To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remarks about obscenity, the concept of the “gadget” is not easy to define—but we know a gadget when we see it. They capture our imaginations like little else. We become compulsively attached. The best gadgets fulfill basic needs we’re hard-pressed to describe, and because of that possess a magical ability to conjure money. They become talismans for economic vitality, as the gadgets in this gallery show.
While the “gadget” predates the invention of electronics, we stuck to devices that one way or another make use of electricity, in keeping with the 21st-century sense of the word. We also decided that for this list, a gadget was something a person had to be able to hold and more or less use with one hand, which ruled out laptops, for example. We picked gadgets that tipped toward the “gizmo” side of the continuum.
The gadgets we chose weren’t just popular. They didn’t just make their inventors or manufacturers a lot of money. These diminutive devices cracked open the earth, shoving tectonic plates east and west to build new mountains of economic activity. They demonstrate the profound capacity of the most unassuming bits of metal, glass and plastic to transmute the basic elements of labor and commerce into new sources of gold.