10 Cool Inventions From the 1980s

By: Jonathan Strickland & Wesley Fenlon  | 
The DeLorean didn't make our list but it still makes us yell out "great Scott!" See more pictures of sports cars.
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Key Takeaways

  • The 1980s introduced several transformative inventions, including the disposable camera invented by Fujifilm in 1986, which made photography accessible and convenient for casual and tourist use.
  • The nicotine patch, developed after research by Dr. Murray E. Jarvik, became available in the early '90s, offering a method to help smokers quit by delivering nicotine transdermally.
  • Disposable contact lenses became available in 1987, revolutionizing vision correction with lenses designed for short-term use.

Do you remember the 1980s? It was a decade of big hair, neon-bright clothing and consumerism. A new television network called Music Television, or MTV, launched early in the decade and gave rise to the popularity of music videos. By the end of the 1980s, global politics would change forever as the Berlin Wall fell. During the decade, inventors created some cool devices.

This list could easily hold frivolous and quirky inventions -- there was no shortage of odd products in the 1980s. For example, there was the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car. The vehicle was a strange one -- journalists who took it on road tests reported that it handled poorly, didn't accelerate as quickly as other sports cars and wasn't particularly fast. The car had a distinctive look with its stainless steel panels and gull-wing doors, but it seemed doomed to obscurity. But then a little film called "Back to the Future" came out and propelled the DeLorean to new fame. It joined the ranks of other beloved time machines like the Doctor's TARDIS and Bill and Ted's phone booth.


Now that we've cleansed the pallet with a goofy entry, let's get down to serious business.

10: Disposable Cameras

The back of a disposable camera with instructions for taking photographs using the throwaway technology.

Like contact lenses, cameras became a disposable commodity in the 1980s. Fujifilm invented the modern disposable camera in 1986 with the Utsurun-Desu, and other major photography companies like Kodak, Canon and Nikon quickly started manufacturing similar products. Buying a camera was no longer a hefty investment: Disposable cameras were cheap and extremely easy to use, perfect for shooting a specific occasion with one roll of film. A built-in flash eventually became the norm for disposable cameras, and some even used a pair of lenses to create a manual zoom.

Disposable cameras didn't take over the photography market, but they absolutely cornered the tourism industry. Cheap throwaway cameras were perfect for traveling, easy to use and similarly easy to outfit with plastic cases for underwater shooting.


The rise of digital photography spelled an end to the glory days of disposable cameras. With images saved to memory, rather than permanently captured on film, digital cameras introduced infinite re-usability into the camera world. Still, disposable cameras have their place -- they're great party favors, easy for kids to use, and won't set you back hundreds of dollars after an accidental dip in the ocean.

9: Nicotine Patch

Because nicotine can be absorbed through the skin, patches help smokers quit by giving the user a mild nicotine buzz without cigarettes.
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Cigarettes are addictive and unhealthy. Who knew? Well, at one point in time, no one did. Smoking was considered glamorous and was accepted everywhere. Movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s smoked cigarettes in every scene. Even in the 1980s, smoking was still very common. But by then, some researchers were trying to figure out why cigarettes were addictive and looking for a way to break the habit.

The most successful of those researchers was probably Dr. Murray E. Jarvik, who studied the effects of nicotine in the '60s and '70s and determined it was the addictive ingredient in tobacco. Jarvik and one of his students knew that tobacco harvesters often suffered from "green tobacco illness," a form of nicotine poisoning that resulted from skin contact with tobacco leaves, and began testing the dermal application of nicotine in 1984. And just like that, the nicotine patch was born.


Well, almost. Jarvik's discovery led to a 1985 patent request from the University of California, but prescription nicotine patches didn't actually hit store shelves until 1992. A few years later, nicotine patches were available over the counter without a prescription, and ever since then, they've been helping smokers stamp out their cigarette habits.

8: Prozac

Prescription drugs always come with a long, concerning list of side effects, and Prozac is no exception. That doesn't change the fact that Prozac, aka Fluoxetine, has helped millions of people deal with clinical depression since it first became available as a prescription medication in 1987. Fluoxetine's potential as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor was actually discovered in the 1970s, but the FDA didn't give the drug the go-ahead for an entire decade.

Fluoxetine was discovered and patented by Eli Lilly and Company in the 1970s; after the FDA approved the drug in 1987, they began marketing it under the name Prozac. The drug became a successful and popular treatment for depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, allowing the brand name "Prozac" to become synonymous with antidepressants in the 1990s.


Despite being so well-known, Prozac isn't the most-prescribed antidepressant in medicine: In the U.S., Sertraline and Citalopram are in higher demand than Fluoxetine. Even those suffering from depression who aren't prescribed Prozac may have benefited from the drug: The patent wore off in 2001, allowing generic Prozac alternatives to hit the market.

7: Disposable Contact Lenses

Disposable contacts are thinner and more comfortable for most patients than other lenses.
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Contact lenses have been around for decades, and they've changed quite a bit since the early days of hard plastic lenses. The 1970s saw the rise of soft lenses made from hydrogel. It's no secret why soft lenses quickly became popular: They were more air permeable than the older lenses and more comfortable to boot. Since then, both hard and soft contact lenses have seen improved permeability, and can be worn for longer periods of time.

In 1987, contact lenses became an even more convenient substitute for wearing glasses. That's the year disposable contact lenses hit the consumer market. Disposable lenses are soft contact lenses meant to be worn for a short period of time. Before disposable lenses, owning contacts was a bit like owning glasses. You wore the same pair every day and had to clean and care for them regularly. That meant losing a lens was a costly mistake.


With disposable lenses, that problem vanished. Since 1987, these contacts have become the go-to solution for in-eye vision correction. They're available in daily, weekly, and monthly forms.

6: The Space Shuttle

The Discovery space shuttle awaits launch.
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After the lunar missions in the late '60s and early '70s, the people at NASA dedicated themselves to developing a new type of vehicle that could venture into space and return home safely. The culmination of their research and development was the Space Shuttle. The engineers and mechanics designed it to be more than just a transportation vehicle -- the Space Shuttle would become an orbiting scientific laboratory capable of hosting numerous experiments designed to increase our understanding of the universe. The Space Shuttles also played an important role in deploying and maintaining equipment in space, including satellites and the International Space Station.

The first Space Shuttle launch was the Columbia on April 12, 1981. The mission lasted a little more than two days. The Columbia returned home safely and gave NASA valuable information about the design of the shuttle. A few tiles had broken off during the launch sequence, which informed NASA that engineers would need to make adjustments to head off future problems with other launches.


Since Columbia's launch, there've been more than 130 Space Shuttle missions, and the program has inspired hundreds of children to study science and dream of space exploration.

5: IBM and Macintosh Personal Computers

The Macintosh computer debuted in 1984.
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A computing revolution began in the 1970s. Early computers were massive machines -- some so large that they'd take up an entire floor of a building. Yet these machines had less processing power than a typical smartphone might boast today. As the era of miniaturization approached, computers shrunk. And hobbyists began to explore a world previously reserved for academic, government and research institutions. The personal computer became reality.

IBM's 5150 Personal Computer launched in 1981. It contained an Intel 8088 processor and ran on version 1.0 of the PC-DOS operating system. The computer supported the Microsoft BASIC programming language. For much of the 1980s, IBM was synonymous with personal computers. You might say you own an IBM the same way you'd talk about owning a Windows PC nowadays. In fact, the old IBM PC is an ancestor to the Windows-based computers used by millions of people today.


In 1984, Apple launched the Macintosh computer. It was the first personal computer to feature a graphics-based user interface. Other computers required users to type in commands to launch applications. The Macintosh used icons to represent programs and a strange device called a mouse. Though neither the mouse nor the graphic user interface were new ideas, they hadn't been part of the mass consumer market until the Macintosh hit store shelves.

4: Compact Discs

Compact discs revolutionized both the music industry and the way we store digital data.
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Music collectors in the early 1980s had limited choices. Audiophiles claimed that the only sound worth hearing was stored on vinyl albums. But these records take up a lot of space and can be damaged easily. Cassettes and 8-track tapes took up less space, but the magnetic storage format degraded over time. Companies like Sony and Philips swooped in to create an alternative: the compact disc.

In the early to mid 1980s, engineers wrote a series of books that set out the standards for the compact-disc format. There were five books in the series, each a different color. The first book, which was red, established the basic standards for audio recording on compact disc. Later books expanded the standards, adding data storage capabilities to the CD and giving birth to the CD-ROM and CD-RW formats.


Not only did this revolutionize the music industry, practically killing off the cassette and vinyl markets, but also the budding computer industry. Early floppy disks had limited storage capacity and could lose data if exposed to magnets. Compact discs stored information in an optical format and could hold far more data than typical magnetic disks. The first compact disc players were expensive, but by the 1990s the format dominated both the music and computer storage markets.


You might think that HDTVs are recent inventions but the first ones were demonstrated in the 1980s.

The first high-definitiontelevision broadcasts in the United States happened in the late 1990s. But the invention of the HDTV dates back much earlier. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation, also known as NHK, began work on a new standard for television that included a wider screen and more lines of resolution back in the late 1970s. By 1980, the first prototype sets were amazing viewers with pictures clearer than any set had shown before.

The company was eager to push this new standard to other parts of the world, ensuring Japanese companies an advantage in the television market. It wasn't until 1987 that NHK got the opportunity to show the FCC, and even politicians in Washington, D.C., what HDTV could do. The reaction ranged from amazement to anxiety. The implications of HDTV went far beyond viewer enjoyment -- it could affect everything from the television manufacturing market to the semiconductor industry.


The United States took a slow, cautious approach. It wasn't until the late 1990s that HDTV sets became available on store shelves. But the TVs that surprised American consumers at the close of the 20th century could have been in homes a decade earlier.

2: DNA Fingerprinting

Genetic markers are now a vital part of forensic science.
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Science was forever changed in 1984, and the groundbreaking moment had nothing to do with George Orwell's famous sci-fi dystopia. British geneticist Alec Jeffreys was trying to trace genetic markers through family generations when he accidentally discovered something far more important: Every unique person has an equally unique DNA profile. Seems obvious, right? Well, at the time, it wasn't -- and Jeffreys' realization had a huge impact on science and many other industries.

Unique genetic profiles are derived from the profiles of our parents, meaning lineage can be traced back through generations with DNA testing. But there are obviously other uses, too -- imagine modern-day criminal investigation without DNA forensics. Jeffreys coined the term DNA fingerprinting and earned a knighthood for his work.


As DNA fingerprinting spread from Jeffreys' lab, so did its scope. Today, the world of forensic science owes its development to DNA profiling. And like humans, animals have unique genetic codes that can be used to -- for example -- catch poachers illegally selling the skins of endangered animals.

1: The Permanent Artificial Heart

Dr. Robert Jarvik is seen behind the Jarvik 7, an artificial heart.
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Research into artificial hearts dates back to the 1950s. The first surgical implantation of an artificial heart in a human being took place in 1969. But early artificial hearts were a temporary measure. The goal was to use the equipment to keep the patient alive until a surgeon could perform a true heart transplant.

The Jarvik-7 artificial heart was different. Engineers designed it to be a permanent heart transplant instead of a stopgap measure. The first implantation of a Jarvik-7 heart took place in 1982. The lead surgeon was William DeVries and the name of the cardiac patient was Barney Clark. The heart ran on compressed air. Tubes from a compressor entered Clark's body through incisions in his abdomen. Clark survived 112 days after the surgery before passing away.

Living with a Jarvik-7 heart would require some serious adjustments. The home system for the heart had a console about half the size of a refrigerator. There was also a portable system that had a power unit about the size of a briefcase. Even now, several medical institutions rely on artificial hearts that are nearly identical to the Jarvik-7 model from 1982 to keep patients alive while waiting for a real human heart.

That ends our trip back to the 1980s. It's time to strip off the leg warmers, put away the shoulder pads and resume wondering where all the music on MTV went. Learn more about these inventions by following the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Advameg Inc. "Artificial heart." Medical Discoveries. 2011. (Jan. 13, 2011) http://www.discoveriesinmedicine.com/Apg-Ban/Artificial-Heart.html
  • Alfred, Randy. "Sept. 10, 1984: DNA Leaves Its Print." Sept. 10, 2008. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/09/dayintech_0910#
  • Allaway, Howard. "The Space Shuttle At Work." NASA. 1979. (Jan. 13, 2011) http://history.nasa.gov/SP-432/sp432.htm
  • Apple Computer. "Macintosh Selling Guide." Computer History Museum. 1984. (Jan. 12, 2011) http://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/text/Apple/Apple.Macintosh.1984.102646178.pdf
  • Barlow, Steven. "HDTV Past, Present and Future - Part I History." Audioholics. July 23, 2009. (Jan. 12, 2011) http://www.audioholics.com/education/display-formats-technology/hdtv-past-present-and-future-part-i-history
  • Computer History Museum. "Company: Apple Computer, Inc." (Jan. 12, 2011) http://www.computerhistory.org/brochures/companies.php
  • ContactLensDocs.com. "Disposable Contact Lenses." (Jan. 2, 2012) http://contactlensdocs.com/ContactLensInformationCenter/TypesofContactLenses/DisposableContactLenses/tabid/138/Default.aspx
  • Davidson, Michael W. "History of the Compact Disc." Molecular Expressions. 2010. (Jan. 12, 2011) http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/electromag/computers/compactdiscs/cd.html
  • IBM. "The birth of the IBM PC." (Jan. 12, 2011) http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/pc25/pc25_birth.html
  • Jarvik Heart. "Robert Jarvik on the Jarvik-7." 2008. (Jan. 13, 2011) http://www.jarvikheart.com/basic.asp?id=69
  • Joyce, Christopher. "DNA 'Barcode' To Help Nab Illegal Wildlife Traders." Sept. 14, 2009. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112819451
  • Maugh, Thomas H. II. "UCLA pharmacologist invented nicotine patch." May 14, 2008. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://articles.latimes.com/2008/may/14/local/me-jarvik14
  • NASA. "STS-1." Nov. 23, 2007. (Jan. 13, 2011) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-1.html
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  • WhenWeWereKids. "The Disposable Camera: Modern Invention When We Were Kids." (Jan. 3, 2012) http://www.wwwk.co.uk/culture/inventions/80s/disposable-camera.htm
  • Woron, Walt. "DMC DeLorean Motor Company." Automobile Quarterly. Vol. 21, No. 2, 1982.