Flashback: 1973 and 1997

Flashback time again — check me out on BBC Radio Manchester at 16:20ish today talking about 1973 and 1997 with Becky Want. 95.1 FM or online on Listen Again.


  • This year my favourite technology losers put out their most famous invention. Researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center demonstrated the Xerox Alto workstation, which had a graphical user interface and a controller for moving a cursor around on screen. Inventions you and I now know as Windows and the Mouse. Steve Jobs was the first to rip these off at Apple, followed by the even more successful Bill Gates at Microsoft. But when was the last time you saw a Xerox PC, mouse or operating system…?
  • Also in 1973 the first Voice over Internet Protocal call was made. If you’ve used Skype or MSN Messenger, you know what VoIP is — sending a voice call over the internet rather than the traditional phone lines. What you may not realise is that just about all calls internationally or over certain networks such as TalkTalk, use VoIP — whether or not you make them from a normal phone. Carrying voice calls over Internet Protocol (IP) is cheaper, so quite often your call will be converted to IP and then back again before it reaches its destination.
  • Bic launched the disposable lighter. Gilette had a working model in 1972 but Bic quickly came to dominate the market with a low price and clever, and very sexual, advertising. Flick my Bic became a part of the slang Lexicon in the US.
  • Gene splicing was invented by Stanford scientists Stanley Cohen and Paul Berg. We seem to be suspicious of anything involving genetics, but it’s hard to argue with the medical value of this innovation. For example, by splicing specific genes in to bacteria scientists can create little microbial factories for the production of human hormones, growth factors and other medically important chemicals.
  • The first UK link to ArpaNet, what would become the internet, was made from University College London. The Department for Trade and Industry didn’t even offer moral support and wanted evidence that it would offer value from companies in the IT sector.
  • British scientists Clifford Cocks and James Ellis discover cryptographic public key mechanism
  • The SWIFT (Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network is launched to enable secure electronic communication and transfers between banks. Twenty-five years later and it still takes three working days to send money between accounts…


  • A much less exciting year bizarrely. It seems that all the exciting stuff really happened in the 1970s! But there was some good news. IEEE released the 802.11 (WiFi) standard, which means we can all work on the sofa, in the garden, or if you’re feeling really lazy, in bed.
  • The dancing baby appeared, becoming one of the first Internet’s first fads. The short 3D animation spawned a recurring apparition in Ally McBeal.
  • Bill Gates became the world’s richest businessman
  • And the Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) battery came in to commercial use, extending the life and reducing the weight of laptops and making innovations like the iPod possible. It’s now being used in performance electric cars like the Tesla eV1.
This post forms part of my Blogs series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Blogs page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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