The Envelope, Please

As the century ends, we see everything except our cars getting cheaper, faster, smaller, smarter and, now, wireless. If the technology revolutions of the last 100 years have anything to teach us, it’s that we can‘t imagine how easy life may get -- or, conversely, how hard other things will become as an unintended consequence. Herewith, Tech’s picks for the defining technologies of our age.

5. Electric Power Distribution

The backbone of our modern lives -- 117-volt, 60-cycle-per-second AC power, available virtually on demand, throughout the country, throughout the century -- was not originally a sure thing. In the late 19th century, Thomas Edison wanted to distribute DC power, which he believed to be safer (and he owned the patents). But George Westinghouse‘s AC system won out, and consider the advantages: AC power can be converted easily from high voltage to low voltage, or vice versa, with a simple electrical transformer. This conversion makes it possible to transmit large amounts of power cross-country and, once in your home, to convert it to higher voltages for radio and TV tubes, or lower voltages for model trains and modern electronics. The precise 60-cycle oscillation of the current also enabled assembly of accurate electric clocks and speed-controlled synchronous motors, 70 years before microelectronics would take over the job of timing.

4. Refrigeration

If one invention changed our everyday lives, it was refrigeration. Before refrigeration, all food was prepared locally and had to be eaten within days. Gaps in fresh-food production were bridged by eating pickled or smoked food -- at every meal! Refrigeration hasn’t just changed the way we eat, but also where many Americans live. Here in Los Angeles, we‘re blessed with weather that traditionally is neither too hot nor too cold, although that could be changing. But vast reaches of the South were emphatically unpleasant before air conditioning became standard. As we increasingly turn to Atlanta, Little Rock and, this year, Texas or Tennessee for our presidents, one could argue that refrigeration has given the Bible Belt more political power than those of us in cooler climes might prefer.

3. The Airplane

The News Museum in Washington, D.C., picked the moon landing as the more important event, but how many of us will ever go to the moon? Air travel, on the other hand, has become almost as ubiquitous as driving, and many of us plan cross-country or even worldwide crossings with less concern than a 19th-century villager might have heaped on a trip to the nearest city. As much as we complain about crowded airports, crazy pricing and the occasional air disaster, consider that our modern air system moves millions of people daily almost as smoothly as we now move data over the Internet. Without airlines, traveling across the country could take as much as a week -- how many business trips or family get-togethers would that permit? And imagine the burden of travel to Europe or beyond: If you think airline food is bland, imagine a month or longer on a ship without any fresh provisions, and no real guarantee of reaching your destination.

2. The Microchip

Earlier computers helped us win World War II and a build the commercialized industrial society that followed, but it was the microchip that brought the computer to the people. In the early days, some starry-eyed futurists envisioned that a single giant computer would someday connect everyone in the nation; pessimists feared the Orwellian possibilities of just such an eventuality. But neither group foresaw computer power so cheap and tiny we’d have computers not just on our desktops and in our briefcases, but in appliances, children‘s toys and even $1.98 musical greeting cards.

Microelectronics evolved from vacuum tubes, the basis of all electronic devices. But tubes were bulky, ran hot, required lots of electricity and wore out as you used them. A radio set requiring five tubes was okay, but 50,000 tubes in the early computers were a problem. Along came the transistor, which could do most of what a tube performed, but without the drawbacks. However, a transistor can only accomplish one basic electronic function at a time: It can act as an amplifier or a switch. The transistor metamorphosed into the integrated circuit, which combined a number of transistors and resistors on the same silicon wafer, or “chip,” to make a complete circuit in one compact device. By the late 1960s, which seems like ancient history now, digital integrated circuits were widely available.

But the designers of these early circuits had no idea that one day we would put millions of transistors on a single chip, to build a Pentium III or 64 MB DRAM memory. It isn’t like pouring millions of grains of sand into a bottle: Every one of those transistors combines to form a remarkably complex circuit, which must perform the hundreds of different tasks that make up a computer processor. As the century ends, the latest developments can put a high-powered microprocessor, the DRAM memory and the peripheral circuits (such as disk and video controllers) all on a single chip, promising even lower-cost, though less flexible, computers as soon as next year.

1. Television

Television is much less important for what it does than for what it shows us. As our viewing choices have expanded from three to 300 channels, this window-on-the-world has reshaped and redefined our culture as no other medium could. Television waves enter our homes for free and allow completely passive viewers to absorb endless hours of mindless crap, but also news and information that have ripped down the barricades of power. Communism was unable to continue in a world with television. Nightly images of the grueling battlefields of Vietnam helped end that war, while pictures of refugees streaming out of Kosovo rendered another war politically feasible. And what knowledge and experiences television has brought us -- from the moon landing to the Columbine incident -- live and direct in our dens and bedrooms.