Example of a technology that was long underestimated?

I'm wondering how and in what time frame new technologies emerged and found application in the history of science. I could make several examples of those which suddenly and unexpectedly changed the world, but not the vice-versa. In particular, I'm wondering which didn't find an application or remained undeveloped for a long time (say at least a couple of decades) but then found its way to success? Or, to put it in other words, which technology needed the longest R&D phase before becoming effective?
 

stockzahn

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One example could be the principle of steam engines. In ancient Greece cylinders and spheres containing water were built and heated. Due to the exiting steam the machine started to move, but they haven't been used to do work, but as an attraction for the public on markets an public places.
 

Janus

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One example that I can think of is "frequency hopping". While a known concept for quite a while, it took some time before it was put to wide use. Today, it is what makes the cell phone possible.

Another is the "Edison effect", discovered by Thomas Edison during his attempts to invent a practical electric light in 1875. Edison saw no useful purpose for it. Today we know it as "thermionic emission", which is the principle on which vacuum tubes operate.
 
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How about steel? The steelmaking technology has been improving for six thousand years.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel

I expect other ancient technologies are on very long time scales. Tech in those time had to walk from village to village.
 
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Not "technology" exactly, but Riemann Geometry was created in the 1860's and as far as I know had no practical application for decades until Einstein discovered in the early part of the 1900's that it was perfect for describing space-time.
 

russ_watters

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Cell phones took a long time to go from expensive curiosity to ubiqiotous; about 50 years.
 
Possibly the laser? From its invention in 1960 it took quite a while before a commercial use was found for it in media players and supermarket bar code readers.

Cheers
 

Klystron

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A. Compasses likely began as a curiosity. An iron-age needle rubbed on lodestone was floated on a piece of bark or cork in a bowl of liquid. Curiously the needle appeared to point in a preferred direction even after the bowl was rotated. Contemporary "scientists" determined the needle seemed to point in the same direction day or night for all similarly constructed devices. The bowl was inscribed or marked to indicate needle deflection. Before accurate maps of the earth were invented, the compass could provide a reference direction for building, engineering, and travel without understanding magnetism and even without commonly accepted directions.

The basic compass was used for thousands of years with incremental improvements and is still in common use today.

B. Early clocks take two forms:
  1. Astronomical. During clear days time was indicted by the (apparent) passage of the sun through the sky, either directly or by marking shadows on a surface. On clear nights the apparent regular movements of luminous bodies could be used to tell time (and direction).
  2. Mechanical clocks relied on some regular process to measure time intervals such as a burning candle, drips of water or flowing sand.
New forms of clocks were invented as new technology appeared including metal spring "clockwork" mechanisms, electric circuits, crystal vibrations, and periodic rates in atomic measurements. The importance of clocks to society slowly grew from convenience to underlying most human activity.
 

tech99

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The fax machine appeared around 1850 but took until 1980 before it suddenly caught on.
Of course, it was in use in the intervening years, notably to send newspapers to ocean liners using HF radio.
 

jim hardy

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berkeman

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Cell phones took a long time to go from expensive curiosity to ubiqiotous; about 50 years.
Interesting related note -- cell phones seemed to catch on earlier in Europe than in the US. I remember walking the streets of Germany, Amsterdam and France at professional conferences a decade or two ago, and wondering at how ubiquitous cell phone usage was there. It seemed excessive to me at the time... o0)
 

russ_watters

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I remember walking the streets of Germany, Amsterdam and France at professional conferences a decade or two ago, and wondering at how ubiquitous cell phone usage was there. It seemed excessive to me at the time... o0)
You were probably right!
 

tech99

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I would like to suggest photoluminescence - the LED and semi conductor laser.
The effect was discovered by Capt Round of the Marconi company in 1907, using a crystal of silicon carbide in conjunction with a cat whisker.
LEDs did not appear until 1962. By 1980, LEDs and lasers were making possible new transmission networks using optical fibre, leading to today's data networks. (I remember the cancellation of TE01-mode trunk waveguide research).
But the present trend to LED lighting is something Capt Round would never have imagined, nor its likely beneficial effects on world energy consumption and the climate.
 
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I remember at uni ~1973/4, we had a presentation on photo-chromic dyes, where one wavelength of light changed the dye colour thus, and another changed it back...

Such Were Not very stable, suffered rapid oxidation, had no obvious commercial uses. but, the working wavelengths could be tailored very precisely...

I suggested a kiddy toy like 'Etch-a-sketch', using an LED light pen to write or erase. At the time, hobbyist-grade single and dual-colour LEDs were just about bright enough to pull this off...

IIRC, that notion earned me the offer of a Masters, but I was not a good synthetic chemist, needed to get a modest degree then earn some money...
 

LURCH

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I always like to mention the Chinese when this sort of thing comes up. They invented paper manufacturing in about 100 AD, and movable-type printing around 1,000, but never thought to use it to distribute information to the masses. It was about 400 years later that some guy named Gutenberg made a few modifications and started mass production of the written word. I can’t even fathom how many other inventions ( and other global changes) resulted from that!

The Chinese also invented gunpowder and rockets. For about 300 years they almost never used them for anything but fireworks. Then Europeans got hold of the technology and used it to dominate China. The Chinese alchemists were apparently trying to develop a potion for immortality. A sad irony, when one considers all the deaths that gunpowder been used to cause.
 

Dr-Flay

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Semiconductors.
Faraday discovered the semiconducting properties of materials in 1833, but we couldn't do anything with it til the first transistors in 1954.
Without that we would be all using valves and relays in our not so portable computers.
Hmmm. I wonder how long it would take to mint a crypto-coin using Babbages thinking engine.

For fun.

Static electricity.
Until the advent of man-made fibres and materials, static electricity did not find its true potential (hehe).
Since the 1970s and long trousers, schoolboys finally had the ability to shuffle along a carpet towards their intended victim, then zap them like the super-hero (or villain) of their dreams.

Metal.
The earliest examples of metal use in Human history go back to the discovery of Copper, then Tin, but the science of Metallurgy later provided the Bronze age.
We found lots of uses through the Bronze age (mostly for killing) then the Iron-age (mostly for killing), then to a more creative period of metalworking in the past 200-300 years (and lots of killing on and industrial scale).
Then we get to more recent history and the discovery uses for heavy elements and metals that allowed us to do killing on a more insane scale.
However it wasn't until the beginning of the 1970s until metal finally had the most optimal use.
From the steel factories of Birmingham (UK) came the worlds greatest invention. Black Sabbath was created and the world has been rocked by Heavy Metal ever since.
 
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Gutenberg made a few modifications and started mass production of the written word.
And before that the invention of the written word (converting spoken language to graphic symbols).
 
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Possibly the laser? From its invention in 1960 it took quite a while before a commercial use was found for it...
The stimulated emission principle by which lasers operate was theorized by Einstein in 1917 and experimentally confirmed in 1928.
 

atyy

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However it wasn't until the beginning of the 1970s until metal finally had the most optimal use.
From the steel factories of Birmingham (UK) came the worlds greatest invention. Black Sabbath was created and the world has been rocked by Heavy Metal ever since.
What did Black Sabbath use from the steel factories of Birmingham?
 

Vanadium 50

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The principles behind the diesel engine were used in a toy for hundreds of years before the rest of the technology caught up and made an engine possible.
 

Andrew Mason

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How about the transporter, invented in 1967. We are still using comparatively crude technology to send people up to the International Space Station.

AM
 
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I remember ads in early 1970's Boy's Life magazines (by Crosman, perhaps, but it could have been Benjamin or Daisy) claiming 3 or 4 discoveries by ancient Greeks that, had they put them together, would have resulted in functional air rifles several thousand years ago. Don't recall any details (and was unsuccessful finding it online), but the thought is intriguing.
 

Baluncore

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Or, to put it in other words, which technology needed the longest R&D phase before becoming effective?
The first patent covering the gas turbine was granted in 1791 in England to John Barber.
It took 150 years and the pressure of WW2 before gas turbines were sufficiently reliable to be used in aircraft.
 

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