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50 Breakthroughs In 50 Years: What’s Changed In Tech?

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It’s been a wild ride for technology in the most recent stage in human development. Each year has brought us more advances towards a future which could only have been dreamt about a few years ago.

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We outline each year and highlight its particular breakthrough – from 1968 to today. As we will see, the world has had a large change in 50 years than perhaps any major half-century before it…


1968: Apollo 8

We start our journey with Apollo 8, which was originally designed to perform Lunar Module testing in low Earth orbit. But history would take a different turn.

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During production, failures were spotted and instead, given that the Command/Service Module was ready for flight, engineers suggested using the rocket to fly a human around the moon and back. The mission was a success and history was made.

1969: Smoke detectors for home use

In 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, granted the first license for people to sell smoke detectors for personal use at home.

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Each smoke detector contains a very small amount of radioactive material, and so technically the AEC had to approve it for home use, arguing that smoke detectors could be used to keep families safe. It seems obvious now, of course, and millions of lives are saved each year.

1970: Canon Pocketronic Calculator

It may not feel like it now, but the pocket calculator was life-changing for students and engineers who could now perform tasks on the go.

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Of course, these have mainly been replaced by phones today, but it kicked off the 1970s with a bang.

1971: Intel 4004 Microprocessor

The year of the first true microprocessor! The 4004 ran at 1/10 of a megahertz, which is small today but was incredibly impactful for what it meant at the time.

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Created by Intel before the company became big, they developed this chip which was capable of much more than basic arithmetic.

1972: Pong

Pong was the first commercial arcade game available outside of a laboratory. From now on, people could play games wherever this was set up, including diners and arcades.

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The implications of this was huge, creating a gaming industry that is bigger than movies and music combined! When was the last time you played this classic?

1973: The first cell phone call

Xerox Alto made history for conducting the first cell phone call way back in 1973. It was achieved through the creation of TCP, Ethernet, and fiber optics, which were all used to achieve this amazing feat.

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Many scientists consider this something of a ‘year zero’ for communication since we saw the foundations of modern communication born at that time. Can you imagine life without it?

1974: First commercial barcode scan

Barcodes were first patented in 1952, but 1974 marked their entrance into the mainstream with the assistance of laser technology.

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It was June 26, 1974, to be exact when a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum was scanned in a scanner in Ohio – forever changing how supermarkets operate. Now, we can get these codes on our smartphones.

1975: The Altair 8800

This beast is a true sign of the times – but its appearance on the front cover of Popular Electronics took it from the ‘geeks’ to the mainstream.

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It became the first commercially successful microprocessor-based computer. It was this computer that Bill Gates and Paul Allen would use to create Microsoft.

1976: The Birth of Apple

The year that two Steves got together and changed the world. Steve Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple and started work on their first product.

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Unfortunately, their lesser-known co-founder Ronald Wayne sold his stock for $800. He killed himself a few years later.

1977: Apple II

The Apple II not only changed the way people used personal computers, but it also ushered in a whole new industry of people and companies racing to be the leaders in the PC space.

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For all you data lovers out there, it was also the year that Visicalc started – the first computer spreadsheet!

1978: First BBS

And thus, 1978 gave birth to the Internet Troll! Stuck at home in a blizzard one day, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess created CBBS – the first online forum, paving the way for the social networks we know today.

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Today, companies and technologies still use this as a basis of communication that can lead to internet trolling.

1979: Sony Walkman

It’s hard to imagine today, but Sony changed the way we could listen to music on the go with its Walkman in 1979. Before our phones could store thousands of songs, we had these.

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People could now listen to their music in private (ABBA, anyone?) without having to play it out loud on a boombox. This revolutionized the way the music business operated.

1980 – Pac-Man

Move aside, Pong! 1980 introduced the world to our little hungry friend who is still played a million times a day.

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It was the same year that Tim Berners-Lee failed at his project Enquire. His next project would lead to something a little different. Read ahead to see what Berners-Lee created, forever changing the world as we knew it.

1981: IBM PC

The very first portable computer. Could you imagine a more impactful way to start the 1980s? The truly portable device meant that people were no longer stuck at home when going on the computer.

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They could take it with them when they moved, improving communication and mobility in the tech space.

1982: Commodore 64

This little gem is a capitalist’s dream. A device that was cheaper and stronger than the Apple II and less than an IBM PC.

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When marketed correctly, there’s no way this wasn’t going to be a success. It has even been listed as the best-selling computer of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records.

1983: Lotus 1-2-3

This app was introduced into the world, and so was the term ‘the PC’. It was an overall improvement on anything else in the market.

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Better graphics, macros, it combined its features and improved the general experience of using a computer. It is considered the father of all apps – changing the way people worked on computers.

1984: Macintosh

Looking back, it’s hard to believe Macintosh was considered a failure. It held only a small portion of the exploding PC market, but over the next decade was set to change everything.

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It eventually reached dominance in the market, and some of its key features can still be found in 2018 designs and programs. That’s seriously future-proof!

1985: Nintendo Entertainment System

A big year in tech: CDs, laser printers, and Nintendo’s Entertainment System. The NES revolutionized the gaming industry and introduced us to Mario and friends.

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Suddenly, we all played games at home again. 30 years later, Mario is still part of our families in various games and consoles – all starting here.

1986: Automated LISTSERV

1986 brought us everyone’s favorite form of communication – the email mailing list! Listserv helped companies attract and keep audiences with its automated email list management system.

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People could subscribe to and unsubscribe from communication, massively growing the way we communicate and steer conversations online.

1987: HyperCard

This little-known service from Apple allowed people to create their own graphics, helping them with their businesses and online opportunities. It was the first time that people started designing and building their own brands at home on computers.

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Although Apple canceled this, it paved the way for more projects, truly changing the world.

1988: Photoshop

30 years after coming into the world, it’s hard to imagine a program more relevant in today’s media world. Every image is changed and altered using this program, and users are more comfortable with it than ever before.

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It wasn’t the first tool to offer these services, but it had all the right things to make it the leader. Today, Photoshop is paramount for anyone who wants to make it in the graphic design industry.

1989: Launch of first GPS satellite

It is true that Tim Berner-Lee invented the World Wide Web this year, fundamentally changing the world. However, we’re awarding the biggest breakthrough in 1989 as the launch of GPS satellite.

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Today, millions of people use it to stay en route, safely and correctly moving around the world without getting lost. It’s hard to remember a time when we were stuck looking at 2D maps – but those days are over, thankfully.

1990: WorldWideWeb, the first web browser

Soon after the creation of the World Wide Web, 1990 welcomed a new decade and the introduction of the first web browser.

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Now, internet users could click and browse different websites easily. Ever wonder why websites have ‘www’ at the start? Yeah, that’s why. This method of research would remain the main layout and formula for a few years, until finally overtaken by apps.

1991: Linux

A lot happened in the world of tech in 1991 (as well as the birth of this writer!), but we will focus on Linux for now.

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This Operating System today runs in everything: phones, cars, lightbulbs – almost all you can think of. It cannot be overstated just how significant this is and what an impact it has today.

1992: The first SMS text message

We spent so long wanting to speak to each other the phone, it feels weird to consider that people wanted to type their thoughts. The first message, from Neil Papworth, simply said ‘Merry Christmas’.

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At its peak, Americans sent 2.3 trillion SMS messages. Unfortunately, this tech seems to be on the decline with mobile users choosing more internet-based platforms like WhatsApp and Messenger.

1993: Mosaic web browser

While there were plenty of other web browsers at the time, Mosaic was a prominent player in the market due to its ability to show images. 1993 was the year it first hit consumers and even reached global popularity.

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Its popularity grew and was dominant, at least for a while. After a peak at number one, it dwindled and now stays in history.

1994: Birth of Amazon

What started as a modest online bookstore, Amazon has since become leaders in the cloud movement and has effectively killed the retail industry. You can’t go anywhere online without being impacted by Amazon in some way – you just don’t know it.

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Today, it offers us online streaming services, 1-day delivery, and encourages us to put AI robots in our homes. We really are living in the future.

1995: Windows 95

Although Microsoft’s Windows had been around for a whole decade, there was something about Windows 95 that seemed different. Consumers certainly had their opinions when it hit shelves.

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Its user-friendly interface became the leader in all PCs and has proven to be influential in all future operating systems. It was, by all measures, the birth of the modern desktop experience.

1996: Pilot handheld (first Palm handheld)

Pilot introduced a handheld personal device, which at the time, was a huge step. Never before could we walk around and take our online lives with us so easily.

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Now, our smartphones are an obvious PDA, but this gadget was the first time people could perform tasks on such a small device.

1997: Steve Jobs returns to Apple

Steve Jobs returned to the failing Apple company and single-handed steered it to become the most valuable company in the world.

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In the 1990s it was on its last legs, and his personality helped position it as the leader in mobile and computer technology. Considered one of the greatest comebacks in tech history, Jobs helped build Apple up until his untimely death in 2011.

1998: Google was founded

Has there been a more influential company than Google? Starting in 1998, its founders wanted an easier way to index and organize search results on internet browsers. And thus, the future was born.

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It shaped our experience on the web, offering an algorithm to help sort and rank our inquiries on the web. Today, it runs the way the web is operated. Most traffic online runs through Google Chrome or Android technologies.

1999: Apple airport

Another example of how Apple didn’t create something but injected its sleek design and marketing into pre-existing technologies.

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The airport showed us we could travel with our internet, no longer needing cables and cords. It was the early days of WiFi, and days that would cause a shift in how we went online.

2000: Google AdWords

In an attempt to monetize on its new platform, Google created a small thing called Google AdWords. By giving advertisers the opportunity to build and finance their own advertising efforts, companies started targeting specific people and measuring accuracy through click-through rates.

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Online advertising was forever changed, and the service brings in $100 billion annually.

2001: Apple iPod

Continuing its trend of reinventing existing tech, Apple changed the world by offering the world another type of MP3 player. People consider this the first MP3 of modern times, but it was hardly the first one on our shelves.

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It was, however, the first device that offered users the chance to hold their entire library. Changing the way people commuted, worked, traveled, and exercised.

2002: Tor

The birth of the ‘Dark Web’, Tor operates through so many layers of security that it is almost impossible to determine its IP address – allowing people to surf the web anonymously.

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What can be used for good can also be used for bad, with many terrorists and questionable behavior appearing in places where no one has accountability.

2003: Android founded

Today the most successful operating system in history, the Google-owned company saw its early days at the turn of century. What started as a modest tech startup was purchased by Google and transformed into a giant.

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Despite known for its security concerns, it is now the dominant player in the operating system world, and indeed for the foreseeable future.

2004: Facebook founded

What started in a small dorm room as a side project has led to one of the biggest communication transformations in human history. Today it owns Whatsapp, Instagram, and Messenger.

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This eco-system of apps holds control of how we communicate and store all the data its two billion monthly users provide. How it uses this accurate data will change our lives.

2005: YouTube founded

It is hard to imagine a world where video wasn’t easily uploaded and shared online, but that’s exactly what inspired YouTube’s creators.

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The video platform has had such a monumental effect of viewing behavior, that people are actually moving away from cable television. Today, careers can start and end on the video platform. Some ‘stars’ can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a month by posting videos.

2006: Twitter

The micro-blogging platform changed the way we quickly communicate and interact with each other. Despite its recent increase from 140 to 280 characters, its ability to connect people through short hashtagged conversations enhanced our ability to take part in public conversations.

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Today, it is ‘credited’ with helping elect a US President and enhance troll-like behavior between strangers.

2007: iPhone

This device integrated all our pre-existing portable devices into one place, making our phones, iPods, web browsers, apps, all an extension of ourselves.

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It has forever changed the way we keep connected with each other and have access to businesses online. Enough said.

2008: Airbnb

What initially started as a neat way to easily rent and let out short-term property leases is causing economic and governmental chaos around the world.

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It’s been blamed for raises in rent costs, putting hotels out of business, and has caused cities to rethink their approach to managing land. Quite the disruption if you ask us.

2009: Fitbit Tracker

2009 saw quite a few technologies that could be credited with improving the world. Bitcoin, Uber, and the modern USB all came into the world this year, but the biggest tech trend has to be Fitbit.

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The self-help movement was digitized with our ability to turn our exercise and daily goals into actionable data. Today, people obsessively monitor their health status, helping them live better lives.

2010: iPad

The tablet industry had never quite kicked off like other markets, until the introduction of the iPad. For some reason, all it needed was a little push from Steve Jobs.

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Once again, Apple showed us all the benefits of a light, reliable, and easy tablet that helped rejuvenate the industry into what it is today.

2011: Chromebook

Initially dismissed as a tablet that just ran Chrome, it’s quite amazing to see how Google’s product has solidified itself as an example to how tablets can be powerful assistants in education and not rely on any native apps to be useful.

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You can do almost anything with this straight out the box and acts as a strong competitor against the iPad. Which one do you use?

2012: Raspberry Pi

This small and modest device can run Linux and has helped add advanced computer power to projects at only $25.

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It has spurred many clones, but the first of its kind as a cheap extension to processing power led it to the top.

2013: Playstation 4 and Xbox One

Both consoles came out in the same year, creating a battle of the ages in the gaming industry. Suddenly, gamers had to face a choice and pledge their loyalty to one of the brands. For those who lived through it, it was one of tech’s greatest battles.

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The competition boasted 4K TVs, better image quality, compelling games, and a genuinely new golden age of video games.

2014: Satya Nadella and Windows 10

Ok, so not actually a technology, but a breakthrough nonetheless! When Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, the company had seen better days. Its mobile outing with Nokia was expensive and meaningless and had produced underwhelming results with its OS.

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Fast forward a few years, and Nadella has brought Microsoft back with new apps, cloud services, and a winner in Microsoft 10.

2015: Amazon Echo and the Alexa Ecosystem

The start of the smart home revolution and voice-based assistants changing the world. With her ability to host other vendor apps through ‘Skills’, Alexa is what Siri could have and should have been.

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The Ecosystem offered by Amazon is currently changing the world as we know it. It’s predicted that in a few years most homes will have at least one smart item to help with everyday errands.

2016: Pokemon Go

What seemed like a passing phase in 2016 actually generated $1.2 billion in revenue and offered companies insight into how people will want to interact with brands and games.

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With 750 million downloads, the interest was clearly there, forcing marketing and gaming companies to view AR differently.

2017: Nintendo Switch

Last year saw Nintendo’s triumphant return to gaming with Switch. Half portable device, half home console, it’s a clear example of how companies can resurrect themselves. Yay!

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Now living through a successful comeback, the Nintendo Switch helped the company in ways it couldn’t have asked for. What’s next for the gaming company is anyone’s guess.

Today and beyond

We’ve seen the foundations of some pretty interesting tech that will help pave the way towards our future. Drones, blockchains, and Machine Learning have been key players in how we operate and perform our day-to-day tasks.

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But hindsight is 20/20, and we will have a better idea of what most changed our lives in a few years from now. What do you think will next change the world? Come back here in a few years to find out.

Read More: 10 Things That People Did Differently Before Technology

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