Some questions you ask because you want the right answer. Others are valuable because no answer is right; the payoff comes from the range of attempts. Seven years ago, The Atlantic surveyed a group of eminent historians to create a ranked list of the 100 people who had done the most to shape the character of modern America. The panelists agreed easily on the top few names—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, in that order—but then began diverging in intriguing ways that reflected not simply their own values but also the varied avenues toward influence in our country. Lewis and Clark, or Henry Ford? Thomas Edison, or Martin Luther King? The result was of course not scientific. But the exercise of asking, comparing, and choosing helped us understand more about what these historical figures had done and about the areas in which American society had proved most and least open to the changes wrought by talented, determined men and women.
Now we turn to technology. The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago.
A sneak peek at our November issue, which will be available online tomorrow morning. What do you think of the cover?
For most of human history, horses have been, primarily, a technology. An intimate technology, yes — people named their horses, and groomed them, and sometimes loved them — but horses were, for the most part, tools: They helped humanity to get around and get things done. Once steam power and internal combustion came along, though, that relationship changed drastically. As horses were eclipsed by more efficient methods of moving people and things — trains, cars, planes — their role in human culture shifted, as well. We quickly came to see horses more as what they had been, of course, all along: fellow animals.
That shift is evident in a longstanding dream that is a little bit fanciful, a little bit practical, a little bit silly, and a little bit wonderful: the quest for the mechanical horse.
Read more. [Images: Google Patents, Modern Mechanix, Boston Dynamics]
The seemingly limitless possibilities of what smartphones can do are in part a function of their flat glass screens. Unconstrained by the presence of physical terrain, the glass panel can become a map, a keyboard, a gaming interface, etc. Buttons — visual ones — come and go as an app’s designer pleases.
But what if actual buttons — 3-dimensional protuberances — could rise out of the flatness of your smartphone and then vanish without a trace? Smartphones (and pretty much any other flat-screened device) could retain their visual flexibility, and then gain some haptic abilities. You could text on a tactile keyboard, and then go right back to swiping through your Twitter feed.
This is the premise of a new touchscreen technology from Tactus Technologies, which had its first public demonstration of its Tactile Layer component this week in Boston.
Read more. [Image: Tactus Technologies]
Inspiration is a tricky thing. It often strikes us when we least expect it, half-asleep, or in the shower, or both.
The eureka moment, that invisible hand that pushes innovation forward, is elusive. “An epiphany is a different way of solving problems than the problem solving we do every day,” wrote Steve Blank in The Atlantic earlier this month. “In an epiphany, you see the entire answer to a complex problem without realizing you were even consciously thinking about it.”
So, how do you get to eureka? Relaxation helps. But so does distraction. Being around people helps. But brainstorms don’t do any good, as Jonah Lehrer famously described in a January article inThe New Yorker.
For Innovation Week, we’re turning the question over to you, Atlantic readers: How do you come up with your best ideas? Do you work best alone or in groups? Do you find your muse in solitude or in a bustling coffee shop?
Share your creativity secrets in the comment section, submit a post on Tumblr, or tweet your thoughts to us with the hashtag #InnovationWeek. We’ll compile your answers into a post later this week. (The longer and smarter you write, the more likely it is that we’ll publish you.)
Musing on a favorite pastime, James Michener once declared that “to dine in harmony with nature is one of the gentlest and loveliest things we can do,” concluding that "picnics are the apex of sensible living.” It’s a mantra I’ve taken to heart, “for of this world one never sees enough.” My habit is to bring a bottle of wine, uncivilized prohibitions against imbibing it outdoors be damned. Usually I take a wine key too, but being a forgetful sort, I’ve had occasion to force corks down the necks of bottles with objects as varied as a cheap plastic pen, splintery driftwood, a friend’s lipstick container, and the curved metal protruding from a u-lock.
This lifestyle hassle puts me squarely in the target demographic of Stacked Wines, a new company that’s offering a variation on the traditional wine bottle and betting that their container is going to be competitive with or surpass in popularity the box-enclosed plastic bladder, the Tetra Pak, the Wine Cube, and the PET bottle.
Read more. [Image: Stacked Wines]
Imagine the plight of the urban planner, circa 1930.
What was once the transportation mode for the rich has become de rigueur for the masses. Streets meant for horse and buggy now needed to transport hundreds of cars to and from work every day. Then, of course, there was the question of parking. By the 1920s, downtown shop owners had begun to complain in earnest about the parked cars left by workers during the day.
Without proper infrastructure, shoppers had no place to stop; as a result, business was dropping rapidly.
This was a problem in cities across America. But no place was quite so innovative as Oklahoma City.
There, storekeepers turned to newspaperman Carl C. Magee (who, we should note, is also famous for uncovering the Teapot Dome Scandal in New Mexico and shooting a corrupt judge in a fight in Las Vegas). Magee had his own ideas, but he also sponsored a contest calling for designs of a timing device that would allocate set amounts of time for parking. The winner - the Black Maria - was based on a machine created by Magee and Gerald A. Hale. Hale and Magee formed the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company. The first meter was installed on the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue on July 16, 1935.
Read more at The Atlantic Wire. [Image: Popular Mechanics, 1959]
Carl Magee: Scandal buster, corrupt judge shooter, parking meter patent holder.
Do you make toast in the morning? Do you look at the weather forecast? IMAGINE a world in which you could accomplish both of these onerous tasks in one easy step.
Yes, that is the dream of someone going by the username of “Uroemer” who has entered this bold “idea” in the Ideabird M2M Innovation Contest, a competition put together by “an amazing group of companies including Deloitte, Deutsche Telecom, HYVE and The RWTH-TIM Research Group … with prizes worth over $10,000, [for the] wildest and best ideas for tracking anything - people, animals or objects of any size.”
Uroemer’s plan is to build a toaster that “receives the updated weather information for its current location via m2m or WLAN and burns ‘today’s weather forecast’ via template as an icon on your slice of toast.”
Let the naysayers of progress chew on this! The future is finally, finally here.
(And yes, that is the photoshopped toast that they submitted to the contest.)
In 2008, Google applied to patent a system that analyzes the environments surrounding mobile phones — temperature, humidity, sound — by way of sensors embedded in those phones. The technology would be mainly used, Google said in its filing, for (yes) “advertising based on environmental conditions.” It would provide another information layer, beyond quaint little GPS, that would target ads based not just on users’ immediate locations, but on their immediate environments. So, the filing noted, detections of hot weather could serve up ads for air conditioners; or, inversely, winter coats. Or the phone sensors might detect, say, the distinctive sounds of an orchestra being tuned, and combine that information — the user is at a concert — with location data and local events data to figure out which concert the user is attending. And then serve ads (for nearby restaurants, orchestral CDs, local violin teachers) based on that intel.
Cool, no? And also totally creepy?
Well. This week, Google was granted its patent. The firm has officially patented background noise. (And also: cold. And also: warmth.)
These might be moot points, anyway. There’s no indication, as yet, that Google has plans to implement the “environmental condition” technology, GeekWire points out. But it bears repeating nonetheless, both as a whoa and as an insight into how the firm is thinking about the role it’ll play in our digital future: Google has patented background noise.
And all for the purpose of serving you ads.
[Image: A rendering of Google’s latest patent. Note the lines: “environmental condition” and “ad server.”]