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In 1856, an Englishman discovered a way of making steel fast and cheap, and other inventors soon improved the process. Railroad companies started using steel for their rails instead of wrought iron, which bent easily and needed to be replaced often. Trains could carry heavier loads, which meant businesses could send more products to distant markets. Sales increased, and so did jobs.

In 1861, a telegraph line was strung from coast to coast in the U.S., vastly improving communication. It also wiped out the Pony Express delivery service; it went out of business the same year.

In 1879, Thomas Edison made a light bulb that wouldn’t burn out in a few hours. Factories replaced gas lights, reducing the number of fires.

In quick succession came a string of breakthroughs _ the automobile, an automatic typesetting machine for printing, a tractor propelled by an internal combustion engine instead of pulled by horses and the Wright brothers’ airplane.

Henry Ford started his eponymous car company in 1903. He put men and their tools in stationary positions and had a car being assembled roll from one man to the next. The moving assembly line was born, and cars could be made faster and cheaper. As with textiles earlier, car prices plummeted and demand soared, creating new kinds of jobs in a new industry _ and helping to wipe out 100,000 jobs for carriage and harness makers.

THE INFORMATION AGE

The inventor’s focus shifted from building things to manipulating information. The tools of this new period help people gather and analyze data and communicate faster, cheaper, better.

No invention is commonly accepted as first of the age, but one contender is the first digital computer in 1937, created by George Stibitz of Bell Labs, the former research arm of AT&T. Stibitz seized the idea of using the open and closed positions of metallic devices when electricity runs through them to do simple math.

In 1947, a team at Bell Labs led by William Shockley discovered how to switch and amplify electronic signals using semiconductor material. It was the first transistor. A decade later, many of them were crammed onto a small chip, dubbed an integrated circuit.

Before the transistor, electronic products worked with bulky vacuum tubes. Now computing power could be miniaturized, a breakthrough that led to small radios, personal computers, cellphones and an array of other devices today.

In 1971, the first email was sent by a Defense Department computer engineer.

The same year, John Blankenbaker built the Kenbak-1, the first computer small and cheap enough for the masses to buy. They didn’t. Fewer than 50 Kenbak-1s were sold, mostly to a community college, according to oral history by Blankenbaker at the Computer Museum in Boston. His company went out of business within two years

In 1981, the National Science Foundation set up a network linking university computers, a milestone in the development of the Internet. Its impact could scarcely be imagined then.

The past three decades, new products and innovations have allowed people to entertain and inform themselves anywhere, anytime.

In 1983, Motorola introduced the first portable cellphone, a 2-pound clunker called the DynaTac 8000x. In 1984, the first PDA, or personal digital assistant, was sold _ the long-forgotten Psion. In 1994, BellSouth sold its first Simon, the start of a stream of ever-smarter smartphones from which you can access virtually any information while on the run, including that staple of the telephone operator _ a phone number.

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