7 key Inventions that Made the Modern World

In Computers, Videos by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment

Reading Time: 8 minutes

The modern world is filled with amazing inventions but as newton stated “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” and this applies to the 7 key inventions in this video, which if any one of these had not occurred, our modern world would look very different to how we see it today.

No 1. The Electrical generator

This first invention is probably the most fundamental of all the ones here, for without this, all but one of the following inventions would not have been possible.

Electricity had been known about since greeks and Benjamin Franklin had shown the relationship between lightning and electricity. But, it was Michael Faraday with his research into electromagnetism and later invention of the Electric Dynamo in 1831 which really opened up the way to the practical use of electricity. Although it would be Nikloa Telsa almost 60 years later that showed the use of Alternating current using alternators and not Direct Current to be the best for wide spread transmission of electricity. It’s now hard to believe that only 125 years ago the world had virtually no electrical supply, yet within a few decades it would be spread around earth.

Once we had a reliable way of generating electricity and of sufficient power the door was open the next invention to change the world.

No 2. The Light bulb

Almost a revolutionary as the generation of the electrical power, the light bulb brought light the world, at any time any were. Before its invention, people had to rely on oil lamps and then gas but both of these had considerable drawbacks with low light output and above all safety as they both relied on burning oil or gas.  But the introducing of electric lamp changed these completely.

Most people think that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb but there were as many as 22 inventors of incandescent lamps that predate Edisions design but all of these including Edisions version were eclipsed by the one created by William David Coolidge whilst working at General Electric in 1910 which used a coiled filament made from Tungsten which has the highest melting point of any chemical element.

This is basically the same design that has been with us up to the present day but it’s over a 100-year-old design and whilst it may be simple it is easily broken and has a short life of about a 1000 hours.

Incandescent lamps are also very inefficient and convert less than 5% or the electricity to light the other 95% is converted to heat, a modern LED lamp converts 75% to light and 25% to heat and as such they use much less electricity for the same light output. They also last up to 50 times longer and are much more robust.

No 3. The Internal combustion engine

The third item in our list and this is the only non-electrical item but it has had as much influence on the past 100 years as any of the other inventions here and that was the internal combustion engine.

Although there had been many attempts at creating an alternative to the stream engine, the first real engine that we would most closely relate to what we have today was created by Nikolaus Otto, working with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1876.

In 1879 Karl Benz independently created a two stroke engine and than a four stroke engine but the one engine which revolutionised the world in the 20th century more than any other was created by Rudolf Diesel in 1893.

Initially due to the greater power output, most of the early engines were petrol powered but advances in the diesel design and the inherent ability for diesel engines to produce more torque and low engine speeds and use less fuel meant that it became the engine of choice or agricultural and industrial applications.

From the largest engines ever made in ships to trains to trucks to tractors to Power stations and almost any large vehicle that moves with the exception of aircraft, the diesel engine is now the main power unit for almost every non electrical application that needs powerful engine.

The only area which still uses Petrol engines is car, motorcycles and small engine devices like chainsaws, lawnmowers etc, although in Europe 50% of all car sales are now of diesels.

No 4. The RADIO

At around the same time as the development of the electrical generators, the same discoveries about electromagnetism also brought about the 4th item on our list, something that enabled mass communications for the first time and more recently the liberation from fixed connections in our Wifi world, that invention was Radio.

It was in the 1864 that James Clerk Maxwell showed mathematically that electromagnetic waves could propagate through free space. Then in the late 1880’s, experiments by Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s theory that radio waves did exist and in 1896 Marconi patented a system of transmitting and receiving radio signals. In 1898 Nikola Tesla successfully demonstrated a radio-controlled boat at the electrical exhibition in Madison Square garden.

The value of radio was further enhanced in the minds of the public when it was revealed in the court of inquiry in to the Titanic disaster of 1912 that many of the survivors owed their lives to the use of the radio equipment on the Titanic which was operated by Marconi’s marine communication company. Marconi himself had been offered free passage on the Titanic but had turned it down and travelled on the Lusitania three days earlier.

As the technology improved services like the BBC in England and NBC in the states began to broadcast for the first time to mass audiences.

Although Radio was thought of as just a sound only service, In the 1920’s experiments started with transmitting visuals along with the sound which led to the television that we know of today.

In 2013, 79% of households in the world owned a television set but the method of communications using radio waves is not limited to just mass broadcasting.

Today, many types of Radio communication are part of almost every bodies way of life with two way communications, short range digital communications such as Wifi and blue tooth and even contactless credit cards, remote control of everything from Drones to satellites, mobile phones, satellite navigation, radar and even cooking food with microwaves, all of these rely upon the basic principles discovered just over 100 years ago

No 5. The Computer

Without our fifth invention, you wouldn’t be sitting here watching this video and infact much of the modern world would look like it did the 1930’s

Back then the word “Computer” meant someone that did manual number crunching using mechanical calculator, usually women working for accounting firms, banks or governments.

The first computing device that that could be programed with punch cards was Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1833 but it was Alan Turing who published a ground breaking paper called “on Computable Numbers” in 1936 that proposed a device he called a “Universal Computing Machine”.

He proved that such a machine could compute anything that is computable by executing instructions or a program which is stored in memory.

The world’s first stored program computer that contained all the elements required in a modern electronic computer was the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine built at the University of Manchester in England and it and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

Today the computer is fulfilling Turing’s idea of being a “universal machine” by replacing what were dedicated devices.

For example, the modern TV is a computer that receives a digital signal and displays the results on its screen.

The modern DAB or digital radio is again a computer that turns a digital radio signal in to sound and a smartphone is a computer that can send and receive a digital signal and turn it in to a wireless telephone or visual communication device, not mention all the things like being a social media tool, playing games, taking photos, videos, playing music, controlling other equipment and anything else that can be programmed and make use of it connections to the outside world.

No 6. The Transistor

While the computer is taking on the job of being the universal machine, it would not be able to what it does without our next invention which allowed the early computers to go from a machine the size of a large room to something you can wear on your wrist, carry in your pocket even have implanted under your skin.

That invention was the transistor in 1947 by American physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley at the AT&T Bell Labs in the United States. The idea of a solid state replacement for vacuum tube had been around since the mid 1920’s but the materials didn’t exist until the late 1940’s.

A transistor is a semiconductor device that can be used amplify or switch electrical signals and It is the fundamental building block of virtually all electronic devices.

Until its invention, electronic equipment relied upon valves which were fragile, consumed a lot of power and were relatively large.

What made the transistor so useful was that they were much smaller, used much less power and were much more robust. But the big breakthrough came when they were made much smaller and combined with other components on to the same piece of silicon to create integrated circuits.

The first commercially available transistor became available in 1954, with the first transistor radio going on sale shortly after.

In 1964, Frank Wanlass while working at General Microelectronics, demonstrated a 16 bit shift register which used 120 transistors on a single chip.

Today, 52 years later, CPU’s like the Oracle SPARC M7 can have 10 billion transistors on a single chip and if you add up all the transistors used for the CPU, Memory, screen and other areas, a device like an Apple iPhone 6S with 128Gb of ram will have well over 130 billion transistors in it.

If our IPhone where to be made from valves instead of transistors, assuming a one for one replacement and that they were closely packed side by side, it would cover a area of around 84sq kilometres or about 50 square miles.

No 7. The World Wide Web

Whilst the previous inventions have all been physical devices, the last invention is essentially a protocol for users of a computer or more importantly a network of computers to follow. But the results would have one of the biggest impacts on how we as people, communicate, connect, work and play since the beginning of industrial revolution and in fact has ushered in the information revolution.

Our last invention is not the internet but the world wide web which was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee whilst working at the CERN the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

Yet without this simple but highly effective system we would not have Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or any on the just over 1 billion websites online now.

Many people mix up the internet with the world wide web but the internet true, is the physical network of computers and the connection between them.

The world wide web is the software which runs on the computers in the form of the web browsers like Chrome, firefox, internet explorer on your PC or mobile device and the server software like Apache. The web allows the user to jump from one web page to another that could be in a different part of the world by just clicking on links whether they be text or graphics and hardly touching the keyboard.

In 1980 Tim came up with an idea of a global system based on the concept of “hypertext” or the clickable hyperlink that we know of now, that would allow researchers anywhere on a network to share information.

In 1984 he published a paper that married the idea of the hypertext with the then internet, which CERN was major European part of.

This created a system of sharing and distributing information not just within CERN but anyone else on the internet.  When naming the system Tim said that he was determined not to use yet another name from Greek mythology and came up with “World Wide Web” which his bosses liked , so the name stuck.

He also created the first web browser and editor and on the 6th August 1991 the worlds first website went online at http://info.cern.ch. This basic text only website was hosted on Tims own NeXT PC.

It explained what the World Wide Web was and gave information as to how other users could make their own websites and it’s still there today for you to visit.

Tim decided that the system would be “open” and free, this helped the fledgling world wide web spread and that was the beginning the “internet” as we know it now, and not just a network of interconnected computers for the military, scientists or usenet geeks.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website www.curious-droid.com.

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