What do the abacus, the battery and the compass have in common? They are gadgets that changed the world. This is part 2 of a series of 10 articles in which you will learn about the 101 gadgets that changed our world from prehistory to today.
1. Abacus, AD190
Use of the abacus, with its beads in a rack, was first documented in Han Dynasty China in about AD190, but the word dates to much earlier calculating devices. "Abacus" derives from the Hebrew ibeq, meaning to "wipe the dust" or from the Greek abax, meaning "board covered with dust", which describes the first devices used by the Babylonians. The Chinese version was the speediest way to do sums for centuries and, in the right hands, can still outpace electronic calculators.
2. Battery, 1800
For the battery we must thank the frog. In the 1780s, the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani discovered that a dead frog's leg would twitch when he touched it with two pieces of metal. Galvani had created a crude circuit and the phenomenon was taken up by his friend, the aristocratic Professor Alessandro Volta, whose voltaic cells stacked in a Voltaic pile amazed Napoleon. The pile was also the first battery, whose successors power more than a third of the gadgets on this list.
3. Blackberry, 1999
Ask the average office worker what he or she thinks of their Blackberry and they will variously call it (if they're not furiously tapping away at one) a boon and a curse. Developed by the Canadian firm Research in Motion and unleashed in 1999, the gizmo has provided legions of roaming desk jockeys with a hotline to their inboxes, and enabled armies of bosses to keep employees digitally shackled to their swivel chairs. The addictiveness of the device led it to be dubbed the "Crackberry".
4. Bra, 1913
Before she patented her creation, the New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, widely considered to be the inventor of the modern bra, had bought a sheer silk dress and devised a handkerchief and ribbon device as an alternative to unsightly corsets. She later sold her business for $1,500 to Warner Brothers Corset Company, who made $15m from her uplifting invention. Today, UK women spend £1.2bn on bras and pants each year; Marks & Spencer claims a market-leading 38 per cent share of sales.
5. Cardiac pacemaker, 1958
It wasn't long ago that if you had a terminally dodgy ticker you would be sent to hospital and hooked up to a large, static piece of kit. Cue Swedish doctors Rune Elmqvist and Ake Senning, who in 1958 designed the first implantable pacemaker. Their device failed within hours and it took the US engineer Wilson Greatbatch to build a reliable model in his garden shed. He tested a prototype on a dog in 1958 and, in 1960, Henry Hannafield, 77, became the first human recipient.
6. Compass, 1190
Forced to rely on natural cues such as cliffs or spits of land, as well as crude maps and the heavens, early mariners would get hopelessly lost. Desperate for something more reliable, sailors in China and Europe independently discovered in the 12th century lodestone, a magnetic mineral that aligned with the North Pole. By 1190, Italian navigators were using lodestone to magnetise needles floating in bowls of water. The device set humanity on the course to chart the globe.
7. Digital watch, 1972
Watches made the short journey from bosom to wrist during the 19th century, due in part to the craze among middle-class women for cycling. Their new, more convenient position made sense and they developed quickly. Rolex made the first waterproof watch in 1926 and a year later the ultra-accurate quartz-crystal controlled clock arrived. Watches finally went digital in the 1970s when the Hamilton Company developed the Pulsar, which sported lights in place of hands; the liquid crystal display (LCD) followed in 1977.
8. Fax machine, 1843
A young person today might struggle to pick a fax machine out of a line-up of obsolete office gadgets, but most desk jockeys still familiar with the device probably don't realise it is more than 160 years old. Yes, they didn't have digital displays and printouts that say "OK", but the device built by the Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain in 1843, which comprised a pen attached to a pendulum kept in motion by electromagnetic impulses, is remarkably similar in principle to the modern machine.
9. Fridge, 1834
The greatest kitchen convenience was the death of the greengrocer, allowing harried professionals to keep perishables "fresh" for days at a time. But few people (greengrocers aside) would bemoan their invention. Jacob Perkins was the first to describe how pipes filled with volatile chemicals whose molecules evaporated very easily could keep food cool, like wind chilling your skin after a dip in the sea. But he neglected to publish his invention and its evolution was slow – fridges would not be commonplace for another 100 years.
10. Flushing toilet, 1597
Thomas Crapper, right? Wrong. Sir John Harrington, author, courtier and godson to Queen Elizabeth I, is the true inventor of the flush toilet. The miscredited Crapper, whose name helped build the urban myth that has surrounded him for centuries, indeed had a hand in toilets, but Harrington beat him to it, installing lavatories for the Queen at Richmond in the late 16th century. The "Crapper" (the world crap existed long before Thomas) was improved with the invention of the "S" bend in 1775.
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Read more about the 101 Gadgets that changed the world in Part 3 of the series of articles.
The content for these articles is gathered from various online resources.