PM’s top 10 inventions, some of them serious

  • Image credit Reading University
Date:30 August 2012 Tags:

A year ago, we published a cover story listing “100 gadgets that changed the world”, featuring inventions ranging from the ridiculous (derringer, Super Soaker water gun) to the sublime (television, duct tape). In keeping with one of our prime directives – that is, we reserve the right to change our minds – we now have pleasure in presenting a smaller selection of inventions that may have escaped your notice – possibly because they are so familiar. Please feel free to engage us in debate…

Car 
Although some people might be inclined to argue, we’d say the world’s first proper cars were the Benz Patent Motor Car and the Daimler Motor Carriage, both dating from 1886 (Daimler’s Riding Car, which hit the road a year earlier, was the first vehicle to be powered by a high-speed internal combustion engine, and is probably best described as the world’s first motorcycle.) Full disclosure: Frenchman Nicolas Cugnot’s horrifically unwieldy three-wheeled fardier à vapeur (“steam dray”) reportedly ran for the first time in 1769.

Printing press
Invented by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg about 1440, this device and its successors played a hugely important role in the dissemination of knowledge (without the printing press, of course, you wouldn’t be reading your favourite magazine). Gutenberg developed the entire printing process, adapting existing technologies where necessary and adding a number of his own, groundbreaking inventions. His hand mould, for example, permitted the rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities. Within 60 years, Western Europe’s printing presses had turned out over 20 million volumes.

Computer
In 1823, Charles Babbage began working on his Difference Engine (he never finished the job, and it was completed by a Swedish inventor in 1854). In 1933, he switched his attention to the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine capable of performing difference functions based on programming (again, he never finished it). Which brings us to an interesting aside: Ada Byron (Lady Lovelace), the extremely clever daughter of poet Lord Byron, worked out a way for Babbage’s machine to calculate Bernouilli numbers, effectively making her the world’s first computer programmer. In 1939, a prototype of the first electronic computer was assembled by John Atansoff and Cliford Barry. Using 300 vacuum tubes, it was completed in 1942.

Steam engine
Although no single person can be credited with the invention of the steam engine, its first recorded appearance was in the form of the Aeolipile, described by Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria (if you’d like to make one, look for instructions on the Web). Several rudimentary steam engines made their appearance during the following centuries, but the first practical steam-powered engine was developed by English engineer Thomas Savery in 1698. Thomas Newcomen’s “atmospheric engine” followed 14 years later, and in 1720, Jacob Leupold built an efficient two-cylinder, high-pressure steam engine (described in his Theatri Machinarum Hydraulicarum). Probably the best-known contributor to the field was James Watt (1763–75), who improved on earlier designs (see picture above) and modified them to provide a rotary motion for driving factory machinery, at which point the Industrial Revolution really took off.

Harnessed electricity
Why “harnessed”? Because electricity has always existed; it’s a natural phenomenon. Anyway, in spite of what you think you remember from your high school history lesson, Benjamin Franklin did not in fact invent electricity when he flew his kite in a thunderstorm. Much of the credit for generating electric current on a practical scale goes to English scientist Michael Faraday, who found that an electric current could be produced by motion in a magnetic field; he built a simple dynamo to show that it worked. Many years later, prolific American inventor Thomas Edison came up with a practical direct current generator, establishing a company with British scientist Joseph Swan to manufacture filament lamps. However, it later became apparent that direct current (DC) had several disadvantages, and the work of brilliant men such as Nikola Tesla and American inventor George Westinghouse persuaded America (and the world) that alternating current – which allowed the transmission of higher voltages via transformers – was the way to go.

Transistor
John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley discovered the world-changing transistor effect and developed the first device in December 1947 while the three were members of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey (they were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics nine years later). Developed as a replacement for bulky and inefficient vacuum tubes and mechanical relays, the transistor later revolutionised the entire electronics world, and today forms the fundamental building block of the circuitry in computers, cellphones and all modern electronics.

Flushing toilet
A no-brainer: without it, people would walk around with pained expressions, no one would venture far from home, and civilisation would collapse. Although the ancient Romans had a crude version of it, and Englishman Thomas Crapper is widely credited for the invention, we should probably thank 16th-century writer Sir John Harington, who installed a working prototype in the palace of his godmother, Elizabeth I. The first patent for a flushing water closet was actually issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775.

Internet
Whereas Tim Berners-Lee is credited with creating the World Wide Web, the Internet itself wasn’t invented by anyone in particular. Wikipedia spells it out quite nicely: “(It) began with point-to-point communication between mainframe computers and terminals, expanded to point-to-point connections between computers, and then early research into packet switching. Packet switched networks such as ARPANET, Mark I at NPL in the UK, CYCLADES, Merit Network, Tymnet, and Telenet, were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s using a variety of protocols. The ARPANET in particular led to the development of protocols for internetworking, where multiple separate networks could be joined together into a network of networks. In 1982, the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardised and the concept of a world-wide network of fully interconnected TCP/IP networks called the Internet was introduced.”

Corkscrew
We’re not prepared to debate the inclusion of this item. When did this utterly indispensable invention first make its appearance? Corkscrew historian Ron McLean, who runs the resource-rich Virtual Corkscrew Museum (http://bit.ly/JhTpS) has this to say: “The first corkscrews were derived from a gun worm, a tool with a single or double spiral end fitting used to clean musket barrels or to extract an unspent charge from the barrel.” Wikipedia cites the Treatise on Cider by John Worlidge (1676), which describes “binning of tightly corked cider bottles on their sides”, although the earliest reference to a corkscrew is apparently “steel worm used for the drawing of corks out of bottles” from 1681.

Lady Gaga
New York-raised Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in upper Manhattan (where, as a matter of mild interest, PM editor Alan Duggan once heard a talk by sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov) and briefly attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts before quitting to concentrate on her music – an inspired move, by all accounts. A flamboyant performer and deliciously weird dresser (she sparked outrage in 2010 when she turned up at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony in a dress made from raw beef), she gives self-invention a good name. Visit her record label site for some cool videos: http://bit.ly/LjVbeQ