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Tech Trivia. No. 3

Test your knowledge of these tech tidbits in this third installment of Maestro's Tech Trivia. You'll see that some technology is born well ahead of its time.

When and where was the first use of the UPC (Universal Product Code)?

That familiar little barcode symbol with 12 numbers is used throughout the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and elsewhere for product tracking in stores. Each UPC barcode has a strip of white spaces and black bars above a unique sequence of 12 digits. The idea for automated checkout surfaced as early as 1932 with Wallace Flint. A collection of grocery store trade associations became the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council which, in conjunction with consultants, defined the Uniform Product Code format. A number of technology firms submitted designs, and the form used today is based on an IBM design, with modifications. Troy, Ohio was the site of the very first UPC scan on June 26, 1974. The product was a package of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which is now on display in the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

What is Liquid Paper?

It is safe to assume that many reading this will have no knowledge of this product. Those who grew up with computers won’t remember the trials of typewriters and the heyday of “correction fluid.” Bette Nesmith Graham was a former artist and single mom who worked for Texas Bank & Trust. Bette couldn’t type very well. That was a problem in a job that required a lot of typing. Using water-based paint, Bette began experimenting in her kitchen sink with a concoction she called Mistake Out. It worked surprising well to fix her typing errors. Continual tinkering improved the mixture, which she renamed Liquid Paper in 1958. By 1968 she was selling a million dollars worth of Liquid Paper annually. Bette sold her invention to Gillette for $47.5 million just a few months before her death in 1980.

What was the Iter Avto?

Although GPS navigation is common today and even built into many vehicles as standard equipment, the idea for in-car route assistance goes back well before satellites made it all so magical. The Iter Avto was a route assistance tool designed in the 1930s. It made use of maps on thin film-like strips of paper which you scrolled through as you progressed along the road. Turning off the route you were following required a quick swap to the proper map strip. No exotic satellite uplink, no soothing voice to guide you, but navigation help nonetheless. Even earlier, in the 1920s, there was something called the Plus Fours Routefinder, which was designed to be worn like a wristwatch. It also used maps on thin paper strips, and the user manually scrolled the map, as he traveled along.

What forerunner of a popular communication mainstay of today debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair?

Although Skype has been around since 2003, its predecessors were attracting attention decades before. Public videophone service was available in Germany as early as 1936, and a sci-fi kind of illustration, also from the 1930s, shows people using “proto-eyephone-o-matic” devices. And

What technical advance did Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske try to launch in the 1920s?

A 1922 article in Scientific American invited readers to ponder a breakthrough capable of dramatically reducing the size of books. A Florida newspaper asserted that the device was destined to “...do away with bulky volumes.” What was this mystery invention? It was called the Fiske Reading Machine. Something like eyeglasses with a handle, the Fiske creation had a magnifying glass for one eye. The view from the other eye was blocked by a shield, and there was a rack which held reading material. The idea behind the Fiske Reading Machine was as dubious as it was simple—just shrink type size so much as to make it undecipherable with the unaided eye. This allowed large volumes to be rendered to miniature pamphlets which were then read on the Fiske Reader. Hmmmm.

Watch the Maestro blog for future installments of Tech Trivia.

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