Skip to comments.The Tuesday List - Ten Inventions That Changed The World
Posted on 06/17/2014 11:35:24 AM PDT by Scoutmaster
If you think that the world's greatest inventions came from the fevered minds of solitary geniuses, think again. As you scan this list of the 10 inventions that changed the world, note how many of them perfected workable designs.
Compared to some of the gleaming, electronic inventions that fill our lives today, the plow doesn't seem very exciting. It's a simple cutting tool used to carve a furrow into the soil, churning it up to expose nutrients and prepare it for planting. Yet the plow is probably the one invention that made all others possible.
No one knows who invented the plow, or exactly when it came to be. It probably developed independently in a number of regions, and there is evidence of its use in prehistoric eras. Prior to the plow, humans were subsistence farmers or hunter/gatherers. Their lives were devoted solely to finding enough food to survive from one season to the next. Growing food added some stability to life, but doing it by hand was labor intensive and took a long time. The plow changed all that.
Plows made the work easier and faster. Improvements in the plow's design made farming so efficient that people could harvest far more food than they needed to survive. They could trade the surplus for goods or services. And if you could get food by trading, then you could devote your day-to-day existence to something other than growing food, such as producing the goods and services that were suddenly in demand.
The ability to trade and store materials drove the invention of written language, number systems, fortifications and militaries. As populations gathered to engage in these activities, cities grew. It's not a stretch to say that the plow is responsible for the creation of human civilization.
The wheel made the transportation of goods much faster and more efficient, especially when affixed to horse-drawn chariots and carts. However, if it had been used only for transportation, the wheel wouldn't have been as much of a world-changer as it was. In fact, a lack of quality roads limited its usefulness in this regard for thousands of years.
A wheel can be used for a lot of things other than sticking them on a cart to carry grain, though. Tens of thousands of other inventions require wheels to function, from water wheels that power mills to gears and cogs that allowed even ancient cultures to create complex machines. Cranks and pulleys need wheels to work. A huge amount of modern technology still depends on the wheel, like centrifuges used in chemistry and medical research, electric motors and combustion engines, jet engines, power plants and countless others.
Gutenberg combined the idea of block printing with a screw press (used for olive oil and wine production). He also developed metal printing blocks that were far more durable and easier to make than the hand-carved wooden letters in use previously. Finally, his advances in ink and paper production helped revolutionize the whole process of mass printing.
The printing press allowed enormous quantities of information to be recorded and spread throughout the world. Books had previously been items only the extremely rich could afford, but mass production brought the price down tremendously. The printing press is probably responsible for many other inventions, but in a more subtle way than the wheel. The diffusion of knowledge it created gave billions of humans the education they needed to create their own inventions in the centuries since.
In the early 20th century, harvested natural ice was still common, but large industries such as breweries were beginning to use ice-making machines. Harvested ice for industrial use was rare by World War I. However, it wasn't until the development of safer refrigerant chemicals in the 1920s that home refrigerators became the norm.
The ability to keep food cold for prolonged periods (and even during shipping, once refrigerated trucks were developed) drastically changed the food production industry and the eating habits of people around the world. Now, we have easy access to fresh meats and dairy products even in the hottest summer months, and we're no longer tied to the expense of harvesting and shipping natural ice -- which never could have kept pace with the world's growing population in any case.
Transmitting signals wirelessly using electromagnetic waves was a concept worked on by many inventors around the world, but Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla popularized it in the early 20th century. Eventually, sound could be transmitted wirelessly, while engineers gradually perfected the transmission of images. Radio and television were new landmarks in communications because they allowed a single broadcaster to send messages to thousands or even millions of recipients as long as they were equipped with receivers.
These developments in communications technology effectively shrank the world. In the span of about 120 years, we went from a world where it might take weeks to hear news from across the country to one where we can watch events occurring on the other side of the globe as they happen. The advent of mass communications put more information within our grasp and altered how we interact with each other.
The concept of using steam to power machines had been around for thousands of years, but Thomas Newcomen's creation in 1712 was the first to harness that power for useful work (pumping water out of mines, for the most part). In 1769, James Watt modified a Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser, which vastly increased the steam engine's power and made it a far more practical way to do work. He also developed a way for the engine to produce rotary motion, which may be just as important as the efficiency gains. Thus, Watt is often considered the inventor of the steam engine.
Newcomen's and Watt's engines actually used the vacuum of condensing steam to drive the pistons, not the pressure of steam expansion. This made the engines bulky. It was the high-pressure steam engine developed by Richard Trevithick and others that allowed for steam engines small enough to power a train. Not only did steam engines power factories that made the rapid production of goods possible, they powered the trains and steamships that carried those goods across the globe. While the steam engine has been eclipsed by electric and internal combustion engines in the areas of transport and factory power, they're still incredibly important. Most power plants in the world actually generate electricity using steam turbines, whether the steam is heated by burning coal, natural gas or a nuclear reactor.
The automobile's effect on commerce, society and culture is hard to overestimate. Most of us can jump in our car and go wherever we want whenever we want, effectively expanding the size of any community to the distance we're willing to drive to shop or visit friends. Our cities are largely designed and built around automobile access, with paved roads and parking lots taking up huge amounts of space and a big chunk of our governments' budgets. The auto industry has fueled enormous economic growth worldwide, but it's also generated a lot of pollution.
The bulb itself works by transmitting electricity through a wire with high resistance known as a filament. The waste energy created by the resistance is expelled as heat and light. The glass bulb encases the filament in a vacuum or in inert gas, preventing combustion.
You might think the light bulb changed the world by allowing people to work at night or in dark places (it did, to some extent), but we already had relatively cheap and efficient gas lamps and other light sources at the time. It was actually the infrastructure that was built to provide electricity to every home and business that changed the world. Today, our world is filled with powered devices than we can plug in pretty much anywhere. We have the light bulb to thank for it.
Computers are able to make complicated mathematical calculations at an incredible rate of speed. When they operate under the instructions of skilled programmers, computers can accomplish amazing feats. Some high-performance military aircraft wouldn't be able to fly without constant computerized adjustments to flight control surfaces. Computers performed the sequencing of the human genome, let us put spacecraft into orbit, control medical testing equipment, and create the complex visual imagery used in films and video games.
If we only examine these grandiose uses of computers, we overlook how much we rely on them from day to day. Computers let us store vast amounts of information and retrieve a given piece of it almost instantly. Many of the things we take for granted in the world wouldn't function without computers, from cars to power plants to phones.
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the research and development arm of the U.S. military, created ARPANET in the late 1960s. This network of computer-to-computer connections was intended for military and academic research. Other computer networks began to cross the globe in the next few years, and by the late 1970s computer scientists had created a single protocol, TCP/IP, that would allow computers on any network to communicate with computers on other networks. This was, essentially, the birth of the Internet, but it took 10 or so years for various other networks in the world to adopt the new protocol, making the Internet truly global.
The Internet is such a powerful invention that we've probably only begun to see the effects it will have on the world. The ability to diffuse and recombine information with such efficiency could accelerate the rate at which further world-changing inventions are created. At the same time, some fear that our ability to communicate, work, play and do business via the Internet breaks down our ties to local communities and causes us to become socially isolated. Like any invention, the good or ill it accomplishes will come from how we choose to use it.
Thanks Robert A. Cook, PE.
Toolmaking with stone should be on there, at or near the top — humans have gone from crude stone tools to scanning tunneling electron microscopes.
Also at or near the top, writing. Duh.
Here’s an unusual extra to the GGG list.
Yes, but how does it know?
Perhaps, but if I wanted to bring in Connections, I'd talk about how the Black Plague contributed to literacy in Western Europe. The whole underwear tie-in.
Good chance we would not be here, at least in the south, if it wasn’t for bug spray...
With respect to the plow, the description talks about prehistoric use and says "improvements in the plow's design made farming so efficient that people could harvest far more food than they needed to survive.
I agree with you, and assume the authors of the list agree with you about the plow not being a single invention.
The pizza oven
Novocaine. Penicillin. X-ray machine. The lateen sail. The stirrup. The radio. The five-speed musical vibrator. Wait, scratch that one.
Anthropologists credit fire/cooking as a major step in mans advancement. Cooked starches made more nutrition available for digestion. I read that on an FR link one day.
Put FR somewhere on the list.
His Marxism comes through in later iterations — Connections led to The Day the Universe Changed, on through some others, including The Toolmaker’s Gift. The original is something I’d enjoy seeing again, vids may be online and there are good solid (free) ways of archiving them on the local drive...
The sippy cup.
Red-headed women with freckles
The Martin D-28/Gibson J-45
The Designated Hitter (the list didn't say the invention had to change the world for the better
Intermittent windshield wipers
Plumbing and sewerage.
NO WIRE COAT HANGERS!!
I think the birth control pill has changed our world fundamentally. It will strongly influence the future of Mankind.
Gun powder, fire, steel
Ah, but what about a firm place to stand? ;’)
The weaving loom enabled clothes made of things that could be grown instead of hunted and skinned.
and the later development of looms that utilized punch cards to make woven designs directly led in a line to punch cards for counting machines and ultimately computers
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.