Mind-Blowing Inventions From The 20th Century That Are Taken For Granted Today
By Sarah Norman | February 13, 2024
Farrah Fawcett goes street style on a groovy skateboard
Today we're surrounded by technology that would have sent our brains buzzing in the middle of the 20th century. Whether you were born in the post-war boom or on the edge of the new millennium everyone has become so used to modern technology that we've lost the wonder that makes it so special.
A lot of the amazing concepts that we're surrounded with today, from smartphones to blockbuster franchises, come from the 1960s and '70s. At the time, each new thing that found its way to consumers felt like a breath of fresh air. It's a shame that they're taken for granted today. Let's look back at some of the most mind-blowing inventions of the groovy era and see how they're still making waves today.
When young people began skateboarding after the Second World War it was seen as a kind of recreation for young children in Southern California. Initially created in the early 20th century, the '60s were the first decade where companies manufactured parts for actual skateboards that held up under scrutiny. This was a huge deal to young skaters everywhere.
Today, skateboarding is a multi-billion dollar industry and the sport's biggest stars are household names. We don't even think it's all that strange that one of the most exciting sports in the modern era got its start as a children's toy. With time everything becomes normal.
Supermodels were one of the greatest inventions of the 1960s
Today there are models literally everywhere - on magazine covers, on Instagram, and on reality TV. There's such a glut of over-the-top and glammed-out models that they almost blend in with everyone else. That wasn't the case in the '60s and '70s when models like Twiggy and Janice Dickinson hit the scene.
Twiggy and Dickinson were plastered all over magazines and bus stops, but that's as close as the populous at large would ever get to them. These women seemed like they were from another world, not from a suburb of California. These models were absolutely mind-blowing in the 1960s, but today they're just totally normal.
The Apple 1 turned nerd tech into geek chic
The Apple 1 maybe be the most important innovation of the 20th century, and possible the early 20th century. Released in 1976, the Apple Computer 1 was a breakthrough in computing technology because it natively supported features like video and keyboard output - something that no other computer did at the time and something we seriously take for granted today.
This early computer was never intended to be sold on the market, only to prove that something affordable could be constructed. But Steve Jobs, the good friend of Steve Wozniak, convinced him to put the computer on the market. Today there are millions of personal computers in homes across the world, something that the Steves could only dream about in the '70s.
Sophia Loren makes a long distance phonecall
Today, through the help of chat apps, social media, and affordable cellphone plans that keep the world connected, long distance phone calls aren't as exciting or as expensive as they used to be. In 1963, international direct dialing from London to Paris became a thing, with calls to Amsterdam coming shortly afterwards.
By 1968, folks across the westernized world were able to reach out and touch on another with their voices on demand. This was a completely mind-blowing advancement in technology that remained a must-have until the 2000s when coast to coast calling became the norm.
Color TV allowed viewers to see life in all its glory
Color TV is so ubiquitous today that it's hard to imagine a time when everything was broadcast in black and white, but up until 1979, there were still a few stations broadcasting super gray versions of everyone's favorite television shows. That just wouldn't fly today.
RCA and CBS were both working towards color tv in the late '40s, with CBS boasting color programming by 1951, but color television sets were rare for the first few years of this technology that we take for granted today. In 1961, the premiere of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color finally convinced consumers to go out and pick up brand new televisions.
The Cyclops digital camera was a piece of the future in the late '60s
Digital cameras are ever-present in the modern era. They're in our smartphones, they "film" our movies and TV shows, and they can be purchased at a fairly inexpensive price by consumers, but that definitely wasn't the case back in 1975.
One year before the bicentennial, hobbyists Terry Walker, Harry Garland, and Roger Melen created the Cromemco Cyclops which featured an image sensor made out of a MOS memory chip and it created 32 pixels by 32 pixels images at max. This was truly groundbreaking at the time even if digital technology didn't totally catch on until the early 2000s.
The polio vaccine saved lives with The King himself
Do you think Jonas Salk thought that the public would forget about polio nearly 60 years after he introduced the polio vaccine to the world? At the onset of the 1950s, the rate of polio patients increased by 35,000 and it continued to rise at dangerous levels. Salk sought to bring the number way down.
After creating the vaccine, he still found it hard to get people to take it, but that all changed when Elvis was photographed receiving the life-saving vaccine. After that, it became cool to get vaccinated and polio became a thing of the recent past.
This ad for "modern" calculator shows just how exciting mathematics used to be
Today we have calculators on our phones, our watches, and in our junk drawers, but when Jack S. Kilby, an engineer at Texas Instruments, introduced an IC-based, battery-powered version of this mathematical gadget in 1958 it legitimately changed the world for the better.
Not only did accounting become easier, changing work around the office forever, but it made life easier for everyone who needed to do a ton of calculations. Of course, at the time, calculators cost hundreds of dollars and weighed as much as a stack of books. At the same time, they spit out calculations on long pieces of receipt paper. How times have changed.
Star Wars changed how audiences went to the movies
In 1977, George Lucas gave the world Star Wars and nothing was ever the same again. The original three films in the long-running franchise gripped the imaginations of young people everywhere and gave audiences something to root for in a galaxy far, far away. It's hard to understate just how beloved these films were, but there were only three of them and they weren't available at all times.
That's not the case today. Now, there's a new Star Wars movie and TV show every year, and dozens of other franchises just like it. What was once something incredibly special is nothing more than just another film series.
People were emailing in the '60s (or at least a few people were at MIT)
In the modern era, we use email so often that we have to stop ourselves from checking too often and we have multiple accounts to cover everything from work to junk mail to online shopping discounts. The overwhelming amount of email going around today would flabbergast the folks at MIT who first used this handy little communications system in 1965.
The earliest version of email was used in a program called "MAILBOX,' where users of MIT computers were able to write messages for their fellow users who were able to see them the next time they logged onto the same computer. It wasn't until a few years later that the Department of Defense learned how to put a similar messaging system on the ARPANET (more on that later) that users no longer had to use the same computer.
Mister Zip Code taught a nation how to use the postal service all over again
Up until World War 2, the U.S. Postal Service was able to deliver mail efficiently thanks to a crack team of employees whose only job was to know their local and regional areas. That all changed when America entered the war and the Postal Service lost a large number of employees when they joined the military.
In order to keep the mail up and running, the USPS hired a ton of new, less experienced employees and implemented a two-digit code system to help everyone send their mail easier. By the early '60s, the amount of mail begging to be delivered in the United States was staggering and a five-digit zip code was created for every zone in America. This whole zip code thing didn't go over well so the USPS had to create a cute little logo named Mister Zip to help everyone get on board. We don't think twice about zip codes today, but in the middle of the 20th century, it was a huge change to the way we sent mail.
In 1968 9-1-1 made sure help was on the way
One of the biggest 20th century advancements that we take for granted these days is the advent of an emergency services number. AT&T brought this necessary service to life in 1968 with 9-1-1, an easy-to-remember phone number that connects the calls to a system that allows dispatchers to send help to wherever you might be.
The first call to the 911 system was made by Speaker of the Alabama House Rankin Fite on February 16, 1968. Americans use the 911 emergency system every day, but in the late '60s, it was still a novel idea for one number to help regular people.
Playing video games is still all the rage
Everyone plays video games in the 21st century. Young, old, ancient, it doesn't matter because there's a game for everyone today whether you want to blast enemies with a first-person shooter, build massive worlds in Fortnite, or just play word games on your phone. We take it for granted that when the first video game consoles came to American homes in the 1970s, they were incredibly expensive, only had a few games, and confounded adults. No one would look twice at these early video games today (maybe a collector), but at the time they were the hottest thing around.
We're over compact discs now, but in the '60s they were just getting started
It's safe to say that if you're using CDs today for listening to music, playing games, or watching movies you're in the minority. Pretty much everyone else is streaming their entertainment, but back in the '60s when compact discs were created it would have been insane to even think that these little plastic discs were going to take over from magnetic tape and vinyl.
Invented by American physicist James Russell, the compact disc was seen as a way to avoid the wear and tear of vinyl albums. CDs finally eclipsed vinyl albums in the late '80s and early '90s, but in the 1960s, no one could have believed anything like that could have happened.
Imagine using this mouse to check your email
Douglas Engelbart at Stanford dreamt up a way to control his personal computer way back in 1963, a long time before trackpads and touch screens. Engelbart's early version of the computer mouse was made of wood and featured two wheels attached to the bottom rather than the roller ball or sensor that we're used to today.
At the time of its creation the mouse was a technological leap beyond anything that normal people could imagine, but today it's a normal part of life that many of us barely use. No one tell Engelbart that his invention is a serious relic.
In 1969 the first ATMs made sure you could have cash on the go
In an era when most of us use debit cards that tap to send money or apps to pay for things, it can be a little strange to think about the fact that we still need to get cash out of an ATM from time to time. We see them everywhere - at bars, in gas stations, and even farmer's markets, but when they first started dispensing cash on September 2, 1969, it was a dream for people who needed a little more money while they were away from home.
Created by Dan Wetzel, the modern automatic teller machine was absolutely mind-blowing, but it took a few decades for these machines to become commonplace. Today, there are more than 300,000 ATMs in the United States alone. It's safe to say that no one is shocked by these bad boys anymore.
We take soft contact lenses for granted now, but in the '60s they were something to marvel at
Contact lenses have been around since the 19th century, but it took nearly one hundred years before they were anything other than hard pieces of glass that you had to precariously shove in your eye. Ouch. In 1971, soft contact lenses were brought to the masses by Bausch & Lomb, Incorporated. This was a huge game changer for people who didn't want to wear glasses but also didn't want to have a giant piece of glass stuck to their eyes.
It's hard to comprehend how exciting this invention must have been for people now that we regularly have laser surgery performed on our corneas and toss contacts after every use.
Twiggy poses with a Barbie Doll fashioned after her iconic look
Barbie Dolls were introduced in 1959 by Ruth Handler as a way to give her daughter something more than a paper doll to play with. Handler hoped that by introducing a doll like this she would help young women practice being adults when playing with other children.
At the time there were no other dolls in America that had an actual body, and by the 1960s Barbie Dolls were some of the most sought-after toys in America. They're still incredibly popular today but they're nowhere near as revolutionary as they once were, although they remain one of the top-selling pieces of merchandise to this day.
The road safety machine or grandpa's first arcade game?
This strange device is a road safety machine meant to test a cyclist's reactions on streets and highways and as you can see it's incredibly popular with young people. What must have been strange to people at the time is honestly pretty normal today.
Even though young people weren't pumping quarters into this machine to ride a digital motorcycle, it's basically the same setup as millions of arcade games across the country. This "learning device" was definitely fascinating for people at the time, but looking at it now it's easy to forget how cutting edge it was.
ARPANET was an early form of the Internet
What we know as the Internet has been around much longer than the early '90s. It actually came to fruition about 30 years previous, it's just that only a few people were able to use it. The ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was set up in 1969 to help researchers at the U.S. Department of Defense and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology communicate through their computers.
Originally funded by the U.S. government, ARPANET set the groundwork for the modern Internet. Many of the protocols that computer networks use today were established for the ARPANET, but on a much smaller scale. This may not seem like a big deal — after all, we all use the web constantly — but at the time it was one of the most starkly important inventions of the era.
Arcade games defined a generation
It's strange to think that something that was such a large part of life in the '70s, '80s, and '90s is practically non-existent today. Sure, there are arcade games filling up bowling alleys, arcades, and laundry mats, but they aren't as inescapable as they once were.
Think about that. These machines were all Gen-X could think about when they were young. They were the bane of their parents' lives, made their owners millions in quarters, and kids today hardly think about them. On one hand, that's just the passage of time, but on the other, it feels like we've lost something.
The Slurpee was a must have at every trip to 7-Eleven
It's no surprise to see a Slurpee machine (or one of its many knock-offs) in a gas station or movie theater today. Sugar lovers shell out for a sweat, icy drink in dozens of flavors like it's nothing, but when Omar Knedlik introduced the Icee machine in 1960 (built from an old car air-conditioner) it was a revolution.
In 1965, 7-Eleven agreed to sell the drink under the name "Slurpee" and they were off to the races in markets across North America. Young people were quickly obsessed with the Slurpee. They wanted to know how it stayed so cold and how it managed to hold its cola and cherry flavors so well, but today people don't think twice about these culinary mainstays.
LED digital watches felt like the future in the 1970s
Digital watches are passe in the 21st century. We can tell time digitally on our phones, our smart watches, our dumb watches, and even our video game systems, but when the first LED digital wristwatch was made available in 1970 it took the world by storm. For the first time ever people were able to tell time without knowing where the big and little hands were supposed to go.
While pocket watches and regular timepieces were still popular among the jet set, digital wrist watches quickly became a must-have for young people across the country because they're genuinely so cool. Maybe we should bring them back.
In the 1970s soda cans changed forever
Today, opening a can of soda, beer, or even carbonated water is as easy as cracking open the tab, but that hasn't always been the case. Up until the 1950s, cans required a "church key" to open them. One spot had to be punctured on the can so you could drink, while another spot had to be punctured to create airflow to allow the liquid to get on the move.
In 1962 it all changed. Iron City Brewing in Pittsburgh created a self-opening can with a "zip top" that allowed the can's top to be cracked open with no tool. In 1975, the stay-tab was introduced to curb littering and it is still used today. At the time the stay-tab was revolutionary, but now they're just a normal part of everyday life.
Cell phones were as big as books in the 1980s
Everyone has a smart phone in their pocket today. Or maybe it's sitting on your desk, or on a charger somewhere. Whatever the case, everyone has a cellphone and we're no longer amazed by this truly fascinating technology. Back when these pieces of tech were created they were nothing like what we use today. In 1973, the Martin Cooper cellular telephone prototype was heavy enough to be used as a weapon and it resembled something from the International Space Station. It wasn't until 1983 that a much more functional version of the phone made its way to consumers, but even then the phone weighed more than two pounds.
The Columbia Record & Tape Club gave music lovers something to look forward to
Founded in 1955, the Columbia Record Company did something truly revolutionary for music lovers - it offered people the chance to order albums through the mail. With this service, they were able to hear new music on a regular basis. The club lasted for decades and it was both the bane of parents' existence and a great tool for hearing your favorite and new favorite tunes.
Of course, this revolutionary service has pretty much been rendered non-existent by streaming services and digital media. Today, young people will never know the joy of opening the mailbox and finding a brand new album waiting for them.
You have the space race to thank for GPS
You know that app you use every day to show you the fastest way to get to work? It's what we call GPS or the Global Positioning System (initially the Navstar GPS) and it was created in 1978 by the Department of Defense. The DOD spent the '60s trying to figure out GPS specifically to help America get to the moon, but it took until the late '70s to get NAVSTAR up and running.
It began as a piece of tech that the military took about 20 years to get to consumers. Now, we don't even think about all the NAVSTAR satellites orbiting Earth to help us get from point A to point B, and sometimes points C, D, and E.
Credit cards changed how Americans spent their cold, hard cash
We don't think twice about using credit cards today. Wherever we are we plunk down some plastic to pay for coffee, groceries, and even gas without even thinking about it. That wasn't the case when Frank McNamara invented the credit card back in 1950.
At the time of McNamara's invention, people brought cash everywhere. They didn't think of leaving home without enough to pay for what they needed. But with the Diners Club Card consumers were suddenly able to pay for things later by putting down their card today. This truly revolutionary invention absolutely changed the world and now we don't even think twice about it.