It’s easy to take tech for granted. After all, it’s everywhere.
But even high-tech everyday products—like wireless earbuds that connect to your phone via a Bluetooth signal to keep your favorite song bumping, or an antiperspirant with a proprietary blend of ingredients that prevents it from staining your favorite white shirt—has a less glamorous, tech-y past. (Ever seen an old-school pedometer?)
Below, you’ll find the origin stories of five popular items and how they’ve grown into our go-to products through the years.
Deodorants and antiperspirants can be traced all the way back to the Egyptians, but it wasn’t until 1888 that Mum debuted the first deodorant cream (applied with your fingertips). It was made from aluminum chloride. In 1954, the first roll-on antiperspirant debuted, inspired by the ballpoint pen.
Fast forward to today, where advancements have made the aluminum salts in antiperspirants efficacious but mild, says Melissa Torres, manager for North America deodorants and antiperspirants at Degree. Their first and foremost function is to keep you dry, but now, “ingredients have been added to deliver aluminum salts in a better way and create some nice attributes like smoothness, glide, and moisturization,” says Torres.
And then there’s how an antiperspirant affects your clothing. Degree, for one, has an Ultraclear Black+White product range, which—beyond protecting against sweat and odor protection—helps protect against that dreaded yellow staining. “A huge amount of research went into screening for ingredients that were causing yellow staining and eliminating them to find a new, unique formula,” says Torres.
Advanced Protection Degree products also have what’s called “MotionSense® technology,” a dual encapsulated fragrance system, Torres explains. That means it works harder the more you move. “Fragrance oils are encapsulated in little spheres that either break apart when you sweat or break apart with friction as you move,” she says. That means you’ll see benefits from the product even when you’re active but not sweating. It’s a far cry from the ostrich egg products the Egyptians used.
The very first pedometers and heart rate monitors had one feature: They tracked steps or they measured heart rates. They were clunky, somewhat unreliable, and rare. Now, smartwatches and fitness wearables track heart rate and steps, sleep quality, calories burned throughout the day, breathing, and workouts (whether you’re running, biking, or doing yoga). “That was a huge leap forward,” says Shelten Yuen, vice president of research at Fitbit.
The progression of wearables has largely been in the sophistication of the sensors, he explains. For instance, heart rate capabilities right on your wrist when you’re exercising or sleeping offer data comparable to that which you’d get in a medical setting.
Today’s fitness tracker is also more of an all day, every day item—like a watch or a piece of jewelry—versus a heart rate monitor you pop on for a run, says Jonah Becker, VP of design at Fitbit.
And while products are getting smaller and sleeker, they’re packing more and more in. By tracking all kinds of data throughout the day, Fitbit in particular hopes to someday calculate sleep apnea risk for its users.
Long before Spotify and Bluetooth earbuds, switchboard operators working the World Wars and military members used some of the first headphone prototypes.
But you likely remember one of the first recreational innovations in this space: the Sony Walkman. “This was the first time audio became truly personal, as you could take it with you,” says Jon Regala, head of accessories and smart products at Sony Xperia. “This ability to take your music with you created the evolutionary path to produce the best headsets that would block out the rest of the world so you could become truly immersed in the music,” says Regala.
The simple design of the Walkman grew into various products, from noise-canceling headphones to wireless Bluetooth buds with hours-long battery life. Play, pause, and skip controls grew to capabilities that allowed you to take calls, access virtual assistants, and (in some models) listen to media while still being aware of your surroundings due to an open-ear design.
The Cell Phone
The first cell phone debuted in 1973. The Motorola device was almost as big as a shoebox and clocked in at about 2 pounds; about 10 years later, the phone (which was just that: a phone) retailed between $3,500 and $4,000—a pricey commodity that wasn’t as popular or accessible as the present-day smartphone.
Phone technology has come a long way since then, too. The iPhone, which celebrated 10 years on the market last year, outperforms the original “shoe phone” in just about every way—including touch controls, a camera with a 12-megapixel lens, a high-quality speaker, face identification capabilities, internet, a talking assistant (Siri), and any downloadable app you could imagine.
In 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis created what would become the first pair of blue jeans, crafted from denim with metal rivets.
While jeans have always had technical aspects to them—such as a manipulated yarn size and smoothness to enhance durability and feel, as well as an altered direction and steepness of the diagonal twill line—fiber blends changed denim forever by allowing it to stretch, explains Lorynn Divita, Ph.D., an associate professor of apparel merchandising at Baylor University and author of Fashion Forecasting. “Newer blends have resulted in four-way stretch denim, which stretches in both the horizontal and vertical directions,” says Divita.
Today, many innovations in denim production aim to reduce its environmental impact, she says. “Levi’s has announced that it’s going to replace its use of the oxidizer potassium permanganate, the chemical it uses to give its jeans that ‘broken in’ look, with lasers,” Divita says.
“VF Jeanswear, the parent company of Wrangler and Lee, has a new denim dyeing process called IndigoZERO,” she adds. “The company says that foam dyeing will eliminate 99 percent of the chemicals and water used in the standard dyeing process.”
Denim has recently entered the tech age, too. “Levi’s and Google have introduced a denim jacket with special touch-sensitive threads and minuscule electronics embedded in the sleeve that allow the wearer to send a wireless signal to their smartphone for things like listening to music, get directions, or connecting to ridesharing services with a flick of the wrist,” says Divita.