Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Top 25 "Eureka" Moments

We're a nation of inventors in garages and corporate labs, creating new gadgets and services that delight us and occasionally drive us crazy.

USA TODAY chose inventions that changed our lives since 1982.


1 Cellphones

Car phones were around in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1983 that Motorola introduced the first widely available handheld cellphone. The DynaTAC 8000x weighed almost 2 pounds, but it still cost $3,995.

2 Laptop computers

It was about as portable as a sewing machine. But the 28-pound Compaq Portable–Compaq Computer's very first product–was the first portable IBM-compatible PC on the market. More than 53,000 sold in the year after its 1983 launch, despite a price usually topping $3,000.


3 BlackBerries

An obscure Canadian pager company, Research In Motion, shortened attention spans around the world with the launch of the BlackBerry mobile e-mail device in 1999.

4 Debit cards

Ka-ching! Who needs cash when you've got a debit card? They took off after Visa launched its check card in 1995. Before then, less than 2% of Americans used debit cards. Ten years later, debit card transactions exceeded those on credit cards.

5 Caller ID

Bill collectors and your annoying Uncle Ned are easy to ignore with this invention introduced by BellSouth in 1984 in Orlando. Caller ID followed voice mail, an invention created a decade before to make up for declining secretarial employment.


6 DVDs

Americans traded all those hours rewinding video cassettes for hours watching directors kibitz about behind-the-scenes antics with the introduction of digital video discs in 1995. Consumers spent $7.4 billion on DVD rentals last year, up 10%. VHS rentals plummeted 74%, to $281 million.

7 Lithium rechargeable batteries

How many AAs does it take to power a laptop? Almost no one knows, thanks to the durable rechargeable battery Sony brought to market in 1991. It made its debut in a Sony camcorder – and has provided juice for laptops, cellphones, digital cameras and other portable electronics ever since.

8 iPods

Walking down the sidewalk hasn't been the same since November 2001, when Apple introduced its iconic portable digital music player. It wasn't the first player, but fans declared it the coolest and easiest to use by snapping up more than 100 million of them.

9 Pay at the pump

Filling up the tank became even more self-serve when a gas station chain in Abilene, Texas, invented technology that turned the pump into a quasi-ATM.

10 Lettuce in a bag

Americans discovered there's more to salad than iceberg lettuce drowning in bottled dressing after the rollout of mixed lettuce greens in a bag. Fresh Express in Salinas, Calif., made that possible by inventing a high-tech plastic bag introduced nationwide in 1989. That helped ignite a whole consumer category of portion-controlled foods, such as bagged baby carrots.

AFP/Getty Images

11 Digital cameras

Kodak unveiled a digital camera for professionals in 1986, when consumers were still getting millions of rolls of film processed in labs. Apple followed with the first consumer version eight years later. But it wasn't until this century that cameras got affordable, driving consumers to buy a forecast 30 million this year.

12 Doppler radar

We became a nation of weather fans as Doppler radar brought up-to-the-minute images to TV starting in 1990, a dozen years after the Weather Channel's launch turned forecasters such as Jim Cantore into celebrities.

13 Flat-panel TVs

RCA pioneered flat-panel technology in the late 1960s. But it took nearly four decades before consumers got the idea. This year, 68% of all digital TVs sold are forecast to come with flat panels.

14 Electronic tolls

Throwing quarters in a tollbooth bin became a thing of the past when the North Texas Tollway Authority started its TollTag system in the Dallas area in 1989. Now, millions of commuters prepay tolls and rely on electronic gadgets attached to their cars to zip through toll plazas.

15 PowerPoint

Lecturers from CEOs to sixth-graders display topic headings and charts with the click of a mouse. PowerPoint was invented by Forethought. Microsoft bought Forethought in 1987, unveiled its Windows version in 1990 and changed public speaking forever.


16 Microwavable popcorn

We can credit – and blame – food scientists for simultaneously making possible lunch-in-a-hurry and that terrible burnt smell wafting from the office microwave oven. General Mills paved the way with the launch of Act II non-refrigerated microwaveable popcorn in 1984.


17 High-tech footwear

Plain canvas sneakers got tossed to the back of the closet when Nike launched Air Jordans in 1985, followed by Reebok's The Pump in 1989, giving rise to the performance-footwear industry.

18 Online stock trading

Investors jettisoned pricey stockbrokers after an Ameritrade predecessor offered online stock trading in 1994. During the market runup that followed, CNBC's Maria Bartiromo became a household name, and PCs morphed into slot machines for a new breed of investor: day traders.

19 Big Bertha golf clubs

A World War I cannon inspired one of the biggest golf innovations when Ely Callaway created the oversize, wide-bodied stainless steel wood he dubbed Big Bertha in 1991. Callaway Golf followed up with the Great Big Bertha, Biggest Big Bertha, Great Big Bertha II, Big Bertha 454 and today's Big Bertha 460.

20 Disposable contacts

A scream followed by, "No one move!" once routinely signaled that someone had dropped a pricey contact lens. Daily disposables – contacts worn for just a day before they're tossed – arrived in the USA in 1995.

21 StairMaster

Arnold Schwarzenegger's breakout performance in Pumping Iron wasn't enough to get Americans pouring into gyms. Technology led the way with the StairMaster, one of the first machines to turn gyms into modern exercise arenas after it was introduced in Tulsa in 1986.

22 TiVo

The gadget is now a verb, with 4.4 million subscribers TiVo-ing their favorite TV shows. The digital device changed TV-viewing habits after the first TiVo was shipped in 1999.

23 Purell

Germs trembled, and parents rejoiced ("What in the world is that on your hands?!") when Gojo in Akron, Ohio, created Purell hand sanitizer. The market for packaged handwipes and towlettes took off amid health scares over avian flu and post-9/11 threats.

24 Home satellite TV

The dishes that receive signals were once so big and pricey, they'd pull down your house if you tried strapping them to the chimney. But the 1994 launch of service from DirecTV led to today's supercompact dishes and lower prices, beaming tonight's Dancing with the Stars to the USA's more remote places.

25 Karaoke

What makes you sound so very good singing Stairway to Heaven? Two stiff drinks get you on stage in front of amused and horrified co-workers. But it's the karaoke machine invented in 1983 that really did the trick. The most popular karaoke song today? Patsy Cline's Crazy, says Karaoka.com.

Source: Researched and written by USA TODAY's Byron Acohido, Jim Hopkins, Jefferson Graham and Michelle Kessler; Photo research by Sonja Foster and Denny Gainer, USA TODAY.