We’re all gadget hounds now. In developed countries, we wake up to our smartphones, we consult them obsessively all day, and then fall asleep with them by our side. Between dawn and dusk, we glance at our smart watches, look at monitors and TV screens and tablets, and listen to radios and other audio electronics, often through earbuds. Sometimes we fly drones, take pictures using cameras not built into our cellphones, or play console games. We have adopted devices that assist us as we work and as we play, and some that don’t just assist but fully automate parts of our jobs and our leisure activities.
This huge gizmo edifice was built largely by electrical engineers, over a span of decades. Some of their remarkable creations are fondly remembered, but too many have been forgotten. So that’s where we come in.
We decided to choose the greatest gizmos of the past 50 years and give them their due. To uncover and describe the whys and hows and whens. And, yes, of course, we’re going to provoke an argument. In fact, many of them. Heck, we argued amongst ourselves making this list, and it was a lot of fun. Is the Roku box more important than the TiVo? Several bitter denunciations, some personal aspersions, and half a case of beer later, we agreed that it is.
Before you can have a list, you need to have criteria. Here are ours. For starters, nothing introduced before 1968. Yes, there were consumer electronics before 1968. The 1920s through the 1950s were a heady time of phonographs and of radios-and-TVs-as-furniture. But the late 1960s was when the party really got started. Inexpensive transistors were everywhere, and designers were starting to use small-scale integrated circuits in their creations. Think of solid state as the oxygen that fueled the Cambrian explosion that led to today’s thriving gadget jungles. With ICs and other solid-state ingredients, engineers could finally build really capable, really compact, and really rugged gizmos. The kind that made us open our wallets.
With our time period established, we could start thinking about which items we should enshrine in our hall. Should it be the most commercially successful model in some category of gadget? The very first in a category? The most exquisitely engineered entry? The one that earned a cult following, for reasons that are not at all easy to pin down? Our answer: yes. Sometimes, the pioneering product dazzles with its sheer breakthrough brilliance. Sometimes, the most commercially successful example triumphs for reasons more interesting than brute force. Sometimes the coolest thing is the one in which the engineering was stupendous; it might not have sold in huge numbers, but it earned a cult following. Or maybe the engineering wasn’t stupendous—it was merely competent, yet the thing achieved a cult following anyway. That can be cool, too.
These are the consumer gadgets that IEEE Spectrum editors deemed the greatest. Undoubtedly, we’ve left off some of your favorites. Maybe all of your favorites. Do your duty and sound off about them in the comments section.
Brian Santo is the editor of CED magazine and a former Spectrum staffer. “Whenever Intel chooses to enter a market, there’s enormous potential for them to create fundamental changes in that market,” Santo says, explaining why Intel’s Larrabee chip was named this year’s semiconductor winner.