Apple iPad, Android Just the Latest in Tablet PCs' Long History

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2011-04-25 Print this article Print

From the "telautograph" to the Apple iPad and Google Android, it's been a long and winding road for the technology behind tablet PCs and touch-screens.

The Apple iPad whetted consumer appetite for tablet PCs, not to mention its rivals' interest in creating touch-screens of their very own. Advertisements for every new seven- or ten-inch device insist on talking up revolutionary or "magical" hardware or software, spinning the impression that these devices represent the bleeding edge of technology; that nothing quite so amazing has ever been seen on this planet, much less made available for a hefty percentage of one's paycheck.

But all technology evolves from sometimes cruder predecessors, and tablets are no different. People have been playing with some of the technologies underlying tablet PCs for over a century: In July 1888, for example, inventor Elisha Gray received a U.S. patent for an electrical stylus device that captured handwriting. According to his original application, this "telautograph" leveraged telegraph technology to send a handwritten message between a sending and receiving station.

Tablet research necessarily accelerated after World War II, in conjunction with advances in computing. Research into electronic text and handwriting recognition contributed to the RAND Corporation's RAND tablet, produced in 1964.

"The RAND tablet is believed to be the first such graphic device that is digital [and] is relatively low-cost," read an internal research memo on the project. "The development of the tablet at RAND has been pursued as a part of research performed for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and is an aspect of a larger interest in the area of man-made communication and interaction." As originally built, prime tasks for the RAND tablet included digitizing map information and "the study of more esoteric applications of graphical languages for man-machine interaction." It allowed for writing in "a natural manner" using a stylus, and measured 10 inches by 10 inches.  

Not exactly a device intended to play Angry Birds, in other words.

Around this time, however, science fiction began playing with the concept of tablet computers in earnest. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronauts headed to Jupiter watch video on a tablet device.

Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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