Anatomically modern humans have only been around for some 200,000 thousand years, a mere instant in the world’s timeline. Roughly, 98% of that time has been spent by humanity as primitive hunter-gatherers. It is only in the last 2 percent of human history that we saw civilizations rise and fell, terrible wars waged and men committing the worst of crimes in the name of ambition. Yet, even out of that fraction, only in the last 0.05% have we seen man journey to the moon, conquer flight, harness the power of the atom and master the elements. It is because of the inventions made in this crucial snippet of time that these achievements were made possible. We list the 10 most important inventions that define the world today.
Disclaimer: This is a list of inventions that helped shape the information age (today’s era), not a post on the 10 greatest of all time as some readers misunderstood it to be.
Before artificial refrigeration, fresh meat and other perishables were considered a luxury in many places. Refrigerators allowed food to remain fresh for longer periods, allowing them to be transported at longer distances, improving the diet in many regions. By preventing rotting, refrigeration also hindered proliferation of harmful microbial in food, helping keep away deadly diseases. Today refrigeration is used in a number of industrial processes such as distillation and chemical production. In medicine, refrigeration helps preserve human tissue and organs, vital for helping save lives.
The history of refrigerators dates back to 1775 when the Scottish professor William Cullen designed a cooling device, which absorbed heat by means of evaporating ether. Later on, other famed scientists such as Benjamin Franklin and Michael Faraday further made their own contributions to the field. By 1842, the first commercial refrigeration system was invented by John Gorrie. Although it proved to be a financial failure, it sparked the interest of many scientists and inventors on a developing a practical “ice machine”. By the 1890s, refrigeration technology was developed enough to meet widespread industrial use, especially in the transport sector. Household refrigeration units became available by 1910s when General Electric developed the electric-powered Monitor-Top.
It is not difficult to imagine just how many things that we use today come from plastic; even the clothes you are wearing has bits of plastic in them! Yet just an over century ago, plastic products were almost non-existent.
The first synthetic plastic was Parkesine, invented in the 1850s by Alexander Parkes, who founded a company to mass-produce the new material (the business failed within two years). The Plastic industry did not enjoy much success until after World War 1 when improvements in chemical technology led to many new forms of plastic becoming available. By the 1940s, plastic was being commercially produced on an industrial scale in most developed countries.
Few other raw materials add so much to modern living as glass. From food jars to computer screens to the fiber optics that make the internet possible, this inexpensive recyclable substance is found everywhere. The history of glassmaking can be traced back to 3500 BC in Ancient Mesopotamia. However, it wouldn’t be until nearly 5 thousand years later that glass production would truly be revolutionized with the addition of lead oxide, allowing the glass to be made on a truly industrial scale.
7. Light bulb
While Thomas Edison is popularly credited with the invention of the light bulb, he was but one of many who contributed to the development of the revolutionary piece of technology. Edison, however, succeeded where others before had failed, designing the first practical light bulb. The advent of light bulb removed the constraints on human activities at night and soon paved the way for newer electric technologies, such as projectors, television and alternating current, to become a reality and transform the world we live in.
Due to its unique properties and abundance, aluminum and it alloys today serve in a wide range of industries from electronics to transport to even chemical production.
Aluminum was once a notoriously difficult metal to produce, making its value at one time more than that of solid gold. With the development of the Hall-Heroult process in 1888, large-scale production of aluminum suddenly became feasible. The process is still in use today, allowing aluminum to be the most mass-produced metal on earth after iron.
Once upon a time, a Scottish doctor named Alexander Fleming mistakenly left open a Petri dish containing a type of bacteria. The next day he saw blue-green mold had contaminated the dish and was killing off the bacteria. His discovery led to the invention of Penicillin, antibiotics used to treat a wide range of harmful bacterial infections.
Unfortunately for him, the scientific community initially gave little attention to his groundbreaking discovery. Despite this, he continued experimenting on the substance. By 1930, a pathologist named Cecil George Paine achieved the first recorded cure with penicillin. Nearly 10 years later, Howard Florey devised a method of mass-producing the drug.
Many of us today exist today because of this accidental discovery. Prior to this, there was no medicine available to prevent life-threatening diseases caused by bacteria. Penicillin revolutionized modern medicine and let to the creation of many new synthetic drugs that today save millions of lives each year.
It also serves as a reminder of why we should protect our decreasing biodiversity. Had the Fungi that contaminated Fleming’s Petri dish been extinct, plagues still today would have been a major threat for humanity.
4. Electrical Circuits
Electricity is what today runs our modern lives. Without it, most of our activities would come to a standstill and the global economy would collapse. It powers many of our required needs such as tools, lighting, temperature control and increasingly transport.
Ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and Greeks possessed fair knowledge of electricity but it wasn’t until the 16th century that this natural phenomenon would be studied seriously. By the 19th century, rapid advances were made in the field by scientists such as Michael Faraday and Georg Ohm, and by famous inventors including Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. The first electric battery, electric motor, light bulb and telephone were made during this time. By the end of the century, electricity had turned from little more than a scientific curiosity to a driving force behind the second industrial revolution.
3. Laws of Motion
Newton’s laws of motions were one of mankind’s first successful attempts at describing diverse aspects of nature using simple mathematical formulas. While many high school students today may secretly curse the ghost of Sir Isaac Newton, we owe it to this great scientist for laying the groundwork of modern physics and improving humanity’s understanding of his environment. While the theory has its limitations, it still remains extremely useful for a wide range of applications, from making our cars faster to helping us reach new horizons in space exploration.
2. The internet
Despite being only a few decades in the making, the internet has revolutionized how we live our lives. Information has become accessible to individuals and is always within a click away. For the first time, people are not at the mercy of the state censorship, individuals are more empowered and increasingly critical of the world they live in. This, in turn, has pressured states to be more accountable and democratic.
It has redefined communication and social relationships, bringing together communities separated by vast distances and brought new ways to how we interact with each other. If the world was made smaller with the advent of the industrial revolution, the internet revolution has removed geography from the equation altogether. The internet has become a driving force behind the world economy and has brought us new industries, services and let’s not forgets this awesome new website!
The internet as we know it (Web 2.0) is only 14 years old but has become so much ingrained into every aspect of our lives that many of us may find it impossible to live without it.
Some honorable mentions
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In December 1947, two American researchers working at Bell labs observed a signal with output power greater than the input from a gold foil placed around a plastic triangle in contact with a germanium crystal. This rudimentary apparatus was the world’s first transistor, an invention that would usher in the information revolution.
Transistors eliminated the need of human or mechanical interaction from data processing, allowing computers to rise in processing capacity at an unprecedented scale. Functions that once required room-sized computers to be done were later easily performed by microchips the size of a rice grain. This, along with the ability to be cheaply produced on an industrial scale meant that computers, previously confined to the government departments and research labs, were made affordable for the wider public.
Today, every electronic device that we use, from torches to the screen you are reading this on, functions because of transistors inside them. The world today would have been vastly different (and possibly less advanced) had it been not for this simple piece of technology.