Almost nobody goes anywhere today without some form of debit or credit card, but not so long ago all we had was physical currency. However in 1958 the Bank of America launched its BankAmericard credit card in Fresno, CA. Despite the credit card system being abused by fraudsters in its first year, the BankAmericard was eventually a success and, in 1976, changed its name to Visa. Today, Visa cards are one of the most widely used payment cards on the planet.
Medical imaging techniques such as ultrasonography — invented in 1953 at the University Hospital in Lund, Sweden — have revolutionised the field of medicine, granting doctors an unprecedented window into their patients’ bodies. Today, ultrasound scans use probes with acoustic transducers to transmit pulses into the body to check on babies in the womb and more.
The microwave oven was created by chance (see ‘Accidents of invention’), but despite its serendipitous origins, the first commercial microwave was sold in 1947, with the Raytheon Company releasing its Radarange unit. The Radarange was 1.8 metres (six feet) tall, weighed 340 kilograms (750 pounds) and cost $5,000 — over £33,800 ($51,000) by modern standards! Today, the microwave is a staple feature in most kitchens as a speedy means to cook our food.
The world’s first nuclear reactor was the Chicago Pile-1 (pictured), which was constructed as part of the USA’s Manhattan Project in WWII. Built under the western stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, the reactor was fairly crude, comprising a pile of uranium pellets and graphite blocks. Regardless of its rustic build, the reactor initiated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction on 2 December 1942 and kick-started the age of nuclear power.
It’s funny to think that the radar, one of today’s most useful inventions, was born out of a British-funded ‘death ray’ project during the runup to WWII. But that is exactly what the British government asked Scottish scientist Robert Watson-Watt to build: a machine to ‘destroy personnel’. Watson-Watt realised the death ray was impossible to build, but did suggest that radio waves could be used to monitor distant objects.