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.