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Ontario Technoblog

Ontario Emperor technology blog.

This blog has been superseded by the mrontemp blog
Location: Ontario, California, United States

Sometime audio artist. Email comments on this blog to the gmail account mrontemp.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets (repeat 47 more times)

PC World has published its "official (and entirely idiosyncratic) list of the top tech gadgets of the last half century." They used the following criteria:

The rules? The devices had to be relatively small (no cars or big-screen TVs, for example), and we considered only those items whose digital descendants are covered in PC World (cameras, yes; blenders, no). We rated each gadget on its usefulness, design, degree of innovation, and influence on subsequent gadgets, as well as the ineffable quality we called the "cool factor."

Rather than listing all 50, I'm just going to list the top 40. I realize that this is a musical reference, and that God may strike me down like He struck down Dick Clark, but I'm doing it anyway. Here are the top 40:

Sony Walkman TPS-L2 (1979)
Apple iPod (2001)
(Tie) ReplayTV RTV2001 and TiVo HDR110 (1999)
PalmPilot 1000 (1996)
Sony CDP-101 (1982)
Motorola StarTAC (1996)
Atari Video Computer System (1977)
Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera (1972)
M-Systems DiskOnKey (2000)
Regency TR-1 (1954)
Sony PlayStation 2 (2000)
Motorola Razr V3 (2004)
Motorola PageWriter (1996)
BlackBerry 850 Wireless Handheld (1998)
Phonemate Model 400 (1971)
Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (1978)
Texas Instruments SR-10 (1973)
Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300 (1998)
Sony Handycam DCR-VX1000 (1995)
Handspring Treo 600 (2003)
Zenith Space Command (1956)
Hamilton Pulsar (1972)
Kodak Instamatic 100 (1963)
MITS Altair 8800 (1975)
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 (1983)
Nintendo Game Boy (1989)
Commodore 64 (1982)
Apple Newton MessagePad (1994)
Sony Betamax (1975)
Sanyo SCP-5300 (2002)
iRobot Roomba Intelligent Floorvac (2002)
Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer (1999)
Franklin Rolodex Electronics REX PC Companion (1997)
Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System 1.0 (1998)
Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (1983)
Iomega Zip Drive (1995)
Magnavox Magnavision Model 8000 DiscoVision Videodisc Player (1978)
Milton Bradley Simon (1978)
Play, Inc. Snappy Video Snapshot (1996)
Connectix QuickCam (1994)

Let's look at item 24:

It sported blinking lights and toggle switches, and you assembled it yourself from a $397 kit sold by an Albuquerque mail-order company that had formerly been in the model rocket business. The Altair was, in other words, a gadget, but it was also the first popular home computer. Not very useful at first, it soon inspired an entire industry of upgrades, peripherals, and software--and prompted computer geeks Bill Gates and Paul Allen to form a company to sell a version of the BASIC programming language. (They called their startup Micro-soft, later ditching the hyphen.) Also present at the creation: MITS documentation manager David Bunnell, who went on to found a bevy of successful computer magazines, including PC World.

PCWorld links to a UC Davis web page:

Considered by many to be the first microcomputer, the MITS altair 8800 was based on a 2 MHz Intel 8080 with 256 bytes standard RAM and interfaced with the user through the octal front panel switches....

From Landmarks In Digital Computing: A Smithsonian Pictorial History:

Hobbyists who successfully put together their Altairs ended up with a blue, box-shaped machine that measured 17x18x7 inches. To enter programs or data, one set the toggle switches on the front. There was no keyboard, video terminal or paper tape reader. All programming was in the machine code of binary digits. The first Altairs came with only 256 bytes of memory; they also lacked output devices such as printers. Results of a program were indicated by the pattern of flashing lights on the front panel.

The UC Davis page links to The Virtual Altair Museum. Here's an excerpt from an old article on MITS and Ed Roberts:

Leslie (Les) Solomon was the Technical Editor for Popular Electronics during the summer of '74 and he was looking for a good computer article and project to print....Ed Roberts was one of "Uncle Sol's" writing contributors. A man who loved to fool with gadgets and electronics, Roberts started a small electronics company in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1968. MITS (Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems) mostly sold radio transmitters for model airplanes through the mail. But, by the early 70's, MITS was selling calculator kits and doing fairly well. At the end of 1973, the calculator market changed drastically, other companies were selling fully assembled calculators for below $50, while Roberts' kits were $99.95. He had to think of something quick or go broke. He had toyed with the idea of developing a computer kit before, but never followed up on it. Now, he decided to go for broke. If this didn't work, then he would just close up shop. Roberts decided on the Intel 8080 chip for his project, rejecting the older 8008 and new Motorola 6800. He was able to get an excellent deal on the chip in volume - $75 a piece for a $360 chip! By mid-1974, Solomon had decided on supporting Roberts' article and kit. He staked the reputation of PE on the expertise of MITS. In July 1974, Radio Electronics had published an article on a 8008 based computer kit called the "Mark-8". Les Solomon needed an 8080 based project to beat out RE....The Altair kit appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. In kit form, MITS offered the basic model with 256 bytes of RAM, standard binary switches and LEDs on the front panel and power supply for $400. Hoping to sell around 200 kits, Ed Roberts and MITS were overwhelmed to receive thousands of pre-payed orders. Electronic hobbiests were willing to have paid the $360 just for the chip itself, so why not get an entire computer for $400? It took MITS almost a year to catch up the orders. Over 10,000 Altairs were sold by MITS. The Altair was the first commercially successful computer ever. It started the personal computer revolution which has since consumed our planet.


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