A history of the touchscreen

The rapid evolution of the mobile phone has been truly remarkable. From brick-sized handsets in the ’80s and ‘90s to today’s pocket-sized models, few could have predicted the speed of technological progress involved. Of the current generation of mobiles, there are very few which lack the now-ubiquitous touchscreen, which allows the user to operate the device by using their finger either to select an icon or drag a cursor around the display. Of course, touchscreens can be found in a wide range of different technological devices, ranging from tablet computers to ticket machines at railway stations. Relatively few people are familiar with the history of the touchscreen in any great detail, but their evolution has been an ongoing process since the mid-20th century.

According to Wikipedia, computers developed by American firm Apollo were equipped with keyboard touchpads as early as 1982, making them among the earliest forerunners of today’s touch technology. Touchpads gradually became increasingly common in the home computer market from the late ‘80s onwards, with Cirque’s GlidePoint touchpad regarded as the first of its kind to reach mass consumer popularity. Today, touchpads are most commonly found in laptop computers as they are generally considered by most users to be more convenient than using a mouse. Of course, some users are more comfortable using a mouse and continue to do so, but nearly all modern laptops come equipped with a touchpad device.

Wikipedia also states that touchscreen technology began to filter into the mainstream in the late ‘80s, and video game developer Sega originally intended to release a touchscreen successor to its popular Game Gear handheld device in the early part of the 1990s. However, the then-prohibitive cost of touchscreen technology persuaded the firm to shelve the project, and the planned device never saw the light of day. In fact, it wasn’t until the release of Nintendo’s multi-million selling DS in 2004 that handheld touchscreen technology made an impact on video gaming. A key innovation of the recent years is touchscreens which can gauge just how hard the user is pressing down, and the advent of multi-touch technology is also a major step forward from earlier generations of touchscreens. The cheap mobile contracts model adapted by phone service providers was also a major factor in making the touchscreen technology affordable for use in phones.

An article from About.com notes that the gradual evolution of the modern touchscreen began in the mid-1960s, with the invention of the capacitative touchscreen by scientist EA Johnston at Britain’s Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern. In the early ‘70s, University of Kentucky scientist Sam Hurst invented the Elograph, widely regarded as a major milestone in the development of touchscreen technology. In 1977, Siemens provided financial backing to Dr Hurst’s Elographics studio to fund the development of the first glass touch sensor surface. In 1983, computing giant Hewlett-Packard released the HP-150, the first home computer with touchscreen technology. Various smartphones started to emerge in the 1990s which also contained touchscreen capability, with the Palm Pilot – first launched in 1996 – shifting millions of units. Three years prior to that, however, IBM had developed what was widely considered to be the first smartphone – known as Simon – which also featured a touchscreen device.

Image from creative commons at Flickr, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/acidhelm/

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