The Crazy Old Gadgets That Presaged the iPod, iPhone and a Whole Lot More


We're experiencing the biggest upheaval in human-computer interaction since the first mice scurried onto the market decades ago. The rise of touchscreens -- and the operating systems that make them go -- has changed not just how we work with computers, but what we ask them to do.

It may seem like the iPad, Droid and all the rest came out of nowhere, but there have been many attempts to get people to get outside the keyboard-and-mouse box. While most of us have forgotten Casio's vintage calculator watches and General Magic's touchscreen-powered Data Rover, a Microsoft Research scientist by the name of Bill Buxton has been accumulating these forbears of today's hottest gadgets for decades.

A long-time user experience researcher, Buxton's curation has created a fascinating archive of the design artifacts that have informed today's (and maybe the future) landscape of technology.

He unveiled his collection this week at the Computer-Human Interaction conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Along with the physical display of the objects, Microsoft put photos and notes about scores of them online. In this gallery, Buxton gives you a personal tour of his favorite gadgets from his stockpile.

Buxton likes to keep tabs on what had been tried, worked, and failed. For him, innovation is not the product of one person's great idea, but rather many people's trial and error, ragpicking from the past. He contends that it takes 20 years for a new idea to become a mature product category, which he defines as a billion dollar industry.

"If what I said is credible, then it is equally credible that anything that is going to become at billion dollar industry in the next 10 years is already 10 years old," Buxton said. "That completely changes how we should approach innovation. There is no invention out of the blue, but prospecting, mining, refining and then goldsmithing to create something that's worth more than its weight in gold."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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