8 Important Moments in Pizza & Technology

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They say pizza is the mother of invention. Well, maybe they don’t, but they should. Since the 1970s, a surprising number of technological innovations have centered, in some way, on pizza. From pizza robots to pizza menus that can read your mind, here are some of the biggest pizza inventions and innovations of the last 40 years:

1974: The First Pizza Ordered by a Computer

In '74, the Artificial Language Laboratory at Michigan State created a speaking computer. For its first televised test run, the team of developers enlisted Donald Sherman, whose speech was limited by a neurological disorder, to try out the machine. Sutherland used the computer to order a pizza. He called Domino's first, but when the computer took too long to sound out words, Domino's hung up. He finally got through to Mr. Mike's Pizza, and successfully ordered a pizza with pepperoni, mushroom, ham, and sausage.

1987: ShowBiz Pizza’s “Showscan” Films

When filmmaker Douglas Trumbull (special effects supervisor of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner) invented the Showscan film – which projected films at 60 frames per second rather than the customary 24 – he thought it would revolutionize the film industry. But filmmakers and theater owners balked at the price. So Trumbull turned to an unlikely ally: Bob Brock, owner of the ShowBiz Pizza franchise. Brock was so excited about the idea, he set up a test theater at his Fairfax ShowBiz location, erecting a seventeen foot high screen and projecting “New Magic,” a short film which explained the benefits of the new technology. Though the Showscan film never caught on (outside of ShowBiz Pizza) it did have the endorsement of Roger Ebert, who called it, “incomparably more realistic than anything I had ever seen before on a movie screen.'' 

1991: The Pizzabot

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon created a sophisticated voice activated robot with a single purpose: to make pizzas. The robot had a single arm, and would construct pizzas using ingredient bins at a built-in workstation. It could recognize a few important words like "pepperoni" and "mushrooms." Although it was originally developed to help physically disabled people operate pizza franchises, it was ultimately purchased by a Pittsburgh pizza franchise, called Fox's Pizza Dens, and lived a short life as a novelty act at their restaurants.

1991: Pizza 911

’91 was a big year for pizza innovation. The same year scientists were developing the pizzabot, Domino's teamed up with AT&T to bring customers a new way to order pizza. The New York Times called it "The Pizza Version of dialing 911." For the first time, Domino's customers across the country could call a single phone number, and a computer would automatically match them up with the Domino's location closest to them. Instead of looking up local Domino's locations in the yellow pages, customers could just memorize one easy phone number, and order Domino's anywhere they went. There were only a few problems. The first was that the "easy" number - 950-1430 - was not so easy to remember. Domino's advertising execs came up with a useful mnemonic, however, where "9 to 5" represented the workday; "0" was the length of time you want to cook, and "1430" was the "1" "4" "30-minute delivery." The other problem was that when too many people called the number at once, the computer sometimes got overwhelmed, and started forwarding customers to random locations - the computer’s way of trying to “protect itself from a nervous breakdown,” according to Daniel F. Gonos, Domino’s manager of telecommunications.

1994: The First Pizza Ordered Online

According to a 2013 Tweet by Pizza Hut, the first ever online purchase was a Pizza Hut pizza. Though there is evidence that a copy of Sting’s album “Ten Summoner’s Tales” may have actually been the first item sold via internet, it’s certainly true that Pizza Hut was the first business to launch a viable online ordering system. Setting up a test site for Santa Cruz residents – and calling the experiment “The Santa Cruz Operation” – the primitive website allowed customers to enter their address and specify their order. A replica of the original order form can be found here.

2000: The Pizza Button

Another innovation geared towards making it even easier to order a pizza. In the early aughts, developers were working on bringing “internet appliances” – lightweight, affordable computers equipped with the internet, but not much else – to consumers. To make these devices easier to use, many came with factory-set function keys: buttons to bring up email, address books, and other applications. The first of these consumer-friendly computers to hit the market, according to a 2000 New York Times article, was the “i-opener,” which, in addition to the conventional function keys, came with a key for pizza delivery. Simply press the pizza key, and an order form would pop up for a local pizzeria. 

2013: 3D Printed Pizza

NASA commissioned the Systems Materials and Research Corporation to create a food printer for astronauts. In fall of 2013, at the SXSW Eco, they unveiled their prototype: a pizza printer. The machine made pizza out of unconventional ingredients: ketchup for sauce, and cream cheese instead of mozzarella. According to pizza printer engineer Anjan Contractor, after laying out the ingredients and literally spraying on flavor, smell, and micronutrients, the pizza takes only 70 seconds to cook.

Check out the pizza printer in action above.

2014: The Mind Reading Pizza Menu

Once again at the forefront of pizza technology, Pizza Hut has developed an app that “reads your mind.” Or rather, the app tracks your eye movements as you peruse their menu, then tells you what to order based on the amount of time you spend looking at different ingredients. If you don't know what you want to order, it's okay. Pizza Hut knows you better than you know yourself. And they made an explanatory video to prove that the new eye tracking menu isn't creepy at all. In fact, "it's like magic, but without the weirdness!"