded. Bittorrent is an incredibly efficient way of distributing huge amounts of data - which is good news for open source software distribution and terrible news for film studios trying to fight piracy.

The Apple iPhone

The iPhone doesn't do anything new - our O2 XDA does web, email and phone in a single, rubbish device. The iPhone isn't perfect either, but it's still a design masterpiece. Apple has simply done what Apple does best: it's looked at what other firms have made and said "You know what? There's a better way to do it". There are stacks of firms making internet-enabled phones. But with its slim design, multitouch screen and intuitive UI, Apple has made the lot of them look rather silly. Game on for Nokia, Sony Ericsson...

Hotmail

The original Hotmail was a stroke of genius. By bringing desktop software to the web (and becoming a huge hit in the process), Hotmail effectively ushered in the web 2.0 world of online applications - think Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Flickr and so on.

These days Hotmail is owned by Microsoft (and part of the Windows Live suite). It's rather ironic when you consider that the very online applications Hotmail spawned are making the software giant's cash cows - operating systems and office software - look increasingly anachronistic. Why pay for programs when you can get them online for free?

TiVo

If you told your Gran you were going to replace her old video recorder with a stripped down computer, she'd beat you senseless with her walking stick. But if you gave her a Sky+ box, she'd give you a cup of tea and maybe even some biscuits. It's an absolute doddle to use and it's in more living rooms than media PCs can ever dream of reaching.

But there's an argument that, without TiVo, there'd be no Sky+ at all. BSkyB originally partnered with TiVo in the UK, before breaking away to build its own digital video recorder. TiVo was arguably ahead of its time - an HDD-based TV recorder that defined the term 'PVR' and featured a clever thumbs up/thumbs down rating system to learn (and then anticipate) your TV watching tastes. While TiVo has been popular enough to attain 'verb status' in the US (i.e. "I TiVo'd it last night"), its failure here is one of the sadder tech tales of recent years.

CCD

The Charged Coupled Display, or CCD for short, is the eye of a digital camera - and it's older than you might think. AT&T Labs built the first CCD in 1969, but it wasn't until 1975 that Eastman Kodak's Steven Sasson created the first digital camera. It had a 0.01 megapixel resolution and took 23 seconds to capture an image.

iRobot Roomba

People have been trying to flog us robots for ages, but the iRobot Roomba stands out for two reasons: it isn't threateningly expensive, and it won't scare the dog (or pretend to be a dog, like Sony's now-canned AIBO). It turns out that successful robots aren't do-everything humanoids or plastic pets. Instead, they're simple little gadgets that do one thing and do it well. With the Roomba that thing is hoovering. But the firm also makes robots that can do the guttering, wash the floors, clear up the garage or pull the limbs off your enemies. We made that last one up.

PageRank

Developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin while still at university, PageRank went on to become a website called Google. You may have heard of it. Unlike other search engines, which simply scanned the content of pages, PageRank looked at incoming links too - rightly assuming that a site with loads of incoming links from reputable websites is likely to be reputable too. The rest is - ahem - search history.

The vibrator

Invented in the 1880s to cure "female hysteria", the vibrator has certainly made a lot of women feel better - although not, perhaps, in the way its inventors intended. The combination of the vibrator and The Pill has transformed attitudes towards female sexuality, with the former making the odd bloke feel inadequate in the process. Before today's more open attitudes to sex, and despite clearly being designed for other parts of the body, vibrators were often advertised as neck massagers. You're doing it wrong!

Now read 20 websites that changed the world

Apple Computing Gaming Microsoft PlayStation 3 Portable audio Internet wii
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