Are smartphones the fastest-spreading technology that mankind has ever created? The historical data seems to suggest as much.

MIT’s Technology Review published three charts (below) showing the U.S. market penetration of nine key technologies since 1876. (You may know that landmark year — it’s when Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone.) The data — which was aggregated from ITU, New York TimesWall Street Journal, and the U.S. Census Bureau — follows through to 2010 and shows the penetration rates organized into three different stages of tech evolution: traction, maturity and saturation.

Seems the techs that spread the slowest tended to be the ones that have “last mile” hardware or equipment issues. For example, you could have breakthroughs in gadgets that work with the fastest, most robust communications systems ever, but if they rely on getting cables, phone lines, fiber optics or other physical connections out from the head-end to the curb (or from the curb to individual homes), then that will throw down some serious roadblocks. By contrast, smartphones, tablets and other wireless technologies have no such equipment barriers.

So how did smartphones do? Amazingly well, of course.

Says Technology Review:

These figures show that smart phones, after a relatively fast start, have also outpaced nearly any comparable technology in the leap to mainstream use. It took landline telephones about 45 years to get from 5 percent to 50 percent penetration among U.S. households, and mobile phones took around seven years to reach a similar proportion of consumers. Smart phones have gone from 5 percent to 40 percent in about four years, despite a recession. In the comparison shown, the only technology that moved as quickly to the U.S. mainstream was television between 1950 and 1953.

Seems the smartphone owes a lot of its maturity and market penetration to a particular event: The launch of the first iPhone. Prior to that, smartphones weren’t spreading any faster than PCs first did, and it was actually slower in market penetration than the radio, generations before it. In Q4 2006 — i.e. the quarter right before the iPhone’s announcement — the number of smartphones sold was just 715,000, or 6 percent of the total sales for mobile phones in the U.S. When Apple released its premiere smartphone, sales in its first full quarter reached 1.12 million units (at $399 a pop!). After that, smartphone market share would nearly double, to 11 percent of U.S. cell phone sales.

Now smartphones account for more than two-thirds of all handsets sold in the U.S., says Nielsen.

No wonder networks are getting hammered. Talk about a tremendous load of cellular data occurring within a few years’ time.

Do these results surprise you? And do you think it heralds the featurephone’s ultimate demise? Weigh in on what you think the future of mobile might look like in the next few years.

[via Technology Review]