The origins of the word “gadget” trace back to the 19th century. There is anecdotal (not necessarily true) evidence for the use of
“gadget” as a placeholder name for a technical item whose precise name one can’t remember since the 1850s; A boy’s log of a
voyage out and home in a China tea-clippercontaining the earliest known usage in print. The etymology of the word is disputed.
A widely circulated story holds that the word gadget was “invented” when Gaget, the company behind the construction (1886), made
a small-scale version of the monument and named it after their firm; however this contradicts the evidence that the word was already
used before in nautical circles, and the fact that it did not become popular, at least in the USA, until after World War Other sources
cite a derivation from the French which has been applied to various pieces of a firing mechanism, a small tool or accessory.
The October 1918 issue of Notes and Queries contains a multi-article entry on the word “gadget” (12 S. iv. 187). The City Library,
A discussion arose at the Plymouth meeting in 1916 when it was suggested that this word should be recorded in the list of local
verbal provincialisms. Several members dissented from its inclusion on the ground that it is in common use throughout the country;
and an officer who was present said that it has for years been a popular expression in the service for a tool or implement, the exact
name of which is unknown or has for the moment been forgotten. I have also frequently heard it applied by motor-cycle friends to the
collection of fitments to be seen on motor cycles. ‘His handle-bars are smothered in gadgets’ refers to such things as speedometers,
mirrors, levers, badges, mascots, & c., attached to the steering handles. The short-rest used in billiards is also often called a
‘gadget’; and the name has been applied by local platelayers to the ‘gauge’ used to test the accuracy of their work. In fact, to borrow
from present-day slang, ‘gadget’ is applied to ‘any old thing.
The usage of the term in parlance extended beyond the navy. In the book published in 1918 of New York and London, being the
memoirs of a pilot in the British, there is the following passage: “Our ennui was occasionally relieved by new gadgets — “gadget” is
the Flying Corps slang for invention! Some gadgets were good, some comic and some extraordinary.
By the second half of the twentieth century, the term “gadget” had taken on the connotations of compactness and mobility. In the
1965 essay (a term used interchangeably with “gadget” throughout the essay), the architectural and design critic defines the item as:
A characteristic class of US products––perhaps the most characteristic––is a small self-contained unit of high performance in
relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human
desires. The minimum of skills is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure
beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user. A class of servants to human needs,
these clip-on devices, these portable gadgets, have coloured American thought and action far more deeply––I suspect––than is
In the software industry, “Gadget” refers to computer programs that provide services without needing an independent application to
be launched for each one, but instead run in an environment that manages multiple gadgets. There are several implementations
based on existing software development techniques, form input, and various image formats.
The earliest documented use of the term gadget in context of software engineering was in 1985 by the developers the operating
system of the computers. It denotes what other technological traditions call widget—a control element in graphical user interface.