Many of the electronic devices we interact with today are touch screens, such as our smartphones, bank ATMs, or even when ordering at McDonald’s. However, when did this technology first come out? And who was the person behind the invention?
The first touchscreen technology was invented back in 1965, by a British engineer named Eric Johnson. The technology was invented to help British air traffic control officers to interact with their computers faster. However, the technology did not exactly pick up until the 1990s, with the growth of stylus-based PDAs.
This article discusses the invention of touchscreen technology. We look at why and when it was invented. We also explore how touch screen technology has evolved from the original model to the ones we see in our personal devices today.
When Was Touch Screen Invented?
Touch screens may be something from the Sci-Fi era, but surprisingly, the first instance of touch screen technology came out in 1965. Eric Johnson, a British engineer, invented it.
He was working with the Royal Radar Establishment (RRE) at the time in Malvern, Britain. At the time, the UK National Air Defense was looking into how it could help air traffic controllers to speed up their response time. This led to Mr. Johnson coming out with a touch screen as a possible solution.
His first initial touchscreens were based on capacitive touchscreens, consisting of a glass-coated insulator with a transparent conductor made from indium tin oxide.
Thin copper wires were placed across a computer’s cathode ray tube (CRT) to help the circuits sense when screens were being touched.
He subsequently patented them in 1966. He later published his design as an article, which caught the attention of engineering circles. However, the technology was still too early at the time.
Touch screens did not take off until the 90s when Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) became popular. These are primarily stylus-based touchscreen devices. It took until the creation of the first iPhone (2007) to propel finger-based touchscreen technology to the masses.
READ MORE: Who Invented The iPhone?
Why Was Touch Screen Invented?
Touch screens were invented and improved for many reasons, such as reducing hardware use and simplifying interaction with devices. Touch screens were also combined with a simplified user interface to speed up response time, increasing productivity.
The initial drive for Eric Johnson to invent the touch screen was driven by the need to increase the ability of the British air traffic crew to work faster. The goal is to simplify their experience with the computer by reducing hardware and simplifying the decision-making process.
Simplify Interaction With Devices
Computers in the 1960s were very difficult to navigate unless you had a clear mental picture of what you were doing. This is because many common user interface concepts, such as WYSIWYG are still unavailable. The acronym stands for What You See, Is What You Get.
Computers in that era had a black screen and only text, often in shades of green. Navigation relies solely on a primitive keyboard. All these make it hard for air traffic controllers to manage, slowing down their decision-making time.
A finger touch screen simplifies the whole process. A tap on the screen is all it takes to place an input, which may save up minutes. When you calculate the number of daily decisions air traffic controllers make, that easily translates into thousands of hours saved per day.
Reduce Hardware To Operate Devices
The invention of touch screens also helped to reduce the amount of hardware required to operate devices. During the 60s and 70s, many types of interactive controls were invented. It wasn’t until the first Macintosh (1984) that the computing world settled down with a QWERTY keyboard and a mouse to navigate on a computer.
This means during the invention of the touch screen, there may be many types of controllers and keyboards around, and these are likely to be clunky as well.
Touchscreen technology simplifies the controls and makes things easier for users. They just see what is on the screen and select what they need.
Speed Up Response Time
When combined with a simplified user interface, touch screens can significantly speed up response time. This is evident in how we make our orders from our fast food kiosks. You simply tap for what you want and then pay.
The user interface would not be as nice in the olden days. However, Eric Johnson may have designed something similar to a dialogue box today, a message, and then we get to choose between ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’
How Has Touch Screen Technology Evolved?
From Eric Johnson’s design in 1965, touch screen technology has evolved in many ways, such as the addition of resistive touch and true capacitive touch technology. Touchscreen technology eventually went mainstream with the launch of the Apple iPhone (2007) and also the Microsoft Surface (2008)
Since Eric Johnson’s original design in 1965, the hard touch technology has undergone many changes, eventually settling with the true capacitive touch technology, seen with many consumer devices such as smartphones and many more.
Resistive Touch (the 1970s)
Many within the scientific and technology community noticed the touch screen technology invented by Eric Johnson, and many began researching a similar area.
A physics professor named Dr. G. Samuel Hurst patented the Elograph, an electronic gadget with a touch sensor. It coordinated the measuring system and was later patented by the University of Kentucky.
The technology eventually transformed into a company, Elographics. The company continued research into touch screen technology and eventually patented the first touch screen with resistive touch technology in 1977.
Elographics also collaborated with German tech giant Siemens to create the first curved-glass touchscreen. However, the issue with their technology at the time is that it does not recognize multi touches, but only single-touch.
Companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HP) tried to leverage touch screens and introduced the HP-150 in 1981. However, the touch screen technology did not pick up with their users. Perhaps the technology is still too young.
True Capacitive Touch (the 1980s)
Capacitive touch improved alongside resistive touch technology, and its additional strength was further showcased during this time. Nimish Mehta from the University of Toronto developed the first multi-touch tablet device using capacitive touch technology in 1982.
It was also revealed that capacitive touchscreens could register multiple touch points with more sensitivity. Users also do not have to apply a large force to register the touch.
Bob Boie from Bell Laboratories further built on the advantage of capacitive over resistive touch. He invented the first transparent multi-touch overlay, with the capability to detect multiple touch points in 1984
Apple Newton and PDAs (the 1990s)
With the stability and development of multi-touch technology, many consumer technology companies sought to apply this technology to their devices.
Psion started releasing the Psion Series 3 in 1991, which resembles the look of PDAs popular in the 90s and 2000s. IBM released the IBM Simon in 1994, while Nokia also released the 9000 communicators. These PDAs all feature touchscreen capabilities but often require the use of a stylus.
Technology-wise, Apple Newton (1993) may have played an important role. It features handwriting recognition and comes with a stylus that is used for on-screen controls. It, however, did not sell as well as other PDAs and was discontinued in 1998.
Touch Screens Become Mainstream (the 2000s)
The 2000s witnessed touchscreen technology maturing and eventually becoming mainstream. Apple was chiefly responsible for bringing touchscreen technology to consumer tech with the introduction of the iPhone (2007).
Apple’s version of touch screen technology is the capacitive touch, which has since made the technology much more popular than the resistive touch screen.
Microsoft also explored touchscreen technology in the 2000s and eventually released the first Microsoft Surface in 2008. However, rather than packing it as a smartphone, Microsoft released the surface as a 30-inch mega tablet, the size of a coffee table.
The idea is to use touch screens to help restaurants, malls, or hotels process orders. However, the product did not do well. The business was eventually revamped into producing consumer and business tablets with the release of the Microsoft Surface tablets in 2012.