When I was a youngster, the fanciest gadget I had was a pair of “laser” guns that detected whether or not the user was hit by the other player. They were a lot of fun to play with, and I spent quite a long time trying to figure out how they worked.
It wasn’t until I discovered that the remote control to our television in the living room set them off that I realized these ’80s blasters were anything but advanced laser weapons. Those are the breaks, but I didn’t lose hope that one day all the gadgets we saw in movies like Star Wars and TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation would become a reality.
Fast forward to 2012. We’re in a new world and almost everything I once submitted to be simple fantasy has become a reality. We’re talking and video conferencing with people using devices that fit in our pocket, I can talk to a computer and have it perform searches and other simple tasks for me, and the greatest collection of human knowledge is accessible in an instant.
Along the way, there have been some remarkable consumer products that redefined how I thought about the future of technology. These gadgets may not be marvels of science by today’s standards, but they did set the stage for my personal take on technology for many years to come.
Handspring Visor Pro
Perhaps one of the first big splurges I made on a gadget once I left my parents’ house was the Handspring Visor. It was a really basic PDA, and I remember spending a lot of my savings on it. I really wanted one with a color screen, but it was out of my league at the time.
Either way, a buddy and I each bought one and we spent weeks toying around with various applications. One such application was a quickdraw shooting game that utilized the built-in infrared receiver to determine which one of us drew our PDA and “fired” first. It was the first time a gadget I had bought instantly replaced more than a few of my favorite gadgets from childhood.
The interface on the Handspring Visor was very similar to the one currently found on iOS and Android. It was perhaps the first time I had seen (with my own eyes) one of the key components of science fiction become a clear reality.
My mother had the most incredible music player when I was growing up, and she cherished it greatly. I still believe she has it tucked away in a drawer somewhere. I “borrowed” it frequently as a child, and spent many days listening to AM/FM radio, cassettes, and simply enjoying the world of audio that the Walkman made possible.
Radios were everywhere in our house growing up, but having one I could take with me that also played cassettes wasn’t as common when I was younger. Having a Walkman was the equivalent to having an iPhone 5 today. It wasn’t something everyone had, but it was something almost everyone wanted.
Toshiba Satellite T1950CT
My first laptop was nothing like the laptops people use today. It was a small, beige machine with an 8.9″ screen on it that was more reminiscent of a modern phablet than a laptop in both size and resolution.
It hardly displayed a scrolling text screen saver without stutter, and the frame rate on it was terrible. Still, it allowed me to keep a digital journal and run basic programs through Windows 3.11. It’s performance would be laughable by today’s standards (even compared to an MP3 player) but it was a computer, and one that got me through many boring nights in my first apartment.
NVIDIA GeForce 4
Back in the very early 2000s, Voodoo cards were all the rage in gaming rigs. I was a very broke call center rep who had just graduated high school, and I moved in with my brother (a fairly serious gamer working in the tech field). The computer I brought with me from my parents’ house was an ancient 400 MHz system with an All-in-Wonder card that did only the most basic things.
My first big paycheck went into my computer, and the very first thing I bought for it was an NVIDIA GeForce 4 powered video card. It didn’t do terribly much to improve my system performance, but it was a very big leap forward for me at the time.
This was the first of very many system upgrades I would do over the years, and it lit a fire in me to understand technology and how computers work. Within months, I had purchased the 12th edition of Upgrading and Repairing PCs and learned everything I could about how computers are designed, assembled, and work.
Fisher Space Pen
Before you start laughing, just hear me out. I’m a huge fan of handwritten work. Many of my notes are written by hand on one of a half-dozen pads that stay within arms reach of my desk. There’s something about the art of putting pen to paper that makes creative thought a little easier, and enables me to establish a connection with my work.
The Fisher Space Pen is one gadget I absolutely would add to this list if only because it serves as an example of just how simple some of the most significant inventions of the modern era are.
Back when the space program was still in its early years, a fire broke out inside of the Apollo 1 module, and it killed three astronauts. It was then that NASA decided any flammable materials inside of a module should be replaced by something less dangerous. One of the first things up for replacement was the pencil, which both American and Russian astronauts were using.
Back then, the space race was a point of national pride. We were on the brink of war and this one seemingly insignificant race to the Moon was actually a very big factor in the outcome of the Cold War. It was because of this that many inventors and corporations went hard to work to contribute to the program and its success — many of which did so voluntarily. Fisher was one such inventor. He spent much of his own money developing a pen that would work in the weightless environment of space. The result: The Fisher Space Pen.
This pen didn’t exactly save the space program, but it did (and continues to) serve as an example of the collaborative efforts that went into the success of the Apollo program. As simple of an invention as it may be, it should be counted as one of the most significant.