15 Modern Technological Marvels That Have Been Around A Lot Longer Than You Think

By: Wes Walcott
A woman using a white calculator on her desk.
Blaise Pascal build the world’s first mechanical calculator, which later became known as the Pascaline. RunPhoto / Getty Images

As we live out our lives in these modern times we have access to an unprecedented wealth of technology. Things like robot vacuum cleaners, video phones and 3D printers that were considered science fiction just 20 years ago are now commonplace in many developed countries.

But even though today’s technology didn’t exist in its precise form decades, centuries, or even millennia ago, a lot of our new favorite tools and devices have actually been around for much longer than you might think. And while we might take much of it for granted, if you examine history closely, you’ll see that a lot of the current technology that we consider to be ultra modern, was actually first conceived long ago.


15. Calculators

Granted, most people are aware that calculators have been around for quite a while, but they probably have no idea just how old they are. Back in the mid-17th century, before we even had pocket watches or new what bacteria were, Blaise Pascal was devising an ingenious new method to make math his b–tch. He had already contributed to a formative treatise on projective geometry before the age of 16, and so one day, as he was watching his tax accountant father struggle to reconcile a bunch of scores of figures, Pascal had the notion of building a machine that could perform mathematical functions automatically.

After a little trial and error, Pascal managed to indeed build the world’s first mechanical calculator, which later became known as the Pascaline. The Pascaline looked like a jewelry box with a series of dials on the lid. By turning the dials to input the required figures, the machinery inside the box would twist and turn in just the right way so that the correct answer would be displayed in the lids little answer window.


Although technically the machine was only structured to do addition, it was possible for it to subtract by doing the process in reverse, multiply by using repeated addition, and divide by using repeated subtraction.

14. Fax Machines

Though fax machines seemed to quickly become obsolete since the widespread adoption of e-mail, they were all the rage in the ’70s and ’80s because they allowed us to bypass the postal service and send documents anywhere in the world almost instantaneously. But machines that used phone lines to transmit documents were actually first used in 1843, well before the telephone was even patented.

Built by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain, the first primitive fax machines used parts from a digital clock (another invention of Bain’s) to make an image scanner that was then connected to a telegraph system to transmit pictures. True, it did take about 30 minutes to send a single image, but that was blistering fast when compared to sending it by horse or train.


13. Mobile Phones

When most people think of the first mobile phones they probably get an image of Zack Morris making a call on that cinder block he used to carry around at Bayside High. Though cell phones like that were first made available to consumers in the early 1980s, the very first device that could truly be considered a mobile phone was developed in 1918.

Mobile phones work by combining  the two distinct but related technologies of telephony and radiotelegraphy. In 1918, German engineers found a way to combine telephones and radios and used the new hybrid technology to install a wireless phone system on a military train running between Berlin and the suburban town of Zossen. Since the system could remain fully operational while on the move, it was the world’s first truly mobile phone.


12. Social Media

In the 1970s a group of friends at Berkeley decided they wanted to make a digital system that acted like a public bulletin board. So, using a mainframe computer that was linked to other interconnected computers throughout the community, they created what they referred to as an “information flea market.”

Though the network would have been considered insanely slow by today’s standards, people were able to use it to read and share information much like today’s social media. It even had functions like keyword tagging for others could seek out specific information like where to find the best disco club, or what happened on latest episode of Charlie’s Angels. However, while today you can post as many messages as you want for free on a wide variety of social media platforms, the information flea market cost you 25 cents to post a single message—which sounds outrageous, but at least your news feed probably wasn’t crammed full of people describing what they had for lunch.


11. Plastic Surgery

Around 600 B.C., ancient Indians had a technique for repairing a person’s ears or nose that involved cutting skin from the cheek or forehead and then sewing it over the damaged areas. The procedure, which was called a forehead flap rhinoplasty, was kept secret for centuries and generally used to fashion new ears and noses for people who had lost them in battle or as a form of punishment. Today, modern forms of the technique are commonly used in a wide range of plastic surgeries.


10. Bras

Mary Phelps Jacob is credited with patenting the first modern bra in 1914 as an alternative to the cumbersome corset that was the mainstream means of support at the time. But a recent discovery by a team of archaeologists has proven that earlier versions of the bra actually date as far back as the 15th century. The archaeologists uncovered a stash of ancient garments located in Castle Lengberg, in Austria. Among the various shirts, shoes, and codpieces were four examples of medieval bras that featured cups and were arguably of a better design than Jacob’s 1914 version.


9. Contact Lenses

Since gaining FDA approval in 1971, contact lenses have spared countless people from a lifetime of wearing nerdy glasses. However, corrective lenses that sit directly on your eyeballs were actually first created almost 100 years prior to that.

In 1888, German inventor Adolf Fick became a pioneer in ophthalmology by devoting his research to finding a way to improve eyesight without the use of spectacles. However, the first contact lenses he devised were a far cry from the comfortable hydrogel discs we slip in our eyes today. They were, in fact, made of heavy blown glass that covered the entire eye and could only be worn for a few hours before the excruciating pain far outweighed the benefits of being able to see a little better. So although Fick’s contact lenses did work, their cumbersome nature and the extreme discomfort they induced rendered them highly impractical.


8. Video Games

Almost everyone associates the advent of video games with the release of Pong in 1972, but the very first digital games were actually created by Dr. William Higinbotham back in 1958. At the time, Higinbotham was designing simulations to calculate the trajectories of missiles and bouncing balls at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. As he was conducting this research he came to the realization that his simulation could be reworked for the purposes of entertainment. He then came up with a game he called Tennis for Two that used trajectories to bounce a virtual ball (represented by a point of light) around a court, with a net in the middle. Unfortunately, Tennis for Two was never made available to the public because it was too similar to a previous design Higinbotham had used in a federal-owned lab—meaning the U.S. government would have owned all the rights to it if it were released commercially.

But even before Tennis for Two, there was something called the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device that was Patented in 1948. This incredibly large, closet-mounted CRT computer used knobs to adjust the speed and trajectory of an artillery shell that the player aimed at a predestined point on the screen. Players would attempt to hit various targets by maneuvering their artillery shell toward the preset point on screen. If the player managed to hit the target, the shell would blur, simulating an explosion. It was basically the 1940s version of Call of Duty.


7. Vending Machines

Coin operated vending machines were introduced to London in the early 19th century as a means of easily dispensing post cards and books to the general public. Soon after, the machines were later brought to America by the Thomas Adams Gum Company who had them filled with the gum and snacks we commonly associate them with today. But the very first vending machines were actually religious contraptions designed to dispense holy water in the temples of Egypt.

Functioning in much the same manner as modern vending machines do today, worshipers would drop coins in the top of the device and it would dispense a measured amount of holy water for cleansing purposes. At the end of the day, the machine would be emptied of coins and topped off with fresh holy water. The vending machine concept has remained pretty much unchanged to this day, only instead of using coins to get a little bit of holy water, we can now use credit cards at machines that dispense almost anything you can think of, from pricey electronics and whole automobiles, to drug paraphernalia and used panties.


6. Vaping

These days it seems like everywhere you look people are taking pompous puffs off of their little e-cigarettes and vaporizers and telling you how much healthier it is for you than conventional smoking methods. Okay. We get it. You Vape. But apparently vaping has been cool for thousands of years and we’re only now just rediscovering it. A book from 500 B.C. called The History of Herodotus tells of how ancient Scythians would throw hemp seeds on hot stones to vaporize them for inhalation purposes. Though this early form of vaping might not be recognized by modern cloud chasers, the first real vaporizer that resembles something in use today still dates back to the 1500s—they just called it a hookah.

5. 3D Movies

Ever since James Cameron’s Avatar was released in 2009, filmmakers and theaters have taken it upon themselves to make 3D movies commonplace despite audiences openly declaring that they could do without tacked on stereoscopic experience and associated increase in ticket price. But 3D movies actually have much longer history than that. The 1950s were widely considered to be the golden age of 3D, as the post-war era was a time when people were very receptive to new technologies and the format quickly became popular among moviegoers, especially within the horror genre.

However, if you really want to trace 3D movies back to their roots you need to go all the way back to 1922 when the film The Power of Love hit theaters. It was the very first movie to make use of anaglyph glasses, along with the red/cyan color scheme. Although the original print of the film is so old and faded that it’s hardly viewable, reports indicate that it probably wasn’t too far off from the experience we get today.

4. 3D Printing

Over the past several years, 3D printing has proved to be huge game changer for a wide variety of industries, ranging from the field of medicine to space exploration. But in spite of all its practical applications, many people are unaware that 3D printing has actually been around for decades. The first functional 3D printer prototype was developed by a Japanese-based research institute in 1981 and it made use of photopolymers to create solid models that were built in cross-sectional layers.

The main reason why 3D printers weren’t in widespread use until 2009 was because, up until then, the most affordable way to make a 3D printer was through a patented process developed by Minnesota-based company called Stratasys. And since Stratasys only sold technology to the professional market, it was only available a narrow market of industry big wigs. But now that the original patent on their production process has expired, affordable 3D printers have been made available to everyone and we’re starting to see them being used in a lot of incredibly innovative ways.

3. Electric Cars

With popular automobiles like the Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt and Tesla Model S only hitting the market five or six years ago, it’s not surprising that the electric car is viewed as a very modern invention, but the truth is they’ve actually been around for about 200 years.

In the early 19th century, inventors all over the world were coming up with various versions of small-scale electric vehicles. One of the first to be released in the U.S. was a six-seater passenger car released in 1890 that could cruise around at speeds of approximately 14 miles per hour. In the 10 years that followed, electric vehicles outsold their gasoline-powered counterparts by a margin of 10 to 1 and were considered superior because they didn’t require gear shifting or hand crank engines. However, as U.S. infrastructure grew and improved, more and more people wanted to take their cars on longer road trips that could only be accomplished in a car running on gasoline. And after Texas crude oil was soon discovered, gas became very cheap and plentiful, making cars like Henry Ford’s Model T much more viable to the consumer.

2. Batteries

A lot of people credit Italian Alessandro Volta with the invention of the battery, but a discovery made in 1938 proved that the first batteries were actually much, much, much older than that—over 2,000 years older, in fact.

In 1931, Wilhelm Konig was elected as the head of the laboratory of the Baghdad Antiquity Administration. Seven years later, he noticed some curious clay jars in the National Museum of Iraq and decided to give them a thorough examination. Upon closer inspection, he found that the jars, which later became known as Baghdad Batteries, contained an asphalt stopper and, sticking through it, an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder. Further testing revealed the presence of an acidic substance similar to vinegar and, after replicas were produced and filled with a vinegar-like liquid, it was found that they could produce a current between 0.8 and 2 volts. Konig was then left to puzzle over the question as to why anyone would have use for such a thing in 200 B.C.

Some scientists have suggested that they were used to relieve pain, but this could be an incorrect assumption given that electric stimulation probably would have been much less effective at alleviating pain when compared to painkillers such as heroin opiate, which was also available at the time. The most plausible explanation is that they were likely used to electrically graft silver onto gold—a method that is still practiced in Iraq today.

1. Computers

Probably no other piece of technology is more commonly associated with modern society than computers—those programmable little boxes that help us increase productivity, stay connected, and find endless sources of entertainment.

Assuming a computer has to be a programmable device, rather than a device that merely helps you perform calculations, like an abacus, the history of the computer dates back well before the electromechanical inventions of the 1930s to about 150 B.C. when something called the Antikythera mechanism was believed to have been used by ancient Greeks to calculate various astronomical positions.

The early analog computer was discovered in 1901 in a wreck off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera and its level of complexity seemed to be unmatched by any other artifacts found from that time period. It contained at least 30 independent gears, which corresponded to the days and months of the Egyptian calendar, overlaid with the Greek zodiac, the sun and the known planets. By selecting a day and month, ancient astronomers could turn a hand crank and discover how the planets would align across the zodiac on any given date in the past, present or future.