Older Than They Think/Technology

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  • According to The Book Of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the technological use of the term "bug" existed long before the famous incident in which a moth shorted out a Harvard supercomputer in 1947. The word was used to mean a fault in a piece of machinery as early as the 1800s, and it appeared with that definition in Webster's dictionary in 1934. The moth incident was merely an ironic coincidence that brought the metaphor to life.
  • A lot of technological devices are subject to this trope. Possibly the best example is the mobile telephone: devices that a modern observer would recognize as such have been in limited use since the 1950s, and the basic idea is much older than that. New tech appearing on the market is less often the result of a new idea and more often a new way to make an old idea economically feasible. Mobile phones hit the general consumer market in the 1980s and 1990s, but the first true mass-market phone that launched the device into the ubiquity it enjoys today was the Nokia 5110 (nicknamed the "brick") launched in 1999. The term "mobile phone" itself was first attested in 1945.
    • A wealthy character uses a car phone in a 1960 episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. (The episode in question concerns Lucy accidentally giving the man an exploding cigar, and then desperately trying to retrieve it before he smokes it.)
    • There's a British newspaper cartoon from the 1920s based on the fact that people were predicting mobile phones to become commonplace. Rather incredibly, it accurately predicts the social faux pas of mobile phones going off in awkward moments such as "at the theatre" and "at your wedding"!
    • The cell phone dates to the 1980s. The mobile phone dates back much further; a CB radio is, after all, a telephonic device that is mobile. In Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character is seen using, depending on your point of view, either a small radio transmitter, or a large mobile phone.
  • The first vending machine dispensed holy water when a coin was inserted. It was invented by a Greek named Hero of Alexandria who lived at the same time as Jesus. Born AD 10, died AD 70.
    • The same guy also invented the first steam engine that we know of. Again, first century AD.
  • The first intravenous injections by hypodermic syringe took place in 1760.
  • CD-ROMs were released stateside in 1983, overseas in 1982, the main push to develop it branched off from the first mass-market optical format (the LD analog videodisc,) which was made public in 1972 and released in 1978.
    • Note that, by "CD-ROMs", the above means CDDA. While CDs had been used for data storage from the beginning, it wasn't until the early '90s that it was ever popularly marketed (even music CDs didn't surpass analog formats until the late '80s.)
      • For instance, Codemasters attempted a massive collection of 8-bit computer games in the late 80s, which came as data tape-style audio files that had to be transferred from an audio CD player to the computer's tape in port using a special cable. It didn't take off.
  • A device similar in principle to a modern fax machine was patented in 1843, before the invention of the telephone.
    • The first commercial use of fax technology was in the 1920s; by 1927, newspapers were using fax to transmit photographs from Europe to North America. In 1939, subscribers in St. Louis could receive their daily newspaper via fax instead of door-to-door delivery. Both the Allies and the Axis used fax to transmit weather charts, maps, orders, and other information. Note that this was all done by radio, not by telephone: North American phone companies resisted allowing fax technology for decades.
  • The principle by which the microwave oven works was discovered accidentally in 1945 by Percy Spencer, an engineer building radar sets for the US military. The first commercial microwave went on sale in 1947 to restaurants; it wouldn't be for many years that it became popular in the home. This is partly because the original "Radarange" oven was six feet tall and weighed nearly half a ton, and needed water cooling. One of the larger consumers of the device was, in fact, the US Navy, who found that ovens without hot coils that could start fires were quite useful on their ships.
  • The first cash-dispensing machine was put to use in New York in 1939. It was unpopular though, and shut down after six months. ATMs returned in 1967, the first in London.
  • The answering machine was invented in 1935. It could also keep track of the time. The use of one in the 1979 Doctor Who story "Shada" is perfectly accurate.
    • In fact, the lyrics of the Rupert Holmes song Answering Machine, which hit the charts in 1979, shows that many of the cliches associated with such machines -- getting cut off in the middle of a message, two people playing "phone tag" with each other because they're never at home when the other one calls, etc. -- were already sufficiently well-established in pop culture that a pop artist could safely write a song about them and assume everyone who heard it would get the point.
      • Especially anyone who watched "The Rockford Files". It used an answering machine in its opening credits, starting in 1974.
      • Another example: the Mike Hammer Deconstruction Kiss Me Deadly, filmed in 1955, showed Hammer using an answering machine with reel-to-reel tape.
      • Stiller & Meara (Ben Stiller's parents) had an early 1970s comedy routine involving phone tag.
  • Many features of race cars; rear-engined cars were around in the 1930s, wings were being used on some cars in the 1950s, ground effects in the late 1960s, carbon brakes in the 1970s. Usually the innovative Lotus designer Colin Chapman gets credit for most of them and also 'inventing' on-car advertising, not just in F1 (where that was the case) but over the whole world. Such branding had been going on in the USA almost since cars were invented.
    • Carbon fiber was first used in the late 60s by NASCAR racer Junior Johnson, who had a connection in the aerospace industry. He was only briefly allowed to use carbon brakes because they would glow red from use, prompting officials to ban it fearing it would cause a tire fire.
  • Ancient Roman/Chinese Odometers.
  • Author and professional gadfly Harlan Ellison tells a tale about meeting poet Carl Sandburg in 1958. At the time, Ellison found Mister Sandburg reading from a book of his own poems. Every now and again, Sandburg would scribble on a long sheet of butcher's paper with a fountain pen, after which he'd tear a piece off the butcher's paper and repeat the process. When Ellison asked what Sandburg was doing, Sandburg replied, "Did you know the typewriter was invented in 1861?" Sandburg's publisher had wanted to publish the man's poems "in the original longhand"; unfortunately, Sandburg wrote them on a manual typewriter, and thus had to copy from his own books to create the hand-written versions.
  • Synthetic performance fabrics were around before the Under Armour company was founded in 1995. Performance fabric garments (garments that incorporate a layered weave of a cushion material on top of a wicking material) have been around since the Medieval period, when very rich knights could afford silk/wool blend undergarments -- under armour indeed.
  • First vaccination? 1796 against smallpox. Of course, it entailed giving the person the milder cowpox to give them immunity, but...
    • First, the original testing started around 1770, with six different doctors discovering the method entirely independently. But more importantly, there was a method of vaccination before that, but it was more dangerous. This method was common in the 1770s, and can be reliably dated to around 1550 in China. Some researchers believe it goes back even further in India -- much further, with some claiming 1000 BC. There are two variants of the Smallpox virus; variola major is hideously deadly, fatal in 20-30% of cases; variola minor is only fatal in around 1% of cases. A bit of infected tissue (a pock) from a sufferer of the lesser variant was placed in a cut on the back of the hand (thus putting it far from the vital organs and less likely to develop into a full-blown case). The subject would thus catch the minor version and gain immunity from the more serious one. Occasionally somebody would die of the vaccination, so it wasn't a treatment to be taken lightly, but it was better than getting full blown smallpox. The cowpox method was better because it was universally nonlethal, and the first example of using one virus to protect against another.
  • Anti-shipping ballistic missiles, the newest Chinese weapon the US is worried about? Soviet concept from the 1960s.
  • This happens all the time with computer hardware and software. The mainstream company gets praise for "new ideas" that slightly less known companies came up with. Tabbed browsing in IE7 or Firefox? The very first web browser with a tabbed interface was NetCaptor, which implemented it in 1998. Intel's idea for a dual-core processor? Thank Sun Microsystems for that one. This also has a history of going back to the early days of Microsoft and Apple. The general public has no idea that Douglas Engelbart invented half the things all computers use now (GUI and mice, etc.) back in the 1960s, nor that the Internet began in 1969.
    • The first virus that spread via modem was called Creeper and spread over ARPANET (the internet's predecessor) in 1971.
  • Though credit for inventing movable-type printing goes to Gutenberg, a German, he probably got the idea from reports coming to him from China. The system caught on better in Europe because of a more manageable alphabet size, as opposed to thousands of glyphs for Chinese.
    • The Koreans essentially perfected the system long time before Gutenberg, and used it for the exactly same purpose, while the Chinese usually preferred to carve entire pages for printing.
  • Most people aren't aware that the air to air guided missile was first used by the German Luftwaffe in WW 2.
  • The first aircraft carriers saw combat in World War I, with the first country to use carrier-launched planes to attack a ship being the Empire of Japan.
  • Everybody knows that the German Me-262 was the first jet fighter to see combat, during World War II. Fewer people know that Allied jet fighters, British Gloster Meteors, also saw combat, being used to intercept the V-1s. The first American jetfighter, the Bell Airacomet, first flew in 1943, but did not prove fit to see combat.
  • The first electrically driven train was first used in the late 1800's.
  • The world's first repeating weaponry was invented by the medieval China.
    • The repeating crossbow, while impressive, was reloaded and cocked by lever-action, and thus was not even remotely 'automatic'.
    • Chinese Zhuge Nu (or Chu Ko Nu) itself fits its trope. Its invention is attributed to Zhuge Liang (2nd-3rd century AD). The first known repeating ballista (polybolos) dates back to Dionysios of Alexandria who lived in 3rd century BC.
      • Polybolos was also the first contraption utilizing a link chain.
  • If you owned a Livermore Data Systems "Model A" in 1964 then you owned a modem. If you'd kept it you'd also find that it would still work and could probably load this page, though it might take a while. Here's a demonstration.
    • Bell came out with one in 1958.
    • It does take some time with 300 bauds, but it would take even five times longer with the 56-baud protocol that had been in use in telegraphy prior to that. Émile Baudot (from whose name the term "baud" comes from) patented his 56-baud multiplexing teletypewriter in 1874.
  • An episode of Columbo from the 1970s shows a murderer using a VCR as part of his fake alibi. (He's a wealthy technology buff, and one of the few to own such technology at the time. Columbo only figures it out because the guy is arrogant enough to show off his VCR to the detective.)
  • The Antikythera Mechanism, an artifact variously described as the world's first clockwork mechanism, first calculator, and first analog computer, was built sometime around 150-100 B.C..
  • M.P.-3 players have been around since 1998, and iPods have been around since 2001, but the IXI Digital Audio Player goes back even further, to 1979.
  • Speaking of Apple, their first handheld computer was released in 1993. It was a tablet, no less; Apple also coined the phrase "Personal Digital Assistant" in 1992.
  • The first submarine was built in 1620 by Cornelius Drebbel. The first use in warfare was in The American Revolution.
    • Cornelius' submarine was based on the work of the mathematician William Bourne. Also, the Turtle (the name of the submarine 'supposedly' used during the Revolutionary War) was a total dud, and never actually did anything, and it was left up to the Hunley to be the first successful military submarine, albeit at the cost of itself and its crew.
  • Huge numbers of inventions actually come from the Middle Ages -- the cam, for instance, was invented then, and used, with water-wheels for power, for all kinds of industrial processes from fullering to saw-mills to mechanical wood-pulping, which led to the first large-scale paper production in Western history. The medievals also invented a plow that sliced and turned sod as it went along, and a chest harness that let horses pull much heavier loads. They invented eyeglasses around the 1100s, and in 1010 a monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury flew 600 feet with a hang glider.
  • Television is both this trope and Newer Than They Think; the so-called "Baird" system was actually invented in the 1880s by a German called Paul Gottlieb Nipkow. (Code discs used to detect the rotation of shafts are called "Nipkow discs" to this day.) Furthermore, the first regular, scheduled public TV broadcasts weren't from the 1939 New York World's Fair -- the BBC TV service started three years earlier.
    • Baird was well ahead of the game once he switched to CRT technology, indeed by 1945 he had demonstrated a 600 line colour TV that used triple-interlacing, a system not actually taken up until the late 60s.
  • Some technology is ridiculously old. Plywood? 3500 BC. Toothpaste? 5000 BC. Braided rope? 17,000BC.
  • Drilling for oil originated from China around the 1st century. Though at the time, they started out drilling for salt. They even had derricks made of bamboo that resemble modern ones closely.
  • Sunglasses, yet again a Chinese invention (although they were just dark glasses at that point; they offered no corrective vision properties.)
  • Railguns are the height of modern technology, right? Really futuristic, technical and...Wait, no, they were first patented in 1918.
  • Spam is much, much older than the Internet. The dentists Maurice and Arnold Gabriel sent out hundreds of unsolicited telegrams advertising their services in 1864; in the modern times it is also known as "junk mail".
  • For many years, it was believed that Public Key Encryption was invented in 1976 by Diffle and Helman. In actual fact, it was invented in Britain three years early by James Ellis, Clifford Cocks and Malcolm Williamson who were working at GCHQ (the British equivalent to NSA). As their work was heavily classified, it was not until 1997 that this could be revealed.
  • Color photography has actually existed since the 19th century and by the early 20th century colored photos were possible in comparable quality to the photography of the 70s. It was not too common until then just because it was very expensive and the equipment often unwieldy, yet color photos exist from WWI, the Russian Empire and The Great Depression.
  • LEDs first became commercially available in the 1970s, but in fact the first LED was produced in 1907.
  • The first open heart surgery was performed in 1893.
  • First fully automatic multi-barelled gun, capable of firing 7200 rounds per minute (impressive even for today's standards) was a Fokker-Leimberger aircraft gun designed in 1916. It was abandoned only because wartime substandard ammunition was causing jams.
  • Electric instruments were introduced in the late nineteenth century, the first being Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium. It was, in all regards, a room-sized synthesizer.
    • Telharmonium provided steaming music since 1897 with two musicians playing pipe music.
    • Also, there are recordings of purely electronic music that sounds like something a surrealist would have made no earlier than the 1970s that happen to be from 1913.
  • The first motorbike was Daimler-Maybach Reitwagen built in 1885. Its creators considered the concept a dead end however and abandoned their invention focusing on cars instead. Boy, they were wrong.
  • Electric cars are a futuristic concept, right? Wrong. They even predate ones powered by internal combustion! In 1828 Hungarian engineer Ányos Jedlik built an electric toy car. The first electric car capable of carrying a person has been demonstrated in 1881 by Gustave Trouvé in Paris and until 1890's electric cars became quite popular. Some people were even sure that no one will be interested in the 'dangerous' internal combustion engines. Combustion however proved to be better alternative due to the low efficiency of early electric engines and batteries.
  • Speaking of batteries, many people think the battery is a relatively new invention, no older than the early 20th century or late 19th century. However, a few clay jars with structures strongly resembling modern batteries (and have been tested to produce an electric charge) known as the "Baghdad Batteries", date back to anywhere from 250 BC to 250 AD. Their use, however, remains unknown.
  • The oil lamp is already known to be an old invention, around for at least centuries, even millennia, but many would be surprised to find that the forerunner to the modern oil lamp is probably the fourth big technological breakthrough of man, after controlling fire, shelter, and clothing. The oil lamp in a primitive form of oily moss in a hollowed out bowl-shaped stone dates back to around 70,000 BC. This means that it pre-dates the wheel, often erroneously associated with cave men, by nearly 65,000 years! It also pre-dates the extinction of the Neanderthal by as much as 40,000 years.
  • The first plastic was created in 1856. Granted, it was of such poor quality that plastic was not mass-produced until the early twentieth century, and the earliest plastics would likely be considered hazardous materials today, but it was around in the 1800s...
  • Leonardo da Vinci invented[1] the following: tanks, robots, calculators, solar power, and parachutes, along with many other things.
  • Those cool looking machine guns in Modern Warfare must be pretty high tech, right? Well, The first truly automatic weapon, the Maxim gun, was invented in 1884, and even the most advanced 21st century assault rifle basically works the same way as the Maxim gun. There have been improvements in material, but the method in which they load and fire hasn't changed in 120+ years. Oh, and electrical gun sights? Patented in the year 1900, and used on military aircraft as early as 1918.
    • Many gun operations can be attributed to John Moses Browning. For example, the current machine guns (M2, M240, and M249) used in the US military? They stemmed from Browning's designs.
    • An assault rifle needs selective fire and a proper cartridge, though. Which was done during WWI and immediately after - Fedorov, 1911, Ribeyrolles M1918, Winchester-Burton. Here's an overview of the attempts and why full-auto carbines didn't really took until much later.
  • Ford is often misattributed as having introduced mass production to automobile manufacture. The company was simply the first to use an assembly line, which it borrowed from meat packing plants; The first mass produced car was the curved dash Olds, which was introduced six years before the formation of Ford Motor Company.
  • Multi-stage rockets fitted with explosive warheads, shaped exhausts and delta wing stabilizers? Look no further than Conrad Haas's Wie du solt machen gar schöne Rakette, die da von im selber oben hinauff in die hoch faren (How can you make very nice Rocket that can travel high and far) written around 1550. Same rockets with chemical, biological and incendiary warheads? See Kazimierz Siemienowicz's Artis Magnae Artilleriae pars prima (Great Art of Artillery, part one), published in 1650. The concept was also by no mean obscure, as the latter has been a most popular European artillery handbook for the next two centuries.
  • Explosively formed projectiles have their place in modern anti-tank weaponry, but were not even invented as such. They were discovered by R.W. Wood investigating a fatal accident caused by one dynamite detonator that got in stove with coal. An empiric observation that slightly caved ones work better was used for many years without knowing they actually shoot a grape seed sized hypersonic "bullet" along the stick.
  • The art form of taking a picture of yourself as known a selfie is Older Than Radio as Dutch-born Robert Cornelius would tell you in the early years of photography. He took his “selfie” in 1839.
  1. Note, I didn't say built