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15 things you never knew about the history of technology

Technological advancements have been happening practically since the beginning of time

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Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Did you know that the first software developer was a woman? Or that the earliest sketch of a robot was produced in the late 15th century? Technology has a long, illustrious history, one that few people know in full detail. From unsung information technologists and software developers to early models of modern inventions that actually date back centuries, here are 15 facts you never knew about the history of technology.

The earliest known “calculator” probably took the form of rod numerals, sticks made from materials such as bamboo that represented numerals 1-9, which was used in ancient East Asia at least 2,000 years ago. The abacus, a tray with rows of 10 beads each, likely came about later, although the origins and timeline are equally murky, and was used in places like Babylonia, Greece, China, and Japan.

In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched an idea for a mechanical knight. If it had actually been built, it would have been the world’s first robot.

The first known American alarm clock was built by Levi Hutchins in 1787. It could only go off at 4 am and was not sold commercially. Later, in 1847, Antoine Redier, a French inventor, would be the first to receive a patent for his adjustable alarm clock.

Although the first camera obscura dated back to the B.C. era, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, is credited with having created the first lasting photographic image through the process of heliography, which he invented.

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was probably the first computer programmer. She is certainly the first person to publish an algorithm, which was used by Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, often regarded as the first computer used for general purposes. Her algorithm detailed how the machine could execute computations.

Created by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., the first humanoid robot — one with a human-like body — was Herbert Televox. It was built by Ron Wensley in 1927 and was capable of lifting a telephone receiver.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) was started by Bill Hewlett and David Packard in Packard’s garage in Palo Alto, California, in 1939. Other tech giants, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, were also started in garages. In fact, Jeff Bezos specifically said that he wanted to start Amazon in a garage so his company’s origin story would be similar to that of HP.

During World War II, Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil patented a communications system that could guide a torpedo and hop frequencies to avoid interception. After initially rejecting the idea, the U.S. Navy used it during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the basis for numerous other ideas, including WIFI.

Engineer Doug Engelbart fashioned the first computer mouse out of wood and metal wheels in 1964. He received a patent for his invention in 1970.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1914–), a nun, was the first woman to earn her Ph.D. in computer science in the United States. She studied at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and wrote her dissertation, “Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns,” in CDC FORTRAN 63.

The first known case of robot murder occurred in 1979. Robert Williams was killed by a robot arm while working in a Ford Motor Company plant in Flat Rock, Michigan.

In 1982, Time Magazine selected a computer as its “Man of the Year,” an honor it had bestowed upon one individual annually since 1927. This marked the first time the magazine selected a non-human for the honor.

Although there were some earlier models of mobile phones, the first commercial handheld cell phone was created in 1973 and made it to market some 10 years later. The Motorola DynaTAC 800x weighed more than two pounds, was roughly a foot long, and lasted for about 30 minutes before dying. It cost about $3,500.

On March 15, 1985, became the first domain name to be registered. It was initially purchased by Symbolics, Inc., a no-longer-in-business computer manufacturer. The domain name is still registered, although it now directs to The Big Internet Museum.

Neil Harbisson (1982–) is the first to be recognized by a national government, the United Kingdom, as a cyborg. The artist, who was born colorblind, had an antenna that would allow him to perceive color implanted in his skull.

Clearly, although many believe we live at the most technologically innovative period on Earth, technological advancements have been happening practically since the beginning of time. What does the future hold? We’ll likely see inventions we can’t possibly even imagine.

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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