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Top 10 technologies of the past 45 years

Kevin Fogarty | Oct. 23, 2012
A look at some of the products that have helped push rapid change in the IT industry over the past few decades.

During the past 45 years we have experienced a continuous revolution of new vs. old, manual work vs. automation, digital vs. analog. In that time, thousands of sophisticated IT products fueled a series of information revolutions that transformed the business and consumer worlds.

The best innovations changed the way we live our lives and run our businesses; they revolutionized the way we think about information, action and even what it means to be "present" in the real and virtual worlds.

Here's a look at the most important technological breakthroughs.


Not PCs. Not mainframes. Not even mechanical computers like Charles Babbage's Difference Engine (1849) or Konrad Zuse's electromechanical Z3 (1941). The most groundbreaking computer was the ENIAC, in 1946, and the other "automatic" computers that followed it. Before that, the most common computer was the human variety -- yes, actual humans doing calculations on paper or with the help of adding machines handled the grunt work of, say, calculating the trajectories of artillery shells for ballistic tables.

Word Processor

Another human job title eliminated by computers. The otherwise-unsuccessful Wang 1200 (1971) broke new ground between typewriters and mainframes; WordStar for the TRS-80 (1979) put word processing onto personal computers, forever shifting responsibility for expressing oneself from a scribe or secretary to one's very own fingers.

Delete Key

This seemingly simple innovation drastically changed our perception of what a mistake actually meant. It also reduced the need for WhiteOut, erasers, OS reboots and apologies.


Until the invention of Unix in 1969 the only way to run a computer program was to convert it to punchcards and give them to MIS, which fed them to a mainframe. Unix allowed anyone with a few IT skills to write software for any reason at all -- giving rise to line-of-business applications and large-scale ERP, CRM and SCP systems before everything eventually moved to the cloud and morphed into, Facebook and World of Warcraft.

Local Area Network

Even before PCs, people wanted to share files, printers, and WAN (Internet) connections. They also wanted to trade jokes directly instead of having to call MIS first. DataPoint's ARCnet provided the first commercial LAN in 1977, inadvertently spreading the seeds of the consumerization of IT, the BYOD movement and rogue IT decades earlier than most in IT realize.

Acoustic Coupler

Deservedly included on PC World's " Ugliest Products in Tech History" list, the external acoustic-coupler modem (1965) turned luggable computers into network interfaces using ordinary telephones, at a blazing 300bps.

Mobile Phones

Commercial cell networks debuted in 1983, for huge phones that were confined to vehicles. Now mobile phones fit in our pockets, serve more than a billion subscribers worldwide and apparently prevent everyone around you from talking in a normal tone of voice or ever shutting up for even a second.


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