5 Modern Technologies That Are Way Older Than You Think
With modern science churning out inventions so quickly that our phones are obsolete 48 hours after we buy them, we tend to assume that pretty much every awesome thing in our lives is a relatively recent innovation. And as we've reported before, that impression often lands ridiculously far from the truth. Many of the technologies we automatically peg as modern are actually way, way older than we think.
The Fax Machine Was Invented Before the Civil War
Unless you're super old school or you live in Japan, you probably know the fax machine mainly as that mysterious thing gathering dust at the corner of your office. But some of us do remember a time when these machines seemed like magical saviors that prevented us from having to wait a week for documents to get delivered (or lost) by the postal service. It wasn't that many years ago -- that is, before email was a thing -- that the fax was the cutting-edge king of the information superhighway.
Rickrolling was a downright hassle back then.
Actually Invented In ...
1843. This means that faxes, which use phone lines to transmit data, actually predate telephones (the first phone was patented in 1876). Imagine how loud you'd have screamed "Bullshit!" if during the movie Lincoln one of the characters had gotten up to send a fax.
" ... it's a warning about some sort of play. Probably best to just ignore it."
But it's true -- the Civil War was still a full two decades away and the Oregon Trail was experiencing the height of its dysentery-ridden rush hour when the fax machine was built by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. He had just patented the first electric clock, and apart from being a pioneer of electricity, Bain enjoyed dabbling in communication technology: He contributed to telegraph lines on the railway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and invented an electric timing system for railway engines while he was at it.
It was the 19th century. Inventing things and typhus were the only pastimes.
The electrical telegraph was an extremely new technology, but Bain was a natural. He figured that if telegraph transmission was good enough for transmitting the sound of Morse code, it should be good enough for pictures.
"Finally, the world will know what my junk looks like."
And before anyone could explain to him that sounds and pictures were two completely different things, he had already converted parts of his electrical clocks into an image scanner and rigged it to the telegraph system. Did it work? Did it ever! What's more, it looked like this:
Damn, this guy was into steampunk way before it was cool.
Various inventors tinkered with the design, and by 1899, newspaper offices were actually using them. Sure, it'd take 20 to 30 minutes to send a single photograph, but that's a hell of a lot faster than having a dude deliver that shit by horse.
The Digital Calculator Was Invented in 1640
At first, the world's favorite device for cheating at simple math seems like a bad fit for a list like this. After all, everyone knows that calculators have existed for quite some time now -- Kraftwerk wrote love songs for them way back in 1981, so calculators must've been around for at least a couple of decades before that. Hell, let's play it safe and say they were invented in ... 1960?
Actually Invented In ...
"Verily, it sayeth 'boobs'!"
Yep, back in the middle of the 17th century, just after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the rest of the world was dealing with various plagues and the baroque movement, one man ignored the struggles of everyday life in order to make math his bitch.
Pockets were much, much bigger back then.
By the age of 16, French wunderkind Blaise Pascal had already figured out how air pressure and vacuums work and contributed to a formative treatise on projective geometry (which, of course, is second nature to our readership, so we won't delve into that any further). One day, he decided to give his father (a tax accountant who provided Pascal's education) a present, but didn't want to go the traditional route of half-assedly building a birdhouse at arts and crafts. Seeing Pops wrestle yet another hardcore accountin' match with scores and scores of figures, Pascal finally got his gift idea: He would break all known boundaries of technology and build his dad a mathematics machine.
After some initial hit-and-miss research, Pascal indeed managed to build the world's first mechanical calculator, which became known as Pascaline.
Not to be confused with mescaline, which is what inspired this thing's creation.
Pascaline crunched numbers pretty ingeniously: The required figures were set on the lid's dials, which twisted and turned the machinery inside in precisely the right way so that the correct results popped up in the little windows on the lid. Technically, the machine could only do sums, but it was totally possible to subtract (by doing the process in reverse), multiply (with repeated addition), and divide (with repeated subtraction). It was calibrated specifically for calculations involving money, and its settings could even be adjusted between French and English currencies.
Pascal built about 50 Pascaline calculators, attempting to sell them commercially. They never really took off, what with him being around 200 years too early. A bunch of these "extremely damage-prone" devices still survive today, lounging around in museums and scoffing at your TV that is bound to break down within three years of purchase.
We've seen Hellraiser. We're not going near those.
Today, mechanical calculators are all but extinct, and even their digital successors are fighting a losing battle, considering that their power is dwarfed by the average phone. Still, it's a humbling thought that the basic functions of all of those machines could be performed with a clunky brass box put together by a kid from the 17th century.
Contact Lenses Existed in the 19th Century
Eyes are fickle and vulnerable things, so of course science has spent a lot of time poking them. However, in this particular case, their efforts bore wonderful fruit: Ever since contact lenses gained FDA approval in 1971, their science-magic has been offering us an alternative to nerdy eyeglasses. Unlike the optically challenged poor sods just a few decades ago, we can freely and easily disguise our bad eyesight with contacts instead of douche-y hipster frames. If that's not progress, we don't know what is.
"There. My last flaw, covered up."
Actually Invented In ...
1888, the year that Jack the Ripper roamed the crumbling heights of Victorian stuffiness and Germany went through three whole kaisers (presumably because they couldn't decide whose mustache was the manliest).
For the record, this guy won.
Apart from the troubled era he lived in, there are two things you need to know about German inventor Adolf Fick: He came from a family of geniuses, each with a heavy penchant for pioneering research, and his field of choice was ophthalmology, so he literally spent his days poking eyeballs with things. With that background, it was really just a matter of time before he wound up looking for new, non-spectacled ways to improve eyesight.
"If it doesn't improve your vision, you can still use it to kill ants."
Fick's prototype lenses are to modern contacts what the Model-T Ford is to a Ferrari: bulky, clumsy, and insulting to the eye. They were essentially eyeglass lenses, made of heavy blown glass that covered the entire eye, and they could only be worn for a few hours before the screaming pain outweighed the benefits of being able to see.
But hey, at least you didn't look like a nerd.
Fick tested his invention on rabbits, then molds cast from the eyes of cadavers, and finally on himself. (We're assuming he washed them in between uses.) After a two-hour test run failed to explode his eyeballs, six volunteers became the first contact lens wearers.
While Fick's lenses absolutely did work, their cumbersome nature and the extreme discomfort this wrought made them impractical. He discontinued his research in 1902, and nobody picked it up until the 1930s. At that point, the technology was sufficiently advanced for further development. By 1937, there were already around 4,000 contact lens users in America alone. The only reason the rest of us had to wait so long to get a pair was that until recently, the lenses were expensive as hell.
They Had Seismographs Around the Time of the New Testament
If you live in an area that's prone to earthquakes, volcanoes, or other ground-based forms of overkill that our precious planet likes to throw at us, a seismometer can be the only thing that stands between you and the lava-filled crevasse that just opened up under your house. Understandably, mankind's need to invent a device that could keep up with Earth's bullshit has always been pretty urgent. That's why seismometers and seismographs have been around for a while: The earliest designs date as far back as 1880.
Like every machine in the 19th century, it was powered by coal and whiskey.
That is, the earliest modern designs.
Actually Invented In ...
The year 132. No, that is not a typo.
Back then, Roman soldiers were lounging about Hadrian's Wall and the Greeks were busy building temples for Zeus. Meanwhile, in China, Zhang Heng was sciencing the hell out of the universe. Zhang was a scholar of the Han Dynasty and a borderline superhero: The list of his scientific and artistic achievements is positively Da Vincian, and he was a powerful politician to boot.
"No, dude, that topknot totally hides your bald spot."
Also, he invented a machine whose function couldn't be replicated for 1,700 years.
Zhang's seismometer was all the more impressive because earthquake studies weren't really a thing back in 132. People just kind of figured they happened because a deity was pissed off or something and there was not much to be done. Zhang Heng politely disagreed and started tinkering, because if a god was about to punish your country, you might want a warning system.
Zhang's machine was a delightful mix of science, art, and tripping balls: a big bronze pot with dragon statues watching in eight directions, each holding a bronze ball in its mouth. The dragon mouths were calibrated so that at the slightest tremor of the ground, the head closest to the source would drop its ball into the mouth of a toad at the base of the device, indicating not only the earthquake, but also the direction of the earthquake. Zhang called it his "instrument for measuring the seasonal winds and the movements of the Earth," and it fucking worked. The machine was said to be capable of sensing an earthquake that was happening hundreds of miles away.
Each of those frog mouths was just large enough to accommodate one Imperial Nut. Most history books leave that out.
The Videodisc Is Older Than the Great Depression
Even if you're not old enough to be in the group that remembers the fax-machine era we mentioned earlier, you probably do remember the transition from VHS tapes to DVD. But when did the first videodiscs come about? The more tech savvy among you may point out that laserdiscs were a thing as far back as the early 1980s. But there were videodiscs a little while before that. And by "a little while" we mean "during the Coolidge administration."
Making this article the only time in decades that "laserdisc" has been seen in the same paragraph as "cool."
Actually Invented In ...
To put it mildly, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird was always a bit ahead of his time. As a child in the late 1800s, he set up a telephone exchange between his house and those of his friends, and his interest in television began as a teenager -- which wouldn't be so unusual if not for the fact that TV didn't exist yet, and his fascination started with a German book about the photoelectric properties of selenium. Perhaps he wanted to invent TV so that it could distract other teenagers from kicking his ass; the historical record isn't clear.
But if those glasses are any indication, yes.
By 1928, he was able to send a television signal clear the fuck from London to New York, which was also right around the time he was pioneering another technology that was so ahead of its time that for a minute nobody knew what to do with it: the videodisc.
Before movie night got underway, it could double as a pizza cutter.
Between September of 1927 and March of 1928, Baird made a series of recordings on standard 78 RPM gramophone lacquers using a machine he called a Phonovision. Playing back the platters yielded a 30-line video signal that ... well, that looked like shit:
If this starts to look even one iota more like the cursed tape from The Ring, we're leaving.
Five of these discs remain, and sure, they look like hell: Baird was unable to get anything going in terms of selling the video recorder/player, but he was quick to improve on the four-frame-per-second resolution and soon was producing video at a crisp 12.5.
On a machine that would've looked awesome in our 1920s living room.
The BBC actually began broadcasting 30-line television programs (programmes, sorry) using Baird's mechanical video scanning technology in 1929. Production switched from Baird's company to BBC One in 1932, and broadcasts continued using the same technology until World War II caused their suspension in 1939.
The whole concept of recording video to disc wouldn't reappear in the mainstream until 40 years later with laserdisc technology, and after a brief domination by DVD and Blu-ray, here we are about to abandon it again. Look, John, it was a nice try, but apparently we don't want our video on fucking discs.
Mike Floorwalker can be followed on Twitter, stalked on Facebook, or harassed on his blog.
For more ways we're actually behind on the times, check out 7 Songs From Your Grandpa's Day That Would Make Eminem Blush and 7 Memes That Went Viral Before The Internet Existed.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Why Lifelong Jobs Are a Thing Of the Past.
And stop by LinkSTORM to discover what the first real Pong was.
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