Incredible Modern Technology We Take for Granted

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A Brief History

On March 9, 2020, we take a look at some of today’s technology that is not celebrated the way some previous inventions have been.  Virtually everyone knows that Edison invented the light bulb and Bell invented the telephone, but we ask, who knows the inventor of the touch screen?  Who invented the computer chip?  Who came up with GPS?  Today we take a few selected modern devices and tell you a little about how they came about.  What would you add to this list?  (Note: Not being scientists ourselves, some of the technology in this article is difficult for us to explain easily.)

Digging Deeper

The touch screen.

Being able to control electronic devices directly by touching the screen display with your finger or a special stylus, or with gloves adapted for that purpose enables us to even more efficiently interface with our electronics, whether it is a video game, a computer screen, or a control screen for an automobile or other type of vehicle.  Back in the bad old days, people had to use switches, levers, dials and buttons!  The idea for touch screens was first put forward by an English researcher, Eric Johnson, of the Royal Radar Establishment in 1965.  He expanded on his idea in 1967 with more information, and then in 1968 he discussed the technology as applicable to air traffic control.  In the early 1970’s, a pair of researchers at the European Nuclear agency known as CERN, Frank Beck and Bent Stumpe, developed a working model of a touch screen first produced by CERN and associated partners in 1973.  Americans got on board the touch screen technology train in the person of George Samuel Hurst, who in 1975 was awarded a patent for his resistive touch screen that went into production in 1982.  In 1972, a research team at the University of Illinois came up with a system using an LED and phototransistor on a plasma display, and put the system to use for Magnavox.  Computer applications followed, as did infrared operated systems.  By the 1980’s the technology was blossoming with all sorts of countries and scientists involved in expanding and perfecting the touch screen system to the point where everyday items such as our cell phones, our computers and pads, as well as automobile dashboard displays all use touch screen technology.  Not until 1988 did researchers create touch screens that could reliably use icons/targets smaller than an average fingertip, greatly enhancing practicality and reliability of the system. Video game touch screens became introduced in primitive form starting in the early 1990’s, but not in common use until 2004, while the technology came to cell phones in 2007.  Who gets credit for inventing the touch screen?  Well, like many items, it took a lot of people and organizations a lot of time and effort to refine the systems we use today.  Since it was Eric Johnson who first came up with the idea, perhaps he could be called the “inventor of the touch screen.”  While touch screens were once almost all the “resistive” variety, today virtually all of them are the “Projected Capacitance” type.  And no, we do not know the difference, do you?  (There are several other types of touch screens, including infrared, self-capacitance, optical imaging and others.)

LCD screen.

Liquid-crystal display screens use a flat screen with a back-lit light source behind liquid crystals that are combined with polarizers to display data rather than using the old-fashioned grid of electric lights to create letters, numbers, and images.  The displays can be simple pre-set words, numbers or images, such as in a clock display, or by using a grid can be used to display changing images, such as on a television screen.  The display may be in single color or in the normal color spectrum.  The LCD system allowed televisions and computers to get rid of the bulky and heavy CRT screens previously used, providing a slimmer, lighter, cheaper (eventually) screen that gave better resolution and used less electricity.  Even wrist watches and cell phones, digital cameras and calculators were included in the rush to employ this marvelous technology.  Unlike CRT’s, LCD’s do not suffer from “image burn,” a ruined screen effect common to CRT screens that have the same image displayed for extended periods of time burned onto the phosphor coating on the inside of the screen.  (The LCD does not use a phosphor screen, although they can be susceptible to “image persistence.”)  As with much of modern technology, the historical background of LCD’s came from a series of ideas and discoveries rather than a single monumental “aha” moment.  Austrian chemist and botanist Friedrich Reinitzer first discovered the liquid crystal nature of some plant based chlorophyll compounds in 1888.  Other researchers expanded our knowledge of liquid crystals, and in 1927, a Soviet scientist, Vsevolod Frederiks, discovered the basic method of using liquid crystals, light and electricity to create the LCD.  Not until 1936 did the British electronics company, Marconi, patent the first practical use of the LCD idea, though the LCD was still not really a commercial item yet.  In the 1960’s researchers at RCA combined the transistor technology pioneered by Bell Labs researchers Mohamed M. Atalla and Dawon Kahng with the LCD idea to develop the thin-film transistor (TFT).  Research and development also continued in Britain, with the Royal Radar Establishment lab team.  By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, scientists and researchers across the world were working on the development of usable LCD’s, including German professor Alfred Saupe at Kent State University (Ohio) Liquid Crystal Institute.  By the early 1970’s commercially available LCD’s went public in the form of electronic calculator screens and all sorts of other applications quickly followed, with wristwatches and clocks a main use by 1975.  The first LCD color televisions did not appear until 1982, courtesy of the Seiko Epson company, that offered a tiny handheld portable television built into a wristwatch!  (Big news back then…)  Larger LCD television screens (at first only 14 inches) came out in 1988, and a rush to produce large screen projection and regular LCD televisions changed the consumer television world.  By 2007, LCD television and screen display technology completely eclipsed the picture quality of the best of the CRT type screens, and LCD televisions replaced CRT televisions as the largest commercial sellers.  Continued refinement of the LCD system has resulted in nearly matching the picture quality of LED screens.  Who invented the LCD?  So many cooks were involved in baking this cake it is really hard to give any one person or team the credit as the inventor.   Meanwhile, advances and refinements in the LCD technology keep LCD’s on the cutting edge of commercial and industrial viability.

LED’s.

Light-emitting diodes are a semi-conductor source of light, releasing photons when electricity passes through the “electron holes” in the semi-conductor material.  (Semi-conductors are, as the name implies, not as conducive to electricity as “conductors” such as copper wires, but more so than “insulators” such as glass.)  The colors of the light emitted by LED’s is dependent on the amount of electricity needed to pass through the semi-conductor “band gap.”  The phenomenon that allows LED’s to work was first discovered in 1907 by British researcher HJ Rounds, a Marconi employee.  The inventor of the LED was a Soviet scientist, Oleg Losev, who made his creation public in 1927, though no practical application was developed at that time.  Numerous scientists around the world worked on related technologies over the next few decades, and in 1955 a team at RCA in the United States, led by  Rubin Braunstein, made considerable progress in developing semi-conductors for making LED’s.  Dallas based Texas Instruments did serious research into developing LED’s for commercial and industrial application in the early 1960’s, producing an infrared light emitting diode, beating out competing research by other major electronics companies, including GE, IBM, Bell and RCA among others.  The first LED’s in the readily visible light spectrum were created in 1972, and the first of the lights bright enough for practical applications were produced in 1976 by T. P. Pearsall.  Initially, LED’s were extremely expensive to manufacture, but by the 1970’s the cost of building the little lights began to go down.  Early LED’s were used only as indicator lights for devices, such as “on” or “off” type lights and were red in color. They could also be used for displays of numbers or other symbols. Blue colored LED’s were developed in the 1970’s, but were too dim to be of much use, until in the late 1980’s the blue LED’s were developed to be bright enough to provide useful light at a low electrical power input by 1991-93.  The startlingly bright blue LED’s were introduced by a team of Japanese researchers at Nichia Corporation.  The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics went to the team of Shuji Nakamura, Hiroshi Amano and Isamu Akasaki for developing the blue LED.  While light LED’s came soon after the blue light variety, at first of dubious light quality and not particularly bright, but advances came rapidly and incredibly bright white light LED’s quickly became widely available in the 21st Century.  Using much less electricity for a given amount of light produced, LED’s are even more energy efficient than fluorescent lighting, making the LED the current energy saving champ for home and commercial use.  Plus, the LED lights are less prone to breakage than incandescent and fluorescent lights and last longer, too.  The higher cost of an LED light bulb is soon offset by the tremendous savings in electricity, not to mention the savings in maintenance and replacement bulbs.  LED’s also emit less heat than incandescent lights, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the application.  The heat emitted by incandescent lighting is useful for keeping outdoor winter lights clear of snow and ice (such as traffic signal lights) where LED lights might not provide enough heat to melt the frozen stuff and remain clear.  LED’s are now used as the backlight for LCD televisions, providing even better energy efficiency.  Again, so many researchers and inventors have been involved with the development of useful LED systems that it is difficult to name a single inventor, but for our purposes we would go with Oleg Losev as the “father of the LED.”

GPS.

Global Positioning System has revolutionized the way we navigate, as individual citizens, as government/military and commercial/industrial entities.  No longer do we struggle with how to refold a paper roadmap in a moving car, since we now have built in GPS systems that not only show us where to go but even tell us by audio instructions as well.  If your car or truck does not have a built in GPS (Why did you buy that vehicle???) you could buy a portable unit for as little as under $100.  Originally named NAVSTAR GPS, the system consists of a fleet of satellites high above the Earth in “geosynchronous orbit,” meaning they stay in the same position relative to the Earth instead of orbiting as a lower altitude satellite would do.  The GPS idea was hatched in the 1960’s as the US and USSR began regular space launches of manned and unmanned spacecraft, including communication and observation (spy and weather) satellites.  Previous ground based navigation systems such as LORAN used radio transmissions to receiver sets to triangulate the position of the receiver, a handy system for coastal boaters and others, but limited by range.  An early satellite system called TRANSIT used only 5 satellites in the late 1960’s and was able to provide location reporting only once per hour.  By launching a bunch of satellites into orbit, a person with a GPS device could be in contact with a requisite number (4) of such satellites at any given time and place on the Earth to precisely determine your location.  The data transmitted by the GPS satellites also provides the user with speed and time as well as location.  The system was developed primarily for the US military, but was made available for public use by President Reagan by an Executive order after the accidental shooting down of a South Korean airliner that went off course over the Soviet Union, though with an intentional degraded accuracy in order to preserve military efficiency only for the US and its allies.  By 1994 the 24th satellite in the GPS “constellation” had been launched and the system was ready for world wide navigation.  In May of 2000, President Clinton ordered the GPS system be enabled to its maximum accuracy for the public as well as the military.  The GPS system is owned and operated by the United States Government, but the receivers used by citizens and businesses are commercially available.  While no individual gets credit for “inventing” GPS, the entire government sponsored GPS Team was awarded the Robert J. Collier Trophy for 1992 (an aviation advancement award).  Some of the team members singled out for other awards include Bradford Parkinson, Ivan Getting, Roger L. Easton, Francis X. Kane and Gladys West.  What car do you think was the first to offer GPS from the factory?  Rolls-Royce?  Mercedes? Cadillac?  Nope!  It was the Mazda Eunos Cosmo in 1990!  (The first American car offering GPS from the factory was Oldsmobile in 1995.)

Digital camera.

Do you remember the names Mohamed M. Atalla and Dawon Kahng from one of the paragraphs above?  These Bell Labs researchers developed the MOSFET technology of transistors that make so much of our modern electronic technology possible, including digital photography.  The first digital image sensor using semi-conductor transistor technology was in 1969 by Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, also employed by Bell Labs.  A NASA team of researchers led by Eric Fossum later developed a CMOS form of active pixel sensor in 1993, an advancement on the NMOS type of active pixel sensor developed at Olympus, a Japanese company, in 1985.  Prior to the development of what we recognize as digital photography, Texas Instruments had the idea for a “film-less camera” well before the technology was real, as did NASA.  The first available digital camera was the Cromemco Cyclops, an American invention by Terry Walker, Harry Garland, and Roger Melen as a go along device with the Altair computer.  This was not a widespread public consumer item.  The 1970’s saw wide ranging development of the concept of digital photography, including by conventional photography giants Kodak and Fujifilm.  Digital photography was not particularly user friendly until image compression technology began with the MPEG format in 1988 and the JPEG system in 1992.  By the 1980’s, Japanese photo and camera giant Nikon jumped into the research and development of digital photography and introduced a prototype with Panasonic in 1986, called the SVC (Still Video Camera) the first SLR-type digital camera.  In 1988 Fujifilm offered the first full digital camera using a memory card and the revolution in photography was in full tilt.  Cell phones first got digital cameras with the introduction of the Kyocera VP-210 in 1999, et voila, the selfie was born!  The twisted path of science and technology that led to the development of the digital camera keeps us from being able to name an “inventor” of this wonderful device.  Who would you give the main credit to?

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you believe is the least appreciated modern technology or invention?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Carlson, W. Bernard. Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World. The Great Courses, 2018.

Gribbin, John. The Scientists; A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. Random House, 2006.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Victorgrigas of a smartphone with a touchscreen, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.