What Tech From 1916 Says About 2016

For perspective on the fast-moving technology of today, we look back at the innovations from 100 years ago.

The end of December is the traditional time for year-in-review roundups of all sorts. They pop up online like strange perennial media flowers as we take stock of the year.

For this year's look back at technology in 2016, we decided to fiddle with the dials on the wayback machine and take the long view. Bouncing off five busy areas of technology in 1916, we check in on what was happening with phones, computers, cars, weapons and appliances exactly 100 years ago. There's nothing like a full century to lend perspective.

Telephone to Mobile Phone

Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction writers have a pretty good track record of prognostication when it comes to future technology. But the utter ubiquity of the mobile phone is a development that slipped under everyone's radar. Estimates suggest there are more than 4 billion mobile phones in use and the average device, circa 2016, is millions of times more powerful than the computers NASA used to send astronauts to the moon.

While there were no earthshaking innovations with new mobile phone models in 2016, technical specs on storage and battery life continued to rise steadily, and Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 phones introduced exciting new detonation options. (For a taste of the future, how about a cell phone that talks to your contact lenses?) Yes, phones have come a long way.

It turns out that phones were making big news in 1916, too. Long-distance telephone networks had already connected big cities like Boston and Chicago, but the first official transcontinental telephone call was placed just a year earlier, in 1915. Alexander Graham Bell, in New York City, dialed up his assistant Thomas Watson, 2,500 miles away in San Francisco.

According to lore, Bell repeated the words from his famous first phone call by saying, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you," Bell said. Watson's reply: "It will take me five days to get there now!" Always with the funny, those guys. By the end of 1916, AT&T has established full transcontinental telephone service.

Punch Card to Supercomputer

U.S. Census Bureau

Computer systems in 2016 advanced in every direction, but we're in the Information Age after all, so that's been the case for several decades now. In June, China unveiled what's generally acknowledged as the world's most powerful supercomputer. The Sunway TaihuLight can perform 93 petraflops (quadrillions of calculations per second) on the standard benchmark tests for these things. With more than 10 million processors, depending on how you do the math, the world's fastest computer is particularly useful for advanced climate and weather modeling.

Of course, computers as we know them today didn't exist 100 years ago, but there were several semi-automated, electromechanical tabulating systems in use. These mechanisms processed binary data by use of punch cards, in which numbers are incremented by the presence or absence of a hole at a particular coordinate.

The 1916 U.S.Census used a punch card system invented by Herman Hollerith and his recently consolidated Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). Eight years later, the company would be renamed International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

Ford Model T to Driverless Car

Ford Motor Company

The year 2016 will be remembered as a big one for the advent of driverless cars. In September, Uber deployed its first fleet of automated vehicles - with backup human drivers - and the year featured strange news on driverless boats and beer trucks.

By 1916, the motor vehicle (which first appeared on the scene in 1769 as the Cugnot Steam Trolley) was well on its way to making fundamental changes to society. The introduction of the Ford Model T eight years earlier brought affordable cars to the middle class and fierce competition drove technological advances. By 1916, dozens of small manufacturers were making vehicles. State-of-the-art tech advances included electric ignition and four-wheel braking. In the U.S., this period is sometimes referred to as the Brass Era, due to the widespread use of the alloy in manufacturing.

By the end of 1916, around 3.5 million cars and trucks were registered in the United States. Today, there are more than 250 million cars and trucks nationwide, and well over a billion in the world.

Mark I Tank to Automated Weaponry


Concerns about artificial intelligence and automated weaponry made headlines throughout 2016. Over the summer, more than 1,000 scientists and industry leaders, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, signed an open letter calling for a worldwide ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems, a.k.a. killer robots. In December, the United Nations voted to take action on the issue.

In 1916, the world was coming to grips with another kind of mechanized monstrosity. World War I was raging across Europe when the first tank was deployed on the battlefield. On the morning of September 15, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Britain debuted the Mark I tank by sending 50 of them across the muddy fields toward the German line.

At eight feet tall and 28 tons, the Mark I was designed to break the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. The propulsion system was state-of-the-art, so far as that goes: a 100-horsepower six-cylinder Foster-Daimler petrol gas engine. Top speed was four mph, with a range of about 30 miles. The 10-mm steel armor plating was ostensibly bulletproof, but each bullet that hit caused shrapnel to fly in the hull, forcing crews to wear leather or even chain mail armor.

Electric Appliances to the Internet of Things

Public domain / Old Appliance Ads

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been an extremely busy area in tech development for several years, promising a future in which virtually all of our physical stuff - vehicles, devices, appliances - will be embedded with electronics and wirelessly networked across the globe.

Alas, the Internet of Things made news for all the wrong reasons in October, 2016, when hackers hijacked hundreds of thousands of IoT devices to launch massive botnet attacks across the internet.

Security experts fret that IoT networks will be particularly vulnerable to future attacks as we start putting all of our various appliances online - for instance, the washing machine. Believe it or not, the age of the internet-connected washing machines is already upon us. (And don't forget about the laundry bot.)

You probably saw this coming, but yes, the first modern electric washing machines became widely available in the U.S. around 1916. Variants of the original Thor Electric Washing Machine, first manufactured in 1908, this new generation of devices was the first to combine all the elements of the modern washing machine - cylindrical tub, lifting blades to separate clothes and a clutch on the motor for reversing direction.

Science. There's just no stopping it. One final note on the year 1916: A professor at the University of Berlin named Albert Einstein published a modest little paper that's enjoyed some subsequent popularity.