A gadget is a name for any device or piece of equipment. There is something diminutive about a gadget, which will often be characterised as ‘little’, as in a ‘nice little gadget’. It does not have a very long history, seeming not to have been in use much before 1870. Gadgets can sometimes be machines that stand alone, but for the most part have the sense of attachments, or things joined on to other things. One suggestion for the origin of the word is French gâchette, a diminutive of gâche staple (of a lock), wall-staple or hook, which may be related to French engager, or the dialect French word gagée meaning tool or instrument. The earliest uses seem to have been maritime: Kipling uses the word in the compound form steam-gadget several times in his rendering of maritime slang in Traffics and Discoveries (Kipling 1904, 57, 107, 179). Gadget was in use in 1918 as a technical term in glass-making to refer to a spring-clip attached to the foot of a glass to hold it while it is being shaped. Some of the software uses of the word gadget recall this idea of an accessory or adjunct, since gadgets, like widgets, are add-ons, sometimes in sidebars. There is a certain kind of approximative feel in the word gadget, suggesting something novel, nonce or improvised – in the 1936 car-racing film Speed, one of the mechanics has the nickname ‘Gadget’.
So as well as being a name for something added on, there is something supplementary in the name itself, which is often employed as a placeholder word standing for something more specific, this being a common feature of technical vocabularies of different kinds. Maurice H. Weseen’s Dictionary of American Slang defines widget as ‘an indefinite substitute name for any appliance or device’ (Weseen 1934, 419). This substitutive idea is apparent in the earliest appearance of the word in print, in a maritime memoir by Robert Brown:
Then the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; even the sailors forget at times, and if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy, or a wim-wom — just pro tem., you know” (Brown 1886, 378)
‘The Gadget’ was deliberately used in place of the word ‘bomb’ during the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. Appropriately, then, the word gadget has been subject to a certain gadgeting process, in the development of supplementary terms like ‘gadgetry’ (first OED citation from 1920), and ‘gadgeteer’, first citation from the Reader’s Digest in 1938. Gadget has a family relation to the word gizmo and has seemingly exerted some pressure on the word widget, which sounds as though it might be a weeny or midget sort of gadget, which was originally a word used for a device inserted in a can of beer to make it foam.
The slightly comic oddity that attaches to the gadget has made for an association with the absurd and gratuitous in technology. The word seems to have come into its own in the era of highly-personalised digital appliances and applications of those appliances. As William Merrin suggests
At its best it was associated with labor-saving, invention, and innovation – suggesting a trouble-free life, realized through the creation of new devices to remove the problems and annoyances of daily life and labor. At its worst it was associated with inflated claims, unclear needs, dubious provenance or amateurish origin, suspect lasting value, and cheap gimmickry and novelty. Hence “the gadget” came to represent both the leading wave of technical invention (and the promised future of its perfected, everyday evolution) and something darker – sidetracks and dead ends off that evolutionary line. (Merrin 2014, 6)
Brown, Robert (1886). Spunyarn and Spindrift: A Sailor Boy’s Log of a Voyage Out and Home in a China Tea-Clipper. London: Houlston and Sons. Online at https://archive.org/details/spunyarnspindrif00brow
Kipling, Rudyard (1904). Traffics and Discoveries. London: Macmillan and Co. Online at https://archive.org/details/trafficsdiscover00kipluoft
Lennon, Brian (2005). ‘Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation.’ Criticism, 47, 283-300
Merrin, William (2014). ‘The Rise of the Gadget and Hyperludic Media.’ Cultural Politics, 10, 1-20
Simeone, Michael (2011). ‘Why We Will Not Be Posthuman: Gadgets as a Technocultural Form.’ Configurations, 19, 333-56.
Weseen, Maurice H. (1934). A Dictionary of American Slang. London: George G. Harrap and Co.
Genie Gadgets: https://www.geniegadgets.com/help/gadgets-info/
World Wide Words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-gad1.htm
The Gadget, the First Atomic Bomb, 1945. Online at http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/gadget-first-atomic-bomb/