Yet despite the steady march of human ingenuity, we have lost appreciation for many of the marvels we now enjoy. Innovation is coming at us at such a rapid pace that we have lost our sense of wonder at yet another upgrade to the quality of our lives. Not everyone who buys an iPhone 8 immediately shops for iPhone 8 cases because the idea of holding a precious mini-computer has been taken for granted. Yet a device like a smartphone would have awed visitors at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They would have stared at it uncomprehendingly, without a clue how to even turn it on, make a call, or open up a web browser.
In an effort to revive a sense of wonder, let’s revisit a handful of things that have impressed us, addressed a need, solved a problem, and improved the quality of our life:
1. The Smartphone
Steve Jobs is often credited with pioneering the invention of the Smartphone when he unveiled it in January 2007 at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco and introduced it as “a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.”
In 1893, Motorola introduced the first cell phone: DynaTAC8000x. It weighed about two pounds, and it cost $3,995. However, the name “smartphone” was first used in 1995–although the first smartphone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was released three years earlier. Selling for $899, it was a hybrid between a cell phone and a PDA.
Then in July 1999, Blackberry introduced the RIM 850, which became a wireless device that offered features like a calendar, a task list, an address book, and corporate email accounts. Its popularity was eclipsed by the Nokia 1100, which was released in 2003. The Japanese company sold 250 million devices across the world to make it the best selling consumer electronic device in the world.
2. The ATM
The ATM, the Automated Teller Machine, has been around for a long time. The first versions appeared in the 1960’s, but they were not as ubiquitous as they are now because it had severe limitations. For one thing, they only dispensed a predetermined amount of cash; and for another, they weren’t networked. It was not until the 1970s onward that they began to improve rapidly. Their use expanded after the invention of the magnetic stripe swipe card and after they were networked to connect with computers.
3. Electric cars
Elon Musk did for electric cars what Steve Jobs had done for smartphones. Although Toyota had made a hybrid electric car, the Prius, available for a decade before he entered the scene and inventors had been toying with the idea since the 1920s with partial success, Elon Musk solved several problems when it came to the electric car.
Five years after founding Tesla Motors in 2003, he astonished the world with the first all-electric car. He also solved problems related to public perception of the performance of electric cars. While the public had long believed that gasoline-fueled car provided optimum performance, he showed that his vehicles were 88% more efficient in comparison to the 25% efficiency rating for gas-powered vehicles. After he showed what was technologically possible, as well as how to produce and market electric cars, Honda, Ford, and other large car manufacturers began to make their own versions.
Remember how you needed to rely on written directions or make sure you properly marked up a map to find a new address in a city? Today, it’s possible to find your way through any city streets, even if you’re driving into the city for the first time through Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. The first satellite to facilitate the everyday use of this technology was launched in 1978. GPS had actually existed as early as the 1960s through an earlier precursor called TRANSIT, which was used to navigate nuclear submarines. In 2000, President Clinton allowed for the non-military use of GPS. Unscrambling GPS signals has now facilitated the use of GPS in cars, smartphones, and watches. The system is so accurate that it’s possible to locate a person’s position to within 36 feet with a handheld GPS device.
Due to the abundance of innovation and technological advances in our world, it’s now almost impossible to catalog all the breakthroughs that have changed our lives beyond description. Innovations spark a fresh stream of cultural change, with many inventions spawning whole new industries, and it is interesting to envision future technologies that will change the world.