Alright, at the outset I have to make something clear. You could probably live without some of these inventions. However, life would be only half as convenient and a quarter the fun. And yes you’ve probably heard of quite a few of them. But do you really know why they’re so important? Or what they do, for that matter? Either way please bear with me — all will be revealed in due time.
This list pays homage to the inventions that pass right under our eyes as we perform daily tasks. We may come in contact with them or we might not as we go through the perfunctory routines of our lives but for some reason we just don’t notice. Here’s to the inventions that are behind the scenes that are pulling all the weight for those that take all the glory (I’m talking to you television and light bulbs!) You know what? This is about more than simple inventions. This is about all those who are disenfranchised and those who still worked hard without receiving any credit. This is for the ones who toil and bear hardships without getting their due. This is for the guy sitting in your eighth grade math class that did all the pretty girl’s homework. Come on people, let’s show some respect.
10. The Sextant, 1757
The idea that would become the sextant was independently conceived by both John Hadley and Thomas Godfrey around 1731. Both worked on a similar “point and shoot” type basis. In 1759, John Bird used the design of his predecessors and developed the sextant, a device that is still used today. So what’s the importance of all this? Well it was easy for ship navigators to determine latitude. They had relied on the North Star for millennia. However, before the invention of the sextant, they had no accurate way to measure longitude. This meant that many were lost in shipwrecks or veered heavily off course. The invention of the sextant made crossing oceans or any large body of water a piece of cake, allowing more goods to reach ports and more voyages to be made.
9. Steel Framing, 1884
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, there was high demand for buildings that would be safer (and taller if they could swing it) than the previous ones made of stone and wood. Enter William Le Baron Jenney who conceived of the first steel-framed building. Interestingly, as popular legend goes, after setting his gaze upon a wire bird-cage that held up the weight of a book, Jenney had an epiphany that led to this creation. His design of the first such building of its kind was only one third the weight of a stone building of the same size. For that reason, architects could now build taller– a discovery that would culminate in the modern-day skyscraper.
8. The Turing Machine
I know this one’s going to make a few people mad. First of all, the Turing Machine is only supposed to be hypothetical (how can it even count as an actual invention?) Second, it’s pretty popular for anyone who has heard of Alan Turing. Nonetheless, this is an important contribution to modern computation and something that the average person may have only heard of in passing. So what is a Turing Machine? Basically, it’s a long strip of paper under a marker attached to a mechanical arm that can do three things- it can write a “0”, it can write a “1”, or it can go back and erase things. So, why is that so important you ask? Well it’s a long story, but the condensed version is, it demonstrates that any modern computer can be taught binary coding- the basic language of EVERY ELECTRONIC COMPUTATION DEVICE ever invented. That’s a pretty big deal.
7. Archimedes’ Screw, 3rd Century BC
The ancient Greek inventor Archimedes was perhaps the world’s first genius. He’s attributed with creating a variation of the pulley as well as a formula for determining the density of objects with irregular shapes (not to mention he shares a long history with the term ‘eureka’). However, one of Archimedes’ most enduring inventions is his formulation of a water pump. His design was employed, for the ancient Greeks, in the holds of ships to keep water out. However, the screw shape of the pump makes it extremely versatile for pumping water without clogging. That’s why you may even find the design being used in your local water sewage plant.
6. The Gregorian Calendar, 1582
Invented by Julius Caesar in 45BC, the aptly named Julian calendar consisted of eleven months composed of 28 to 31 days each, with a leap year added every four years. Although it may have been extremely accurate, the 11 ½ extra minutes each year had added up between the time of its inception to a full 10 day error with the solar calendar by the 1500s. The Gregorian calendar, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was established to correct this issue. Each year the calendar is displaced from the solar year by an additional 26 seconds which adds up to one day every 3,323 years. Fun fact – the Gregorian calendar wasn’t adopted by Greece until 1923 and Turkey waited until 1927. Some countries (Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan and more) haven’t adopted this calendar – they keep time differently.
5. Vacuum Tubes
Vacuum tubes are before our time. If you ask your parents or grandparents about them, they may know a bit more. These little bad boys are the precursor to the modern resistor, a staple found in nearly every electronic device conceived. They were also pretty hard to miss back in the day. Because of the size of each vacuum tube, and the amount needed to run a computer, they would literally be the size of a full room. They were also much slower and less efficient. Nonetheless, without them, we wouldn’t even have the technology to invent smartphones… what a terrible world that would be.
4. Alternating Current
Alright, I have to concede again – technically this is more of a discovery (not to mention everyone has at least heard of the abbreviated form of this type of electricity- damn you AC/DC). However, the alternator that first produced this type of current, created in the 1830’s by Michael Faraday, is a viable invention that I’d bet most people don’t know about. Simply put, an alternator converts mechanical energy into electrical energy which is, of course, the stuff that powers every device that we come in contact with.
3. The Semi-Conductor
Computers again? Yes! Don’t blame me, it’s the times man! The semiconductor is, in essence, a wafer of silicon that is able to carry an electrical charge but not very well. When combined with transistors (small devices that can halt, allow or switch electrical signals), semiconducting silicon chips can be programmed to do some amazing things. Semiconductors are the basis for our computers’ microprocessors, so yes, like vacuum tubes, the Turing machine and alternating current we wouldn’t be able to look at half of the funny cat pictures online that we do nowadays.
2. Pasteurization, 1863
Louis Pasteur, in 1863, is acknowledged for being the thinker behind germ theory. Previous to this discovery, we didn’t really have a clue as to what makes us sick. Is it contact with a heathen? The wrath of the Gods? Maybe it’s due to an imbalance of animal spirits (by the way, all were viable options at some point in history). Pasteur’s contributions were twofold. First, he discovered that diseases were caused by microorganisms. Second, he found that they could often be combated through heat as well as disinfectant.
1. Nitrogen Fixation, 1918
It seems, now that I look back on this list, that I utilized my own lack of knowledge regarding the hardware found in a modern day computer to compile this list. So, I thought that I should save the final and most important invention for a discipline that was different. Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1919 for his work on nitrogen fixation. He found that, given the addition of high pressure and a catalyst, it was possible to create ammonia by reacting nitrogen and hydrogen gas. The result was the ability to manufacture fertilizers in large scale (thanks to Karl Bosch), a development that would allow farmers to grow more food in less space and time.