The end of the teenage years of the 21st century is in sight. A good moment to look back at the past decades, which were characterised by a multitude and variety of technological developments. Without having the illusion of being complete, here are some highlights from this period. Consider microtechnology for ICT, but also new material developments and other inventions that have driven man(kind) forward.
Three names come up when you look for the ‘inventors’ of the internet. First the duo of computer scientists Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn of DARPA. In 1974 they developed a set of protocols under the name TCP/IP or Transmission Control Protocol & Internet Protocol. Respectively to pack and unpack data into packets to transport it over the net, and to coordinate this transport from start to finish. In addition, Tim Berners-Lee of CERN in 1989, using the http communication protocol and the ‘internet language’ HTML, devised a way to navigate the worldwide web, originally with the aim of being able to exchange information about particle accelerators.
The CD, a polycarbonate disc with a thin aluminium layer on top, conquered the world in the early 1980s. Originally as a successor to the vinyl LP record to reproduce sound, where a laser beam has replaced the needle, and later also as a storage medium for digital data. Philips developed this compact disc together with Sony, and the hole in the middle with the size of the former Dutch dime (‘dubbeltje’) already indicates a subtle Dutch contribution.
Diamond, graphite and amorphous carbon (such as soot or activated carbon) have been known as appearances of carbon for many years. A new form was added in 1985: Buckminsterfullerenes or buckyballs – soccer balls on a nanoscale, so to speak. Carbon nanotubes are an elongated version of these, and the ‘wonder material’ graphene – chicken wire on a nanoscale – the flat form. Nanotechnology in optima forma.
Building-up material instead of removing it as is the case with milling or turning: this is the basis of 3D printing as a manufacturing technique, also known as additive manufacturing. Originally used as rapid prototyping, only to make prototypes of a product, but 3D printing is about ‘real’ products, which are made layer by layer from, for example, metal, plastic or ceramics. In 1986, the first patent on stereolithography appeared, in which light is used to set light-sensitive polymers layer by layer.
At the heart of modern computer and multimedia equipment are microprocessors that process data according to instructions. Such a microprocessor, also known as a (computer) chip or integrated circuit, consists of billions of minuscule electronic switches or transistors on an area of just a few tens of square millimeters. Each of these transistors essentially has a simple task: converting an input into an output by means of an instruction. Transistors consist largely of semiconducting materials that switch to ‘1’ or ‘0’ by allowing a current through if a (1) or no (0) large voltage is applied.
More than 100 years ago, the concept of the transistor was conceived by Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, and further developed into a workable product by employees of AT&T Bell Labs at the end of the 1940s. In 1956 these William Bradford Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain received the Nobel Prize for Physics for this. At about the same time, in 1947, John Tukey devised the term ‘bit’ as a unit for information, short for ‘binary digit’, a concept that the father of information technology Claude Shannon developed further. ‘Binary’ refers to the fact that such a bit can have two values, 0 or 1, which can be easily conceived as a closed vs. open switch or low vs. high voltage. A nice cooperation of bit as software with transistor as hardware.
Transistors have no moving parts that can break, they can respond quickly because they are electrically operated and they can be made in very large numbers (and therefore cheap). This miniaturisation has been used in the last century, and is far from over. Microelectronics has already become ‘nanoelectronics’ …
If there’s anything that has changed the street scene in recent decades, it’s the mobile phone or smartphone. During a lost moment at the bus stop, in the train, or while walking: many people are processing their ‘likes’, personal messages or the news by staring at the small screen. From the end of the nineties ‘mobile phones’ were commonplace, with the indestructible Nokia 3310 from the year 2000 and Apple’s first iPhone from 2007 as memorable devices.
Glass fibres for bits and boats
Glass as a window to look through or as a utensil to drink from has long been known. Relatively new are applications of glass fibres that allow websites to enter your home computer with dizzying speed. In the late sixties of the last century Charles Kuen Kao developed glass as a means of communication, and in the seventies the glass could be made so pure that light was able to pass through it over longer distances. In addition to optical properties, glass fibres also have favourable mechanical properties: in glass fibre-reinforced plastic composites as in boats or sewer pipes, glass fibres have a high tensile strength, while you can subject the plastic matrix to compression loads – best of both worlds.
The rechargeable battery in general, and the lithium-ion battery in particular, gives mobility a new dimension. Invented in the 1980s, and first commercially applied in the early 1990s, the 21st century really is the era of this battery. Today, it powers notebooks, tablets and smartphones, but it also literally and figuratively boosts electric cars and bicycles. No wonder that John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for their contribution to the development of this battery.