We like to think that we have a good idea of the general timeline of human invention. Our ancestors figured out bronze in the Bronze Age. Textiles, machinery, and reckless worker endangerment hit their stride during the Industrial Revolution. And of course, the Christian Slater film was invented in the late 1980s. However, as we've mentioned before, many conveniences, services, and forms of disposable entertainment that we think of as quintessentially modern have in truth been around longer than some of us have been alive. Often by a few hundred years.
These days, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes are constantly waiting to shatter our daily obligations by offering us the ability to watch every single episode of Saved By The Bell whenever we want. This is modern technology at its finest -- something our great-grandparents could never comprehend.
Or maybe they could, if they hadn't been too busy rocking the fuck out to their very own music streaming service way back in the 19th century.
"Inquire about our playlists. Guaranteed to moisten thine gentlelady's bloomers!"
The above picture is an ad for the Electrophone System, a subscription audio delivery system that operated in England from 1895 to 1926. Its main purpose was to broadcast live music shows and church sermons, which were the era's equivalent to Adele's 25 and Game Of Thrones.
"Man, I keep saying they should tone down on the sex and violence."
The service used phone lines connected to Electrophone's special receiver. All you had to do was call them up, and a phone operator would ask what you wanted to listen to. If the user wanted to listen to a sermon, the call would be redirected to a church where microphones were installed (sometimes disguised as Bibles, because for some reason microphones were a point of contention in the Lord's house). For an opera, the operator would connect the call to the Royal Opera House, where another set of special microphones would stream the show.
"I'd like to hear the Queen's bath time ambiance."
"Right away, sir."
Of course, this cutting-edge technology didn't come cheap. The subscription cost five pounds a year -- the equivalent of around $570 today. That's five and a half Amazon Prime memberships. However, adding an extra receiver to an existing line only cost one pound, which allowed the wealthy-but-not-that-wealthy of the era to pool their resources into galleries with multiple Electrophone receivers. It was the 19th century's version of sharing a friend's Netflix password. The company even provided coin-operated machines, so people could pay per listen to keep up with their favorite sermon, rather than spring for the whole subscription.
Surprisingly, it was way more economical than modern cable television services.
Electrophone wasn't the only player in the game, either; other countries had companies providing similar services. Hungary had Telefon-Hirmondo (literally the Phone Newspaper), and France had Theatrophone way back in 1881, which came with Victor Hugo's seal of approval. We assume his endorsement was their equivalent of those DirecTV ads starring Rob Lowe.
Google's self-driving car project is like a sci-fi fantasy come true, bringing us one step closer to a world in which fully-automated cars allow us to use both hands to stuff tacos into our faces on the way to work / school / probation violation hearings.
The thing is, Google is only the latest in the long line of players in the self-driving car game, and so far, the world hasn't turned into a Cars-style apocalyptic dystopia. As early as 1953, Chevrolet played around with self-driving cars that followed electric wires embedded in the road, sort of like the Land Rovers in Jurassic Park, only longer and with way more annoying children.
Seen here, with cars that look suspiciously like the ones in pre-apocalypse Fallout.
However, the first actual self-driving cars started emerging in 1977, when Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab developed a computerized, totally autonomous vehicle. It was equipped with cameras that were able to process white sheet markers on the roads, relying on both the markers and an elevated rail to navigate. Unfortunately, it could only travel at a maximum speed of 18 miles per hour, which made it about as useful an automated conveyance as weighing the gas pedal down on your lawn tractor and taking it onto the interstate.
Ten years after that, Ernst Dickmanns at the Bundeswehr University Munich created the VaMoRs, a Mercedes van equipped with eight 16-bit microprocessors and two cameras. It is unclear why he didn't name it the Dickmobile. Perhaps he felt the world was not ready for two simultaneous achievements in human ingenuity.
"May I present: ze Schwanzwagen!"
The first VaMoRs could judge its relative position from other cars to avoid a collision, allowing it to travel at 56 mph during test phases without incident. Its 1988 successor, Vamp, upped the ante by driving a 990-mile road trip almost entirely without human assistance.
Despite the fact that they all seem to work pretty well, none of these research prototypes have approached any kind of mass production. We're conflicted about this. On one hand, they would probably have enslaved us twice over by now. On the other, we'd happily worship self-driving car overlords if it meant we'd never have to deal with Uber again.
There's no denying that electronic cigarettes have taken the world by storm in recent years. Whether you love them for their perceived health benefits compared to traditional smoking or loathe them for their reputation as little fedoras for your mouth, we now live in a world in which the Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year 2014 was "vape." Aliens searching the galaxy for planets to enter the Federation will either pass us by completely or space-nuke us out of our own misery.
This current heated debate is funny, because e-cigarettes are not exactly a new invention. In fact, the original patent for electronic cigarettes was filed way back in 1965, and the device actually looked kind of cool (if you're a steampunk enthusiast):
"Wondrous day, it's a clockwork cigarette!" -- Phileas Fogg, probably
The original e-cigarette was invented by entrepreneur Herbert A. Gilbert. Inspired by the unique and controversial opinion that cigarettes were terrible, Gilbert set out to create a logical solution: the electronic cigarette. His original patent is virtually identical to the devices today's vapers fuss over: a battery-powered device that could heat a liquid and turn it into steam, so that it could be smoked like a traditional cigarette without making you and everything around you smell like an old motel room.
And right now, somebody is vaping while reading a Cracked comment about how "You can earn $8,922.58 a week from home."
Unfortunately for Gilbert, history would show that the era's attitude toward sticking an electric battery stick in your mouth instead of smoking was less than receptive. This is possibly because Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters hadn't been invented yet. Whatever the case, the world was content to pretend that none of this ever happened for another half century.
It's a well-documented fact that our ancestors' ideas of entertainment were completely insane. Luckily, primitive technology kept anyone from going too crazy, right? Can you imagine what it would've been like if 18th-century Russian engineers had tried to build roller coasters?
This is probably the time to tell you that the first roller coaster was built in 1784 by Russian engineers, presumably with the same drunken determination to catapult human beings at dangerous speeds that powered their space program years later.
Unfortunately, Thomas Mifflin's impassioned speech about putting a roller
coaster on the moon by 1790 failed to motivate many Americans.
Considering the fact that roller coasters still kill people today, even when crafted with modern technology and bearing the likenesses of charming licensed characters, it seems the only reason to build one in czarist Russia would have been to execute political prisoners. To put this in perspective, escalators were considered tourist attractions in 1850, nearly a century after this.
The roller coaster was a spawn of ice slides, which were called "Russian mountains" at the time. These were large-scale sledding courses where people risked life and limb to travel insanely long ice courses in hollowed-out logs at breakneck speeds. This gradually evolved into a St.-Petersburg-based proto-coaster that would travel in one direction, then switch and return in the opposite direction. Oh, and remember that this was in a world before electricity, so the ride operated solely on gravity and a little coal power for speed.
"You just have to breathe a little carbon monoxide, which is something your body needs anyway!"
The coaster later popped up in France in 1817, before finally making its first appearance in the United States in 1884 as a 600-foot Coney Island attraction designed by LaMarcus Thompson, complete with flashing colored lights and painted Biblical scenery, because there's no amount of fun that turn-of-the-century conservatism can't ruin.
In the last few years, digital camera technology has become so ingrained in our culture that we barely think of it anymore. We all carry one around in our pockets at all times, allowing us to capture any moment we wish, no matter how inconsequential, and share it with millions of strangers on the Internet, occasionally at the expense of our own careers.
This is funny, considering that we're talking about a technology that is far older than most people using it. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera ever way back in 1975 -- aka the year Jaws came out. Sasson's superiors tasked him to dick around with some new CCD imaging tech in order to see if it was good for anything. Blissfully unaware that his invention would primarily be used to photograph plates full of kale, he combined a Super 8 camera lens, 16 cadmium batteries, and a bunch of circuit boards to handle the incredible-at-the-time processing power of 0.01 megapixels. Finally, he strapped the whole thing to a tape recorder so he could save the files, resulting in a fucking Frankenstein of '70s technology:
The tape could hold a whopping eight pictures, but the battery would only last for three.
Unfortunately, Sasson's superiors promptly failed to recognize he was on to something and told him that there was no way anyone would ever want to look at photographs on a screen. (In their defense, no one would want to look at photos on a screen if it meant carrying around that goddamned mystery box on every family vacation.) Although Sasson was allowed to work on the technology, Kodak's executives and marketing remained skeptical of its commercial potential, and the camera never saw the light of day.
Sasson's camera was the first functioning digital camera built specifically for that purpose, but amazingly, it didn't have the honor of taking the first digital picture. That dates way back to 1957, when Russel A. Kirsch developed a digital scanner that could trace normal photographs. As with any groundbreaking technology involving the likeness of people, the project was not without its shades of uncanny valley. The first picture to be scanned was a photo of his three-month-old son, digitized as a 176x176 pixel monochrome image that looked like a Guess Who? tile in the middle of an exorcism:
"Does your person have a dead, soulless gaze that invokes the ever-present, unwavering specter of impending death?"
Leonardo Torres Y. Quevedo was one of the most awesome scientists of the 19th century whom you've never heard of.
He knows it, too.
Quevedo was basically Spain's Nikola Tesla. Among the many things his mighty brain churned out were electric cable cars, dirigibles, and remote-controlled machines. As impressive as those things are, none of them are quite on the level of what is arguably his greatest invention: the first computer game. Which he made in 1912.
He was also the first person to enter "ASS" into the high scores.
One of Quevedo's projects demonstrated that Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer concept from the late 19th century, could work with electric components. And because he immediately recognized the true meaning of this discovery, he built it to play a game. El Ajedrecista (The Chess Player) was a computer automaton chess game not terribly unlike modern electronic chess sets, except that it moved its pieces with a mechanical arm.
Unlike other old-school chess robots like the Turk (which was secretly operated by a dude with no legs), it could legitimately play a chess endgame of king and rook versus king (it couldn't do an entire game, but the fact that a turn-of-the-century robot could play one of the most famous checkmate scenarios is nothing short of sorcery). Quevedo's son would improve the design in 1920 by adding electromagnets under the board. Here's a version of the machine confusing the mightiest possible fuck out of people at a 1951 tech conference:
The narrator is outlining France's terms of surrender.
Oh, and don't you ever dare to cheat El Ajedrecista, because it will know. The machine was designed to recognize illegal moves and react accordingly. If you attempted to magically warp one of your pieces to a checkmate position, the machine would protest by flashing a light to declare you the big cheater that you are and refusing to make a move until you performed a correct one. Repeating the offense three times would make the game freeze altogether. So yes, that means that Quevedo also invented "you get three lives and then Game Over."
Yeah, us future-folk are really always kind of playing second fiddle to the past-people. See what we mean in 7 Memes That Went Viral Before The Internet Existed and 11 Modern Technologies That Are Way Older Than You Think.
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