The boring tech that we can't live without
12th Dec 2013 | 12:45
Give those plugs a hug
Some technologies are more glamorous than others. If tech were a party, everybody would be trying to talk to the processors and screens, while lesser chips and components hung out in the kitchen. We think it's time to redress the balance, to celebrate the humble heroes that keep our tech ticking. Let's give some plugs a hug.
One of the first experiments in quantum science, two-sided USB adapters remain the wrong way round the first three times you try them - but without them we'd still be screwing enormous add-on cards into our computers and wrestling with endless proprietary connectors.
The standard was developed in the 1990s to replace the spaghetti junction of cables behind every PC, and with 2000's USB 2.0 it did just that. Mini- and micro-variants power our smartphones, tiny tablets and endless add-ons, while USB 3.1 promises 10 gigabit transfer speeds.
2. USB sticks
It's a simple equation - USB connector plus flash storage equals USB stick - but Amir Ban, Dov Moran and Oron Ogdan's invention transformed storage and provided a handy prop for Hollywood hackers too. The first USB stick was capable of a massive 8MB of storage. It's easy to mock, but that was massive compared to the 1.44MB you'd get on a floppy disk.
3. Headphone jack
It's fitting that every smartphone has a headphone jack, because the phone connector - to give it its proper name - was originally made for telephone switchboards.
The originals were developed in the late 1800s, and while miniaturised versions were made for transistor radios it wasn't until Sony used the 3.5mm "mini jack" in its 1979 Walkman that the little jack became the most common kind of audio connector.
We're all familiar with the IEEE 802.11 standards for WiFi, but you might not know about IEEE 802.3. That was ethernet, which replaced various competing networking technologies to become the default for computers and consoles alike. Like many of the best things in tech, it was developed at Xerox PARC in the early seventies.
Today they light our flat-screens, our houses and the road in front of our cars, but when LEDs first turned up in the early sixties you could have them in just one colour: red.
6. Wireless radios
Wireless communications have changed the world: in the 1980s GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) brought data to cellphones, and in the 1990s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled our devices and accessories to talk to one another.
Since then wireless tech has got faster, smaller and more energy efficient. Rather brilliantly, Bluetooth gets its name from a tenth-century Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, and the logo is a rune based on his initials.
7. QWERTY keyboards
The idea that QWERTY was developed to slow down typists is an urban myth: newspaper editor Christopher Latham Sholes came up with it in the late 1800s to prevent "type writer" jams, thereby speeding up typists. It's famously one of the most successful open standards ever created.
8. IEC 60320
You probably know this one as the kettle lead, which of course can reproduce asexually if you leave it in a cupboard for long enough. It comes in multiple flavours - C7 and C8 for home entertainment kit, C13 and C14 for computers - and the standard is overseen by the International Electrotechnical Commission, which would have been a good name for a mid-90s ambient rave band.
SPDIF is one of the greatest acronyms ever invented - saying "spuh-dif" a few times is a well known cure for melancholy and other ills - but its full name is the rather dull Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format.
It was designed to carry uncompressed audio between home entertainment devices. If you go for optical SPDIF you get a bonus acronym: TOSLINK, which is short for Toshiba Link.
Without MIDI, music would be rubbish. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface was - yes! - designed as a digital interface for musical instruments, and since 1983 MIDI connectors have happily transferred musical data between instruments, programmers and computers.
It's so useful, important and downright amazing that co-creators Ikutaro Kakehashi (of Roland Corporation) and Dave Smith (of Sequential Circuits) were given a Grammy award for inventing a standard "that ultimately revolutionised the music world."
11. Modems and routers
Today's routers look very different from the telephone couplers of the early 1980s, but they do the same job: transmitting data over phone lines (or, if you're with cable, over fibre-optic cables). The first modems (it's short for modulate/demodulate) turned data into sound and vice-versa, initially by using acoustic couplers (big plugs you stuck your phone into) that achieved a giddy 1,200 pulses per second.
The couplers disappeared in favour of modems that connected directly to your phone line. Hayes' Smartmodem (1981) added a microprocessor, enabling your computer to start and end calls, dial numbers and so on, and speeds increased until dial-up modems delivered a positively exhilarating 56,000 bits per second.
Then the technology hit a brick wall. Luckily for us broadband was ready and waiting - and it meant we could go online and use the phone at the same time. In the 1990s that was heady stuff.
12. Telephone lines
The copper that connects most of our homes to the wider world has proved surprisingly robust: while dial-up modems hit the wall at 56Kbps, the arrival of ADSL means that the average UK broadband user is managing to chuck a mighty 14.7Mbps down that copper cabling.
HDMI banished analogue connections from our big-screen TVs, and introduced a fascinating mystery: when cables are completely digital, how can some firms say that their super-expensive, made-from-angels'-hair versions do digital better without bursting out laughing?
HDMI came from a consortium of manufacturers including Hitachi, Sony, RCA and Toshiba, and they started the first version of the standard in 2002; in January 2003, ten years after the first standard was released, there were over 1,300 HDMI adopters who had shipped more than 3 billion HDMI devices.
BS1363 has two claims to fame: the British three-pin plug is both the safest mains plug and socket in the world, and the most painful blunt object it's possible to stand on in the dark.
It was designed in the 1940s to replace the existing BS 546 plug, and one of its key points was to protect children by keeping the electrical contacts away from curious fingers. The standard was published in 1947, and it's been constantly revised ever since: the most recent revision was in November 2012.
- For more amazing everyday tech: 7 scientific breakthroughs that made your smartphone possible