The human species has gotten so good at patting itself on the back for inventing new technologies that it's a miracle we haven't evolved 10-foot-long arms. Between smartphones and smartwatches and selfie sticks, you might be tempted to think we've reached the pinnacle of technological sophistication. Not so fast, whippersnapper! Your great-grandparents had access to some of the same "innovations" we have today; they just weren't as flashy about it.
6An E-Reader From 1922
Without a shadow of doubt, one of the greatest inventions of the 21st century is the e-reader. Our reasoning is simple: As great as inventions such as the Internet and 3D printing are, they don't allow you to read Taken By The T-Rex during your daily commute. There are no other reasons.
But, as it turns out, old-timey people were also able to read ankle pornography or fantasy novels about women's rights in complete privacy, all thanks to the Fiske Reading Machine, a handheld device that was apparently designed by a sadistic yet bookwormish ophthalmologist.
A man so crucial to reading smut in public, pictures of him
are printed only in 50 actual shades of gray.
It was incredibly simple to use. Using a font size that could be measured only in gnome tears, each book was printed onto a series of thin pamphlet cards. Once slotted into the machine, all the reader had to do was look through the eyeglass and, voila, reading. It was reported at the time that Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, a weighty tome clocking in at 93,000 words, could be shrunk down to only 13 pamphlets, which is an impressive achievement considering that old-timey words were super long and slang hadn't been invented yet.
The guy behind this device, Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske, was even as cock-sure as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk when it came to talk about how his invention was going to revolutionize the world. As he described it, the Fiske Reading Machine heralded the death of the modern-day printing press, a device that, as of this writing, has survived more certain deaths than The Goddamn Batman.
"Come back once you've co-existed with the microprocessor, kid."
As you've probably guessed by now, the Fiske Reading Machine did diddly-squat to revolutionize the world of reading. For all we know, the past equivalent of Google bought him out and shuttered the company. That leaves us with only one legacy: this amazing photo of Fiske bringing every ounce of his best game to a photo shoot.
"Hey, girl. Heard you like words."
5News That Was Delivered By Machine To Your Home In 1933
Even if it's been years since you picked up a newspaper or watched the 6 o'clock news, headlines have found a new way to bore themselves into our brains several times a day: social media. Our news comes so fast that the fact-checking doesn't even start until the oldest great-great-grandpa in every nursing home has heard the story.
We aren't the first generation to have access to fast-breaking news, however. Such a system also existed back in the 1930s with the advent of radio facsimiles. The brainchild of inventor William Finch, it was an ingenious way of distributing newspapers to households who possessed a large enough fortune to buy the requisite machines but didn't have enough money to pay a servant to run down to the local store.
Detroit News Archives
"Hmmm ... I can buy half of a new car or have a grainy photo of Shirley Temple every morning. Tough call."
In order to receive this service, it was necessary to purchase a special printer that could both a) receive the radio signal and b) translate the signal into text/images and print the resulting newspaper. It was common practice for newspaper companies to transmit several times a day as the daily news progressed, a magnificent convenience only slightly offset by the fact that an average newspaper took six hours to print and the household machines could get their signals only between midnight and 6 a.m. So while you were sleeping off a hard day of barely getting by, your radio fax was clumsily printing the day's news ... all night long. No wonder it was called The Great Depression.
"If only there were some other way to get breaking news via radio."
Despite the promise of a more efficient way of hearing about cholera and the Dust Bowl, radio facsimiles never took off among the mainstream (i.e., the not-super-rich classes). Moreover, newspaper companies and advertisers were still wary of the technology and preferred the traditional methods. By the 1940s, the technology had largely died out, although that's probably because nothing of interest was happening in the world at that time.