Edward Willett

The greatest inventions of the last 50 years

Everybody likes lists, especially around New Year’s. The magazine Popular Mechanics is no exception: its December issue included the magazine’s choices for the top 50 inventions of the last 50 years, as compiled by 25 experts from 17 museums and universities across the United States.

As it happens, when searching for column topics, I also like lists, especially lists compiled by someone else.

I don’t have space to mention all 50 of the chosen inventions, but here are a few of the less-obvious ones that caught my eye.

The first invention listed, from 1955, is the TV remote control. Designed by Eugene Polley of Zenith, the first one used visible light–making it, essentially, a flashlight. Unfortunately, that meant that direct sunlight could also change channels. (I’m surprised anyone ever noticed this, since dedicated TV watchers rarely even see the sun.) The second-generation remote used dog-annoying ultrasound. Since the 1980s, remotes have used infrared. They have also procreated. The original TV remote control gave birth to huge litters of additional remote controls for every piece of electronic equipment in the living room. I personally have a collection of five.

Also from 1955 is the microwave oven. In 1945 Percy Spencer of Raytheon, while standing close to a magnetron (the energy-emitting tube of a radar) felt a candy bar in his pocket start to melt. Popcorn kernels placed near the magnetron exploded. A decade later Spencer patented a “radar range” and the Tappan Stove Co. introduced the first home microwave oven. Now where would we, or the frozen food industry, be without them?

In 1959 the greatest invention of all time–me–made its debut. Oh, and that same year British engineer Alastair Pilkington came up with a better way to make glass. Old windows are wavy because the panes were made by squeezing hot glass between hot rollers. Pilkington made glass by floating it on an absolutely level bath of molten tin. We can all see clearly now because of that: today 90 percent of plate glass is “float glass.”

Two years later came that great boon to handymen everywhere, the cordless power tool, in the form of Black and Decker’s first cordless drill in 1961. Because the batteries they had to work with could only produce 20 watts, they had to come up with other innovations, including modified gear ratios and higher-quality materials. Today it’s probably rarer to see a corded drill than it is a cordless one.

Three years after the cordless drill, Robert Moog developed the first electronic synthesizer used as a musical instrument. Previous synthesizers sounded lousy and had to be programmed with punch cards. Moog’s synthesizer sounded better and could be played with a keyboard. Today’s synthesizers, direct descendants, are essentially orchestras in boxes.

Speaking of music, in 1970 a scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory named James Russell invented a digital-to-optical recording and playback system. It represented sounds as a series of reflective and non-reflective areas on a photo-sensitive disk, which a laser could then “read,” bouncing back into a detector as it passed over the reflective areas. A computer used the resulting series of “ons” and “offs” to reconstruct the recorded music. The music industry wasn’t interested–but 20 years later, Time Warner and other CD manufacturers had to pay $30 million in patent infringement costs.

“Nuclear-powered technology in every home!” has never been an election promise, but unlike many election promises, it’s been kept. The first home smoke detector, patented by Randolph Smith and Kenneth House in 1969, didn’t qualify, but most of today’s models contain a small piece of americium-241, which emits radioactive particles that generate an electric current. Smoke entering the alarm disrupts that current, triggering the alarm. (We test ours regularly by cooking sausages.)

Finally, no list of the greatest inventions of the past five decades–or centuries!–would be complete without waffle-sole running shoes. In 1971 Bill Bowerman, track coach at the University of Oregon, made his runners unique lightweight, grippy shoe soles by pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron. He later started a little shoe company you may have heard of, called Nike. Acres of mall real estate given over to a bewildering variety of special-purpose shoes are the direct result of Bowerman’s ruining of a perfectly good waffle iron.

What will be the greatest inventions of the next 50 years? I doubt we can even guess.

After all, who in the 1950s could have predicted our remote-controlled, microwaved, clear-glass, cordless, synthesized, digital, smoke-detecting waffle-soled present?

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