40: Visualizing millions of iPhones

Although Wall Street is unimpressed, I continue to be amazed at the sheer number of iPhones produced by Apple. (After all, I was a Mac user when Apple was doomed — properly doomed, that is.) 51.2 million is in the range of numbers that are more or less incomprehensible in everyday terms. I remember when I was a kid I pored over a picture book that tried to explain the concept of a million anything, trying to really grasp it.

It's impossible to visualize 50 million phones once they've been dispersed to pockets and purses all around the globe. But what if they could all be brought together in one place for a grand Q2 2016 iPhone reunion? Just how much sheer volume would they take up? Let's assume that all those phones, on average, were iPhone 6Ses; they weren't of course, but perhaps the 6S Pluses canceled out the 5Ses still being sold. Let's also assume that whoever is in charge of this magical summoning of the iPhones is a real obsessive neat freak and stacks them in a perfect grid arrangement.

Now, ironically, we can turn to Google to do some handy unit conversions for us. The total volume of the assembled iPhones is some 3.3 million liters — another meaningless number, without context. We can compare it to the volume of another impressive piece of Apple construction: the glass cube that sits atop their flagship store on 5th Avenue in New York City. The cube measures 30 feet on each side. If we tried to fit all of the Q2 iPhones in there, we'd have many left over. In fact, if they were stacked with a 30 by 30 foot base, the tower would reach 132 feet (40 meters) tall — not exactly a skyscraper, but a good size office building of solid phones. It would weigh over 8000 tons (7300 metric tons, or 7.3 gigagrams — aren't SI units fun?).

It's a simply remarkable quantity. It also reinforces the urgency that Apple is placing on recycling — all those devices have a shelf life of about two years, and if they were all destined for the landfill they would fill a lot of land indeed. But until they meet their maker, those magical pocket computers are in the hands of 50 million people. Just try to wrap your mind around it.