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Businessweek Archives

How Little They Knew


Cover Story

How Little They Knew

Technologies begin life fragile, costly, and only marginally useful. Plastic's original use was for a Rolls-Royce gear-shift knob. Aluminum started out as jewelry. Inventions

become widely applied when their quality goes up and their price comes down--a pattern most obvious in electronics. Some examples:

MICROWAVES

Microwaves came into use for radar in the 1930s, restaurant cooking in the 1950s, and home cooking in the 1960s. Soon, longer-wavelength radar on a chip will sense when an infant stops breathing.

TRANSISTORS

Early transistors couldn't match the speed and fidelity of vacuum tubes, which today are nearly museum pieces.

INTERNET

Today's worldwide Internet for computer communications is an outgrowth of a U.S. military network designed to survive a Soviet nuclear attack.

OPTICAL FIBERS

When Narinder S. Kapany made the first optical fibers in 1952, they could carry light only a few feet. The first use was to probe inside the body. Then came low-loss fibers. Says Kapany: "The horizons are just as exciting if not more than they were 40 years ago."

SOUND RECORDING

Music was way down on Thomas Edison's list of uses for the phonograph. No. 1: A dictating machine for letter writers.


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