Best of Popular Science’s “What’s New,” 1999

In 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the U.S. patent office, proclaimed, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” He was wrong, as Popular Science‘s recent awards for “the best of what’s new” from 1999 reveals. These inventions and breakthroughs give us a glimpse of what’s in store for us in the 21st century, now just a little over a year away. (Really, 2000 is the last year of the 20th century and the millennium, not the first year of the 21st century and the new millennium. You knew that, didn’t you?).

Popular Science honored around 100 inventions: I’ve picked out just a few that caught my fancy.

As a long-time glasses wearer, Micro-Optical’s Integrated Eyeglass Display particularly fascinates me. It incorporates a one-ounce video projector into the temple of a pair of eyeglasses that shines an image onto a mirror on the eyeglass lens, which reflects it back into the wearer’s eye. One potential application is a heads-up display for surgeons, who could monitor vital signs without ever having to turn their heads.

Another audio/video winner is Command Audio, whose receiver (for a monthly fee) lets you listen to the radio programs you want, when you want. It continuously receives transmissions of the latest programming, storing up to six hours of it for listening at your leisure.

In the field of automobiles, Daimler-Chrysler’s Necar4, the first fuel-cell powered vehicle that drives like a regular car, was honored. Fuel cell technology is exciting because fuel cells, which produce electricity through the chemical interaction of hydrogen and oxygen, produce virtually no pollution–just water.

Ever come close to driving off the road because you were fumbling with the radio? What you need is the new 2000 S-type Jaguar (or if you don’t, I do!). It’s the first car to feature voice control for the onboard radio, CD player, climate control system and cell phone.

In space and aviation, one of the honored breakthroughs was the first floating launch pad for rockets. On March 27, an international business partnership called Sea Launch successfully launched a satellite from a ship at the equator. Launching at the equator reduces costs because the rocket gets a boost from the Earth’s spin.

The field of computers has breakthroughs every month, it seems. My favorite development this year was the SETI@home project, which enlists your computer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Your computer automatically downloads chunks of data collected by a radio telescope, analyzes it for peculiar signals, then uploads the results back to project headquarters in Berkeley, California. More than a million people are participating, allowing the project to analyze huge amounts of data. Look for more scientific projects to enlist Internet users this way in the future. (And no, ET hasn’t shown up yet.)

Another electronic breakthrough is Aibo, a robotic dog from Sony. It barks, it bets, its tail wags. It’s really an electronic marvel–and the beginning of robots in the home, a science fiction staple finally becoming a reality.

Much as I like computers, nothing beats a book for ready and simple access to information–and curling up on the sofa with. But we may soon have the best of both worlds, thanks to electronic paper. Electronic paper contains microcapsules filled with electrically charged white particles and black dye sandwiched between two sheets of flexible plastic no thicker than a piece of paper. An electric charge applied to the sheet rearranges the colors to form different letters. J.C. Penney used it for store signs this year; if the technology can be miniaturized enough, we may soon see books, newspapers and magazines made out of it. Finish a novel? Just download a new one off the Internet into your electronic book, and away you go. Think of the shelf space you’d save!

Among the miscellaneous breakthroughs chosen for recognition by the magazine includes the isolation of stem cells in bone marrow, which may eventually allow us to grow any type of tissue we need, even whole organs; FreshTag, a quarter-sized device that can be attached to fish to determine if it’s fresh; and a genetically modified strain of rice that contains iron and vitamin A, which will be distributed freed to developing countries to combat nutritional deficiencies.

Every month, Popular Science unearths more breakthroughs and inventions. It’s hard to know which ones will have a significant impact on our lives in the century to come, but it’s fun to speculate.

You’ll notice that in 1999, no one is suggesting everything that can be invented has been!

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