David Letterman’s top 5 tech innovations

As the fabled late night talk show host prepares to retire, a look back on a handful of unique technology firsts that he and his shows gave the world over the last 30 years

David Letterman
Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

As you no doubt know, David Letterman, after hosting more than 6,000 episodes of his late night talk shows, will broadcast the final one tonight. When you think of Dave, most likely you think of groundbreaking comedy and television. What you probably don’t think of, though, is technological innovation. However, during the combined 33 year run of Late Night With David Letterman and the Late Show with David Letterman, Dave and his crew introduced some, um, original technologies that, while not having the impact of, say, Windows, Google or the iPhone, still made quite an impression.

In honor of Dave’s last night on TV, here now are 5 innovative (or, at least, original) uses of technology that Dave and company gave to the world over the last 30+ years:

The Late Night Monkey-Cam

Sure, these days if you want to see the world from a monkey’s point of view, it’s easy to strap a GoPro camera on a chimp and stream it to the world. But, back in 1986, it was no small feat to broadcast pictures from a monkey’s head, but that didn’t stop Late Night from attaching a camera to a chimpanzee named Zippy and letting him loose in the studio. But it didn’t end there; several months later they introduced the Late Night Monkey-Cam Mobile Unit, i.e., Zippy on roller skates.

The suit of magnets

One of Dave’s most famous bits on Late Night was putting suits of things like Velcro, Alka-Seltzer, and sponges and throwing himself at a wall or dunking himself in a big bowl of water. Funny as those were, how practical, really, were they? But, in November 1986 he donned a suit covered in magnets and demonstrated its usefulness for picking up silverware, food shopping, and sticking yourself to a giant refrigerator.

360 degree image rotation television

Between the advent of color TV in the 1960s and the development of HDTV in the 1990s, the television viewing experience didn’t change all that much. However, for one brief night in December 1986 Late Night shook things up by introducing 360 degree image rotation television. During the course of the show, the picture slowly rotated a full 360 degrees in a clockwise direction, to close out a truly banner year for technology innovation by Dave and the Late Night staff.

The Late Show Quiz Machine

While Dave Letterman is admittedly not a computer guy, that didn’t stop the Late Show from introducing the Quiz Machine in the mid-1990s. This big “device of knowledge and entertainment” would provide answers to various questions with the help of audience members or celebrity guests. The most famous guest operator was Bill Gates, who worked it in 1995 to help promote - what else? - Windows 95.

The Late Show Hose Cam

Thanks to the Internet of Things, wearables, and apps it’s getting increasingly easy to control stuff and do things without lifting much more than a finger. In recent years, the Late Show staff gave Dave similar magical powers by installing the Late Show Hose Cam on a New York City street. It was a hose (along with a camera and a microphone) that Dave could operate from his desk to spray passers by with cool, refreshing water on a hot summer day. As far as I know, it didn’t even require an Internet connection.

All of this just served to prove Dave’s famous quote: “There is no off position on the genius switch.

Farewell, Dave, and thanks for these innovations, and all those laughs over the years!

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