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July 13, 2011

World-changing Gadgets

Margaret Maron

History-channel-logoFlipping channels the other night, I landed on the History Channel when they were airing “101 Gadgets That Changed the World.”  I came in on #12 (the typewriter) and #11 (transistor radio), so I have no idea what the first 90 were, but I was muttering, “No, no, no!” to most of the last 10.  Here they are:

#10 – the light bulb Images

 #9 – alarm clock

 #8 – phonograph

 #7 – rotary telephones

 #6 – unit air conditioners

 #5 – personal computers & the Internet

 #4 – hypodermic syringe

 #3 - television

 #2 – radio   

#1 – Smart phone

Are they serious?

The light bulb definitely deserves a place in the top ten, but the others?

Okay, air conditioning units may have made the South more livable, but “changed the whole world”?  Get real.  And yes, rotary telephones put a lot of operators out of business, and the alarm clock helped get people out of bed in the morning, but world-changing?  I don’t think so.  Surely the telegraph changed more than the telephone ever did.

The Gutenberg press still deserves a place in the top ten.  It really did change the whole world, not just our little part of it.  Ditto the personal automobile, which killed the trains, allowed people to live miles from their work, and is responsible for so much of the earth’s surface being paved over. It also changed the balance of power for the Middle East by its dependence on oil.


Why isn’t the airplane in the top ten? Didn’t it shrink the world and make it possible to bomb your enemies back to the stone age without ever seeing their faces?  And what about the microchip?  If you listed it in the top ten, you could mark off computers and the Smart phone.

Images_2  Yes, the latter  affects the way we communicate, but it wasn't that huge a change from regular phones. Merely faster. And without the microchip it would be the size of a refrigerator. (And where is the refrigerator, by the way?)

The hypodermic could actually change the world by eradicating so many DownloadedFile diseases that stem from poverty and ignorance, but only if rich nations help bring the needles and the chemistry to the poorer ones.  So far, it doesn’t seem that much of a world-changer to me.

Where’s the photovoltaic cell?  Doesn’t it have potential to change the world by lessening the importance of fossil fuels?  You can bet that a bunch of high-living, dictatorial emirs would consider it world-changing if we ever get serious about developing it on a large scale.


What else should go in the top ten?  Handguns? Tractors? Squirrel-proof bird feeders?

Images_6            Images_5

Or hasn’t your world-changing gadget been invented yet?



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Where the hell is canned food? That should be in the top ten. I'm thinking having access to certain foods year 'round was pretty damned world changing.

How about toilet paper? I mean, seriously, I've done survival outings and I'll tell you, when we got back, we were all loving the TP.

In the same area, what the flush toilet and sewage treatment plants? That beats the hell out of any damned alarm clock.

And what about animation? Can you imagine a world with no Bugs Bunny, Daffy or Donald Duck, Porky Pig or Pinky & The Brain? I would not want to live in such a horrid place. Ok, so it's an artistic thing, not a real invention, but still.

Aspirin is not in that top ten. WTF?

Condoms? They didn't change the world?

And finally...Duct Tape. Dude, DUCT TAPE!

Yeah, I'm with Doc on the indoor plumbing thing. We lived in Great-Grandmother Harrington's summer cottage for a few years, and you know . . . I can still picture my mother slipping on the ice-covered back steps covered with the contents of the chamber pots. Then she had to collect snow to melt on the old cast iron stove, so she could prime the pump, so she could carry water bucket-by-bucket into the house, so she could heat it up and wash off. Indoor plumbing . . . yup.

The cotton gin? The steam engine? The internal combustion engine? Some ocean navigation thingees that I don't know the names of? Penicillin? Steel?

Hope those are on the list.

Maybe the show was sponsored by the iPhone or Google Android.

Microwavable popcorn?

Doc, as always, pretty much covered the big ones. Personally, I'd add indoor shower.

But yeah, Duct Tape!(insert Tim Allen noises)DUCT TAPE!

Alarm clock? All you need is a dog (or 3) that likes to eat at 5am.

I'm totally with the indoor plumbing thing. But the title of the show was "Gadgets", so I'm not sure that would count.

My personal favorite gadget is a mango slicer. I love me some mangoes, and they're a bitch to peel and cut without ending up with stitches.

What a peculiar list. Why put the typewriter above the invention of the printing press, which in the long run was much more important? It sounds as though whoever compiled this thing had a bias towards anything that came out in his/her lifetime, while ignoring the more fundamental historical ancestors that made these "gadgets" possible.

However, considering it's about five AM my time, right at this moment, I consider the most important invention in history to be the electric coffee maker.

By the way, I have Sarah Addison Allen to thank for my mango slicer, because I didn't know they existed until she wrote about one in Garden Spells.

Who says you can't learn anything from reading fiction?

This show is typical of many of the "top (insert number here)" shows that seems to proliferate on the airwaves these days. All seem to be biased towards what is the newest is always the best. It covers all top lists including movies, inventions, etc. I don't know whether to blame it on pandering to the younger adult viewers, sloppy research, or pure idiocy. Probably a combination of all three.

The History Channel used to be one of my most watched cable channels along with it's sister History International, but it seems like 3/4 of their programming is no longer about history.

Fist pumping in solidarity here, Margaret.

However, having traveled much recently in southern and southwestern states, I have to say that air conditioning has really changed the world at large. The country of Dubai, with its totally ridiculous ski resort (in a desert), would not exist at all if it were not for A/C. It's not just the South of the USA. And since we have had increasingly blistering summers in the rest of the country as well, I can't imagine living without it today. I can still remember when air conditioning was a novelty, enough so that grocery stores had signs, provided by Kool cigarettes, saying "Come in, it's KOOL inside!" And air conditioning in cars! And tractors, for heaven's sake!

Last night I had dinner with five local women I would never have met if it were not for Facebook. We talked about how FB is/has already changed the world, especially in unexpected places, like Egypt, for instance. Who knew that Mark Zuckerberg's little social networking program would make such an enormous impact on actual social change? That's a pretty powerful deal right there.

You're absolutely right, Doc. Duct tape (and yes, I thought it was duck tape until I was grown) is what keeps half our gadgets and machines functional.

The applications and extrapolations of earlier gadgets is what makes FB and coffee makers possible, right, Karen and Undine?

Being an erstwhile medievalist (a long, long time ago) I immediately thought of Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change (1966), in which the author discusses the impact of a select few items that made a significant difference. I can't recall them all, but among them were the stirrup (sure made riding a horse easier!) and the plow. Do they count as gadgets?

1. Happy Birthday, Peach!

2. I want a mango slicer

3. Obviously, this list was created by men, or tampons would be on that list.

Peach is 100% right. TV "journalism" where anything that happen prior to last Tuesday didn't exist.

How about:
Anesthesia and pain medication. Prior to anesthesia a major factor in successful surgery was the patient's ability to hold still while being cut on.

Motion Pictures, player pianos, and radio. 200 years ago if you wanted entertainment at home all you had to do was sing it yourself. The forerunner to TV and Internet entertainment.

Glass windows, allowing the work to be inside with light from the outside.

Anyone who compiled this kind of list without writing, food preservation and fire should try to live without their modern equivalents for 72 hours. OOOh! How about clocks, calendars and time?

Actually, I think AC *has* changed the world. It has certainly changed where people choose to live. Not just in the US, but all over the world. Without it, I think Vancouver would have the most dense population anywhere.

I thought of other stuff until I realized we're supposed to be thinking about gadgets. But how does this listmaker get away with lumping personal computers and the internet into one category and smart phones in another? Was his last name Jobs?

Ooh, coffeemakers. I guess we could live without them, but what good would that be?

Yes, Nancy and Karen, AC has done a lot to make hot places in the world more liveable, but people lived in these places w/o it for eons. I have an AC unit in my office but yesterday, when the thermometer in the shade outside my window hit 102, was the first time it's been turned on since last August. Electric fans have been much more useful to me personally.

People did live there, Margaret, I agree. But the explosive growth in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama would never have been possible without A/C. Nevada, too. Think of Las Vegas--it was a sleepy little town before air conditioning, because no one could stand to be there for long. The Middle East, the same. I would bet that the population has increased many times more in those areas since A/C became more ubiquitous, than before it did so, and even many more times than other places have.

My youngest daughter lives in Miami, and visiting her there in February and again last month made me think about this a lot, as we went from 90+ degrees into frigid, 60 degree interiors. Personally, I find it a necessary evil, and would prefer to do without, but an awful lot of folks would rather die than to part with their air conditioners.

I'd agree with the printing press, the light bulb, indoor plumbing, the automobile and anesthesia. I'd add antibiotics, eyeglasses, and crop irrigation.

Off-topic: Putting forget-me-not seeds in the mail today, Margaret. Sorry it wasn't sooner; it's been a busy week.

If anyone else would like some, email me at k maslowski at fuse dot net I have a ton of seeds.

I vote for seatbelts in cars. How many of us know people whose lives would have been lost if they had not been wearing seatbelts? And I'm sure that many of us also know people whose lives have been tragically altered because they were in accidents prior to the seatbelt laws (or chose to ignore those laws.)

Electricity! Can't live without it! My grandparents came here from Italy around 1911 or so, and were shocked to find that there was no electricity in the town they moved to in CT. They had it in their home in Italy, and just assumed that they'd have it here, too. It was another couple of years before they had electricity, and in the meantime, their home almost burned down because of a fallen candle.

And of course, I do NOT want to be without my A/C when I need it!

I'm surprised that no one's opted for the handgun, which has taken way more lives than seatbelts have saved.

I started to say, 'I got nuthin'', but then my eyes fell on my television and I realized that here is an invention that has done what no dictator in the world has managed to do: regularly summon millions, billions of people to sit down, shut up, and gain weight for hours on end, without resistance. Were it not for the occasional educational value of the tube, one might almost call it a global sedative, as it certainly keeps lots of us (me, too) from endlessly pursuing our talents, skills and initiative. But, hey, I can only point the accusing finger just so far: my set is still a central focus in my living room.

I'm thinking "Gadget". Like Inspector Gadget.

Ladies and gentlemen...I give you the cork screw.

The Lipstick Tube, of course.

I'm meeting Karen in Ohio tomorrow! Bless her, she's driving to where I am in Yellow Springs, OH, so we can have a cup of coffee and chatter like old (facebook) friends.

I love Facebook, too.

Xena, you always crack me up!

Karen, I hope you didn't read my original version of that last comment where I originally said we're meeting today. :) I really do know it's tomorrow. Can't wait!

Nancy and Karen, have a good time!! (with you in spirit)
I had missed the mango splitter reference so went in search http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLzbLYnxRpc
I pretty much have my technique all worked out with just a knife . . . but it was fun to watch.
Antibiotics and vaccines, indoor plumbing, electronic entertainment, the internet, public libraries -- I couldn't even begin to list all the reasons I'm glad to live when I do . . .

I grew up in south Louisiana. I'll give you my AC when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

I like lip paint better than the tubes, Nancy, and Karen was the one who told me about it. Get her to bring you some forget-me-not seeds. They will look so great poking up blue clumps in your borders.

With all the inventions and distractions I still reach for a book or my knitting needles to calm me down and take me to another world.
I love electricity..what is not to love.

It should have been called "Top Ten Things that Changed Our World" -- nice,educated folks. They left out 98 percent of the planet.

Thanks for the reminder, Margaret! I would have forgotten to take some seeds to Nancy.

Can't wait to see you tomorrow, Ms. Pickard.

Geez, and no one even mentioned a bread slicer. vbg

While it is not a gadget, I would think that the birth control pill was a world changer.

Having never lived in a home with A/C I can say it hasn't changed my world. Then again I do live in Vancouver and A/C - not so necessary. I would think airplanes are a world changer, otherwise how would I get to Florida where I need A/C. My favourite gadget while on a plane is my iPod so I can hear music in my own head while reading books.

And what about sex toys, were they on the list? I am sure then changed someone's world . . .

What about camera's? That would seem to be a world changer to me, without them, no photo's in tabloid magazines . . . no porn . . . oh, never mind.

I think anything that increased our communication-the printing press, the telephone (and its permutations), the computer with the internet-changed how we live. Television, and the Internet changed the world and how we see things. Think Germany, the USSR, and Egypt. Sadly, we've also developed some really bad ways to kill each other. However, there is the rather delightful ability I have to read some very special people, people I would not ever interact with-that changed my world!

The bicycle is a pretty amazing gadget and not just because it's my preferred form of exercise. I love that in many countries it's a chief mode of transport while keeping the planet and its citizens healthy.

Doesn't the flushing toilet have to be right up there?

Forget-me-not seeds! Thanks for suggesting that to Karen, Margaret.

No Nancy, the REALLY amazingness lip thing is that MAC lipstick that doesn't come off when you eat things.

We haven't talked much about gadgets we'd like to see invented. I myself am waiting for Star Trek's transporter, although a personal anti-gravity unit for short trips wouldn't be bad either.

We don't hear much about holograms any more but I used to think it would be cool to make telephone calls that would feel as if the person really were right there in the room with me.

How about a reverse microwave that could chill food as quickly as a microwave heats it?

Wouldn't it be nice to have a transporter that would instantly zap you across the country, or to the other side of the world? Take that, airlines!

I want Star Trek's Tricorder to make Dr.'s obsolete!

The reason why Vancouver doesn't need much A/C - today's high temp was 65F. Summer hasn't really arrived yet.

That's right, Gaylin. Rub it in. But hey, yesterday was 102 here, tomorrow's supposed to be only 88, so I've turned off the AC and am back to open windows and the sound of tree frogs and crickets. Lovely!

You know the joke about the thermos bottle, right?

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