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The Surprising History Of Wearable Technology

What's Next In TechWhat's Next In TechFrom robotics to health care to TVs and more, Best Buy and Studio@Gizmodo are exploring the future of technology.

We’ve partnered with Best Buy to present What’s Next In Tech, a guide to some of the most incredible advances being made in the tech world. From 5G connectivity to wearable technology, we’re looking beyond what’s now, and looking forward to what’s next.

And while the phrase “wearable technology” instantly conjures in the mind a bevy of modern inventions, the truth is we’ve been wearing technology for ages. Join us as we look back on some of the major breakthroughs in the field, and speak to a futurist about where we’re headed in the years to come.

Illustration for article titled The Surprising History Of Wearable Technology

The Gift Of Sight

Though one of the chief breakthroughs in corrective visual tech can certainly be attributed to Benjamin Franklin’s creation of bifocal glasses in the early 1780s, people have been wearing some sort of vision aid for centuries. While it’s hard to pin down the earliest use of concave glass as a vision corrective, famed first-century historian Pliny the Elder notes in his The Natural History (written in the 70s A.D.) that Emperor Nero, believed to be near-sighted, used a large piece of emerald “to view the combats of the gladiators…”.

But the first real advancement in eyeglasses technology, including the general design familiar with what we still wear today, came about in the early 12th century in Northern Italy. Though the identity of the first creator of spectacles is lost to time, a friar named Giordano da Pisa wrote about meeting the original inventor. The friar later expressed frustration at the fact that the man refused to share his secret method of making glasses with the world, because he wanted to reap the benefits of them for himself. The art of making glasses later took hold, and by the early 1300s the sale and proliferation of glasses began to rapidly spread.

The Egg-Shaped Clock That Started It All

Long before we had the technological capabilities to tap our phones to check the hour (or even to glance at our wrists), we needed a reliable, portable way to tell time. Enter Nuremberg clockmaker Peter Henlein, who around 1505 realized he could shrink down the core components of a clock to create a portable, roughly oval-shaped timekeeper. Known as the Nuremberg Egg, this small, handheld clock only had an hour hand, and was relatively unreliable, but it was the first spark that would ignite the flame of personal timekeeping. So how did we get from the Nuremberg Egg to pocket, and then wrist, watches?

“Pocket watches [became] widely available in the 18th century,” explains Dr. Alexis McCrossen, a history professor and author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life. “They still had to be made in an artisan workshop, so they still had to be made by hand. [They were] labor intensive, and they weren’t necessarily very accurate.” But all that changed when mechanical manufacturing took hold.

Dr. McCrossen explains that watches were one of the first technologies that used the same mass-production system as sewing machines and weaponry. And though they were expensive to make at first, “when the Civil War broke out the demand for watches were very high, so it suddenly becomes the case after the Civil War that watches could be had for very little money. By the 1890s one could buy a pocket watch for a dollar.”

This wartime need for timekeeping was also the impetus for the next generational leap in personal timekeeping. As Dr. McCrossen explains it, the prevailing origin story of the wristwatch comes from WWI, with aviators needing a way to seamlessly and quickly check the time without taking their hands off the controls of their planes. Thus, the wristwatch was born. “Right after WWI,” says Dr. McCrossen, “wristwatches were very much in vogue, they were a fashion item. When the Great Depression hit, the demand for watches pretty much plummeted. But then WWII comes along and it kind of served the same function to increase the demand for wristwatches exponentially.”

From there, it’s been a steady increase in production, aided by the development of quartz technology in the 1960s, which made it much cheaper to produce and maintain wristwatches, as the electronic oscillation of quartz technology removed the need for moving parts (like springs and cogs). Today, we’ve expanded our notion of what a watch can do, moving away from simply telling time, and blossoming into new potentials, like health tracking and wireless communication.

A Light In The Darkness

As the industrial revolution boomed and coal and metal mining became more and more prominent in the United States, concerns about safety in the mines began to take hold. In 1914, after years of mounting mine disasters, two mining engineers created the Mine Safety Appliances Company (MSA), and immediately sought out the help of Thomas Edison in the creation of an electric cap lamp. Using open flames as a source of light was perilous in mine tunnels, where combustible gasses could ignite with the slightest spark. Edison went on to invent a battery pack and lightbulb that were completely self-contained, and would automatically cool if the bulb broke (so as not to spark an explosion).

Modern miners are still reaping the benefits from this original invention, as one of the main sources of illumination (along with flood lighting), are LED lights attached to caps.

Illustration for article titled The Surprising History Of Wearable Technology

New Wrist Tech

What did people do before the era of smart phones when they needed to do a bit of calculating on the fly? They looked at their wrist! The calculator watch, originally released in the late 1970s, went from a status symbol made of solid gold, to a useful tool worn by business people, to one of the most iconic pop-culture accessories of the 1980s. It really is incredible to think about what a difference this simple, effective piece of wearable technology made in the lives of millions of people. Now, as smartwatches dominate the market, it’s hard to think back and remember a time before we could open a calculator app to quickly figure out how much to tip our waiters.

The Hands-Free Revolution Named After An Old King

As the internet grew in popularity throughout the 1990s, there was another connectivity revolution cooking in the background. Conceived of as a way to replace the need for wires and foster collaboration between products, Bluetooth technology was developed as a short-wave technology between devices. Running on a microwave frequency similar to that of a cell phone, Bluetooth connectivity has given us wireless headsets, speakers, hearing aids, and is even useful in robotics systems.

And while the name and symbol are now ubiquitous with wireless tech, did you know the tech is actually named after a tenth-century king with a dead tooth? King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson ruled from 958 to 986 A.D., and was famous for his dead “blue” tooth and for uniting scattered Danish and Norweigian peoples into one unified kingdom. This unification is what inspired Jim Kardach of Intel (one of three telecom companies, along with Nokia and Ericsson, who worked together to standardize the tech). According to the Bluetooth website, the name was initially just supposed to be a placeholder until they came up with a more official-sounding name, but they ran out of time before they launched the technology. It stuck, and caught on, and that’s why this incredible short-wave technology is still named after a Danish king!

Illustration for article titled The Surprising History Of Wearable Technology

Tracing the history of wearable technology is a simple matter of talking to the right people and doing some research in the right places. But when it comes to predicting where wearable tech is headed in the near-future, we needed some help, so we took a trip to the University of Minnesota’s Wearable Technology Lab. To help me better understand the distant future of wearable tech, I reached out to Dr. James Canton, CEO and Chairman of the thinktank the Institute for Global Futures, to get a sense of what to expect down the road.

The Future Is Nanoscopic

Dr. Canton says we need to think differently about the term “wearable” even as soon as 15 years in the future, as he predicts a lot of our technology will be “living inside of us at the nanoscale.” Designed to monitor our health, this nanotechnology will be like “a doctor in a box shrunk to the nanoscale, able to deliver drugs, or make corrections, or deliver genetic engineering. Self care is going to be a big driver of wearable technology.”

Fully Integrated Fashion

“Today we have watches and things like that,” says Dr. Canton, “But tomorrow we’ll have designed into our clothing, whether it’s the glasses we wear, or woven into our hair, or woven into body suits, we’ll have wearable technology that will protect us from the environment.” Dr. Canton says that managing climate change will be a huge challenge in our future, so we’ll likely be aggressively designing wearable tech that will “let us know the air quality and automatically create protective filters in our clothing, or adjust for when it’s too hot or too cold, too wet.”

Wearable Singularity

If we can expect such huge changes in just 15 years, what will wearable technology look like in 100 years? “In 2120 wearable technology will be redefined,” explains Dr. Canton. “Wearable technology will be tied to artificial intelligent drones, new companions which are really androids made from biological and physical materials. We’re talking about a synthetic sentience. So all of a sudden wearable technology has a new meaning in 100 years, it’s now the interface between humans, artificial intelligence, robotics, people that are off-world, entities that are virtual entities.” And this connection between organic and synthetic will be driven, in some ways, by wearable technology, but how do we get there?

The key impact wearable tech will have in this interfacing will be through the use of virtual reality, which we will need to effectively interact with one another.

And while this may all seem hard to imagine, Dr. Canton reminds us to consider Moore’s First Law, which states, essentially, that technology doubles in power every year. “The next five to ten years,” Dr. Canton explains of technological advancement, “are going to be like the last 30 or 40 years.” So whether we’ve got a bloodstream full of helpful nanobots, or are interfacing over virtual reality with our synthetic best friend, the future of wearable technology will come fast, and drastically change life as we know it.

If all this future-talk has got you itching for more, check out our What’s Next In Tech special section, where we’ve joined forces with Best Buy to peek into where we’re headed with all sorts of technology.

Giaco Furino is Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Best Buy and Studio@Gizmodo