Guest column: The greatest of unheralded tech inventions

Thank goodness it's a new century. I was rather rapidly getting sick of the last one. Sick of all the talk about the greatest athlete of the 20th century. The greatest moment. The greatest invention.

For starters, no one even asked me. But if they had, my candidate for innovation of the century would be home-delivered pizza; either that or the Slinky, even though I still can't figure out how it goes down a flight of stairs.

But conspicuously absent from these conversations are computers. No one even talks about the century's greatest computer inventions.

Sure, Microsoft's Bill Gates gets a little hoopla. And founder and CEO Jeff Bezos made the cover of a magazine or two.

But there are dozens of unheralded innovations that sadly go unnoticed. Here are just a few of the greatest innovations in data processing that somehow slipped through the cracks of recognition.

-- The @. It's mind-boggling: This one tiny keystroke launched the Internet. Though if I had a vote, I'd much rather have gone with the ^, which is a heck of a lot easier to draw. But thank goodness we didn't go with the , since I still pretty much use the IBM PC Jr. that I bought back in '85, and it doesn't have that symbol.

-- The raised floor. Maybe the greatest invention of all time, yet we take it for granted. Without it, life would be nothing but piles of wire and cable snakes. Raise a glass to the raised floor - it's literally the foundation of technology! It has brought order to a world of chaos.

But there looms a sad day on the horizon when smaller machines and wireless technologies will make the raised floor go away forever. I'd like to be there the day they rip up ours. Lord knows what we'll find under there - maybe that operator who disappeared from second shift back in 1987.

-- The ultralight notebook. This may not seem like a big deal, except to those who lug laptops, batteries, cables, attachments and accessories through airports every week. I can add 2 inches onto my arm just schlepping the stuff between gates. Thank goodness the late '90s brought about new, lighter notebooks. I had one that was so compact I could put it into a glove compartment - which I moronically did recently in a rented car in Chicago and haven't seen it since.

-- Voice mail. No more endless rings. No more little pink "While You Were Out" pads. Calls are answered around the clock, securely, reliably and privately. Voice mail was arguably the greatest productivity enabler of the century, except on those days when you pop downstairs for frozen yogurt, come back and find out you've got 16 more messages.

-- Halon. Brilliant! It once was the fire suppressant of choice in every computer room in America, until a few cranky envirosafety geeks started to make noise. It was the perfect way to stop a blaze - kill the flame, save the equipment. All right, it did have a downside: With a little bad luck, it could wipe out every living thing in the computer room. But heck, I knew a headhunter who did the same thing to a small data processing department in New Jersey.

Michael Cohn is a consultant in Atlanta and still insists that Beta videotapes were the greatest thing since sliced bread. Contact him

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