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The history of so-called ‘gadgets’ spans back several thousand years, and encompasses both tangible and virtual objects. Generally, a gadget can be defined as a device engineered for a culture or time-specific purpose. From mechanical computers in first century Rome to twenty-first century search engine tools, gadgets may have become more technologically complex, but the basic impetus behind them remains the same.
For proof, compare the striking similarity in purpose between the oldest recorded historical gadgets and the newest virtual gadgets in use on search engines such as Google. The oldest and most mysterious gadget, the Antikythera mechanism, was a type of navigational tool installed on a ship that tracked the cycles and corresponding positions of the moon and other celestial objects. Compare this with any number of the new ‘apps’ or gadgets in use on iphones or other portable devices, which perform similar functions, but with far less use of bronze. The realm of virtual gadgets—which do everything from count down the time between now and a certain important date, like one’s wedding or birthday, to more complex gadgets that search certain websites for information on a specific topic, like a gadget that keeps you updated on all new articles written about BMW’s—allows both for both incredible personal customisation and the ability to stumble across programming that may have wider technical implications. Much as the Roman Antikythera mechanism helped refine the concept of maritime navigation, so too the Google gadgets may help researchers make better sense of the internet.
An excellent example of a gadget that later found a much broader use is the ninth century’s alembic, whose modern version is the pot sill, used in distilling processes for whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. The alembic was composed of two receptacles and a tube to connect them. By boiling the contents of one receptacle, collecting the condensed remains, and then putting these remains into the other receptacle, basic distillation was mastered. Not bad for a simple gadget!
Of course, no article on gadgets could be written without mentioning Charles Babbage, a British mathematician and inventor whose numerous gadgets and drawings have earned him the posthumous title of “father of the modern computer.”
Perhaps the most unchanged aspect of gadgets is not their function, but the creative genius it takes to bring them into being. One could say that imagination and desire are the chief components of any gadget.