The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years

Here's PC World's official (and entirely idiosyncratic) list of the top tech gadgets of the last half century.

By Dan Tynan, special to PC World, and PC World Staff
Tue, July 07, 2009

PC World

We're living in the golden age of the gadget. Don't believe it? Check your pockets. Odds are you're carrying a portable music player, an electronic organizer, a keychain-size storage device, a digital camera, or a cell phone that combines some or all of these functions. And you'd probably be hard-pressed to live without them.

At PC World, we'd be lost without these things. We don't merely test and write about digital gear, we live and breathe the stuff. In honor of this raging gizmo infatuation, we polled our editors and asked them to name the top 50 gadgets of the last 50 years. The rules? The devices had to be relatively small (no cars or big-screen TVs, for example), and we considered only those items whose digital descendants are covered in PC World (cameras, yes; blenders, no). We rated each gadget on its usefulness, design, degree of innovation, and influence on subsequent gadgets, as well as the ineffable quality we called the "cool factor." Then we tallied the results.

After a lot of Web surfing, spreadsheet wrangling, and some near fistfights, we emerged with the following list. Some items in our Top 50 are innovative devices that appeared briefly and then were quickly consigned to museums and future appearances on eBay, but whose influence spread widely. Others are products we use every day--or wish we could.

So join us as we visit with the ghosts of gadgets past and present.

1. Sony Walkman TPS-L2 (1979)

Portable music players are so cheap and ubiquitous today that it's hard to remember when they were luxury items, widely coveted and often stolen. But when the blue and silver Walkman debuted in 1979, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. The $200 player virtually invented the concept of "personal electronics."

The first Walkman (also branded as the Stowaway, the Soundabout, and the Freestyle before the current name stuck) featured a cassette player and the world's first lightweight headphones. Apparently fearful that consumers would consider the Walkman too antisocial, Sony built the first units with two headphone jacks so you could share music with a friend. The company later dropped this feature. Now, more than 25 years and some 330 million units later, nobody wonders why you're walking down the street with headphones on. Learn more in Sony's history of the Walkman. PCW photo by Rick Rizner; Walkman courtesy of Melissa Perenson.

2. Apple iPod (2001)

If the Walkman is the aging king of portable media players, Apple's iPod is prince regent. It rules the realm of digital music like no other device: According to the NPD Group, more than eight out of ten portable players sold at retail by mid-2005 were iPods. Yet when the $399 iPod first appeared in October 2001, it was nothing special. It featured a 5GB hard drive and a mechanical scroll wheel, but worked only with Macs. A second model released the following July offered a 20GB hard drive, a pressure-sensitive touch wheel, and a Windows-compatible version. But the third-generation player, which appeared in April 2003, proved the charm: A 40GB drive, built-in compatibility with Windows and Mac, support for USB connections, and a host of other small improvements made it wildly popular, despite its relatively high price and poor battery life. Now the fifth-generation iPod threatens to do the same thing for a new breed of portable video players. The iPod is dead; long live the iPod. Read more in Dennis Lloyd's Brief History of the iPod. PCW photo by Rick Rizner; iPod courtesy of Michael Kubecka.

Continue Reading

Our Commenting Policies