The Most Important Hardware Innovations – USB and USB Devices


Continuing our discussion of the hardware that has changed humanity forever, we next take a look at the medium contenders on our list. These are pieces that were much more ground-shattering than the previous three, but fail to reach the heights that our top three have. Hardware listed here follows a particular order – this list details the countdown starting at number 6:

6. USB and USB Devices

The concept of plug-and-play was brought to the world with the creation of the USB standard connector. The idea raised a few eyebrows at the time, but they couldn’t have foreseen what a juggernaut the USB industry has become in modern times.

Originally, the USB was designed as a secondary connector that was much faster than the parallel port in the back of the computer to hook up everything from printers to adapters, everything peripheral would now go through the USB connector. This was especially important because of the USB’s “hot-swapping” ability. Connect any device through USB and you can disconnect and reconnect it as many times as you please without the need to reboot your PC.

Once you combine the fact that the USB could hook up peripherals without a reboot to the fact that it could also serve as a memory interface for flash drives, external hard drives, and the like, you discover why the USB is what it is today. Currently, my desktop has more than five USB devices connected to it – a testament to the idea that one day, we would see a USB powered future.

Everything changed because of the USB. Due to the USB, you now have printer salesmen trying to squeeze an extra $30 out of you for a cable. Due to the USB, flash drives are now the standard rather than floppies or zip disks. Due to the USB, your entire PC setup can be completely wireless – keyboards, mice, and Bluetooth devices all go through your USB in adapter form.

The computer wouldn’t be what it is today without the use of USB enabled devices, but that’s almost moot compared to…

5. The Floppy

Where USB is the evolution of the serial bus and parallel port technology, nothing has impacted the PC the way the floppy did. It was the first device that let us dream of sharing information with one another. The floppy was ridiculously small and unable to realistically achieve the goal that the USB is capable of today. However, for the time, it was the only way to get movies, music, and games, and it’s higher on our list because while USB Flash Drives are now the norm, the floppy was the one who started it all.


The floppy started as the brainchild of IBM. Back then though, the much smaller floppy was still just a dream. In the early 80s, however, people were ready for a format that would change the industry, and the 8” floppy seemed to be the best contender. The 8” floppy was a massive disk. I had the pleasure of using several of the next-gen 5¼” disks throughout my elementary school to host educational software on the old Mac IIs that the school provided us.

The earliest floppies showed us that the future would be filled with high-density, high-capacity disks that would carry our information with us. Carrying home a document you were working on at school or work was no longer a problem – it was simple with the 5¼” floppies.

However, even these wouldn’t be around for long. While clever and interesting, they were never designed for higher capacities, and as a result, couldn’t hold more than around 500 Kb. The designed solution was a much better format, and the accepted 3½ standard floppy we all think of nostalgically today.

The floppy would later become, if you’ll pardon the pun, a flop. The creation of the internet together with higher-end, higher-definition technologies gave way to larger capacity drives and USB flash drives – both of which the floppy was not equipped to keep up with. This simple disk is still dying a slow death it would seem: as of 2009, most computers do not come equipped with a floppy, and the floppy is still only mainly used in older systems that are incapable of booting through a flash drive or CD-ROM. It’s sad to see something we all grew up with die out, but that’s the way it is with computer technology – here today, gone tomorrow.

4. The Video Card

Unlike the floppy, the video card is showing far less signs of dying out. However, with modern consoles surpassing the PC in terms of general acceptance and compatibility, most people today would rather buy an Xbox instead of upgrading their PC to a gaming rig with an appropriate video card.

The first computers did not have enough power to spare for video and game processing, therefore, a pretty obvious idea came to pass. Why not have the graphics re-routed to an external processor? This idea became the video card, a computer-in-a-computer that is dedicated solely to rendering graphics and video.

For such an obvious idea, it took the good people at Amiga and IBM quite a while to come up with a card that was capable of rendering both 2D and 3D images, videos, and games on the same card. In the 90s, this card finally became a reality through the rivalry of two camps – Nvidia and ATI. These two companies are still neck-and-neck today, fiercely trying to create something that the other one won’t be able to replicate so quickly.

The important idea behind the video card was that it managed to push videos and games into the future. Without the video card, the gaming industry would not be the monster industry it is today, raking in billions and billions of dollars. All consoles and PCs use the proprietary technology that Nvidia and ATI initially dreamed up of, therefore, the video card is a direct contributor to the console gaming revolution as well as the PC gaming revolution. From text adventures, we suddenly were capable of playing games like Super Mario 64 using the mouse and keyboard. This also generated the FPS genre as we know it today, which was eventually ported to consoles.

Continue reading this series to find out our picks for the top three hardware innovations of all time.

This post is part of the series: Coputer Hardware Inventions – The Top 10 List

Shaping our world in ways that have an impact on every aspect of our lives. Here we discuss the top 10 most important computer hardware inventions ever made.
  1. Innovation Countdown: 9, 8, 7…
  2. Innovation Countdown: 6, 5, 4…
  3. Innovation Countdown: 3, 2, 1