Everyday objects often have remarkably long histories. Here are 10 common items, that were invented earlier than you think.
Emojis – the tiny pictograms that we use on our mobile phones and chat windows – seem like the quintessential bit of modern tech. We send 6 billion of them every day, and they come in a near endless variety, which are refreshed every year. So it is surprising to realise that they are actually not that recent an invention, with the first set of emoji’s created nearly 25 years ago.
In 1997, Shigetaka Kurita, an electronics engineer with Japanese telco NTT Docomo, created the first characters (his original set of 177 emojis is displayed above). Mobile phones at the time had small screens that displayed as few as 50 characters, and Kurita was looking for a way to allow the company’s customers to send more detailed messages within these restrictions.
Many of the most popular emojis – the smiley face, the love heart, the fist bump – were represented in this first set, and their modern equivalents are based on Kurita’s original designs. The original emojis were recently added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, in New York City, confirming their cultural significance.
1973: Mobile Phones
The idea for a mobile telephone stretches back a long way, to the beginning of the 20th century. Over the decades different approaches were tried, including; wireless phones (1918-1924), radio phones (World War 2), and car phones (from 1947 onward).
In 1973 a team at Motorola, lead by engineer Martin Cooper, succeeded in building the first fully portable handset that could make calls to other phone numbers. This first ‘mobile phone’ (the label would not be applied until years later) was 23 cm long, took 30 hours to charge, and offered a maximum talk time of only ten minutes. Although Cooper would later joke that this was irrelevant; ‘the handset was so heavy you could only hold it up for thirty seconds.’
The patent on the device was filed that same year, although it would take 10 more years, and several re-designs, before Motorola released the first commercially available cellular phone in 1983.
1971: Personal Computers
In recent years, the story of the first computer has become well known; during World War II, British code breakers at Bletchley Park developed the pioneering ‘Coloussus’ machine, in order to crack the Nazi’s Enigma codes. But while Colossus represented the first fully functional electronic computer, it weighed one tonne, filled an entire room, and required 1500 individual vacuum tubes to function (it’s top secret existence was also covered up until 1976).
We would have to wait another quarter century for the first commercially available personal computer for the home; the ‘Kenbak – 1’, released in 1971. The inventor, John Blankenbaker, was a retired electronics engineer and computer hobbyist, who spent nearly 15 years on the design.
The 8 bit computer had 256 bytes of memory and could perform a variety of simple tasks, although it lacked a keyboard or monitor and relied instead on a built in display and push buttons. Blankenbaker advertised the Kenbak-1 in the ‘Scientific American’ (the ad is above), and sold fifty units in two years, before his business folded. The computers are now highly sought after collectors items.
1967: Automatic Teller Machines
John Shepherd-Barron was a Cambridge educated economist, who made a fortune in the 1950s manufacturing banknotes for the British government. One night in 1965, the story goes, he was sitting in his bath after a long day, annoyed that he had missed the bank before it closed, when inspiration struck; what if there was an automated machine, that would allow basic banking 24 hours a day!
Shepherd-Barron set up a meeting with the head of Barclay’s Bank, then England’s largest private bank, and managed to sell him on the idea. The bank commissioned Shepherd-Barron to build six prototype machines, the first of which was installed in Barclay’s Enfield branch, in the north of London, on June 27, 1967. Actor Reg Varney, of ‘On the Buses’ fame, was lined up as the first customer.
While the first ATM was quite similar in design to its modern equivalent, there was one significant difference; instead of a plastic card, customer’s accessed the machine with a one use paper slip, printed with radioactive ink.
1964: The Computer Mouse
The computer mouse was popularised by Apple; the Cupertino company was the first to include the device as a standard accessory, when they shipped them with their innovative ‘Macintosh’ system in 1984. But the idea itself is two decades older.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had first seen a mouse in action at the Xerox-PARC research facility in the late 1970s, and they, in turn, had taken the idea from its creator, Dr. Douglas Engelbert.
Engelbert was a World War II veteran and electronics genius, who had originally worked on computer systems for NASA. In the 1960s Engelbert took a job with a non profit tech research institute, and dedicated himself to experimental computer technology. This lead to the creation of the first mouse, in 1964 (prototype above).
Engelbert also played a role in the development of hypertext language (the precursor of the internet), LAN networks, and the graphical user interface. All of these innovations were demonstrated by Engelbert at the ‘Joint Computer Conference’ in San Francisco in 1968; a famous moment in the history of computing, where all of the components of a modern network were shown together for the first time.
1947: Microwave Ovens
The microwave oven has its origins in the development of radar, which was invented in England during World War 2. Radar works by bouncing high energy pulses off solid objects, then interpreting the signal this produces. One of the energy types trialled in early radar systems was microwaves, a mild form of electro-magnetic radiation produced by a device called a magnetron.
The domestic potential of microwave energy was discovered by accident in America after the war; conducting radar tests for Raytheon, engineer Percy Spencer noticed the chocolate bar he had in his pocket had melted. Further investigation revealed that concentrated microwaves could be used to heat food; a relatively simple process that was patented by Raytheon in 1945.
It took only two years for the company to produce the first commercially available microwave oven; the aptly named ‘Radarange’, which went on sale in America in 1947. While the principle used in the new oven was essentially the same as a modern microwave, the device was very different; the Radarange stood 1.8 metres tall, was made out of metal, and cost the equivalent of $54 000.
Television is the most successful media system ever invented; as at 2011, 99% of US households had at least one TV set, and many had more than one. The popularity of the medium boomed in the decades after the Second World War, as the surging American economy provided people with more disposable income.
But TV was actually created two decades before this, when Scottish inventor John Logie Baird cobbled the first set together in his apartment, in 1925. Baird was an aspiring entrepreneur who had wandered the globe and tried his hand at a number of ventures, before working on broadcast images. His primitive device employed a pair of spinning disks – one at the broadcast end, and one at the receiving end – to convert images into data, which were then transmitted by simple AM radio waves.
Short of parts, and money, Baird scavenged equipment, and his prototype would ultimately include bicycle parts, and a casing made out of an old suitcase. He used ventriloquist dummies as ‘actors’ to test the system, and his landlord was the first person to witness a TV set in operation.
Baird’s ‘Televisor’ was publicly demonstrated for the first time in London in 1926, and would be used by the BBC when they began broadcasting the following year. Unfortunately for Baird, 1927 was also the year American engineers developed a fully electronic television system, which had greater range and sharper images, and would quickly supplant his device.
Before cameras, there was the ‘Camera Obscura’, a simple optical illusion known since at least 500 BC, and probably before that.
The Camera Obscura features a very dark room, with a very small hole in the side: set this up and an image of whatever is on the other side of the hole will materialise on the wall of the room, just upside down (see image, above). From this simple, if strange, effect, sprang the concept of photography and cameras.
But how to permanently capture the image the Camera Obscura produced?
In the early 19th century, Nicephore Niepce, an independently wealthy French nobleman, dedicated himself to the challenge. By this time, different materials that reacted to light were known to science, and Niepce experimented with these, placing slides made of various substances inside a small camera obscura like device.
In 1816 he had success, using plates of silver chloride to successfully capture faint images of artwork in his house. Unfortunately, the images faded fairly rapidly, but Niepce and his colleagues continued to refine their technique through the 1820s, treating their metal plates with different chemicals.
By 1826 they were producing pictures of Niepce’s garden and grounds (some of which still survive), and a new medium was born.
Batteries, although commonplace, are ingenious. They work like this; the materials in the battery cause a build-up of electrons in the ‘Anode’, one end of the battery, and as electrons naturally repel one another, they then try to move towards an area of low electron density, known as the ‘Cathode’ (AKA: the other end).
They are prevented from taking a direct path by the ‘Electrolyte’, an electron repelling substance, and so are forced to take a roundabout route, through the wiring of whatever the battery is plugged into.
This flow of electrons is what powers your phone, your remote control, and much of the modern world. While the effects outlined above had been known for thousands of years – a 2000 year old ceramic battery powered by vinegar was discovered in Iraq – exactly how this process works was not well understood until the 18th century.
The first modern style battery was invented by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, in 1800. Volta created a central column of alternating layers of zinc and copper, which produced the electron flow, and separated these with a layer of cloth soaked in salty brine, which acted as an electrolyte.
The resulting device, initially called a ‘Voltaic Pile’ (above), produced an electric current strong enough to shoot sparks.
1200s: Eye Glasses
Vision problems are the most common medical condition in the world; in developed countries, 65% – 75% of the adult population wears either eye glasses, or contact lenses. So perhaps it is no surprise to learn that glasses themselves have been around for a long time, dating back nearly 900 years to the 13th century.
Unlike the other items on this list, history does not record who invented eye glasses, although we do know that they first appeared in Italy around 1260. The preceding two centuries had seen great improvements in the quality of glass that could be produced, and the magnifying properties of convex lenses were well known. Early glasses looked a bit like a small pair of handcuffs, with frames made of leather, and were designed to perch on the nose, without attachment.
They were used by priests and scholars, and quickly spread throughout Europe. The painting above is an excerpt from ‘Glasses Apostle’ by Conrad van Soest; by the time this was produced in 1403, eye glasses were already an everyday sight.