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From the first sharp-edged tools used by cave dwellers to modern smartphones, technological advances have revolutionized life throughout history. Born out of ingenious minds and inspired by practical needs, these groundbreaking inventions have fundamentally changed society.
Yet, for all their ingenuity, most inventors could hardly have imagined the full scale of the impact their inventions were going to have: our lives simply wouldn't be the same without them. This article covers the following 10 great inventions that changed the world:
10 Incredible Inventions That Changed Everything
- Wheel (ca. 4,000 B.C.)
- Compass (ca. 11th Century)
- Magnifying Glass (13th Century)
- The Printing Press (ca. 1436)
- (Precision) Clock (1656)
- Internal Combustion Engine (1876)
- Light Bulb (1879)
- Airplane (1903)
- Refrigerator (1913)
- Transistor (1947)
1. Wheel (ca. 4,000 B.C.)
Among the earliest inventions that altered the history of humanity is the wheel. Although the precise place and time of its invention remain unclear (nor can its inventor or inventors be attributed), there is evidence of the wheel from around the 4th millennium onwards.
First in the form of heavy solid (wooden) wheels, then the much lighter spoked ones that enabled transport and facilitated agriculture.
The wheel's invention (and utility) is associated with the wheel-and-axle concept, which allows the wheel as the moving part to be connected to a stable platform.
Over time, wheels have not only revolutionized transportation but become vital to all sorts of devices and machines: from the early potter's wheel to modern clocks and turbines.
2. Compass (ca. 11th Century)
Ancient mariners navigated by sighting landmarks and observation of the stars. The compass, by contrast, made it possible to determine a heading even in foggy weather or when the sky is overcast. This enabled safe navigation far from land, greatly enhancing sea trade and new ventures overseas.
The crucial element of the compass is made of lodestone, which, by interacting with the Earth's magnetic field, shows the direction in regards to the geographic cardinal points.
Initially invented in China around the 1-2 century BC, the lodestone was not used for navigation but geomancy. The use in navigation began only from around the 11th century onward. It likely came to the West through nautical contact. The first recorded appearance of the use of the compass in Europe dates to 1190.
3. Magnifying Glass (13th century)
The earliest beginnings of optics date back to ancient times. It is reported that the Roman Emperor Nero watched the gladiatorial fights peering through a concave emerald.
Further on, during the Islamic Golden Age, significant theoretical studies were made by the Arab mathematician Alhazen (Hasan Ibn al-Haytham), who is widely considered the father of modern optics.
Then in the mid-13th century, the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon of Oxford, UK, built the first real magnifying glass. It was adapted as primitive spectacles that allowed scholars with failing eyesight to continue their work.
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As optics and lenses were developed further, they enabled the construction of the telescope and the microscope. Both devices have greatly enhanced scientific discovery and enabled technological advances.
4. The Printing Press (ca. 1436)
Johannes Gutenberg was born in the German town of Mainz around 1400. He grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing, acquiring crucial skills that would later serve him with type casting.
While not the first to use moveable type, Gutenberg combined and improved diverse techniques to build an economically viable printing press (for printers and readers alike) and made the mass production of pamphlets and books possible. The significantly lowered price for books and newspapers made them available to a much wider audience, fostering literacy.
Although financially unsuccessful in his lifetime, Gutenberg's printing presses rapidly spread across Europe (and beyond), ushering in a profound transformation of society and the era of modern history.
The first significant work that came from Gutenberg's printing press was the Bible which he completed about 1455.
5. (Precision) Clock (1656)
Modern life with its detailed schedules would be unthinkable without reliable timekeeping. Most scientific fields require precise time measurements. Although certain time-measuring instruments like the sundial or water clocks had been around since ancient times, the construction of mechanical clocks began only in the late 13th century. Yet the accuracy of these early clocks was poor.
It was only in 1656 that the first precision timekeeping device, a pendulum-driven clock, was invented by the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens. A few years on (1675), Huygens and Robert Hooke invented the hairspring mechanism, the crucial advance that made accurate pocket watches possible.
6. Internal Combustion Engine (1876)
Various scientists and engineers contributed to the development of the internal combustion engine (ICE). Foremost among them was the German Nikolaus Otto, who is generally credited with constructing the first four-stroke ICE in 1876. Because of its efficiency, reliability, and relative quietness, Otto's engine rapidly became a success.
While trying to improve fuel efficiency ratios in the 1890s, engineer Rudolf Diesel built another type of ICE in which fuel was injected at the end of the compression stroke and ignited by the high temperature resulting from compression.
Compared to the steam engine, the ICEs were a giant leap forward. They would soon power automobiles, ships, locomotives, and eventually planes, paving the way for mass mobility and global transport in the modern world.
7. Light Bulb (1879)
Thomas Edison is usually credited with the invention of the first light bulb, though this is not strictly true. As early as 1802, the English chemist Humphry Davy had invented the electric-arc lamp: a piece of carbon connected to a batterie through wires that would glow and produce light. But his discovery proved impractical for commercial use.
Further experiments with different materials were independently conducted by two British scientists: the astronomer Warren de la Rue and the chemist Joseph Wilson Swan. Finally, in 1879, Edison came up with the first sophisticated light bulb that was cheap, long-lasting, and commercially viable.
The light bulb profoundly transformed society: it made it possible to stay up longer, allowed for longer workdays, and facilitated socializing in cities after dark. Furthermore, electrical power grids began to expand because of the light bulb.
8. Airplane (1903)
It lasted a mere 59 seconds but fulfilled an ancient dream of humankind: in 1903, the Wright brothers Wilbur and Orville made history in their Kitty Hawk Flyer with the first powered flight. Their plane needed improvement, but they had proven that a controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft was possible.
By the time World War I broke out about a decade later, airplanes were already used by the military. Over the years, aircraft improved steadily, providing a new way of mobility and a means of transport that had previously been unthinkable. In the 21st century, some 10,000 commercial airplanes are in the air at any given time, enabling global travel and trade with places from the other side of the hemisphere.
9. Refrigerator (1913)
Refrigeration is an essential food storage technique that exploits the reduced rate of bacteria reproduction at lower temperatures to reduce spoilage.
Sorts of refrigeration using ice, caverns, cold currents, and insulating materials has existed since ancient times. But the history of artificial refrigeration began only in 1755 when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine. Using a pump to create a (partial) vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, the liquid began to boil, thereby absorbing heat from the surrounding air.
Although the experiment proved that it was possible to produce ice, no practical application followed suit. Further developments were made in 1834; Jacob Perkins, an American expatriate in Great Britain, built the first closed-cycle, continuously operational refrigeration system based on vapor compression.
What is largely considered the first electric household fridge was produced in 1913 by Frederick William Wolf of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is known as the DOMELRE (an acronym for Domestic Electric Refrigerator). It consisted of a refrigeration unit mounted on top of an ice box, the non-electrical refrigerator in use before the advent of active cooling.
The fridge as a standard household device has had an enormous impact on the variety of our dishes, improving our nutrition and health, as well as providing pleasures to the palate.
10. The Transistor (1947)
A transistor is a semiconductor device for connection to an electric circuit. It can be used for amplification or rapid switching, as in the case of digital circuits. The transistor replaced the vacuum-tube triode, a much larger device requiring more power.
The first transistor was built in 1947 by Bell Laboratories, the research arm of AT&T, and credited to William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain. For their groundbreaking invention, they would later receive the Nobel physics prize.
In 1959, Bell Labs came up with a new type of transistor that was even more compact and required even less power: the MOSFET (metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect-transistor). Invented by Dawon Kahng and Mohamed Atalla, the MOSFET, also known as the MOS transistor, was suitable for a wide range of uses and soon entered mass production to become the most widely manufactured device in history.
It is the building block of every microchip and has revolutionized the electronics and computer industry. The digital revolution and the modern world as we know it would not exist without the transistor.
- Encyclopedia of Discovery: Science and History, by Weldon Owen, Weldon Owen Pty Ltd. (2011), 640 pages
- Great Inventors and their Inventions, by Frank P. Bachman, Living Book Press (2019 edition), 204 pages
- Compass, Wikipedia
- Printing Press, Wikipedia
- Refrigerator, Wikipedia
- Transistor, Wikipedia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Marco Pompili