A competition sponsored in 1913 by Scientific American asked for essays on the 10 greatest inventions. The rules: “our time” meant the previous quarter century, 1888 to 1913; the invention had to be patentable and was considered to date from its “commercial introduction.”
Perception is at the heart of this question. Inventions are most salient when we can see the historical changes they cause. In 2013 we might not appreciate the work of Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison on a daily basis, as we are accustomed to electricity in all its forms, but we are very impressed by the societal changes caused by the Internet and the World Wide Web (both of which run on alternating-current electricity, by the way). A century from now they might be curious as to what all the fuss was about. The answers from 1913 thus provide a snapshot of the perceptions of the time.
The airplane: The Wright Flyer for military purposes, being demonstrated at Fort Myer, Va., in 1908.Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
Following are excerpts from the first- and second-prize essays, along with a statistical tally of all the entries that were sent in.
The first-prize essay was written by William I. Wyman, who worked in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and was thus well informed on the progress of inventions. His list was:
1. The electric furnace (1889) It was “the only means for commercially producing Carborundum (the hardest of all manufactured substances).” The electric furnace also converted aluminum “from a merely precious to very useful metal” (by reducing it’s price 98 percent), and was “radically transforming the steel industry.”
2. The steam turbine, invented by Charles Parsons in 1884 and commercially introduced over the next 10 years. A huge improvement in powering ships, the more far-reaching use of this invention was to drive generators that produced electricity.
3. The gasoline-powered automobile. Many inventors worked toward the goal of a “self-propelled” vehicle in the 19th century. Wyman gave the honor specifically to Gottleib Daimler for his 1889 engine, arguing: “a century's insistent but unsuccessful endeavor to provide a practical self-propelled car proves that the success of any type that once answered requirements would be immediate. Such success did come with the advent of the Daimler motor, and not before.”
4. The moving picture. Entertainment always will be important to people. “The moving picture has transformed the amusements of the multitude.” The technical pioneer he cited was Thomas Edison.
5. The airplane. For “the Realization of an age-long dream” he gave the laurels of success to the Wright brothers, but apart from its military use reserved judgment on the utility of the invention: “It presents the least commercial utility of all the inventions considered.”
6. Wireless Telegraphy. Systems for transmitting information between people have been around for centuries, perhaps millennia. Telegraph signals got a speed boost in the U.S. from Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. Wireless telegraphy as invented by Guglielmo Marconi, later evolving into radio, set information free from wires.
7. The cyanide process. Sounds toxic, yes? It appears on this list for only one reason: It is used to extract gold from ore. “Gold is the life blood of trade,” and in 1913 it was considered to be the foundation for international commerce and national currencies.
8. The Nikola Tesla induction motor. “This epoch-making invention is mainly responsible for the present large and increasing use of electricity in the industries.” Before people had electricity in their homes, the alternating current–producing motor constructed by Tesla supplied 90 percent of the electricity used by manufacturing.
9. The Linotype machine. The Linotype machine enabled publishers—largely newspapers—to compose text and print it much faster and cheaper. It was an advance as large as the invention of the printing press itself was over the painstaking handwritten scrolls before it. Pretty soon we won’t be using paper for writing and reading, so the history of printing will be forgotten anyway.
10. The electric welding process of Elihu Thomson. In the era of mass production, the electric welding process enabled faster production and construction of better, more intricate machines for that manufacturing process.
The electric welder invented by Elihu Thomson enabled the cheaper production of intricate welded machinery. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The turbine invented by Charles Parsons powered ships. Assembled in numbers, they provided an efficient means of driving electrical generators and producing that most useful commodity. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The second-prize essay, by George M. Dowe, also of Washington, D.C., who may have been a patent attorney, was more philosophical. He divided his inventions into those aiding three broad sectors: production, transportation and communication.
1. Electrical fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. As natural fertilizer sources were depleted during the 19th century, artificial fertilizers enabled the further expansion of agriculture.
2. Preservation of sugar-producing plants. George W. McMullen of Chicago is credited with the discovery of a method for drying sugar cane and sugar beets for transport. Sugar production became more efficient and its supply increased by leaps and bounds, like a kid on a “sugar buzz.” Maybe this is one invention we could have done without. But I digress.
3. High-speed steel alloys. By adding tungsten to steel, “tools so made were able to cut at such a speed that they became almost red hot without losing either their temper or their cutting edge” The increase in the efficiency of cutting machines was “nothing short of revolutionary.”
4. Tungsten-filament lamp. Another success of chemistry. After tungsten replaced carbon in its filament, the lightbulb was considered “perfected.” As of 2013 they are being phased out worldwide in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs, which are four times as efficient.
5. The airplane. Not yet in wide use as transportation in 1913, but “To [Samuel] Langley and to the Wright brothers must be awarded the chief honors in the attainment of mechanical flight.” In 2013 the annoying aspects of commercial airline flying make transportation by horse and buggy seem a viable alternative.
6. The steam turbine. As with Mr. Wyman, the turbine deserved credit not only “in the utilization of steam as a prime mover” but in its use in the “generation of electricity.”
7. Internal combustion engine. As a means of transportation, Dowe gives the greatest credit to “Daimler, Ford and Duryea.” Gottleib Daimler is a well-known pioneer in motor vehicles. Henry Ford began production of the Model T in 1908 and it was quite popular by 1913. Charles Duryea made one of the earliest commercially successful petrol-driven vehicles, starting in 1896.
8. The pneumatic tire. Cars for personal transportation were an improvement on railways. “What the track has done for the locomotive, the pneumatic tire has done for the vehicle not confined to tracks.” Credit is given to John Dunlop and William C. Bartlet, who each had a milestone on the road (pun intended) to successful automobile and bicycle tires.
9. Wireless communication. Marconi was given the credit for making wireless “commercially practical.” Dowe also makes a comment that could apply equally to the rise of the World Wide Web, stating that wireless was “devised to meet the needs of commerce primarily, but incidentally they have contributed to social intercourse.”
10. Composing machines. The giant rotary press was quite capable of churning out masses of printed material. The bottleneck in the chain of production was composing the printing plates. The Linotype and the Monotype dispensed with that bottleneck.
The essays sent in were compiled to come up with a master list of inventions that were considered to be the top 10. Wireless telegraphy was on almost everyone’s list. The “aeroplane” came in second, although it was considered important because of its potential, not because there were so many airplanes in the sky. Here are the rest of the results:
|Wireless telegraphy||97 percent|
|Incandescent electric lamp||35|
|Internal combustion engine||33|
|Transmitting and transforming AC current||15|
|Pneumatic tire (car and bicycle)||15|
|Kodak portable camera||10|
|Fixation of nitrogen||9|
|Welsbach gas burner||9|
|Producer gas [a type of fuel]||8|
|Flexible photo films||7|
There were also mentions for Luther Burbank's agricultural work (23); Louis Pasteur and vaccination work (20); acetylene gas from carbide (17); mercury-vapor lamp (7); preservation of sugar-producing plants (7); combined motion picture and talking machine (10); Edison's storage battery (6); automatic player piano (4); Pulmotor (a respirator machine) (4); telephone (4).
The motion picture: The hard-working Thomas Edison helped make this entertainment form technically viable. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The full contents of all the prize-winning essays is available with a subscription to the Scientific American archives.
There can be no doubt that the twentieth century is one of the most remarkable in human history for its previously unparalleled rate of technological advances and scientific discoveries, a rate that continues to this day. In fact, there were so many new gadgets invented and discoveries made in the last century that it’s difficult to pare the list down to just the ten (which is why there will be a number of glaring omissions from my list). However, I think I have managed to whittle it down to those ten innovations or technologies that have had the greatest influence on humanity—both positively and the negatively. And so, without further ado and in no particular order, here are my nominees for the ten greatest inventions/discoveries of the twentieth century:
10. Nuclear Power
Nuclear power was to the twentieth century what steam power had been to the nineteenth: a game changer. Suddenly humanity had a power source that didn’t pollute, was efficient and practically unlimited, and so had the potential to change the planet overnight. Unfortunately, it was a two-edged sword in that this same energy source could be used to create the most destructive weapons in history, threatening human survival with its very presence. Additionally, while nuclear power plants didn’t spew pollutants into the air, in the hands of the truly incompetent they had the capacity to render whole regions radioactive and, as such, uninhabitable for generations (as was demonstrated at Chernobyl in 1986).
However, it is hard to deny the overall positive impact nuclear power has had. The fear of mutually assured destruction probably prevented the world from experiencing a third world war and, when operated safely, nuclear power plants truly are a superb and cost-efficient energy source that has the capacity to power entire cities. The only question is whether we’re mature enough to handle that power into the next century.
9. The Personal Computer
It’s difficult to imagine our world today without computers. Of course, they have been around since World War Two, but they were clunky, massively expensive things that had all the calculating power of a brick. When Steve Wozniak and Stephen Jobs introduced the Apple in 1976, however, it changed everything and the rest is, as they say, history. Today, of course, they are everywhere and we have become so dependent upon them that many people almost feel naked without one. For some, they even provide the very means of maintaining a livelihood: we use them to keep track of our finances, write books, design logos and sell real estate. Plus, they are rapidly replacing the stereo and television in their ability to entertain us with music, movies, and games. Makes it hard to understand how our ancestors did so well without them, doesn’t it? (Image: the Apple 1, 1976.)
8. The Airplane
Just as the locomotive made the world a smaller place in the nineteenth century, the airplane did the same for us in the twentieth century, shrinking our planet to the point that a person could fly anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Not only have they made travel quick and safe, but aircraft provide many other services as well: from crop dusting and fighting forest fires to overnight delivery of packages and chasing hurricanes. They have also revolutionized warfare, turning battle into a long-range affair fought at arm’s length by machines of such sophistication that the way wars are fought has completely changed. Of course, they’ve also been responsible for leveling whole cities and bringing war to the civilian population—who had rarely been directly affected by war until the twentieth century—but then no invention is perfect.
7. The Automobile
Though under development in Europe during the nineteenth century, the automobile didn’t really become a practical and reliable source of transportation until the twentieth century. Once it did, it changed everything; overnight the horse and buggy became quaint anachronisms while much of the country was paved over to make room for endless ribbons of asphalt. It also brought about a revolution in the market place, suddenly making it possible to truck in goods that otherwise would be impossible to acquire. Most of all, Henry Ford’s assembly-line production style made the automobile affordable and accessible to the average person (before Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, only the fabulously wealthy could afford a car). The automobile gave everyone a degree of mobility and personal freedom our forefathers could only dream of, and turned entire generations of teenagers into raging revheads.
While the rocket was first invented and used by the Chinese over three thousand years ago—and used occasionally by the Greeks and Romans since —it wasn’t until the twentieth century that it came into its own and became more than just a dazzling amusement or a largely harmless but still effective “terror weapon” for ancient armies. In the twentieth century, rockets became bigger and more powerful. Most importantly, they became controllable, which suddenly made them useful both as weapons of war and, even more vitally, as our means of accessing outer space.
Without the rocket, it is safe to say we would not only have never gone to the moon or visited every planet in our solar system. Rockets also place satellites into orbit around our planet, so without them we also wouldn’t be able to use GPS, predict the weather, make international calls or, for the most part, even use our cell phones much of the time.
5. The Submarine
Though submersible vessels had been used in the past (the CSS Hunley during the Civil War) and the first true submarine was invented in the 1880’s, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the modern submarine came into its own. What started as an irritating, but still deadly, weapon in World War One grew into a monstrosity in World War Two- sinking more than any other type of weapon used.
Today, with the advent of nuclear power—which gave the submarine nearly unlimited range and endurance—it has become the capital warship in every first-class Navy in the world and as such has effectively rendered naval warfare of the past obsolete. How effective is the modern submarine? Ask anyone who has ever served on one. They’ll tell you there’s only two types of ships in the world: submarines and targets. ‘Nuff said.
Until Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, almost any little bug that someone picked up was potentially fatal. Once penicillin—and later a whole range of other antibiotics—came on the scene, however, death due to bacterial infection became rare, resulting in a greatly reduced mortality rate and much longer life-span. It also rendered many scourges of the past—from small pox and typhoid to gonorrhea and syphilis—obsolete or, at least in the case of venereal disease, something easily treatable.
Yes, I know it destroys brain cells and renders people emotionally and psychologically damaged, but really, where would we be without the boob tube? It is society’s baby-sitter, news source, teacher, entertainer, and story-teller. When in competent hands, television can even be useful at times.
Mostly, though, it fills our days with vapidity and all manner of inane and obnoxious commercials, and is the single greatest reason that families no longer eat in the kitchen or dining room anymore, but instead huddle in the living room around their television eating microwavable food and spilling soft drinks on the sofa. Still, even while we pretend we hate it, we can’t help but seeing what’s on tonight. Worse, most of us would have no idea what to do with our time without it, which is probably the saddest commentary of all.
2. The Internet
The computer rendered the typewriter obsolete and made writing in long-hand a thing of the past, but it took the internet to truly turn the computer into the monster it is today. While the airplane shrank our planet to the point that one could fly from New York to London in six hours, the internet made it possible to be there in a few seconds. It allows truth to make it into and out of repressive countries, it foments revolutions, and spreads lies at the speed of light. It also gives anyone the ability to buy and sell almost anything imaginable, find and torment old school mates, watch the latest you-tube videos, and even find their perfect life partner, all for a few bucks a month. Oh, and you can also get useful information off it if you don’t mind scrolling through 15,000 hits to find out just how long snails really live. Where would we be without it?
Few people today can appreciate the impact the advent of radio had on the twentieth century. Not only did it suddenly make it possible for a person to be heard from hundreds or even thousands of miles away without the use of a wire (quite an accomplishment in the first years of the century) but it was the center of family life through the end of the Second World War and into the doldrums of the fifties, when it was gradually replaced by that new-fangled contraption, the television.
Today, it seems to only be useful in the car as a means of keeping the driver from falling asleep behind the wheel or as a tool of talk radio designed to rile the masses. In its day, however, it was every bit as vital to existence as the television, the computer, the microwave, and the cell phone are to us today.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.