Consumer electronics and the miracle of materials

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Who, three decades ago, would have imagined that the materials that would change consumer electronics would be glass, ABS plastic, sapphire, graphite and aluminum?

Back then folks might have said silicon, tin and polypropylene, since that's what made up the majority of cheap computers, cassette decks and mobile phones. Back then, most consumer electronics weren't cheap, they just looked it. High-end materials and elegant industrial design went into luxury cars and watches, not video consoles and desktop computers. 

Sapphire? That was for the faces of Swiss timepieces. Toughened glass, the forerunner of today's Gorilla Glass, was installed in jet aircraft. So was milled and carefully welded aluminum, which also formed the frames of Canondale's top-of-line mountain bikes. 

Now artificial sapphire is poised to become the tough, thin protective layer over the screens of our mobile devices. Beneath it, another form of toughened glass, Willow, will have displays embedded into its thin flexible surface. And, thanks to Apple's industrial milling capacity, aluminum is forming the unibody casing on the most popular laptop on the planet. 

Thirty years ago, graphite was in pencils and dry cells. Nanoscale changes that yielded materials like Buckminster fullerene (Buckyballs) and graphene hadn't been developed yet. Graphene, a two-dimensional array of carbon atoms, holds promise as the substrate for a new generation of transparent electronic circuits. 

ABS plastic was used in Lego bricks, car trim and as a colourant in tattoo ink. Now it's the go-to material for 3D printers. 

It could well be that in 10 years many of our most coveted devices will be translucent, laminated sapphire wafers with nearly invisible graphene-based circuitry. And the cases, if we need them, will be 3D-printed at home. 

The point of this is simple. The technology of the future is never just an extension of the past or present. Revolution sometimes comes in leaps, not baby steps. Yesterday's pencil lead can become tomorrow's circuit board. The gemstone of the past is the screen of today. And the Lego brick of 30 years ago the building block of an industrial revolution. 

Sometimes all it takes is an economy to scale, a breakthrough to cascade, or a single device to set the world on its ear. Sometimes it's just a solitary "what if?" that becomes the Bolivian butterfly wing that sparks the tornado in Kansas that sends us all to the Land of Oz. 

On occasion we know it when it happens. The iPhone changed interface design and it was obvious on first sight. WiFi was a clear win. Netflix reconfigured our relationship to television and you knew it the first time you saw it. 

Sometimes the leaps are more stealthy. That's especially true with materials. With chemistry it takes a critical mass to spark a chain reaction.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Kenny Louie/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.