Some gadgets truly changed the world

Published 7:17 pm Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I come by it honestly. My mother gave me her love for gadgets at an early age. To this day, we compete for the latest, greatest device that often does very little other than lighten our pocketbooks.

A gadget is often a small device that has a practical use but is thought of as a novelty. People want them because they think they are cool.

Gadgets can be found on dozens of late night infomercials. Ronco became a multi-billion dollar company selling the Chop-O-Matic, Dial-O-Matic, Veg-O-Matic, and then the Pocket Fisherman.

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With my love of gadgets of all kinds, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled on the History Channel’s new special on “101 Gadgets that Changed the World.” It was done in conjunction with Popular Mechanics magazine.

There were two hours of short stories about each invention. It was fascinating as they counted down the list. Some might disagree with the importance of the final list, but no one can dispute that these small devices changed the way we live.

How many of you ladies, or men for that matter, could get to work on time without your hair dryer? It was No. 57 on the list. Even more important as our workforce moved from the farm to the factory was the alarm clock (No. 9) and the wrist watch (No. 72). No longer did we depend on the sun to tell us the time of day.

Duct tape remains one of my all time favorites, although it barely made the list at No. 101. I gave a duct tape wallet to my son-in-law one Christmas as a joke. He used it for years.

Certainly for those of us who love the lakes and rivers in this area the spin cast fishing wheel (No. 80), the fiberglass fishing rod (No. 100) and the outboard motor (No. 58) were important. Just imagine how many fishing holes were discovered when we no longer had to paddle the boat.

The Coleman lantern (No. 68) opened up the darkness away from our homes just as the light bulb (No. 10) extended our time into the night. Our homes became cleaner because of the vacuum (No. 18). Our lawns became neater thanks to the push lawn mower (No. 51) and the leaf blower (No. 81).

The dry cell battery (No. 11) powered the flashlight (No. 82 ), the boom box (No. 70) and millions of toys left under the tree by Santa.

Many of these gadgets came along during my youth. I can still remember the second hand Hi-Fi (No. 25) my mother painted to give me on my birthday. The colors were, of course, orange and blue.

The bicycle (No. 12) continues to be the primary mode of transportation in many countries around the world although not many look like my old red Western Flyer with saddle bags.

There were many music-related items that made the list, including the Walkman (No. 25), the MP3 player (No. 42), and the compact disc player (No. 30). I listened to hundreds of ballgames on my prized transistor radio (No. 16) that I took with me everywhere our family went.

Some items are a surprise, when you consider the criteria is that it changed the world. The Zippo lighter wouldn’t have been an obvious choice for me, but became enormously popular during World War II. In fact, the company ceased making lighters for the commercial market and devoted all of their wartime production to the military.

Another unusual choice is the Derringer gun. My wife still has the pearl handled Derringer that my grandfather brought her one day after she received some prank phone calls. “Everyone should know how to use a gun,” he told her.

The smoke detector (No. 61) seems like an obvious choice, but the Lunch Pail (No. 63)? The pocket calculator (No. 41) is a cinch, but what about the automotive jack (No. 53)?

David Letterman has made the “Top Ten” lists famous in today’s culture. Beginning with No. 10, this is the list that the History Channel and Popular Mechanics determined have been most instrumental in changing the world:

The light bulb, the alarm clock, the phonograph, the rotary phone, the window air conditioner, the personal computer, the hypodermic needle, television, radio, and finally the gadget judged to have changed the world more than any other: the smart phone.

At first I disagreed with the smart phone as No. 1. When you get to thinking about it, however, it is the ultimate gadget. Hundreds of thousands of applications have been developed for the smart phones in just the last two years. Billions of dollars are sold in a market that didn’t exist just a couple of years ago. No matter where you go people have this small gadget held to their ear or stuck in their hand.

We text, talk, Facebook, and check the Internet, while following the weather, the stock market, and the pictures of our grandchildren on a gadget no bigger than the palm of our hands.

I used to marvel at the stories of my grandfather’s youth. I once asked him if I would see the world change as much in my life as he did in his. He said I would see more. He was right.

Dan Ponder can be reached at