Bicycle Diaries: <i>101 gagdets that changed the world</i>

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13.1.08

101 gagdets that changed the world

and improved my ride

Simon Usborne of London's The Independent On Sunday ranks seminal inventions. Although the bike, at #8, is only 1 of the 101, another 12 of his picks have definitely enhanced the pedaled technology for me.

8. Bicycle, 1861
: The renowned 19th-century US feminist Susan B Anthony said in an interview in 1896: "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." First devised as a gentleman's play thing in the 1820s, the push-powered hobby-horse quickly evolved to become the most classless form of transport, trundling by the millions along highways and byways all over the world. The French vélocipède, invented in 1861 by Pierre Marchaux, is widely considered to be the first true bicycle.

9. Biro, 1938: Had the Hungarian journalist Laszlo José Biró kept the patent for the world's first ballpoint pen, his estate (he died in 1985) would be worth billions. As it happened, Biró sold the patent to one Baron Bich of France in 1950. Biró's breakthrough had been to devise a ball-bearing nib capable of delivering to paper the smudge-resistant ink already used in printing. Today around 14 million Bic "Biros" are sold every day, perhaps making the pen the world's most successful gadget.

22. Digital camera, 1975: There could be no digital camera without the charge-coupled device (CCD), the "digital film" that captures images electronically. Developed in 1969, the widget allowed the Kodak engineer Steven Sasson to build the first digital camera, which resembled a toaster. The first, horribly blurry snap (of a female lab assistant) he took boasted just 0.01 megapixels and took almost a minute to record and display, but in those 60 seconds, Sasson had transformed photography – today digital cameras have all but killed off film and made photographers of us all.

42. Kettle, 1891: In tea-obsessed Britain, where would we be without the humble kettle? It has been said that the kitchen-counter staple is found in more homes than any other appliance. Non-electric kettles date back thousands of years but would leave you waiting ages for your brew. The first electric kettle was developed in Chicago in 1891 but even that took 12 minutes to boil water. Things soon got quicker and today's speediest kettles can boil two cups in little over a minute.

43. Laptop, 1982: A sturdy lap was required to support the earliest portable computers. The Osborne 1, released in 1981, often stakes a claim as the first laptop but it looked more like a sewing machine than today's sleek machines, and tipped the scales at more than 10kg. Introduced a year later, the GriD Compass 1100, designed by Brit Bill Moggridge, is a more likely contender. It was the first laptop to sport the now standard "clamshell" case and its lightweight build (5kg) made it a hit with Nasa and US paratroopers.

48. Locks, 2000 BC: Listen to the jangle of the average set of keys and it's clear just how important security has become in today's trust-nobody world. The Egyptians were the first to put things under lock and key about 4,000 years ago (clever knots were one earlier solution). The wooden contraption included a key that lifted pins, allowing a latch bar to slide free. The device was similar in principle to the pin-tumbler lock invented in 1848 by Linus Yale, whose name still adorns billions of keys.

62. Pneumatic tyre, 1845: Back when cars relied on real horse-power and bicycles weighed a ton, travellers were forced to endure bone-jarring rides over the bumps and potholes of the nation's primitive roads. Cue Robert Thomson, a civil engineer who realised the potential of air to soften the way. In 1845, he patented the use of pneumatic leather tyres on bikes. In 1888, a Scottish vet called John Dunlop devised the more durable rubber inner-tube model that helped inflate the age of the automobile.

72. Saddle, AD 200: The horse had almost joined the woolly mammoth and the T. rex on the list of extinct species when man first domesticated it in around 4,000BC. The beast's fortunes quickly changed and the horse soon became man's most useful (if not best) friend. Early ranchers and riders rode bareback or on blankets, limiting the efficiency with which they could hunt. These rattled horsemen had to wait until AD200 to get their bums on a saddle, which is thought to have been invented by Chinese nomads.

77. Spectacles, 1451: The correcting qualities of stone have been known for millennia – Emperor Nero was thought to use emerald to watch (presumably green-tinted) gladiatorial games. Modern glasses were first depicted in a 1352 portrait of Hugh de Provence, and the first evidence of their sale dates to 1450s Florence. The US founding father Benjamin Franklin is credited with the invention of bifocals in 1784 and useable contact lenses followed in 1887. Today, an estimated 75 per cent of UK adults sports a pair of specs.

87. Thermometer, 1592: It is difficult to place the thermometer in the history of modern invention; it is one of those devices that would inevitably appear – the product of no single mind. Galileo Galilei is most commonly credited, but his clumsy air thermometer, in which a column of air trapped in water expanded when warmed, was the culmination of more than 100 years of improvement. The classic mercury-in-glass thermometer, still in use today, was conceived by Daniel Fahrenheit in the 1720s.

88. Tools, 2,600,000 BC: If there is one defining feature of Homo that has separated it from all other genera, it is the ability to make tools. The earliest tool fragments come from East Africa and were made by Homo habilis more than two million years ago, but it is certain early man used tools before then, likely fashioning them from perishable materials such as wood or bone. Axes emerged as early as 10,000BC and by 3000BC the Egyptians were creating finely worked flints.

95. Velcro, 1948: The Swiss inventor George de Mestral became so fed up with removing cocklebur seeds from his dog and jacket, he put one under a microscope to discover the secret of its stickiness. The answer: velours (the French for loops, in clothing) and crochets (hooks, on the burs). He took the first syllables of the words, replicated the fastening phenomenon synthetically to create Velcro, used today in everything from ski jackets to "human Velcro walls".

100. Wheel, 3500 BC: The wheel surely deserves a place near the top of any "greatest inventions" list; a post-industrial world without it is inconceivable. Its invention was perhaps inevitable, but it came later than it might have done; several civilisations, including the Incas and the Aztecs did pretty well without wheels. The earliest evidence of a wheel – a pictograph from Sumeria (modern day Iraq) – dates from 3500BC; the device rolled West soon after that.

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