National Old Stuff Day 2018

02 March 2018

Today we celebrate National Old Stuff Day and to mark the occasion we take a quick look at a few not-so-recent innovations that were ahead of their time.

Facsimile (fax) machines

As with many ground-breaking inventions, there’s some debate about who developed the first fax machine and more precisely, when it was introduced. Alexander Bain is often cited as the father of the fax machine, having received a British patent on 27 May 1843 for an “Electric Printing Telegraph” (33 years prior to the grant of Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for a telephone).

Bain's fax machine

The Electric Telegraph developed by Alexander Brain in the 1840s

Bain’s fax machine included two electrically-synchronised pendulums – the first for scanning the original document line by line, and the second for printing a new document, line by line. A stylus protruding from the first pendulum would make electrical contact with metal typeface characters on an original document, producing a signal that was transmitted to the second pendulum for printing. Whilst neither Bain’s fax machine nor the improved device introduced by Frederick Bakewell in 1848 achieved much commercial success, they laid the groundwork for both modern fax machines and television. In fact, Alexander Bain was even honoured with a posthumous Emmy award in 2016 for inventing "the concept of scanning for image transmission".

Parkesine

Parkesine is considered to be the first synthetic plastic material, named after Alexander Parkes. Parkes developed the material in 1855 and he went on to present a range of kitchen items made from Parkesine at the International Exhibition of 1862 in London, ultimately winning a bronze medal. In a guide to the exhibition, Parkesine was described as “a substance hard as horn, but as flexible as leather, capable of being cast or stamped, painted, dyed or carved.” Unfortunately, products made from Parkesine were found to be prone to cracking and burning, which ultimately hindered any potential commercial success.

Touchscreen

Once an emblem of futuristic technology, touchscreens entered the mainstream in the 2000s and have since become an essential part of our day-to-day lives. Nowadays we tend to think of touchscreens as a key component of smartphones and tablets, and it’s hard to imagine touchscreens having much of a history prior to the development of either. Nonetheless, touchscreens have a longer and more varied history than you might expect.

The modern touchscreen finds its origins in air traffic control technology. In 1965, Eric Arthur Johnson, an engineer at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, England, first described a touch display that “provides a very efficient coupling between man and machine” in Electronic Letters. The display took the form of a mask fitted onto a cathode-ray tube. A series of copper wires were attached to the front of the mask, connected by fine wires running in grooves in the rear surface of the mask. Pairs of copper wires were thus connected to form part of an AC bridge circuit. When a user touched one of the copper wires, the bridge became unbalanced, allowing the user’s touch to be detected.

Over the following decades, both capacitive and resistive touchscreens were developed by innovators across the world. The 1970s saw the development of the first transparent touchscreen by two engineers at CERN, as well as the development of a resistive touchscreen by American inventors, George S. Hurst and William C. Colwell Junior. By the 1980s touchscreens were making their way into computers, with the HP-150, and peripherals for games consoles, with the Sega Graphic Board developed for the Sega SG-1000 console.

Whilst these innovations didn’t necessarily find commercial success when they were first developed, they have paved the way for various technologies that we now can’t imagine living without. The commercial successes of television, smartphones, celluloid film and even synthetic plastics more generally all owe something to these innovations, and National Old Stuff Day is the perfect opportunity to show them some much-deserved appreciation!

Touchscreen

The resistive touchscreen developed by George Samuel Hurst and William C. Colwell Junior and published in US patent 3,911,215 in 1975

Monique Henson

Monique Henson

Trainee Patent Attorney

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