What would the world have been without innovations like the wheel, the airplane, and the Internet? A whole lot slower-paced, that’s for sure.
A few times a century, a handful of innovations have a way of making humanity’s progress jump leaps and bounds.
Discoveries like the below might be few and far between, but their impact is resounding.
Have a read of the top ten innovative ideas that immensely impacted the world.
1) The number zero is the most valuable number of all
Growing up in an Indian household, I remember my engineer dad (who also had a passion for astronomy) being particularly proud of his home country for having invented the number zero.
It was Hindu astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta who came up with the idea of the number zero in the year 628. The symbol to represent the numeral was actually a dot underneath a number.
Although China and the Middle East took to the number, it would take almost another millennia for the number to make it to Europe.
“The invention of zero immensely simplified computations, freeing mathematicians to develop vital mathematical disciplines such as algebra and calculus, and eventually the basis for computers,” says Ittay Weiss from the University of Portsmouth.
Weiss explains that after the advent of Christianity, religious leaders in Europe argued that since God is in everything that exists, anything that represents or symbolizes the concept of nothing must have been created by the devil. In the religion’s attempt to save humanity from Satan, they banished zero from existence. “[But] merchants continued to secretly use it,” he says.
Imagine: if the number zero had never been discovered, there would be no arithmetic, algebra, decimal system, and no computers. We might still be living in the dark ages!
2) The printing press paved the way for the free press
As someone who writes for print magazines and newspapers, I owe a lot of my career to the printing press.
The invention of the printing press allowed for the mass production of pamphlets, books, and of course, newspapers.
The printing press was originally created in China, and it revolutionized how information was reached. It was further developed in Germany in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg when he invented the Gutenberg press.
Prior to the invention, Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg—likely in the late 1430s to early 1440s—and had been losing money in business. He was looking for a way to pay off his debts and began working on a device that would make it possible to print texts using movable blocks of letters and graphics.
For some time he lived in Strasbourg—historians assess likely in the late 1430s to early 1440s. By then, he had been losing money in his business and began looking for a way to make money to pay off his debts. So he started working on a device that would make it possible to print texts using movable blocks of letters and graphics.
We owe it to the printing press for standardizing language, spreading ideas, increasing literacy, and for making mass production of print media possible.
Even though print magazines are sadly becoming obsolete in our digital age, to this day I still get a certain thrill when I see a brand new cover of one of my favorite glossies at an airport or on a newsstand.
For me, a hard copy of a magazine or newspaper will always feel like holding a portal to another world.
3) The invention of penicillin couldn’t have come at a more perfect time
Which one of us has not benefited from antibiotics at one time or another in our lives?
The accidental discovery of penicillin is a legendary story in its own right.
In 1928, Scottish microbiologist and medicinal scientist Alexander Fleming had just returned to his London lab from a holiday when saw mold growing on a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria.
Strangely, the mold seemed to prevent the bacteria around it from growing. Fleming found that the mold had produced a self-defense chemical that could kill bacteria.
Without antibiotics, even a minor infection such as a paper cut could be incurable or even fatal.
Today we rely on antibiotics for everything from childbirth to ear infections to colonoscopies to urinary tract infections.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to this accidental discovery for saving countless lives.
4) The lightbulb lit up lives
Imagine a world where we had to live in darkness as soon as the sun went down.
According to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, “In 1879, [Edison] made an incandescent bulb that burned long enough to be practical, long enough to light a home for many hours.”
But long before Thomas Edison patented his light bulb in 1979 and began commercializing it, British inventors had been demonstrating that electric light was possible with the arc lamp.
Although Edison is the one credited with the discovery, LiveScience writer’s Elizabeth Peterson and Callum McKelvie say several other inventors paved the way for him.
“Alessandro Volta, Humphrey Davy and Joseph Swan played a critical role in the development of this technology,” they say.
“In 1800, Italian inventor Alessandro Volta developed the first practical method of generating electricity, the voltaic pile. Volta’s glowing copper wire is officially considered a precursor to the battery, but is also one of the earliest manifestations of incandescent lighting.”
5) The telephone took communication to a new level
In this day and age, many of us complain about the people who tend to communicate via telephone. “Why can’t they just text me?” is a common refrain in our reality.
But can you imagine a time before telephones? The only way people could communicate with one another was through letters and telegrams and those took days or weeks to reach the person.
Telegraphs were quicker as they used wires, but they were far from instantaneous. The message also had to be concise and to the point.
The only other way was to talk was in person—and sometimes people had to drive (with a horse and cart) for days to do just that!
As is the case with most inventions, there is some controversy about who invented the telephone.
“Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray submitted independent patent applications concerning telephones to the patent office in Washington on February 14, 1876.”
Bell—who was in Boston at the time—was represented by his lawyers and apparently had no idea that the application had been submitted.
Gray’s application—on the other hand—arrived at the patent office a few hours before Bell’s. The difference was that Bell’s lawyers insisted on paying the application fee immediately.
In a twist of fate, the heavily burdened office registered Bell’s application first.
Bell’s patent was approved and officially registered on March 7. Three days later the famous call is said to have been made when Bell called his assistant: “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
The invention was a success. I can’t help but wonder if Gray ever rang Bell to give him a piece of her mind.
6) Television allowed us to transcend reality
According to History.com, no single inventor can take credit for the invention of television (typically “TV” in North America, and “telly” in Great Britain).
The idea was floating around long before the technology existed to make it happen, and many scientists and engineers made contributions that built on each other to eventually produce what we know as TV today.
Not only did the creation of television help people—particularly the working class for instance—have a reprieve from reality for a few hours, but it also influenced the way the world thought about critical issues like race, gender and social class.
Television also played a starring role in the political process—especially when it came to conveying national election campaigns.
7) The discovery of the automobile helped us to travel distances in a fraction of the time
Gotta give it up to the Germans for this one.
“An automobile powered by the Otto gasoline engine was invented in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885,” according to McGill University in Montreal.
Benz was granted a patent dated January 29, 1886 in Mannheim for that automobile. But even though Benz is credited with the invention of the modern automobile, several other German engineers had actually worked on building automobiles at the same time.
“In 1886, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart patented the first motor bike, built and tested in 1885, and in 1886 they built a converted horse-drawn stagecoach.”
Then, in 1870, German-Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus assembled a motorized handcart, although this one was said not to have gone beyond the experimental stage.
Almost a century and a half later, Mercedes Benz has upheld its reputation in craftsmanship, quality, class, and prestige.
8) The airplane took transportation to new heights
What would world travel be without the discovery of the airplane? We would still be getting seasick on ships that took weeks or months to reach their destination.
Most people know the famous origin of the very first “aeroplane.”
American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright invented, built, and flew the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane.
On December 17, 1903, the brothers made the first controlled and sustained flight of the powered heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer four miles south of Kitty Hawk (today known as Kill Devil Hills) in North Carolina.
Close to the centennial of the invention, NASA honored the Wright Brothers for making the dream of flight come true and for forever changing the world.
9) Oral contraceptives were a win for women
Thousands of drugs have been developed since the origin of medicine, but only one has been influential enough to earn the title of simply, the pill, says the National Library of Medicine.
The pill was put out into the world almost 75 years ago (in 1950), and the innovation dramatically transformed generations of people.
“Women have gained incredible freedom and reproductive autonomy. The birth control pill separated sexual practice from conception, forcing reassessment and reevaluation of social, political, and religious viewpoints.”
It is crazy to think of how after the reproductive freedoms gained 50 years ago, about how much has regressed in recent times in the United States where abortion is concerned.
10) The Internet gave a whole new meaning to how we take in information
The Internet is a lot older than many people imagine.
It actually started in the 1960s as a way for government researchers to share information. “Another catalyst in the formation of the Internet was the heating up of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite spurred the U.S. Defense Department to consider ways information could still be disseminated even after a nuclear attack.”
The Internet celebrated a milestone 40 years this year: its official birthday is considered to be January 1, 1983.
The Internet has given us the ability to send information at lightning speed, lower costs—all within a paperless environment.
No doubt the Internet makes life a lot easier. It also makes it so simple to communicate with someone on the other side of the world.
We have to wonder what the next great innovation will be. Maybe a combination of the above? Flying cars, anyone?