Inventions with Impact

In just a few millennia, mankind has moved from dark caves to spectacular cities and gained the ability, thanks to the internet, to pull up a good chunk of our species’ accumulated knowledge from the telephones in our pockets.

How we got from worshiping the moon to walking on it is the direct result of history-making inventions old and new. Here’s a look at some of the inventions that have had major impacts on humankind.

The wheel – The most amazing thing about the wheel isn’t so much its invention, but that people relied on dragging things around for so long. A 5,500-year-old Sumerian pictograph of a wheeled sledge represents the earliest evidence of humankind finally working smarter, not harder.

Steel – The key process of tempering steel was known to ancient Egyptians by about 900 BC, giving rise to the world’s first steel industry. Swords and knives were the initial bestsellers.

The compass – Twelfth-century Chinese and European mariners discovered that pieces of lodestone, a magnetic ore, tended to align with the North Star. Iron or steel needles touched by lodestones for long enough took on the same quality, and so, the compass was born.

The printing press – The printing press was the product of other inventions. Paper and movable type first appeared in China, but Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg generally is credited with inventing a machine that transferred ink-based text and images to paper some time around 1439. This drastically reduced the cost of printing books and other documents, and spurred the spread of information like no invention before.

The rocket – Rocket propulsion originated centuries before the first manned space flight. In 12th-century Asia, rockets propelled by a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal were used for military purposes.

Guns –. Around the year 1000, after having invented gunpowder, the Chinese came up with a bamboo tube that used gunpowder to fire a spear. This is widely regarded as the first gun. Rifles, pistols, revolvers and more advanced forms of handheld weaponry came later.

The telescope – In 1609, Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei used a small, primitive telescope to observe mountains and craters on the moon. He also noted a band of light stretching across the heavens, which would later be identified as our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

The microscope – Moving from observing very large things to very tiny ones, the compound microscope was invented around 1590 by three Dutch spectacle makers: Hans Jansen, his son Zacharias Jansen and Hans Lippershey.

Refrigeration – Artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748. But it was Ferdinand Carré who introduced ammonia as a vapor-compression coolant in 1859. The French inventor’s refrigeration became widely used, and vapor-compression refrigeration remains the most popular method of cooling.

The steam engine – Until the 17th century, the steam power had not been harnessed for any practical purpose. That changed in 1698, when Thomas Savery patented a steam-powered pump for sucking water out of mines. Much refinement later, this technology would power everything from locomotives to ships.

The automobile – Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot is widely credited as the inventor of the first true automobile. In 1769 the Frenchman’s enormous steam-powered vehicle, a tricycle, carried four people for 20 minutes at 3.6 km per hour.

The airplane – The Wright Flyer of 1903 was the first powered airplane to make a sustained flight under a pilot’s control. Designed and constructed by Wilbur and Orville Wright, it flew across the base of the Kill Devil Hills four times. The aircraft now is displayed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The battery – By providing the first source of continuous current, Italian Alessandro Volta’s invention of the electric battery in 1800 opened the door to many of the world-changing inventions on this list.

The telephone – After much competition and controversy, Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a US patent for both the telephone instrument and the concept of a telephone system on March 7, 1876. His patent often is described as one of the most valuable of all time.

Vaccines – British physician Edward Jenner introduced the first vaccine in 1796, when he used the cowpox virus to inoculate human patients against smallpox. Since then, vaccination has wiped out smallpox, decimated polio and continues to help prevent other deadly diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and tuberculosis.

Internal combustion engine – In 1859, Étienne Lenoir unveiled the first successful gasoline-powered engine in Paris. Closely modeled on a horizontal steam engine, it was expertly refined by German inventor Nikolaus Otto in 1878, and went on to become the power plant of choice for most of the world’s motorized vehicles.

The camera – Photography was born when the camera obscura was adapted to produce a permanent image. This was achieved by two Frenchmen, Joseph Nicéphore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, in the 1820s and 1830s.

The computer – The Analytical Engine, which was designed and partly built by English inventor Charles Babbage in the 19th century, is generally considered to have been the first computer. Its four components – the mill, the store, the reader and the printer – were precursors to the CPU, memory and storage and input and output devices of modern computers.

Television – Technical developments in Britain, Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States made TV broadcasting feasible by 1931. It was then that a team headed by Britain’s Isaac Shoenberg invented a complete and practical TV broadcast system based on the Emitron camera tube and a receiver based on a cathode-ray tube.

Motion pictures – Legendary American inventor Thomas Edison is frequently credited with inventing the motion picture in 1889, despite the fact that his motion-picture operations were run by an assistant, W.K.L. Dickson, and that several British and French inventors could also claim precedent. What can’t be debated is that the 1892 version of Edison’s Kinetograph camera used a 35-mm format that is still in use today.

Concrete – When English inventor Joseph Aspdin burned and ground together a mixture of limestone and clay in 1824, the Portland cement he created would go on to become the dominant cementing agent used in the production of concrete, which is now used to build the vast majority of modern structures.

Plastic – The first plastic, Parkesine, was developed by British inventor Alexander Parkes when he combined chloroform and castor oil. Parkes won a bronze medal for his invention at the International Exhibition of 1862 in London.

Dynamite – Alfred Nobel of Sweden invented dynamite in 1867 when, by chance, he combined nitroglycerin and a powdery compound known as kieselguhr. This produced a substance that was much safer to use and easier to handle than nitroglycerin alone.

The incandescent light bulb – Despite several competing claims, American Thomas Edison has always received most of the credit for inventing the light bulb. A bulb isn’t much good without power, and Edison also had developed a practical lighting system to illuminate “his” invention.

Radio – Guglielmo Marconi was the first inventor to develop a method for transmitting wireless telegraph signals over significant distances. Eventually, in 1901, the Italian physicist bridged the Atlantic when he transmitted the letter “s” in Morse code from Poldhu, Cornwall, to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Antibiotics – A decade after Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming noted that Penicillium notatum mold killed bacteria growing on a culture plate, British biochemist Ernst Chain and others isolated penicillin in 1938 and showed that it could fight many serious bacterial infections.

Nuclear fission – On Dec. 2, 1942, Italy’s Enrico Fermi and his team ushered in the Atomic Age by operating the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago. Known as a “pile,” the device was made up of an array of uranium and graphite blocks.

Artificial satellites – The Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1, on Oct. 4, 1957. Circling the Earth every 96 minutes, Sputnik’s radio signal was the first to be transmitted around the world.

The Internet – In 1974, American computer scientist Vinton Cerf first described the transmission control protocol (TCP) that enables different types of machines on distant networks to route and assemble data packets. This laid the foundation for the global network that is now used by more than 3 billion people.

Mobile phones – Widely regarded as the inventor of the cellular phone, Martin Cooper is the American engineer who led the Motorola team that built the first mobile cellphone, and made the first cellphone calls, in 1972 and 1973. The result, the enormous DynaTAC phone, weighed around eight times as much as today’s smart phones.

The Future: Amazing or Awful

The future is either going to be really, really amazing, or really, really awful. Will we be commuting to work on flying bicycles on air-conditioned highways, or replaced by robots and hiding in our homes because antibiotics have stopped working? Will cancer be cured? Will there be Internet on Mars? Some experts took a stab at the answers.

You’ll communicate with dead relatives via virtual reality. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and director of engineering at Google, doesn’t like the idea of people he loves dying any more than you do. We can’t stop them from dying, but we can preserve their memories a little better than just fading photographs. He thinks we’re heading towards an age when we’ll be able to create virtual reality avatars of our deceased loved ones, realistic enough that we can interact with them. “This will be a way to bring him back,” he says, referring to his father. “Even if it isn’t fully realistic to bring these people back in A.I., it’ll be close.”

You’ll check email with your contact lenses. Engineers at Samsung are hard at work trying to develop a pair of contact lenses that let you go online and read your favorite websites without lifting a finger. How does it work? Well, it involves a “light-emitting diode on an off-the-shelf soft contact lens, using a material the researchers developed: a transparent, highly conductive, and stretchy mix of graphene and silver nanowires.”

Mars will get rings like Saturn. Saturn’s rings always made it the most recognizable planet in our solar system, but it may lose those bragging rights in another 20 to 40 million years. Mars could one day get its own outer ring. It all depends on its moon, Phobos, which is getting closer and closer to the red planet’s surface. If it doesn’t crash into Mars, it will break apart into countless tiny bits, which will continue to orbit the planet.

We’ll be communicating with thoughts. The BBC is pretty confident we can make this happen in the not-so-distant future. “Picking up thoughts and relaying them to another brain will not be much harder than storing them on the net,” claims futurologist Ian Pearson.

China will undergo a revolution, according to George Friedman, author of The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. One out of seven exports from China go to Walmart, he says, and even Warren Buffett doesn’t believe Walmart has a future. “All of the prosperity of China is built on the willingness of the U.S. and Europe to buy its products,” he says, and that time is coming to an end. When that time comes, he doesn’t think the current version of China will be able to survive “a billion [angry] peasants.”

We’ll have dinosaur zoos with real woolly mammoths. Thanks to advances in cloning technology, we might be able to bring back animals like the woolly mammoths. But according to Akira Iritani, a professor at Kyoto University, “Now the technical problems have been overcome, all we need is a good sample of soft tissue from a frozen mammoth.” Russian scientists are working on doing just that, and the big question in the medical community isn’t “is it possible,” but “should we do it?”

CGI will replace actors entirely. CGI has been used for everything from creating new scenes of actors in their youth to replacing actors who’ve died. How long before it just replaces them completely? Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise can relax for now, but according to Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, a computer graphics scientist and founder and head of MIRALab at the University of Geneva, as the technology improves, anyone who isn’t an A-list actor will likely be done “more and more by computer.”

Artificial intelligence will replace artists, according to futurist Ray Kurzweil. He says computers will be able paint, write and compose far better than humans ever will.

The days will get a lot longer. We’re not talking about the summer solstice, where it just feels like the days are longer because there’s more sunlight. We mean literally longer. Granted, you’d need to live a long, long time to experience it, as we’re only gaining about 1.7 milliseconds every 100 years. But it’s still amazing to think that one of the things we consider absolute can actually be altered. It won’t affect you, but your great-great-great-great grandkids are going to have a little more time in their day to get everything done.

Pills will be able to detect cancer. Google’s X Lab announced in 2014 that they’re working on a pill that’ll send microscopic particles into your bloodstream, capable of identifying cancers and even future heart attacks long before they become deadly. We’d prefer a cancer cure, but knowing about cancer years before it’s diagnosed could save millions of lives.

You’ll fly in planes that are literally all window. If companies like Technicon Design in France and the UK’s Center for Process Innovation have their way, everybody will get a window seat in the plane of tomorrow, which will offer panoramic views of the sky as you fly towards your destination. Relax, the windows aren’t technically real, they’re just cameras mounted on the plane’s exterior. Still terrifying, though. Happy flying!

Bathroom mirrors will inspect your moles. Worried about sun damage or the possibility of skin cancer? Ian Pearson, a senior futurologist at the U.K.-based company Futurizon, claims we’ll soon have bathroom mirrors with LED displays and high-resolution cameras. “They’ll be connected to the Internet so you could have a video check-up with your dermatologist,” he says.

We’ll discover another 2,000 planets. We’ve already identified 2,341 planets outside our solar system, but thanks to a collaboration between NASA and Google, that number is projected to jump to 4,496 in the near future. Will there be life in any of those planets? We’ll find out soon enough.

The robots are indeed coming. Only not as personal assistants and vacuum cleaners. Ask any smart person and they’ll tell you, “Oh yeah, we’re making robots that are way too smart. We’re all doomed.” Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup, believes that “we will be the first species ever to design our own descendants.” Dr. Nayef Al-Rodhan, a Neuroscientist and Geostrategist – which are two occupations that almost sound like fake jobs from a science-fiction movie – says that it’s only a matter of time before human beings create “transhumans,” which are just “improved versions of themselves that will eventually pose a threat to non-enhanced humans.”

Your every move will be monitored by dust spies. Kris Pister, a computing professor at the University of California, Berkeley, came up with the idea for “smart dust” particles in the 90s, which were basically tiny sensors, almost undetectable to the human eye, which would record everything that happened in the world. From big cities to small towns, billionaires to working class citizens, everything humans do will be recorded. “It’s finally here,” Pister told CNN in 2010.

Driving yourself will be passé and considered unsafe. In 2020 automated cars will start to become something most people take for granted. By some projections, there’ll be nearly 10 million cars on the road with self-driving features. The thing that seems so weird and futuristic now will, by the next presidential election, become something that annoys you if you don’t have it. You know how angry you get when you rent a car and it’s an older model without satellite radio? In the next five years, cars that don’t drive themselves will be the hand-me-downs that nobody wants.

Terrorists will be capable of creating their own pandemic. Think terrorism is scary now? Just wait till they’re making their own diseases. In 2016, Oxford’s Global Priorities Project curated a list of potential future catastrophes that could kill off 10 percent or more of the human population. A man-made pandemic was probably the scariest of the bunch, not just because of the death toll but because of the human evil necessary to create it.

Nanobots in your bloodstream will protect you from getting sick. We’re all on board with the “not getting sick” part. But tiny robots in our bloodstream might also be transmitting our personal thoughts to a data-mining cloud? That sounds downright Orwellian. We like the idea of not getting cancer because of our robot protectors. Since this isn’t expected to be reality until at least 2030, according to some predictions, we still have time to think about it and not seriously ponder the ethical dilemma until it’s too late.

An asteroid “might” destroy us in 862 years. Wait, did we say might? That’s right, based on NASA calculations, there’s a less than 1% chance that a mile-long asteroid will collide with Earth, wiping out all human life, on March 16, 2880. Of course, that means there’s a 99% chance humanity won’t be wiped out. And as NASA is the first to admit, “the upper limit could increase or decrease as we learn more about the asteroid in the years ahead.”

Antibiotics will stop working. We’ve come to depend on antibiotics as a quick fix for so many medical ailments. But what if the medicine just stopped working? What if you got pneumonia and doctors just shrugged and said, “There’s not much we can do, sorry?” That time may be coming sooner than we think. In fact, a 2016 report found that the new era of “antimicrobial resistance” could kill up to 10 million people each year by 2050.

Robotic earthworms will gobble up our garbage, according to an issue of The Futurist magazine. Do you want to know what any of that means? Or is it enough just to know that “tiny, agile robot teams will go through mines and landfills to extract anything of value”?

You’ll have easy access to all of the world’s knowledge. That’s what Google’s Eric Schmidt was promising in 2005, saying that the company would eventually “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It would take 300 years to make it happen, but it’d be worth the wait. Imagine having the ultimate Wikipedia at your disposal, but filled with all human knowledge, and none of it fabricated by trolls!

We’ll have prosthetic brains. They were first announced in 2003, but we’re still years away from a commercially available “neural prosthetic.” Bryan Johnson, who launched a startup called Kernel, is making strides to be the first to produce a brain implant. “Just like we’ve had civil rights, human rights, abortion rights, marriage rights, the next big debate to consume our society will be evolution rights,” he says.

We’ll have interplanetary Internet. We take it for granted that there’ll be colonies on Mars someday. But will the red planet get any Internet access? An interplanetary Internet has been in the planning stages since 1998. When we finally make it to Mars, which could be by the early 2030s, you won’t have to give up your Twitter account.

You’ll be able to smell your favorite TV shows. Have you ever watched your latest episode of the Walking Dead and thought, “That would’ve been so much better if I could smell the zombies?” You may be in luck. Nicholas Negroponte, a former director of M.I.T.’s Media Lab, predicted back in 1992 that we’d soon be getting “full-color, large-scale, holographic TV with force feedback and olfactory output.” Do we really need smell-o-vision?

Most office workers will be taking drugs to work harder and longer. Seventy percent of people surveyed across the globe claim they’d let medical science mess with their brains or bodies if it helped their career prospects. Some have predicted that “smart drugs” will soon become commonplace at offices. And a 2017 report from professional services firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that “medically-enhanced workers” will be a reality soon enough.

We’ll need to leave Earth. Stephen Hawking, the world famous physicist and cosmologist who died last March, was not very hopeful about the future of our planet. Thanks to dangers like climate change, epidemics, population growth and even direct hits by asteroid, he believed we’ll need to find a way to leave Earth in the next hundred years.