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.

Ten Things That May Disappear In Our Lifetime

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it is welcome. Sometimes not. In November 2011, published a list of 10 things likely to disappear from our lives. The list has been making the rounds on the internet ever since.

The article may be correct on some or all points, but there is good reason to doubt some of the predictions. Our take on why some of the allegations are questionable appears in brackets after the original item’s explanation.

1. The U.S. Post Office
Get ready to imagine a world without the post office. They are so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term. Email, Fed Ex and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive. Most of your mail every day is junk mail and bills.

[It remains entirely possible that the Congress may wake up some day and allow the postal service to operate like a business, rather than like a child with an allowance from Congress. There remain many folks who for reasons of location, disability, age or other things, can’t rely on electronic media to deliver to them what they currently receive in the mail. While the demise of the post office remains possible, it’s just as likely it will undergo changes that will allow operations to continue.]

2. The Check
Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with check by 2018. It costs the financial system billions of dollars a year to process checks. Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the check. This plays right into the death of the post office. If you never paid your bills by mail and never received them by mail, the post office would absolutely go out of business.

[Once again, the article flails at the post office. Checks may well disappear, but for those who must use mail to make payments, money orders can replace the check.]

3. The Newspaper
The younger generation simply doesn’t read the newspaper. They certainly don’t subscribe to a daily delivered print edition. That may go the way of the milkman and the laundry man. As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it. The rise in mobile Internet devices and e-readers has caused all the newspaper and magazine publishers to form an alliance. They have met with Apple, Amazon, and the major cell phone companies to develop a model for paid subscription services.

[It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say the younger generation doesn’t read the newspaper, though they may be less faithful at doing so than their elders. And even this article notes that the newspaper may disappear in printed form, but not electronically. The “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett, has sunk many millions into purchasing newspapers in recent years. One of the world’s richest people, Buffett doesn’t normally make huge mistakes when it comes to money. His faith in the newspaper business surely does not indicate that the death of newspapers is imminent.]

4. The Book
You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages. I said the same thing about downloading music from iTunes. I wanted my hard copy CD. But I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music. The same thing will happen with books. You can browse a bookstore online and even read a preview chapter before you buy. And the price is less than half that of a real book. And think of the convenience! Once you start flicking your fingers on the screen instead of the book, you find that you are lost in the story, can’t wait to see what happens next, and you forget that you’re holding a gadget instead of a book.

[Maybe, but a good many readers have shut off their Kindles and gone back to flipping printed pages to get the true satisfaction of reading a book. “Fahrenheit 451″ didn’t get rid of all the books, and neither did the dark ages in Europe, when Irish monks took it upon themselves to save and make copies of every written thing they could get their hands on.]

5. The Land Line Telephone
Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don’t need it anymore. Most people keep it simply because they’ve always had it. But you are paying double charges for that extra service. All the cell phone companies will let you call customers using the same cell provider for no charge against your minutes.

[Land lines certainly are on the decline and may cease to exist. But they are vastly less expensive than cell phone services and there are certain situations when only a land line will do. For example, inmates on furlough from the Nebraska corrections system must stay only at a home with a land line so that the corrections department can phone them via that land line to ensure that they are where they are supposed to be.]

6. Music
This is one of the saddest parts of the change story. The music industry is dying a slow death. Not just because of illegal downloading. It’s the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it. Greed and corruption is the problem. The record labels and the radio conglomerates are simply self-destructing. Over 40% of the music purchased today is “catalogue items,” meaning traditional music that the public is familiar with. Older established artists. This is also true on the live concert circuit. To explore this fascinating and disturbing topic further, check out the book, “Appetite for Self-Destruction” by Steve Knopper, and the video documentary, “Before the Music Dies.”

[We don’t have enough knowledge of this industry to dispute the article. But new and innovative music remains available for purchase on-line and new groups continue to pop up and thrive.]

7. Television Revenues
The networks are down dramatically. Not just because of the economy. People are watching TV and movies streamed from their computers. And they’re playing games and doing lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching TV. Prime time shows have degenerated down to lower than the lowest common denominator. Cable rates are skyrocketing and commercials run about every 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I say good riddance to most of it. It’s time for the cable companies to be put out of our misery. Let the people choose what they want to watch online and through Netflix.

[Cable and network TV may be the big losers here. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the like are thriving and seem destined to dominate what’s watched on TV.]

8. The “Things” That You Own
Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future. They may simply reside in “the cloud.” Today your computer has a hard drive and you store your pictures, music, movies and documents. Your software is on a CD or DVD, and you can always re-install it if need be. But all of that is changing. Apple, Microsoft and Google are all finishing up their latest “cloud services.” That means that when you turn on a computer, the Internet will be built into the operating system. So, Windows, Google and the Mac OS will be tied straight into the Internet. If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud. If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud. And you may pay a monthly subscription fee to the cloud provider. In this virtual world, you can access your music or your books, or your whatever from any laptop or handheld device. That’s the good news. But, will you actually own any of this “stuff” or will it all be able to disappear at any moment in a big “Poof?” Will most of the things in our lives be disposable and whimsical? It makes you want to run to the closet and pull out that photo album, grab a book from the shelf or open up a CD case and pull out the insert.

[It’s a bit of a stretch to label electronic files as the “things” we all own. Today, six years after publication of this article, there is indeed a great deal of our data etc. in the cloud. But computers with huge memories are popular and likely to remain so.]

9. Joined Handwriting (Cursive Writing)
Already gone in some schools who no longer teach “joined handwriting” because nearly everything is done now on computers or keyboards of some type (pun not intended).

[And already many of those schools are bringing cursive back. The invention of the printing press did not kill handwriting and it seems unlikely that today’s electronics are about to deliver the fatal blow. We still want to be able to read those old family Bibles and tales and the letters grandfather sent home from the battlefield.]

10. Privacy
If there ever was a concept that we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy. That’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time anyway. There are cameras on the street, in most of the buildings and even built into your computer and cell phone. But you can be sure that 24/7, “They” know who you are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinates, and the Google Street View. If you buy something, your habit is put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect those habits. “They” will try to get you to buy something else. Again and again.

[This one seems spot on. And it grows ever worse in the interests of “national security” or just plain “security” as with the new rules mandating that anything going into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln must be contained in clear plastic so it can be seen on entry.]