Greatest Gadget firsts

Take a look back at the most memorable tech debuts

From watching the first 3D film to the first time we got our hadns on a revolutionary new camera phone, we look back at tech's most important debuts

In the tech world, everything that gets launched is - by definition - new. You release a new phone, that's a new phone simply because of the irrefutable fact that it didn't exist before. It's all in the remit of straightforward physics. Or is that pragmatics?

Some new things in the tech universe are more special than others. Some things stand out as true, innovative and important firsts - whereas others just add the letter 'S' onto an existing product.

For no reason other than we like the number, we've picked 20 such firsts throughout history to parade in front of your impressionable, eager eyes with a sense of almost parental pride. Enjoy.

3D Film

3D has older roots than people tend to think. In the 1890s, Inventors William Friese-Greene, Frederick Eugene Ives and several others messed around with various 3D Patents, but couldn't manage to make any work. The world's first 3D film - The Power of Love - was actually shown in 1922, using those infamous red and green 'Analglyph' glasses. The Anaglyph tech works by printing two separate images onto one, and having appropriately coloured filters (those tacky glasses) fill in the blanks. The 50s are still considered the 'golden age' of 3D cinema - movies such as House of Wax wowed audiences with stereophonic sound, 3D visuals, and the many talents of Vincent Price.

Automotive Navigation

Sat Nav as we know it today relies on Global Positioning System signals from orbiting satellites. That's not to say, however, that some companies weren't trying convoluted ways to get round this shortcoming beforehand. A handful of companies each claim to have invented automotive navigation in the early 80s, including Honda and Alpine. The Etak Navigator was probably the first actual such system, though. It was a combination of an Intel 8088-based computer, compass and wheel sensors that synced with magnetic tapes pre-loaded with street maps. It took four whole tapes to map Los Angeles. Mitsubishi and Pioneer each claim to have been the first with GPS-based devices, both in 1990.

Boom box

The first Boom box was made by Marantz Superscope in 1976. This machine changed the face of outdoor music, the 80s, and urban culture forever in one foul swoop. It was heavy and monolithic, housing a tape deck and AM/FM tuner. The sound quality and battery life was unusually good for the time due to the device being big enough to pack in a decent wattage and speaker set. It and the Boom boxes to follow were also rife with outputs for hooking up to bigger set ups. Throughout the 1980s, Boom boxes became tantamount with both break dancing and hip hop cultures.

Camera phone

Sticking a camera on a phone is an idea that - bizarrely - dates back to the 60s. For it to work though, it would need less power consumption from smaller components than were possible at the time. The CMOS sensor developed in the mid-90s was the first successful step in such camera miniaturisation. Above is the world's first commercially available camera phone. The J-SH04 was released in 2000 in Japan, and rocked a 110,000-pixel camera and an impressive (at the time) 256-color STN display. Brilliant if you like your photos postage stamp-sized.

Colour consumer camera

A more correct 'first' would be colour photography rather than an actual camera, as - when the right film became available - cameras of old could be adapted to produce beautiful multi-chromatic pics. The first colour photograph was taken in 1861, and the first time a (albeit crude) colour photography process was widely marketed was way back in 1907. However, the technology didn't get into the hands of the masses until the invention of Kodachrome film in the early 1930s. Kodak's masterpiece, Kodachrome was the first colour reversal film to go into production, and it swiftly dominated the market in its 35mm variety. During its run it was made for a multitude of different camera and lens types, before ultimately being killed off this year (2009) by the relentless march of digital photography.

Colour TV

Colour TV was a huge leap forward for the television and its place in our homes. Unachievable colour TV patents date all the way back to 1880, but nobody managed it until 1928, when John Logie Baird demoed a crude system involving alternating primary colours. In 1944, he hung up his mechanical hat and showcased a fully electronic colour machine that ran off a 600-line display. American giants NBC and CBS began colour (or color, if you like) broadcasts before the UK, as the state-run BBC saw no commercial gain in spending vast amounts of cash to change the then UK standard 625-line system to the US's 600-line colour set up. BBC2 was the first channel in Europe to broadcast regular, full colour programming - in 1962.

Digital camera

The principles of digital photography have been talked about since 1961. The first digital camera ever was produced in labs at Kodak in 1975. It weighed half a stone, sported a miserly 0.01-Megapixels, and took 23 seconds to take a photo and record it onto magnetic tape. 1988 set the standards for JPEG photos, allowing for compressed images that took up less space in digital devices' memory. In 1990, the first commercially available digital camera, the Dycam Model 1 (or Logitech Fotoman, above left) was released. It stored digital photos internally, and connected to computers for photo uploads. The Casio QV-10 (above right) hit in 1995, and was the first digital camera to had an LCD screen on the back, which is now the standard.

eBook reader

eBooks - and the idea of reading books in a digital format - has been around since 1971 when Michael S Hart launched the Gutenberg Project. Eventually, as computer technology improved throughout the 1990's, eBooks became prevalent and the need for eBook readers - for reading digital books on the move - presented itself. The first such device was the Rocket eBook, launched in 1998 (pictured above). It had 4MB of storage capacity (or 16MB on the Pro version), which was enough for about 10 books. The rocket had a touchscreen LCD display and a battery life of up to 33 hours.


Email in its most basic form both predates the internet and helped in its formation. In 1965, a system was set up to allow multiple users of a single mainframe computer to share data and send messages. This method evolved slowly over time, although details on email's exact development are few and far between. In 1971, as people became able to communicate between multiple compatible computers in separate buildings, Ray Tomlinson began the principle of using the '@' symbol to separate the user's name from that of their computer terminal.

Film with surround sound

In 1940, using a very basic, heavily engineered system comprising of 3 audio channels and 54 loudspeakers, Disney's Fantasia became the first film to be shown with surround sound. Walt had wanted the audience to think the bee was flying all around them in the Flight of the Bumblebee scene, and this clunky set up did just that. Some years later, in the 70s, a company called Dolby (you may have heard of them) developed an optical-recording surround sound tech, which was then picked up and used by a small-time director named George Lucas. Star Wars was the first film to be shown with a Dolby Stereo multi-channel soundtrack in 1977, and the effect on the audience - with swooping space battles galore - changed the face of cinema forever.

Games Console

The Magnavox Odyssey (pictured above with happy gamers) was the world's first home video console. Dire marketing and an unfounded rumour that it would only work with Magnavox televisions meant it never sold to the level it should have, but its barnstorming list of 28 games (including the incredible-sounding Fun Zoo) means that deserves more credit than its infamous successor. Despite being sued by Magnavox for copying the 'Tennis' game on the Odyssey, Atari's home version of their arcade smash Pong found its way into 150,000 homes over the Christmas of 1975. The project was initially codenamed 'Darlene', after a rather striking employee at Atari... How times have changed.

Handheld games console

The first ever handheld console was brought into life after Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi saw a bored businessman on a bus mashing buttons on his calculator. The Game & Watch was an instant and massive success worldwide, despite being as technologically advanced as a stapler. The premise was simple: 'Game A' would see you as a pixelated blob avoiding obstacles (other pixelated blobs) and jumping about to reach the level's goal, or simply perpetuate the madness (as above). Any scenery was permanently drawn onto the screen. 'Game B' would be the same, except a lot, lot harder.

HD Broadcast

Then US president Ronald Reagan was first shown a Hi-Def broadcast in 1981, and was so impressed that he declared giving the US HD TV "a matter of national interest". Unfortunately the digital technology needed to distribute it just didn't exist. The subsequent introduction of digital TV meant that the file compression needed became a reality: following a trial atop the Empire State Building, CBS began public HD broadcasts in 1998. Things were slower off the mark on this side of the Atlantic. 2004 saw the channel Euro1080 kick-start the European HD show, which has since snowballed. TVs bearing the "HD Ready" slogan began to dominate store shelves around 2006, and in the UK BBC HD began broadcasting publicly on December 1st 2007.

Holographic TV broadcast

During the American presidential election in 2008, reporter Jessica Yellin was beamed into the New York CNN studio live on international television as a fully 3D hologram. It was set up using 35 cameras positioned around Yellin, with identically placed sensors in the destination studio. Washington Senior Video Producer Chuck Hurley said "Weathermen have been standing in front of green screens for years now, but that's with one camera. Now we can do that times 35, so you can send all the way around the subject." The computers and fibre optics involved in transporting Yellin from Chicago to New York took three seconds, but the effect was so convincing that CNN even added a Star Wars-style blue glow around her body to alert the viewer to the fact that she wasn't actually there.

Mobile Phone

Whilst the history of mobile communication can - in its most fundamental state - be traced all the way back to 1956, and chunkier devices tethered to car battery-sized packs existed beforehand, Motorola's DynaTAC 8000X was the first mobile to obtain general release in the US, following approval by the FCC in 1983. There had been a mobile network in the US since 1968 by the name of AMPS, but all portable phones up until this had been designed squarely for use in cars, meaning there wasn't an urgency to slim them down. Dr Martin Cooper, who lead the team that developed the phone, is said to have been the first person to make a private call on a handheld mobile telephone. The DynaTAC range - a gadget icon - ran until 1994.

Music download site

In 1999, Shawn Fanning - then studying at Northeastern University in Boston - set up the file sharing site Napster as a way for him and his friends to access music easier. The system was a centralized online database of user's musical libraries (saved as the growingly popular MP3 format), that they could then take from and upload to. Napster ran until 2001, at which point gigantic copyright infringements caught up with both it and Fanning. The first ever legal music download site was Apple's iTunes, launching in 2003 with a Mac-only roster of just 200,000 songs, and syncing perfectly with the all-conquering iPod. Today, iTunes has sold over 4 billion songs at 79p a pop.


The HP Omnibook 800 CT from 1997 is the widely unrecognised founder of the netbook, running Windows 95. That said, it wouldn't be accurate of us not to credit Asus for bringing the diminutive machines to the fore. Asus launched the kiddy, granny and student friendly Eee PC in 2007, which ran Linux and cost under £250. The ethos was a simple machine built for web browsing and basic word processing jobs. A year later, when the Eee climbed to the top of Amazon's charts, every company in existence began making clones, arriving at the point we're at now - where 3G netbooks are being given away free with data packages, and they sell in their millions each year.


Organic Light-Emitting Diode technology has had a long and overly scientific history. In terms of OLED tech in consumer televisions, CES 2008 was dominated with OLED sets - many a company claiming it was the undeniable future of TV. OLED technology allows TVs to be thinner than LCD or Plasma displays, as well as to consume less electricity. This is because the diodes in the set's display light themselves, eliminating the need for power hungry and chunky backlighting. Due to this minimalist nature, you could soon see your bedroom window doubling as your main light.

Personal audio player

In 1979 the future personal audio was born in two different places and in two different guises. Whilst the Sony Walkman undoubtedly became a personal music icon and rightful forbearer, forward-thinking British inventor Kane Kramer invented (or claims to have invented) the Digital Audio Player (DAP). The above is a doodling of such, born of his very hand. The machine would be able to store a paltry 3.5 minutes of music on a flash memory system, utilising primitive audio compression. Unfortunately for Kane, the relevant Patents expired in 1988 - some years before DAPs as we know them today (iPod anyone?) began to flourish. Kane now tops the Google search results for "world's biggest failure".

SMS Text

The first ever text message, reading "Merry Christmas" was sent from PC to an Orbital 901 handset on the Vodafone network in 1992. Before that, most people behind the 2G mobile GSM goings on only thought that the Short Message Service protocol would be used to alert the user of a new voicemail. Commercial use of text messaging began in 1993, but not in anywhere near the same numbers as today: in 1995 people with GSM phones were sending on average 0.4 messages a month. The 160 character data limit and fixed messaging prices were set soon after, as the service's popularity grew. This word limit later brought about the use of "txt speak", which has created many new words as shortened versions of others. 2.4 billion people currently use text messaging worldwide.