Laptop Computer: Epson HX-20, 1981
When it comes to inventing computing hardware, IBM led the pack. The IBM 5150 was the first to be called a “PC”, and modern computers are still based on its architecture; they even took a crack at a “portable” computer in 1975, but it’s not exactly what you would call an early laptop. Or portable in any way.
Epson, on the other hand, are known mainly for printers. They came into existence to help the Seiko company develop a printing timer for keeping time at the 1964 Olympics, and operated as a sort of subsidiary to that company until 1975. Their first product would become the most popular dot matrix printer in the U.S., the TX-80. For their next trick, they ratcheted up the holy fuck factor a tad.
AWESOME! What… do we… do with it?
The Epson HX-20 met all the technical requirements necessary to be called the first laptop computer, and it was released in November of 1981. Full keyboard, battery, integrated display, and the hell with it, a printer because they’re Epson. Sure, the display was a tiny lil’ 120×32 pixel LCD and its memory couldn’t hold three seconds of an mp3, but does your laptop have a built-in printer? No? Fuck you.
So its specifications were somewhat limited, but it was a damn impressive piece of hardware at the dawn of the PC, and they’re still held in pretty high regard by vintage computing aficionados (which is the politically correct term for “Supra-Geek”). Trust us, if you’d have seen one of these in 1981 it would’ve blown your feathered haircut back. You would’ve pissed your Calvin Klein briefs, and crapped your cream-colored trousers and we’ll just give the 80’s a rest now.
Electric Car: Thomas Davenport, 1837
Since the day Ben Franklin discovered electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm (one of the most important historical events to have never happened), it became a goal of science to use electrical power to generate mechanical power. Englishman Michael Faraday was probably the very first to truly harness electrical power with his invention of the first electric generator in 1831, but American blacksmith Thomas Davenport didn’t waste much time making that innovation look straight up wack.
Davenport’s invention used electromagnets mounted to a rotor to produce mechanical energy- the first electric motor. His major innovation was what electrical engineers know as a commutator, a switch that periodically reverses the flow of current, and makes continuous rotation of the rotor possible. In other words, Davenport was using a newly discovered natural force to make a goddamn wheel turn around and around by itself, which probably made him seem like a fucking sorcerer to common people in 1834. Plus, the contraption itself looked pretty awesome, if somewhat like a sewing machine.
Davenport’s first attempt to patent his invention was refused, literally because nobody had ever patented an electrical device before. So he spent a couple years collecting letters of recommendation from scientists and academic types; traveled to Princeton to get the support of pioneering engineer Joseph Henry, and to Pennsylvania to get the same from Benjamin Franklin; went back home to Vermont, and got his goddamn patent in 1837.
Fortunately for comedy, we still have some some media accounts of his mind-blowing demonstrations of this arcane force, like this one from the New York Herald:
“The occult and mysterious principle of magnetism is being displayed in all of its magnificence and energy as Mr. Davenport runs his wheel…”
But that wasn’t his best trick. Davenport was able to come up with a pretty radical application for his device- he used it to power the world’s first goddamned electric car. The materials were expensive, the technology in its infancy, and it may not have been practical to start building electric cars for every citizen- but damned if Davenport wasn’t able to build one, over a hundred years before the technology would be refined, perfected and buried by greedy oil companies.
Also, the first primitive rechargeable battery wouldn’t be invented until 1860, so Davenport’s vehicle had a rather limited range. Isn’t that just how they get you? Who wants to plug in a goddamn car for eight hours to drive it 50 miles? Fuck that bullshit, hook us up with a fatty tank of gassy gasoline!