The 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years

41. BellSouth/IBM Simon Personal Communicator (1993)

Not to be confused with the Milton Bradley game Simon (#38), the Personal Communicator was the first mobile phone to include a built-in PDA. Jointly marketed by IBM and BellSouth, the $900 Simon was a combination phone, pager, calculator, address book, calendar, fax machine and wireless email device–all wrapped up in a 20-ounce package that looked and felt like a brick.

42. Motorola Handie Talkie HT-220 Slimline (1969)

The first portable two-way radios introduced during World War II weighed up to 35 pounds apiece, but the HT-220 weighed just 22 ounces–in part because it was the first portable radio to use integrated circuits instead of discrete transistors. Back then, it was a favourite of the Secret Service; today, it enjoys a small, but fiercely dedicated, following of radio geeks.

43. Polaroid Swinger (1965)

In the mid-1960s, no gift for teens and preteens was cooler than the $20 Polaroid Swinger instant camera. (Okay, it actually cost “nineteen dollars and ninety-five”, as immortalized in one of the catchiest ad jingles of the decade). The Swinger’s big innovation was its pinchable photometer button: when the shot’s light was just right, the word “YES” lit up in the viewfinder. Of course, the newbie photographers for whom the camera was intended were likely to focus more on the “YES” than on the actual composition of the shot.

44. Sony Aibo ERS-110 (1999)

Sony’s $1500 robotic pet, the ERS-110, was cuter than your average mutt and a whole lot smarter. Advanced artificial intelligence allowed it to learn from its environment, as well as sit, stand, roll over and act puppyish. Later “breeds” recognized your voice commands and featured a built-in webcam, so you could hire Aibo to babysit the kids.

45. Sony Mavica MVC-FD5 (1997)

Yes, it wasn’t the first digital camera, but it was the first that saved photos on a platform that every PC user knew and loved: the ubiquitous 3.5-inch floppy. The FD5 provided a very easy–and familiar–way to get images out of the camera and onto a PC. Storing photos on floppies also meant that people could keep taking pictures as long as they fed the camera more disks. Photographers could easily share digital snapshots with family and friends because everybody used floppies. Like many first-generation digital cameras, the $599 Mavica was bulky and ugly, but its specs were up to snuff (for the time): image resolution topped out at 640 by 480 pixels (which translates to 0.3 megapixel), and the camera had a sizable 2.5-inch LCD.

46. Learjet Stereo-8 (1965)

They’re the butt of jokes these days, but 8-track tapes and decks changed car audio forever. The Stereo 8, which first appeared as an option on Fords, had minimal controls and was often mounted under the dashboard with ugly U-brackets, but aesthetics weren’t the point. With an 8-track in your car, you were no longer at the mercy of local radio station playlists. That was a very big deal at a time when only the largest cities had stations that played what was then known as “album rock”. And the sound! In those days 8-tracks blew the doors off anything coming from a radio station, despite their infamous fadeouts when the tracks switched. The 8-track didn’t last all that long, falling out of favour in the early 1970s as smaller, more convenient cassette tapes (and later CDs) came along.

47. Timex/Sinclair 1000 (1982)

Invented by British gadget king Clive Sinclair and marketed in the United States by Timex (which knew a thing or two about affordable gizmos), this everyman’s computer sold for a rock-bottom $100. The slab-shaped T/S 1000 was cheap in every sense of the word–it packed a minuscule 1KB of RAM and had a barely usable flat keyboard. Even so, it was a blockbuster, briefly: timex shipped 600,000 of them, many more were sold in other countries, and clones even appeared. For an exhaustive look at the whole phenomenon, consult the Timex Sinclair Showcase.

48. Sharp Wizard OZ-7000 (1989)

It didn’t quite fit into a shirt pocket, and its non-QWERTY keyboard wasn’t the most intuitive of input devices. But, long before the PalmPilot 1000 (#4) or even the Newton MessagePad (#28), the first Sharp Wizard helped popularize the concept of a small, lightweight electronic address book and calendar, thereby becoming the granddaddy of the modern personal digital assistant. Want to read more? The Open Directory Project has a page full of Wizard links.

49. Jakks Pacific TV Games (2002)

For decades, the Atari 2600’s black joystick has symbolized the raw spirit of early console video gaming. How fitting, then, that the joystick itself evolved into an entire videogame console in 2004, when a small toy company called Jakks Pacific launched the phenomenally successful TV Games line. The TV Games controller/game console hooks directly to standard inputs on a television and runs off batteries. Atari TV Games was the first version, bundling ten of the most popular classic Atari games from the 1980s–Pong, Asteroids, Breakout and more–in a controller that looked just like the original Atari VCS (#7) joystick.

50. Poqet PC Model PQ-0164 (1990)

Years before the Pocket PC, there was the Poqet PC. About the size of a videotape, the Poqet was pricey ($2,000), but it ran off-the-shelf applications and could go for weeks on two AA batteries. Highly praised during its brief life, the Poqet vanished from the market after its manufacturer was acquired by Fujitsu. As with seemingly every interesting computer of yore, it still has its devotees, including Bryan Mason, proprietor of the informative Poqet PC website.

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