Top 10 Inventions That Changed Our Lives

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Humans are an ingenious species. From the moment someone bashed a rock on the ground to make the first sharp-edged tool, to the development of Mars rovers and the Internet, several key advancements stand out as particularly revolutionary When you imagine inventors, you probably picture a lone genius in a laboratory concocting brilliant devices, experimenting and redesigning until some concept or contraption works perfectly. At that point, the new invention is unveiled to the world, a stunning piece of new technology that instantly changes everything. Well, you’ve got part of it right. There’s certainly a lot of redesigning and experimenting when it comes to inventions, but it takes a lot longer than you think. It also takes far more people than that lone genius. As you’ll see when you read about these 10 world-changing inventions, no invention is created in a vacuum. Every single one was built on previous inventions created by other inventors years, decades or even centuries before. Every invention has problems, and it might not be until some other inventor comes along that they get solved. To confuse things further, it usually isn’t the original inventor who gets all the credit, but rather the inventor who made the one crucial improvement that makes us all want one. As you scan this list of the 10 inventions that changed the world, note how many of them perfected workable designs. So here the count down begins :

 

1. Internet

internet

The Internet, a network of computers covering the entire planet, allows people to access almost any information located anywhere in the world at any time. Its effects on business, communication, economy, entertainment and even politics are profound. The Internet may not have changed the world as much as the plow, but it’s probably on par with the steam engine or automobile. 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.

 

2. Computer

computer

A computer is a machine that takes information in, is able to manipulate it in some way, and outputs new information. There is no single inventor of the modern computer, although the ideas of British mathematician Alan Turing are considered eminently influential in the field of computing. Mechanical computing devices were in existence in the 1800s (there were even rare devices that could be considered computers in ancient eras), but electronic computers were invented in the 20th century. 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.

 

3. Light bulb

light bulb

If there’s a common theme to this list, it’s that no major invention came from a single stroke of genius from a single inventor. Every invention is built by incrementally improving earlier designs, and the person usually associated with an invention is the first person to make it commercially viable. Such is the case with the light bulb. We immediately think of Thomas Edison as the electric light bulb’s inventor, but dozens of people were working on similar ideas in the 1870s, when Edison developed his incandescent bulb. Joseph Swan did similar work in Britain at the time, and eventually the two merged their ideas into a single company, Ediswan. 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.

 

4. Automobile

automobile

If the steam engine mobilized industry, the automobile mobilized people. While ideas for personal vehicles had been around for years, Karl Benz’s 1885 Motorwagen, powered by an internal combustion engine of his own design, is widely considered the first automobile. Henry Ford’s improvements in the production process — and effective marketing — brought the price and the desire for owning an auto into the reach of most Americans. Europe soon followed. 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.

 

5. Steam engine

steam engine

Prior to the invention of the steam engine, most products were made by hand. Water wheels and draft animals provided the only ‘industrial’ power available, which clearly had its limits. The Industrial Revolution, which is perhaps the greatest change over the shortest period of time in the history of civilization, was carried forward by the steam engine. 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.

 

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