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The toys that changed the world

Flights of fancy

New gadgets often seem frivolous. But, as Tom Standage explains, expensive playthings can sometimes give birth to important technologies

New gadgets often seem frivolous. But, as Tom Standage explains, expensive playthings can sometimes give birth to important technologies

Tom Standage | August/September 2017

As a fan of new technology, I’m often at the front of the queue to buy the latest gadgets. But even I draw the line somewhere. Consider the HTC Vive, for example, the state of the art in virtual-reality headsets. Using an awesome trick called “volumetric” or “room-scale” VR, it doesn’t just transport you to another world: its position-tracking system means you can walk around in it too. There’s just one problem: the Vive costs £750, and you also need a £1,000 PC  to power it. And a spare room. All this makes for a pricey toy, which is why I have not bought one.

Then there’s the DJI Mavic, an insect-like quadcopter drone that can fold up to fit in a backpack. Normally when I try to fly drones they crash into the wall, the ceiling or the cat, and I am ordered to go outside and crash them into trees instead. But the Mavic is idiot-proof. If you try to crash it into a wall (and I tried) it beeps and refuses to go any farther. If you hold up your arms to make a Y shape, it follows you around. Make a square shape with your hands and it snaps a selfie. It lands automatically too. It’s great fun, but it costs £999, so I have not bought one of these, either.

Yet despite being expensive toys – or, rather, precisely because they are expensive toys – these are both technologies worth watching. History shows that contraptions built to amuse the wealthy can go on to become world-changing tools. Rich technophiles often provide the initial demand for a complex, untested technology – and, as a consequence, the funding and the motivation to improve and develop it.

Automata offer the most striking historical example. These philosophical toys became popular in the 18th century, as an offshoot of elaborate mechanical clocks. Automaton-makers such as Jacques de Vaucanson and Pierre Jaquet-Droz built lifelike mechanical figures that could dance or write sentences. At the time they were the most complex pieces of machinery ever built, yet their chief use was to amaze the courts of Europe.

Though they seemed frivolous, their construction spurred innovations in precision machinery that went on to find much wider use during the Industrial Revolution. Jaquet-Droz’s writing automaton pioneered the use of cams to preprogram complex, synchronised movements; de Vaucanson created the first flexible tubing for his famous automaton duck, and later built an early mechanical weaving machine. Rivalry between automaton-makers also led to new tools such as the milling machine.

As Samuel Johnson noted in 1751, “it may sometimes happen that the greatest efforts of ingenuity have been exerted in trifles, yet the same principles and expedients may be applied to more valuable purposes.” He was right: looking back from the 1830s, David Brewster, a British physicist who also happened to be the inventor of the kaleidoscope, pointed out that “those mechanical wonders which in one century enriched only the conjuror who used them, contributed in another to augment the wealth of the nation.”

A century later, punched-paper rolls from player pianos (a kind of musical automaton) powered the first “spread-spectrum” radio system, in which sender and receiver use a constantly changing frequency to keep signals from being intercepted. This was patented by Hedy Lamarr, of all people, in 1941, and is the direct ancestor of the radios in modern smartphones. With her dual career as an actress and an inventor, Lamarr embodies the unexpected conduit between entertainment and technology. More recently, the graphics-processing chips from video-game machines turned out to be perfect for powering artificial-intelligence systems.

Quadcopters are mostly toys today, but they are starting to be put to a range of commercial uses, buzzing over fields and building sites and, perhaps one day, delivering things. And VR’s power to create an alternative reality could prove to be an important medium in the future. For the time being, both technologies appeal chiefly to wealthy gadget-lovers. But next time you hear a gadget being dismissed as an expensive plaything, pay attention – because sometimes today’s toys turn into tomorrow’s revolutionary technologies.

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