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.

What Lies Ahead?

Writing on, Dr. Robert Goldman, M.D., PhD., took a look at some of the big changes facing mankind in the not distant future.

Health: There are pharma companies building a medical device (called the ‘Tricorder’ from Star Trek) that works with your phone. The Tricorder takes your retina scan, your blood sample and a breath sample. It then analyses 54 biomarkers that will identify nearly any disease. It will be cheap, so in a few years everyone on this planet will have access to world class medicine, nearly for free.

3D printing: The price of the cheapest 3D printer came down from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years. In the same time, it became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies started 3D printing shoes. Spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports. The space station now has a 3D printer that eliminates the need for the large amount of spare parts they used to have in the past.

At the end of this year, new smartphones will have 3D scanning possibilities. You can then 3D scan your feet and print your perfect shoe at home. In China, they already 3D printed a complete 6-story office building. By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

Business opportunities: If you think of a niche, ask yourself – in the future, do you think we will have that? If the answer is yes, how can you make that happen sooner? If it doesn’t work with your phone, forget the idea. And any idea designed for success in the 20th century is doomed for failure in the 21st century.

Work: 70-80% of jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be a lot of new jobs, but it is not clear if there will be enough new jobs in such a small time frame.

Agriculture: There will be a $100 agricultural robot in the future. Farmers in third world countries can then become managers of their field instead of working all days on their fields. Aeroponics will need much less water. The first petri dish produced veal is now available and will be cheaper than cow produced veal in 2018. Right now, 30% of all agricultural surfaces are used for cows. Imagine if we don’t need that space anymore. There are several startups who will bring insect protein to the market shortly. It contains more protein than meat. It will be labeled as ‘Alternative protein source’ (as most people still reject the idea of eating insects).

Education: The cheapest smart phones are already at $10 in Africa and Asia. By 2020, most humans will own a smartphone or a device that has access to world class education/information. Every child will have access to tools for learning art, engineering, design, languages, science, music, mathematics, etc.

Longevity: Right now, the average life span increases by three months per year. Four years ago, the life span was 79 years, now it’s 80 years. The increase itself is increasing and by 2036, there will be more that one year increase per year. So we all might live for a long long time, probably way more than 100.

Smartphones Are Getting Outsmarted; Apps Will Be the Next to Fall

You might have noticed this development if you got a new phone over the holidays. Or you will see it if you watch what comes out of the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show opening this week in Las Vegas. Phones are where laptops were about a decade ago. The design and purpose are fixed and well-understood, so all that’s left are incremental improvements – making them a little thinner, adding a little more power or coming up with an occasional new feature like Samsung’s notifications along an outer edge.

From now on, Newsweek reports, all the real innovation will happen outside your phone – in apps, the cloud and other connected devices. “We’re at the cusp of a transition to wanting our technology on us and around us,” Phillippe Kahn, one of the great inventors of mobile technology, said recently. “Instead of having to carry gadgets, technology will just be there. The more we forget the technology, the better.”

Intriguingly, this new world will also be a threat to apps as we know them.

This isn’t to say that smartphones are finished as a business. About 3.5 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people own one. That leaves maybe another billion more potential customers – if you leave out small children, the 1.3 billion who live on less than $1.25 a day and the grandmothers tightly clutching flip phones. And nearly everyone who owns a smartphone today will buy a new one every couple of years, if not more frequently.

Yet, over time we are going to rely less on our phones, and instead get more things done by connecting to applications and services through a dizzying variety of things. Our attention will move from our phone screens to the ether – we’ll feel that our apps are in the air around us, and can be accessed through any connected device we encounter.

Young consumers already seem to be tilting this way. In a survey by Ericsson Consumer Labs, released in December, half of respondents said that by 2021 they might not even be using a smartphone. They expect to access apps in what they say are more convenient ways.

Like what? Cars, for example. Today, if you want your Spotify music and GPS maps and voice calls in the car, you carry your phone into the car, prop it up in the cup holder, and try to stab the screen with your thumb while going 72 miles per hour. We’ll come to realize this is cretinous, not to mention hazardous. Cars of the next decade will connect to the network, respond to voice commands and display info like your playlists or maps on a heads-up display in the windshield. Instead of opening a discrete app to do something, you’ll just say what you want – “play random Clash songs” or “pay my electric bill.”

Amazon’s Echo is another nudge in that direction – along with Apple’s Siri and Google Now. Set up an Echo at home, and the cylindrical device constantly listens for requests. Echo’s software comprehends a properly phrased request, then goes to the cloud to do it – no phone required. The technology is still in its rudimentary stage.

No single device is going to replace the smartphone. The cloud and artificial intelligence software are going to replace the smartphone. We’ll connect through whatever makes sense – a smartwatch, connected eyeglasses, a touch-screen kitchen counter, cars, Echo, Nest, Fitbit, Oculus Rift. Motorola Mobility recently patented a device that would get implanted under the skin and respond to voice commands. If a service needs to know who you are, it might scan your voice, face or fingerprint. No more remembering 259 user names and passwords.

Today each app focuses on one service, so anything you do on a device requires you to think first about which app to open. That’s a barrier when you just want to get something done. The technology needs to act more like a great personal assistant who already knows your preferences and understands your shorthand orders.

Plus, who wants to have to install a boatload of apps on your watch, car, implanted gadget and a dozen other devices? As Google director Aparna Chennapragada says, the goal has to be to “de-silo and unbundle the function of apps” so software like Google Now, Siri or Echo can mix and match app services to accomplish the task you requested. Once that happens, we won’t think of apps the way we do now. In fact, it’s likely we won’t think of apps at all.

The physical gadget of smartphone won’t go away – no more than laptops have gone away. The smartphone, though, is probably heading for a future as more of a pocket screen – something that allows you to watch videos, read news stories and take pictures when you’re out. It won’t be the center of your tech life – it will be an adjunct.

That’s another way smartphones are like laptops. Not so long ago, new laptops were exciting to buy. They contained our lives on their hard drives and were our windows to the world through the Internet. Now laptops seem more like work tools, and new ones don’t seem much different from the one you bought a few years ago. Much the same fate awaits smartphones.

On the flip side, next-generation refrigerators will connect to the network and come armed with sensors and AI software that can automatically take care of important things, like understanding that you just ordered General Tso’s chicken through Echo, noticing that you’re out of beer and ordering more to be delivered. Now that’s exciting.