Kate Solomon highlights the inventions that shaped – and continue to shape – the modern age
ELECTRIC GUITAR (1932)
Turned music up to 11
Let’s face it, the NME you’re reading right now wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a bunch of big band players realising, “We’d better get some amps hooked up to these guitars, the horns are drowning us out.” Without the invention of the electric guitar, ‘Ace Of Spades’ would be an acoustic ballad and Noel Gallagher would be a branch manager at Foot Locker.
Responsible for: Rock’n’roll as we know it, face-melting solos, feedback, tinnitus.
Magnet for the fame-hungry and Friends repeats
The invention of the cathode ray tube allowed for watchable moving images on compact television sets. Soon, our living rooms would be completely rearranged around a flickering box in the corner and we’d never have to make stultifying small talk with our families ever again.
Responsible for: Making home life bearable, killing the radio star, Game Of Thrones.
TRANSISTOR RADIO (1954)
Platform for new tunes and rocktastic DJ banter
The technology behind the transistor radio was originally developed to improve radio-controlled bombs during World War II, but when applied to pocket-sized portable radios, it allowed the burgeoning teen demographic to hear the latest rock’n’roll sides independently of parents or squares. More than seven billion of the things have since been manufactured.
Responsible for: Pop music, Walkmans, Zane Lowe.
Multi-functional, footballer-annoying light beams
Originally known as “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”, you can see why they went with the snappier acronym. And where would we be without these super-focused beams of light? Printers would still use ribbons, CDs wouldn’t exist and gigs would be less entertaining for short people. Still waiting for the laser gun, though.
Responsible for: CDs, high-speed internet (via fibre-optic cables), rave epiphanies.
Record, play, pause, fast forward
Originally designed for dictation, Mercury Records decided to take a punt on the compact cassette by releasing 49 albums on the then brand-new format in 1966. Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Johnny Mathis were among the first artists to find their material taped over in favour of prank calls, home demos and try-hard mixtapes of cool bands designed (but generally failing) to endear the maker to the opposite sex.
Responsible for: Home recording, mixtapes, bootlegs, Walkman
MOOG SYNTHESIZER (1964)
Mind-melting keyboard sounds
At the height of Beatlemania, tech wizard Robert Moog manufactured the first synth that was somewhere approaching portable and affordable. Following their use by The Doors, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones and even The Beatles themselves (on Abbey Road), synths quickly became a key part of the progressive rocker’s arsenal, with bands such as Kraftwerk eventually ditching guitars in favour of a new kind of all-electronic music.
Responsible for: Prog rock, electronica, robot dancing
APPLE II (1977)
Kickstarted the home computing revolution
The invention of the microchip in 1958, followed by the microprocessor a decade later, meant that computers were no longer room-sized novelties. Microsoft’s Windows software made them useful and the iMac made them desirable. Before long they were ruling our lives. When was the last time you used a pen?
Responsible for: Email, the internet, World Of Warcraft, spreadsheets, dangerously sedentary working lives.
SPACE INVADERS (1978)
Not the crisps, fule
The first blockbuster video game. Within three years, the company behind the game had taken $1 billion from gamers slotting coin after coin into the machines, and the idea of videogaming as a viable leisure pursuit – nay, artform – took shape.
Responsible for: Super Mario, Halo, gamer’s thumb
SONY WALKMAN (1979)
Played the soundtracks of our lives
The cassette tape finally fulfilled its potential when Sony released its iconic Walkman. Created so Sony’s co-founder Masaru Ibuka could listen to opera on plane journeys, it completely changed the way we consume music.
Responsible for: MiniDisc, iPod, making bus journeys bearable.
Versatile device that almost put drummers out of a job
While the synthesizer opened up a new world of electronic sound, the sampler brought the world’s sounds into music. Can’t play the harp? No problem, just record harp sounds into the sampler then play them using a piano-style keyboard. Seeing the success of the pioneering Fairlight CMI – used memorably by Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder – spurred other manufacturers on to create cheaper models, hastening the development of hip-hop and dance music.
Responsible for: Hip-hop, acid house, making session musos redundant
Made movie stars of us all
JVC’s first VHS-based camcorder rocked Hollywood by allowing anyone to make a movie. Despite this, most people merely used their camcorders to film relatives falling into swimming pools in the hope of earning £250 from TV blooper shows.
Responsible for: The Blair Witch Project, You’ve Been Framed, YouTube.
MOBILE PHONE (1984)
“Sorry, I just need to take this…”
In 1984, Motorola’s first commercially viable mobile handset – the DynaTAC – went on sale. It took 10 hours to charge up and you could talk for a whole 30 minutes before it died again. Not that different to the iPhone 5, then. In the 1980s, anyone trying to use these brick-like mobiles in public was roundly derided for being a yuppie. But the idea of being able to look more important than the people you were with soon proved irresistible…
Responsible for: Ruining films, sexting, the sad death of the classic red phonebox.
Simple, global and revolutionary communication tool
Although soon colonised by phishers and spambots, email was much faster than a letter, less embarrassing than a phonecall and remains the standard for passive-aggressive inter-office communications.
Responsible for: Shrinking the world, the closure of your local post office, penis enlargement offers
GAME BOY (1989)
Pioneer of handheld gaming devices
Thanks to the first portable console with swappable game cartridges, a whole generation still dream of leaping Marios or tumbling Tetris blocks. The idea of carrying a multi-functional computer around in your pocket was minted.
Responsible for: Pokémon, Angry Birds, smartphones.
THE WORLD WIDE WEB (1990)
Democratic source of information. And porn
Although the internet already existed in primitive form, it wasn’t until Sir Tim Berners-Lee (bless ’im) created the first web browser in 1990 that it became properly navigable. The World Wide Web changed our lives entirely and irrevocably. Information became freely and readily available, and it has never been easier or more socially acceptable to start arguments with strangers.
Responsible for: Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon, Skype, irate people on message boards, the ability to research this article without visiting a library.
Directional dark magic from the stars
We’d be lost without GPS – literally. When was the last time you navigated without using maps on your phone or giving your satnav a precise location to aim for? In 1991 the first cars with a built-in Global Positioning System hit the road, although civilian use was still restricted, so it was best to keep an A To Z handy to avoid driving into a lake. Actually, that’s still true.
Responsible for: Satnav, Uber
Games machine that defined a generation
The first game console to sell 100million units, the secret to the PlayStation’s success lay with its broader appeal; improved graphics and big-name franchises made gaming feel like an extension of the movies, rather than a niche, nerdy pursuit. Canny bedroom producers even used one of its music-making programs to invent grime.
Responsible for: Lara Croft, all-night Pro Evo sessions, GTA
DIGITAL CAMERA, 1995
Suddenly, Polaroids didn’t seem quite so amazing
We have the Casio QV-10 to thank for the concept of digital cameras using an LCD screen as a viewfinder. You could now review and delete any rubbish photos on the camera itself, removing the element of chance from your precious holiday snaps.
Responsible for: Photoshop, Instagram, selfies, Kim Kardashian
The end of music as a physical entity
Although home taping had failed to kill music, the MP3 and Napster nearly did. For the first time, MP3 compression made music tracks small enough to trade over the internet without losing too much in the way of sound quality. Launched in 1999, Napster became the biggest MP3 marketplace; for teens brought up on overpriced CDs, the free and easy access to music was mind-blowing. Napster was shut down after just two years, but the genie was out of the bottle. Now we just needed a cool device to play all those MP3s on…
Responsible for: iPod, Spotify, the (exaggerated) death of the music industry
Suddenly you could do more than just text 🙂
BlackBerry and Palm’s PalmPilot signalled the advent of the smartphone in the mid-90s, although it wasn’t really until Apple announced the iPhone in 2007 that it finally usurped the standard mobile phone. Its touchscreen was the first that didn’t make you want to wreak bloody vengeance on its creator, and its ecosystem of downloadable apps changed the game.
Responsible for: Tinder, Snapchat, “there’s an app for that”, falling birth rate
SOCIAL NETWORKING (1997)
Make friends and influence people. Without ever meeting them
There was once a time when you weren’t connected to every person you’ve ever met
in passing. SixDegrees was one of the earliest sites to let you create a profile and browse other users’ contacts. In 2002, teens began externalising their angst on MySpace but Facebook all but obliterated the competition when it opened its virtual doors in 2006.
Responsible for: Twitter, cyber-stalking, relentless updates from school ‘friends’.
Watch what you want, when you want
Until the arrival of the home video recorder, if you wanted to see something that was on TV at 6pm, you had to tune in at 6pm to watch it. In 1999, things got serious with the advent of the digital video recorder (DVR) – now you could save multiple programmes to a hard disk, pause and rewind live TV, and browse through an on-screen programme guide instead of having to buy //Radio Times//. We stopped watching adverts and started gorging on lavish HBO dramas.
Responsible for: iPlayer, Netflix, bingewatching
Your entire music collection in your pocket
There were MP3 players before, but the iPod just looked cooler – plus its easy-to-use companion software, iTunes, finally provided a viable, legal alternative to piracy. The ability to rip or buy single songs and play them on shuffle almost killed the album, gave radio a serious run for its money and laid the foundation for music-streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Responsible for: Generation shuffle, tinny white headphones, iPhone.
The world’s biggest (and weirdest) TV channel
It doesn’t seem possible that YouTube is only 10 years old. Where did we go to see a baby panda sneeze, hear Ringo Starr plead with us to stop sending fanmail or make millions of pounds from our bedrooms before YouTube? We just couldn’t. What kind of life even was that?
Responsible for: Democratising TV, reviving the pop video, Justin
Bieber, Zoella, Rickrolling.
Telling us more than the time
The recent smartwatch resurgence came out of nowhere, boosted by the release of the Apple Watch. We still don’t really know if smartwatches are going to change the world, but with health-tracking features like heart-rate monitors built in, they may at least prevent a trip to the doctors.
Responsible for: Wearable tech, getting fitter
Plus five bits of tech that will change the world
Flying cars would be a logistical nightmare, but a sky full of unmanned drones zipping around delivering Amazon parcels and Dominos pizzas, apprehending criminals or spying on people is not so inconceivable.
With the invention of the Oculus Rift headset, virtual reality is the next big thing in gaming, movies and virtual second lives.
Google has been testing its self-driving cars on roads in California for a few years now, but don’t expect to see one hurtling down your high street any time soon. Both laws and roads will have to change before then.
Graphene is a man-made material that is 207 times stronger than steel, conducts electricity so well that charging a phone with a graphene battery will take seconds, and so flexible that future phones could be rolled up and stuck behind your ear.
There’ll be a time in the not-so-distant-future when we can forego annoying trips to the hardware store by printing out parts and tools at home using files we’ve downloaded from the internet. Eventually we might even be able to 3D-print replacement body parts when our own wear out.