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25 years of really cool stuff

Lemelson-MIT Program and CNN present 'Top 25' innovations
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CNN collaborated with the Lemelson-MIT Program to produce a show about the top 25 innovations of the past quarter-century. The one-hour special "Top 25 Innovations" jumpstarts a year-long celebration of the network's 25th anniversary on Jan. 16.

The list of 25 top innovations highlights non-medical technological innovations that have become widely used since 1980, are readily recognizable by most Americans, have had a direct and perceptible impact on everyday lives, and/or could dramatically affect our lives in the future.

The countdown began with shortrange, high-frequency radio (#25)--the premise behind WiFi and Bluetooth--and climbed to the #1 invention--the Internet. Facilitated by the protocols TCP/IP, which set the rules for communications between computers, the Internet became readily available with the creation of the web in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab who is director the World Wide Web Consortium based at MIT.

Berners-Lee told CNN that the idea behind the Internet was making information accessible to all. "Wouldn't it be nice if actually all the information out there were in a … what-you-see-is-what-you-get form?" Berners-Lee said. The World Wide Web, with its user-friendly applications, coupled with the first public access web browser Mosaic, enabled the public to enter the information superhighway.

Second on the list is the cell phone, which may have been conceived as early as the late 1940s, but wasn't widely adopted until the FCC authorized cellular service in the early 1980s. Many of the items on the list have influenced technology's exponential growth rate, especially fiber optics (#4). Created in 1970, the first transatlantic fiber optic cable, which enabled fast information transmission, was installed in 1988.

The oil embargo in the 1970s spurred interest in creating an electric or hybrid car (#16), which was not made available for purchase until the 1990s. Now demand for the environment-friendly cars is increasing rapidly. The hybrid was made possible by the development of the nickel metal hydride battery, which, coupled with the lithium-ion rechargeable battery common in cell phones, laptops and digital cameras, constitutes advanced batteries (#15).

The Lemelson-MIT Program conducted preliminary research for the list, then gave it to faculty at the MIT School of Engineering, who ranked the items and expanded the list. From there it went to a panel of technology experts outside MIT. Under the chairmanship of Professor Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a sub group of the panel of experts ratified the final 25 ranking.

The TV special also included comments from MIT Professor Eugene Fitzgerald of materials science and engineering, Professor Sanjay Sarma of mechanical engineering, and Flemings.

"This list of 25 innovations is dramatic evidence of the extraordinary rate of technological development during the last quarter century," Flemings said. "Most of the innovations on the list are already household words; they have all enriched our lives. Who among the converted would now want to be without their cell phone or e-mail?"

The top 25

1. Internet
2. Cell phone
3. Personal computers
4. Fiber optics
5. E-mail
6. Commercialized GPS
7. Portable computers
8. Memory storage discs
9. Consumer level digital camera
10. Radio frequency ID tags
11. MEMS
12. DNA fingerprinting
13. Air bags
14. ATM
15. Advanced batteries
16. Hybrid car
17. OLEDs
18. Display panels
19. HDTV
20. Space shuttle
21. Nanotechnology
22. Flash memory
23. Voice mail
24. Modern hearing aids
25. Short-range, high-frequency radio

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2005 (download PDF).

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