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Forget Jet Packs—Why Don’t We Have Stair-Climbing Wheelchairs?

Ernesto Blanco came up with a workable design in 1962, but it never went into production

4 min read
MIT Museum
MIT Museum

imgPhoto: MIT Museum

Ernesto Blanco invented his stair-climbing wheelchair in 1962 and entered it in a design challenge from the National Inventors Council, a U.S. agency that sought out technologies of potential military use. Blanco even created a one-quarter scale model [above] to show that the design actually worked. Stairs are of course tricky to navigate in any wheeled vehicle. Blanco’s design used retractable, spring-loaded, rubber-tipped spokes that came out of the rim. The chair was intended to be operated manually, but Blanco included an electric motor on his model to show how the mechanism worked [PDF]. Though he didn’t win the US $5,000 prize—in fact, the council never picked a winner—the engineer continued to work on humanitarian designs throughout his career, because he considered it an engineer’s responsibility.

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How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum

Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

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