The 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years

31. iRobot Roomba Intelligent Floorvac (2002)

A robot that does housework? Sign me up! With more than 2 million users, the Roomba is considered by many to be the first commercially successful domestic robot. The 14-inch-wide vacuum cleaner may look like an oversized hockey puck, but its brilliant design lets it avoid obstacles while sucking up every speck of dirt–including those dust bunnies cowering under the couch.

32. Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer (1999)

The first mainstream optical mouse earned its place on our list by eliminating one of computer technology’s most pervasive annoyances: the accumulation of gunk inside a mechanical mouse. Optical mice actually existed long before Microsoft’s groundbreaking product, but they were expensive and required special pads. The Intellimouse Explorer (and its simultaneously introduced siblings, the Intellimouse Optical and the Wheel Mouse Optical) brought gunk-free pointing devices to the great unwashed masses and their great unwashed desks (and laps, and armchairs, and many other places you’d never dream of using a mechanical mouse).

33. Franklin Rolodex Electronics REX PC Companion (1997)

The REX redefined the notion of portable. This credit-card-size device was powered by two watch batteries, measured just a quarter of an inch thick, and was designed to fit into a notebook’s PC Card slot. Its design was simple–just a black-and-white, 160-by-98-resolution screen, and five navigational buttons to access such functions as calendar, contacts and even memos. Although you couldn’t enter data into the first version (about $179 with cradle), the REX proved a convenient portable companion. It was PC World’s World Class Gadget for 1998.

34. Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System 1.0 (1998)

A do-it-yourself robotics system for the masses, Lego Mindstorms made building machines more fun than should be allowed. An interactive community helped promote different designs and creativity, so you were never at a loss as to what to do with all of those Lego pieces and parts. And one of the early expansion kits included a robotic R2-D2. (Sure, it was just a wireframe, not a solid replica, but it could still carry your Coca-Cola can.)

35. Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (1983)

This early “portable” phone measured more than a foot long, weighed close to 2 pounds, and cost a whopping $3995. But, with Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X-a.k.a. The Brick–you could for the first time walk and talk without that dratted cord. Generally considered the first mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000X had enough juice for an hour of talk time and enough memory to hold 30 numbers. And the device’s Formica-style enclosure was the envy of anything that Ma Bell had to offer.

36. Iomega Zip Drive (1995)

This little blue external storage drive, roughly the size of a paperback book, was an instant sensation, giving average computer users their first taste of easy backup and relatively rugged 100MB storage media. The only storage technology ever mentioned by name on HBO’s Sex and the City, the Zip Drive was available for both Macs and PCs. The Mac version connected to the SCSI port and the PC version hooked up via the parallel port. You could see the disk through a clear window built into the top of the drive, and it was always a pleasure to see the yellow LED light, which meant everything was working well. However, if the drive clicked too much (a phenomenon also known as the Click of Death), you were in trouble. You still have one somewhere, don’t you?

37. Magnavox Magnavision Model 8000 DiscoVision Videodisc Player (1978)

Before the DVD, or even the CD-ROM, there was the laserdisc–the first commercial optical video disc. Philips’s Magnavox Magnavision Model 8000 DiscoVision Videodisc Player was the first consumer player for MCA’s pioneering DiscoVision-format laser discs. Never mind that the Model 8000 cost $749, and that its failure rate was astronomical. The optical media age had arrived. Read about the history of DiscoVision at the Blam Entertainment Group’s DiscoVision site.

38. Milton Bradley Simon (1978)

The Simon toy (not the BellSouth/IBM Simon Personal Communicator, #41) began flashing its lights in 1978, at the height of Saturday Night Fever disco-mania. Appropriately, Milton Bradley premiered its memory game at one of the most famous discotheques of all time, Studio 54 in New York. Trying to remember Simon’s sequences of lights (and blips) was a lot of fun–and frustrating. The game has far outlasted the disco era: an updated version of Simon is still sold today. Happily, the polyester leisure suit remains an endangered species.

39. Play, Inc. Snappy Video Snapshot (1996)

Before PCs came with composite video inputs, before TV-tuner cards became de rigueur, before USB-connected video input devices became ubiquitous, there was the Snappy Video Snapshot. Attached to your PC’s parallel port (and sticking out several inches), it supplied standard video inputs, thereby allowing you to capture still digital images from an analog video source. Snappy lovers may read more at this dedicated page.

40. Connectix QuickCam (1994)

How techie were you in the mid-1990s? Found at your desk–typically astride a huge 17-inch CRT monitor–this fist-size grey globe signified connectedness. You were part of the QuickCam generation, embracing Internet video in its infancy, sending short, choppy, and highly pixelated greyscale moving images over (most likely) the office or college LAN. The QuickCam’s image quality left much to be desired, but its low price and unique design–a spheroid “eye” set in a pyramid-shaped base (which, despite appearances, worked surprisingly well as a tripod substitute)–made it a popular starter Webcam for video-crazy, pioneer digerati. Much more advanced QuickCams are still available from the line’s current owner, Logitech. For more, read what one user had to say about it.

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