In our current times, it may seem as if we are constantly bombarded with exciting new innovations and discoveries. However, many of the new ideas and technologies that are shaping our modern world often can be traced back centuries in their origins. Humans have the impressive ability to keep innovating and pushing onward.
There are a number of inventions throughout history that may have contributed more than others to advance civilization and technological development. As you probably guessed, today we are going to look at some of these inventions.
Let’s look at some of the inventions that revolutionized history.
1. The Wheel (3500 BC) – Let’s Get Things Rolling
One early invention that altered the history of humanity was the wheel. Although, the wheel is not really as old as you may think. The first wheel was likely developed sometime around 4000 B.C. By that time, humans were already casting metal alloys, constructing canals and sailboats, and even designing complex musical instruments such as harps.
In fact, the key innovation was not the wheel itself, which was likely invented the first time someone saw a rock rolling along, but the combination of the wheel and a fixed axle, which allows the wheel to be connected to a stable platform. Without the fixed axel, the wheel has very limited utility.
Evidence suggests that the first device to use the wheel and axle combination was a true potter’s wheel, which is freely-spinning and has a wheel and axle mechanism. These were developed in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria) sometime around 4000 BCE. The oldest surviving example, which was found in Ur, dates to around 3100 BCE, and there is evidence of wheeled vehicles by the late 4th millennium BCE.
2. The Compass (c. 200 BC)
The compass has helped humans to explore and navigate around the world. In today’s world of satellites and GPS, it may seem irrelevant, but it was an important invention in its day.
However, the compass may have originally been created for spiritual purposes and only later adapted for navigational purposes. The earliest compasses were most likely invented by the Chinese, around 200 BC. Some were made of lodestone, which is a naturally-occurring form of the mineral magnetite.
There is also evidence that other civilizations may have used lodestone for navigation or for spiritual purposes. At some point, possibly around 1050 CE, people began suspending the lodestones to allow them to move freely, and using them for navigation. A description of a magnetized needle and its use among sailors occurs in a European book written in 1190, so by that time, it is likely that the use of a needle as a compass was commonplace.
A water wheel is a machine that converts the energy of flowing or falling water into useful forms of power, such as a watermill. A water wheel consists of a wheel and a number of blades or buckets arranged on the outside rim forming the driving car.
The water wheel was invented independently in a number of places. Some of the earliest were developed by the ancient Greeks, who used it for both irrigation and milling, beginning sometime in the period between the 3rd and 1st century BC.
By at least the 1st century AD, the Eastern Han Dynasty was using horizontal water wheels for milling and to power the piston-bellows used to forge iron ore into cast iron.
There are also ancient Indian texts dating to the 4th century BC that refer to devices that may have been some of the first water wheels, but this is yet to be confirmed.
The notion of a calendar, in the sense of keeping track of how many days have passed, is likely quite old — at least as old as writing itself. The first “calendars” were based on the phases of the Moon, as this would have been easy to track.
However, the lunisolar calendar, in which months are based on the lunar cycle, but years are solar — bringing the seasons into line so that, for example, the grain was harvested in the same lunar month each year — was used in the early civilizations in the Middle East and in Greece. The formula may have been invented in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BCE.
Many civilizations continued to use a lunar calendar, which had fewer days than the solar year. In order to keep the months from moving around too much, an extra month would often be added every other year. The ancient Romans used a system similar to this, but by around 46 BC, the system had broken down, so that civic events and religious holidays were occurring during the wrong season. Julius Caesar thus introduced a new system, which set the length of the months and the year to align with the solar year. This was the Julian calendar.
This worked well, but was still off by enough so that it gained a day every 128 years. To fix the error, the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world uses today was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
5. Ancient Concrete
We live in a world that is built using materials held together with concrete. Concrete is a composite material made from a mixture of broken stone or gravel, sand, Portland cement, and water, which can be spread or poured into molds and forms a mass resembling stone on hardening.
One of the key ingredients of concrete is cement, and the origins of cement may stretch back to 3000 BC. At this time, the Egyptians were using early forms of concrete as a mortar in their building.
Around 1300 BC, builders in the Middle East were coating the outside of their clay fortresses with a thin, moist layer of burned limestone. This would chemically react with gasses in the air to form a hard, protective surface. By 700 BC, the significance of hydraulic lime was known, which led to the development of mortar kilns for the construction of rubble-wall houses, concrete floors, and underground waterproof cisterns.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used a form of concrete which included Pozzolana, which uses an aluminum and silica mixture that reacts with calcium hydroxide at room temperature and in the presence of water to form a substance that acts as cement. It was very strong — one reason why so many Greek and Roman ruins survive today.
In 1824, Portland cement was invented by Joseph Aspdin of England. George Bartholomew had laid down the first concrete street in the US during 1891, which still exists.
By the end of the 19th century, the use of steel-reinforced concrete was developed. In 1902, using steel-reinforced concrete, Auguste Perret designed and built an apartment building in Paris. This building garnered a lot of admiration and popularity for concrete, and eventually influenced the development of reinforced concrete.
In 1921, Eugène Freyssinet pioneered the use of reinforced concrete construction by building two colossal parabolic-arched airship hangars at Orly Airport in Paris.
6. Clock (725 AD) – the First Mechanical Clock
Imagine modern civilization without having a sense of time? Depending on your point of view, this is either wonderful or horrible. Humans have used devices to measure time for thousands of years – the current system of time measurement, based on 60 seconds to the minute and 60 minutes to the hour, was created by the Sumerians around 2000 BC.
The earliest timepieces used the movement of the sun (sundials) or water (waterclocks). Other early “clocks” include the candle clock, the time stick, and the hourglass.
The earliest known mechanical clock used a water-powered escapement mechanism to transfer rotational energy into intermittent motion, and was developed in Greece around the 3rd century BC. In the 10th century AD, Chinese engineers invented clocks which used mercury-powered escapement mechanisms, and Arabic engineers invented water clocks that were driven by gears and weights in the 11th century.
The first mechanical clocks that used gear trains to advance the mechanism, called a verge escapement, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century. These were the standard until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656.
Pendulum clocks were the most accurate timepieces until the 1930s, when quartz clocks were invented, followed by atomic clocks after World War II.
7. The Printing Press
The printing press is a prominent part of the foundation on which modern civilization was built upon.
German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press around 1436, although he was not the first to automate the printing process. Woodblock printing in China dates back to the 9th century, and Korean bookmakers were printing with moveable metal type around 100 years before Gutenberg.
Johannes Gutenberg’s machine, however, improved on the already existing presses and introduced them to the West. By 1500, Gutenberg presses were operating throughout Western Europe, with a production of 20 million materials, from individual pages, to pamphlets, and books.
The printing press not only allowed the mass production of newspapers and pamphlets, it also lowered the price of printed materials, making books and newspapers accessible to many, and fostering literacy.
The impact of the printing press in history was described by Mark Twain as, “What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.”
8. The Steam Engine – The Invention that Started a Revolution
A Spanish mining administrator named Jerónimo de Ayanz is thought to have been the first person to develop a steam engine. Hie patented a device that used steam power to propel water from mines.
However, it is Englishman Thomas Savery, an engineer and inventor, who is usually credited with developing the first practical steam engine, in 1698. His device used steam pressure to draw water from flooded mines. In developing his engine, Savery had used principles set forth by Denis Papin, a French-born British physicist who invented the pressure cooker.
In 1711, another Englishman, Thomas Newcomen, improved on the steam engine, and in 1781, James Watt, a Scottish instrument maker employed by Glasgow University, added a separate condenser to Newcomen’s engine, which allowed the steam cylinder to be maintained at a constant temperature — dramatically improving its functionality. He later developed a double rotating steam engine that, by the 1800s, would be powering trains, mills, factories, and numerous other manufacturing operations — kickstarting the Industrial Revolution.
9. Vaccines – One of the Most Important Inventions for Medicine
The history of vaccination actually dates back farther than you might think. The practice of variolation — smearing a small cut in the skin with cowpox to give immunity to smallpox was practiced in 17th century China.
In the West, Edward Jenner is considered the founder of vaccinology, after noticing that “milkmaids” often suffered from cowpox but rarely from smallpox and hypothesized that the less dangerous cowpox virus could confer some immunity to smallpox. In 1796, he inoculated a 13 year-old-boy with cowpox, then exposed him to smallpox — demonstrating an early form of vaccination.
In 1798, the first smallpox vaccine was developed.
Louis Pasteur’s experiments later led to the development of live attenuated cholera vaccine and inactivated anthrax vaccine in humans (1897 and 1904, respectively).
In 1923, Alexander Glenny perfected a method to inactivate tetanus toxin using formaldehyde, creating a tetanus vaccine. The same method was used to develop a vaccine against diphtheria in 1926.
Viral tissue culture methods developed from 1950-1985, and led to the advent of the Salk (inactivated) polio vaccine and the Sabin (live attenuated oral) polio vaccine.
10. The Steam-Powered Train – Chugging Along with the Industrial Revolution
The first full-scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdom in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, a British engineer. It used high-pressure steam to drive the engine. On 21 February 1804, the world’s first steam-powered railway journey took place when Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along a tramway in Wales.
The first commercially successful steam locomotive, the Salamanca, was built in 1812–13 by John Blenkinsop. In 1814, George Stephenson built a steam engine, the Locomotion No. 1, based on Blenkinsop’s design.
In 1821, Stephenson was appointed as an engineer for the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the northeast of England, which was opened as the first public steam-powered railway in 1825. His Locomotion became the first steam locomotive to haul passengers on a public railway. In 1829, he built his famous steam engine, Rocket, and the age of railways had begun.
11. Electric Battery – Volta’s Remarkable Feat
In the 1800s, people did not have continuous electric lines that carried a constant supply of power. So, the production of electricity was not at all an easy task.
The battery may actually date back almost 2,000 years, to the Parthian empire. Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient battery consisting of a clay jar filled with a vinegar solution, into which an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder was inserted. These batteries might have been used to electroplate silver.
Alessandro Volta is generally credited with discovering the first practical battery. He invented his battery in 1799, it consisted of discs of two different metals, such as copper and zinc, separated by cardboard soaked in brine.
In 1802, William Cruickshank invented the Trough battery, an improvement on Volta’s voltaic pile. Batteries had a breakthrough in 1859, with the invention of the first rechargeable battery based on lead-acid by the French physician Gaston Planté. The Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd) battery was introduced in 1899 by Waldemar Jungner.
12. Computer (1822) – The First Mechanical Computer by Babbage
Computers are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Initially built for doing complex mathematical calculations, the bulky computers of the past have evolved into machines that sit on almost every desktop and are carried in our pockets.
Mechanical engineer Charles Babbage laid the foundation for this remarkable and most reliable invention, along with Ada Lovelace, who created the first programs. In the early 19th century, the “father of the computer” conceptualized and developed an early mechanical computer. Although there’s no single inventor of the modern computer, the principle was proposed by Alan Turing in his seminal 1936 paper.
13. Refrigerator – Beating the Heat
According to the report of 2009 by the U.S Department of energy, 99% of US homes have at least one refrigerator. This statistic itself is representative of the popularity of the refrigerator in the modern world. The great invention helps keep perishable food products fresh much longer.
The first vapor-compression refrigerator was patented in 1835 by Jacob Perkins, based on a theory put forward earlier by Oliver Evans. British engineer James Harrison built the first mechanical refrigeration system, to create ice, in around 1851. He founded the Victorian Ice Works and is often called “the father of refrigeration”. In 1873, he demonstrated that meat kept frozen for months remained perfectly edible.
However, the first refrigerator to be manufactured for widespread use was the General Electric “Monitor-Top” refrigerator of 1927. While it helped to rev up industrial processes initially, it became an industry itself later on.
14. Telegraph (1830-1840) – The Communication Device that Introduced the Morse Code
In the early 19th century, the development of the battery allowed current to be used in a controlled environment. Then, in 1820, Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) demonstrated the connection between electricity and magnetism. After this, scientists and inventors began experimenting with both batteries and electromagnetism to develop some kind of communication system.
In the 1830s, the British team of Sir William Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone developed a telegraph system using magnetic needles that could be pointed around a panel of letters and numbers using an electric current. Around the same time, Samuel Morse worked to develop an electric telegraph of his own, eventually producing a single-circuit telegraph that worked by pushing the operator key down to complete the electric circuit of the battery. This sent the electric signal to a receiver at the other end.
At the same time, Morse and Alfred Vale also created what is now called Morse code to transmit messages across telegraph wires.
15. Steel – From Pins to the Brooklyn Bridge
The weight to strength ratio has made steel a preferred choice of builders over other materials. For example, while Bronze was the first metal forged for use by humans, it is relatively weak. Around 1,800 BC, people along the Black Sea began using iron ore to create sturdy wrought iron weapons. The even-stronger cast iron was first made in China, beginning around 500 BC.
Around 400 BC, Indian metalworkers invented a smelting method that used a clay dish to hold ingots of wrought iron and pieces of charcoal. When these were inserted into a furnace, the wrought iron melted and absorbed the carbon in the charcoal. When the crucibles cooled, they contained ingots of pure steel — which was much stronger and less brittle than iron.
In 1856, British engineer Henry Bessemer developed a process that blasted air through molten pig iron to create carbon-free, pure iron.
The Bessemer Process paved the way for the mass production of steel, making it one of the biggest industries on the planet. Today steel is used in the creation of everything from bridges to skyscrapers.
16. Electric Bulb (1880) – Lighting Up the World
Electric lights were pioneered in the early 19th century by Humphry Davy, who experimented with electricity and invented an electric battery. When he connected wires between his battery and a piece of carbon, the carbon glowed, producing light. His invention was known as the electric arc lamp.
Over the next seven decades, other inventors also created “lightbulbs.” However, the filaments used tended to break after a few days of use, making them impractical.
In 1850 an English physicist named Joseph Wilson Swan created a “light bulb” by enclosing carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. But without a good vacuum, his bulb had too short a lifetime for commercial use. However, in the 1870s, better vacuum pumps became available and Swan was able to develop a longer-lasting lightbulb.
Thomas A. Edison improved on Swan’s design by using metal filaments and in 1878 and 1879 he filed patents for electric lights using different materials for the filament. He eventually discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could last over 1200 hours. This discovery made commercially manufactured light bulbs commercially feasible.
17. The Airplane (1903) – Making the Flying Dream Come True
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the visionaries who believed that powered flight was possible. He made several designs for flying machines, although there is no evidence that any were actually constructed.
Many other flying machines were dreamed up since da Vinci’s time, and powered flight was achieved thanks to the work of countless inventors over the centuries. It was the Wright Brothers who became the first people to achieve controlled, powered flight. Beginning with their work on gliders, the duo’s success laid the foundation for modern aeronautical engineering by demonstrating what was possible.
On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled flight.
Now humans can cover thousands of miles in a matter of hours thanks to the achievement of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
18. Transistors (1947) – The Secret of Modern Day Computing
The electronics age owes its inception to transistors used to amplify electric signals. These replaced the bulky vacuum tubes that came before.
In 1926, Julius Lilienfeld patented a field-effect transistor, but the working device was not feasible. In 1947 John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley developed the first practical transistor device at Bell Laboratories. Their invention won the trio the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics.
Transistors have since become a fundamental piece of the circuitry in countless electronic devices including televisions, cellphones, and computers, making a remarkable impact on technology.
19. ARPANET (1969) – The Early Internet
The Internet has no single “inventor.” Instead, it has evolved over time. It started in the United States around the 1950s, along with the development of computers.
The first workable prototype of the Internet came in the late 1960s, with the creation of ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. By the 1970s, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP/IP) was developed by Vinton Chef, which enabled computers to communicate with each other. ARPANET adopted the TCP/IP protocols on January 1, 1983, and from there, researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became the modern Internet.
The Internet is a networking infrastructure, whereas the World Wide Web is a way to access information using the Internet. The father of the World Wide Web is considered to be British Computer Scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, who created the Web to allow information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.
In 1989 and 1990, Berners-Lee worked with Belgian systems engineer Robert Cailliau to formalize a proposal for the web architecture, including describing a “WorldWideWeb” in which “hypertext documents” could be viewed by “browsers.”
A Long Way Indeed!
Looking back at these ground-breaking inventions, one thing is clear — our desire to improve and innovate. We see a society that invented the wheel to tread ground quickly, who mastered the skies and waves. It is truly remarkable and something that we will continue to do for ages to come! What major inventions will be created in the coming decade?