5 Disturbing Origins Of Everyday Technology
If necessity is the mother of invention, then death is its father. Because while we've been progressing steadily, trying to fiddle with the world to make things and better fulfill our needs, the real kick in the pants comes when something horrible strikes, people die, and we need a fast fix. Just consider how ...
We Have Modern GPS Because Of A Horrifying Airline Mix-Up
You probably know that the Global Positioning System was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. So have you ever thought how weird it is that this system designed to help missiles and submarines navigate can now be used by all of us to track the pizza guy or whatever? GPS is to this day operated and maintained by the U.S. military, at a cost of nearly $1.5 billion annually. But it's available to everyone, for free, even to those in other countries, even in countries hostile to us. To understand why, we have to go back to 1983.
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (yes, that was its actual number) was flying from New York to Seoul. Its planned route included a stopover in Anchorage and then a nice little arc over the Pacific. But this was not the route Flight 007 ended up taking. Despite all kinds of correct information going into the flight computer, the plane got on the wrong bearing and found itself going through Russian airspace.
Russia shot the plane down. They didn't admit it at first -- they're not great at admitting things -- but officials eventually confirmed that yep, they'd sent an interceptor jet after the civilian aircraft and brought it down with a missile. They claimed they thought it was a spy plane. All 269 aboard died, including a hundred Koreans and citizens of a dozen other countries. Among them were 62 Americans, including a sitting congressman, Representative Larry McDonald of Georgia.
President Ronald Reagan did not respond by declaring war on Russia. (Proof: The world still exists today.) But he did tell the military to hurry up and make that GPS thing available for civilian use worldwide. And that's why everyone today gets to carry a GPS-enabled device on them at all times.
The First Baby Monitor Was To Prevent Kidnapping
Charles Lindbergh's two-year-old son was grabbed from his crib on March 1, 1932, and the kidnapping became approximately the biggest news story in history. Two months later, the child's body turned up on the side of a road, sparking widespread panic in every parent in the country. One of these parents was the president of Zenith Radio, Eugene F. McDonald Jr., who began tinkering with a device that could let him monitor the sounds in his young daughter's room.
It's worth noting that "someone will break in and steal my baby" isn't exactly a rational fear, even after it happens once in an extremely high-profile manner. Kidnapping in general is less common than you may think, and baby-napping is rarer still. (And when it does happen, it's usually from childcare facilities, not your home nursery.) Really, babies are more trouble than they're worth. There are probably more criminals out there putting their own fussy babies in strangers' homes than ones taking other people's babies.
But when Zenith put together the first baby monitor, which they named the Radio Nurse, they marketed it to parents scared of kidnapping in the wake of the Lindbergh case. And now let's look and laugh at the hilarious old-timey design that these primitive 1930s folk came up with:
That looks ... weirdly sleek and tasteful. Like, if you told me this was made in the 1980s, I wouldn't believe you, because it's clearly more modern than that. Credit goes to Zenith for handing design over to an artist, Isamu Noguchi, rather than a team of 1930s marketing professionals. Truly, the Radio Nurse was a flawless invention. Except for the small fact that it broadcast its signal using the same frequency as car radios. So everyone driving by your house could hear what your baby was up to, which wasn't the best way to reassure parents who were scared of kidnappers.
Related: 5 Modern Things Created For Totally Different Purposes
Samuel Morse Revolutionized Communications After Missing His Wife's Funeral
Everyone agrees that Samuel Morse and his telegraph kick-started the communications revolution. And yet to start with, Morse wasn't a scientist at all. He was an artist. He paid his way through college by painting, and he found he was so good at it that he apparently abandoned whatever science he'd been studying there. He sailed to England to now study painting for three years at the Royal Academy. When he came back home, he made it his mission to get Americans to appreciate the Old Masters as much as Europe did, founding the National Academy of Design in New York. He did portraits full-time for over a decade.
In 1825, Morse received his biggest commission by far: to paint Marquis de Lafayette for the 1825 equivalent of $26,000. The day he reached D.C. for the job, his father wrote to him about how Morse's pregnant wife was recovering from an illness. After that letter came another: His wife had died. Morse abandoned the painting and traveled to Connecticut for the funeral, but it had already happened in his absence. He'd received the news too late to get to her in time.
A while after this, Morse went back to studying science, attending lectures about electricity. And he eventually abandoned painting in favor of creating a system of instant communication over long distances. In retrospect, it's pretty obvious why he chose that field over, say, inventing the vibrating bed.
Football Has The Forward Pass Because Of Dead Students
It seems impossible to believe, but football actually used to be even more dangerous than it is today. Players straight-up died on the regular. In the 1905 season alone, 18 players Super Bowl Shuffled right off this mortal coil.
Those weren't professional players; this was before the NFL. They were all students -- three of them playing for colleges, and the rest in high school. Americans began debating whether it was such a good idea to have kids kill each other for entertainment, and President Theodore Roosevelt even addressed the topic when he gave a commencement address at Harvard. "Brutality in playing a game," he said, "should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it." Schools took note and started eliminating their football programs.
But that hadn't been Roosevelt's intention. After all, he liked football. When he heard Harvard, his alma mater, was planning on abolishing football, he called the idea "doing the baby act," and made a bunch of new statements in support of the game. "It would be a real misfortune to lose so manly and vigorous game as football," he said, and he pushed for reform rather than elimination. So reps from various schools came together and made changes to the rules to make things safer. The biggest change was the introduction of the forward pass.
A forward pass is when a player throws the ball toward the side of the field they're trying to reach, and a teammate catches it. If you're not a scholar of football history, you might think, "Isn't that what players do constantly? Isn't that the whole point of the game? How can you 'create' the forward pass?" But prior to this, forward passes were against the rules, forcing a lot more tackling and a fair amount of death. Even today, forward passes are prohibited in other sports, like rugby. Maybe. No one really understands rugby.
Related: 20 Surprising Origins Of Famous Pop Culture Ideas
The Bicycle Was Invented After A Volcanic Eruption
1816 was the Year Without a Summer. As we've told you before, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, and the resultant ash cloud dampened the sun around the world. It snowed in New England ... in July. Crops failed in Europe, with oats in particular becoming a lot more scarce and thus expensive. So among all the many other insane after-effects, people were suddenly unable to feed their horses. Plus, plenty of folks took to killing their horses anyway. When you're starving and can either feed a dozen meals to a lumbering animal or butcher that animal and gain hundreds of meals, it's really no choice at all.
So Europe suddenly ran short of horses. Which was bad, because horses were basically the main way to get anywhere. But it was thanks to this shortage that Germany's Baron Karl von Drais decided it was time to create a new form of transportation -- one powered by man. He first worked on a contraption with four wheels joined by conveyor belts, as he was trying to replace the four-legged horse, but then he figured two wheels were plenty for his Laufmaschine ("running machine"). You'd be able to keep balance on two wheels as long as you were going fast enough (for reasons still unknown), and if you weren't going fast enough, well, you clearly weren't using the Laufmaschine correctly.
The Laufmaschine was the first bicycle. We have sketches of similar inventions from earlier times, but this was the first verifiably made. Initially, the vehicle was slow and heavy, and had a tendency to crash. (It would be many years before we perfected it and made its ideal variant, the penny-farthing.) But right from the start, it was clear that a bike could get you a lot farther than the alternative, which consisted of 2,000 pounds of delicious packaged horse meat.
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