When We Were Giants: How Gadgets Started Big and Got Small

But have we reached the limits of tiny?

People talking about the early days of computers inevitably say they were "the size of a room," as if "a room" is a standard measure of computer volume. But it's undeniable that a certain mystique applies to these enormous early machines, mostly because we've come so far since then. Still, we're starting to come up against the limits of shrinkage -- both in terms of how small things can get and how small we might want them to get.

The original phone-brick

Perhaps one of the most obvious shrinking gadget we've encountered over the past generation has been the mobile phone. While theoretically mobile phones that needed a briefcase or a car to be moved about had been around since World War II, we generally think of the 1980s Motorola DynaTAC as the first true cell phone. It was more than a foot long and weighed in at close to two pounds.

The incredible shrinking phone

Over the subsequent decade, the cell phone industry's mantra was: smaller, faster, lighter. By the time time the iPhone 4 arrived in 2010, that flagship smartphone was as third as long and 20 percent as heavy as the DynaTAC (at 4.5 inches and 4.8 ounces, respectively). Pushing the envelope even further, in 2013 the Japanese company Willcom released a phone that's only three inches long and weighs just over an ounce.

Phablets and the backlash

But a funny thing happened on the way to ultimate phone smallness: it turns out that phones, particularly those with a full screen, can only be so small and still be useful; people were complaining about this way back in 2001. And over the past two years, some phone manufacturers actually started reversing course, resulting in the so-called "phablet" category of large, tablet-esque phones like the Galaxy Note 2 or the Sony Experian Z Ultra (pictured). Heck, even the latest iPhones are an inch longer than they used to be.

Dawn of the laptop

Some computers had been described as "portable" since the 1950s, in the sense that they could be moved from place to place without disassembly, but the first computer that was truly portable in the sense that we'd understand it today was 1981's Osbourne 1. It weighed in at 24 pounds, which was miraculously light in those days, and had a tiny 5-inch screen and an external battery pack with an hour of charge. The Osbourne 1 was a hit, but the platform soon faded; customers held off for a new model that was announced but never came, and soon PC-incompatible computers were poison in the marketplace.

Not just a name

Probably the first really successful computer that looks like a laptop we'd recognize was 1989's Compaq LTE, which came in 8086 and 286 models. It weighed just over 6 pounds, was about the size of an actual notebook (yes, that's where the term "notebook computer" came from) and could run MS-DOS and all its associate software. The New York Times loved it, although the screen size isn't even mentioned in the review, which I guess tells you something about how our priorities have changed. The Compaq LTE certainly beat its contemporary Mac competitor, the 15-pound Portable. The LTE was beloved enough to have fan websites.

Let's get wee(e)

The quest to make laptops smaller, thinner, and lighter was on for most of the next two decades, even if that meant sacrificing power or quality. This probably achieved its climax with the netbook trend, featuring computers that were dirt cheap, only a few pounds, underpowered, and running either Linux or an older version of Windows. The wildly successful ASUS Eee PC 900, two pounds and with a seven inch screen, is as good an example of the species of as any.

Ultrabooks and the backlash

A funny thing happened in 2010, though: Apple introduced the iPad, and suddenly everyone who wanted an easy-to-carry sub-$500 underpowered gadget to surf the web on just bought one of those, and the netbook market imploded. Thus, over the past few years the average size of a notebook computer for sale has actually gone up, possibly for the first time ever. Someone looking for a small true laptop today would probably go for an ultrabook, like the Macbook Air or any number of Windows models -- still under three pounds, but with bigger keyboards and monitors and better components.

Speak up!

It may be a surprise to hear that there's an everyday object whose history is intimately entwined with phones and computers: the hearing aid. Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher for the deaf, after all, and electric hearing aids were built from the same technology as as early phones -- and, as you can see from this picture from the Berlin Museum of Medical History, they were about the same size.

Credit: Photo of the author's hearing aid
Invisible, not silent

The first digital hearing aid became available in 1996. Much of the innovation driving the ever-smaller devices available has come from research to build better (and tinier) microphones for laptops and cell phones. Modern hearing aids (like the one I wear) are nearly invisible when worn behind the ear, and so light that the wearers can sometimes forget they have them on (which can be awkward and expensive when showering).

The incredible shrinking transistor

What's driven all this shrinking over the years is a simple phrase that just about anybody in tech knows: Moore's Law. The transistor -- the basic component that has made the modern technological revolution possible -- keeps getting smaller with every iteration of technological advance, which makes it possible for chips and everything else to get smaller ans faster. That sequence of individual transistors at left only tells the very beginning of the story: modern processors seethe with literally millions of microscopic transistors. Nevertheless, some are beginning to suspect that the ride is over as we bump up against the laws of physics.

Storage goes electronic

Still, Moore's Law has affected every part of our gadgets -- even parts that weren't always electronic. Hard drives, born in the 1950s, were for decades largish mechanical things like the ones you see here. They shrunk, but only to a certain point: when the iPod debuted in 2001, it was essentially a shell for the mechanical hard drive that took up most of its volume. Only when chip-based electronic flash memory became cheap enough per megabyte to be useful could we cram 64 GB into something as thin as an iPhone, or get really tiny gadgets like the iPod shuffle.

The size remains the same

And yet while components may change, sometimes things just are the size they should be. Consider the hot video game systems of 1977 and 2013. The Atari 2600 was 3.5 by 13.5 by 9 inches, and weighed about five pounds. The Playstation 4? 2 by 11 by 12 inches -- all in the same ballpark -- and actually a pound heavier. They'll even fit in the same place on your shelf.