Breakthrough Innovations

imageThe November 2013 issue of The Atlantic is a theme issue on innovation. There are articles about The 50  greatest breakthroughs since the wheel, the world’s top inventors, the riddle of Amazon and more.

The Atlantic has been around since 1857 and it is written for an intended audience of thought leaders. It usually contains a fascinating mix of foreign affairs, politics, cultural trends as well as articles on economy.

In the main article, it is described how the magazine recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life.

The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. The magazine asked each panellist to make 25 selections and to rank them. Lists that were then merged.

The list the experts came up with is a list of technological inventions. There are no social or process innovations, which we think are equally important to shape the nature of modern life. however it is a fun and thought provoking read.

What is most interesting is that a pattern appeared, which the magazine used to categorize the innovation into the following types of technology innovation. The categorization is not very scientific, but anyway interesting and enlightening.


We recommend you to read the article as it contains the experts reasoning behind the list, or even better buy the magazine. For a shortcut to the main information, the top 50 are listed below, with some added thoughts and facts.

1. The printing press, 1450

The turning point at which knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own came with the invention of the printing press. There may have been earlier variants in China but in Europe the invention is credited to Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. The printing press displaced earlier methods of printing and led to the first assembly line-style mass production of books. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday, compared to about 2,000 by typographic block-printing and a few by hand-copying. Books of bestselling authors such as Luther and Erasmus were sold by the hundreds of thousands in their lifetime.

2. Electricity, late 19th century

Thomas Edison - LightbulbBenjamin Franklin discovered that electricity and lightning was the same, and the world has not been the same ever since. Franklins lightning rod was the first practical application of electricity. A number of inventors added to our understanding and applicability of electricity, most notably Michael Faraday who discovered the principle behind the electric generator and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla who tamed electricity for modern use.

3. Penicillin, 1928

Penicillin was accidentally discovered by the Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928, though antibiotics were not widely distributed until after World War II, when they became the silver bullet for any number of formerly deadly diseases. Penicillin antibiotics are historically significant because they are the first drugs that were effective against many previously serious diseases, such as syphilis, and infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci. Penicillin’s are still widely used today, though many types of bacteria are now resistant.

4. Semiconductor electronics, mid-20th century

The semiconductor is the physical foundation of the virtual world. The history of the understanding of semiconductors begins with experiments on the electrical properties of materials. The properties of negative temperature coefficient of resistance, rectification, and light-sensitivity were observed starting in the early 19th century. During its short history, the electronics industry has gone through a development that was never seen before. The electronics industry developed in a number of steps. First the very basics of the industry started in 1901, with the introduction of the radio.  The next step was when in 1948 the Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the transistor.

About a decade after the introduction of semiconductors, towards the end of the 1950’s, “integrated circuits” came into existence. The integrated circuits were also a very important invention in the history of the electronics industry, because they further improved the power of electric devices. On an integrated circuit there are a number of transistors located, which are all located on silicon chips. Over the years the number of transistors on these chips increased dramatically from Intel’s first commercial processor, which are “computers on a chip”, containing only 3500, until the current ability to jam as many as 5.5 million transistors.

These tiny microprocessors are so tiny that a single of them is able to perform, what previously were performed by valve computers that occupied very large rooms created solely for this purpose. Obviously miniaturization is one of the key concepts of the industry.

5. Optical lenses, 13th century

Refracting light through glass is one of those simple ideas that took a mysteriously long time to catch on. The Romans had a glass industry, and there’s even a passage in Seneca about the optical effects of a glass bowl of water, but it was centuries before the invention of eyeglasses dramatically raised the collective human IQ, and eventually led to the creation of the microscope and the telescope.

Lenses came into widespread use in Europe with the invention of spectacles, probably in Italy in the 1280s. This was the start of the optical industry of grinding and polishing lenses for spectacles, first in Venice and Florence in the thirteenth century, and later in the spectacle-making centres in both the Netherlands and Germany. Spectacle makers created improved types of lenses for the correction of vision based more on empirical knowledge gained from observing the effects of the lenses (probably without the knowledge of the rudimentary optical theory of the day). The practical development and experimentation with lenses led to the invention of the compound optical microscope around 1595, and the refracting telescope in 1608, both of which appeared in the spectacle-making centres in the Netherlands.

6. Paper, second century BC

The oldest known archaeological fragments of the immediate precursor to modern paper date to 2nd century BC in China. The pulp papermaking process is ascribed to Cai Lun, a 2nd-century AD Han court eunuch. With paper an effective substitute for silk in many applications, China could export silk in greater quantity, contributing to a Golden Age.

Paper spread from China through the Middle East to medieval Europe in the 13th century, where the first water-powered paper mills were built. In the 19th century, industrial manufacture greatly lowered its cost, enabling mass exchange of information and contributing to significant cultural shifts. In 1844, Canadian inventor Charles Fenerty and German F.G. Keller independently developed processes for pulping wood fibres.

Today, in 2013, approximately 2.200.000 new books are published this year, and many more only in digital format. In total about 146.000.000 books have been published, as estimated by Google. Imagine the knowledge in them, and how society has developed based on this invention.

7. The internal combustion engine, late 19th century

Christian Huygens invented the combustion engine in 1680, however the first gasoline engine was not created until 1859 by J. J. Étienne Lenoir, a French engineer. Gottlieb Daimler took their concepts and developed the modern petrol engine in 1885. Although various forms of internal combustion engines were developed before the 19th century, their use was hindered until the commercial drilling and production of petroleum began in the mid-1850s. By the late 19th century, engineering advances led to their widespread adoption in a variety of applications.

8. Vaccination, 1796

For many centuries, smallpox devastated mankind. In modern times we do not have to worry about it thanks to the remarkable work of the British doctor Edward Jenner, used the cowpox virus to protect against smallpox in 1796. Then a breakthrough came when Louis Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine in 1885, showing that making someone sick could prevent further sickness. With the rapid pace of vaccine development in recent decades, the historic origins of immunization are often forgotten.

9. The Internet, 1960s

The internet provides the infrastructure of the digital age. The history of the Internet began with the development of computers in the 1950s. The public was first introduced to the concepts that would lead to the Internet when a message was sent over the ARPANet from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), after the second piece of network equipment was installed at Stanford Research Institute.

In 1982, the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) was standardized, and consequently, the concept of a world-wide network of interconnected TCP/IP networks, called the Internet, was introduced. Commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) began to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has had a revolutionary impact on culture and commerce, including the rise of near-instant communication by electronic mail, instant messaging, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) "phone calls", two-way interactive video calls, and the World Wide Web with its discussion forums, blogs (such as this one), social networking, and online shopping sites. Today the Internet continues to grow, driven by ever greater amounts of online information, commerce, entertainment, and social networking.

10. The steam engine, 1712

The steam engines powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution, however its history stretches back as far as the 1st century AD; the first recorded rudimentary steam engine being the aeolipile described by Hero of Alexandria. Over a millennium after Hero’s experiments, a number of steam-powered devices were experimented with or proposed, but it was not until 1712 that a commercially successful steam engine was finally developed, Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric engine.

During the industrial revolution, steam engines became the dominant source of power and remained so into the early decades of the 20th century, when advances in the design of the electric motor and the internal combustion engine resulted in the rapid replacement of the steam engine by these technologies. However, the steam turbine, an alternative form of steam engine, has become the most common method by which electrical power generators are driven.

11. Nitrogen fixation, 1918

The German chemist Fritz Haber, also the father of chemical weapons, won a Nobel Prize for his development of the ammonia-synthesis process, which was used to create a new class of fertilizers central to the green revolution (No. 22).  Nitrogen fixation is a process by which nitrogen (N2) in the atmosphere is converted into ammonia (NH3).

Atmospheric nitrogen or molecular nitrogen (N2) is relatively inert: it does not easily react with other chemicals to form new compounds. Fixation process free up the nitrogen atoms from their diatomic form (N2) to be used in other ways. Nitrogen fixation, natural and synthetic, is essential for all forms of life because nitrogen is required to biosynthesize basic building blocks of plants, animals and other life forms, e.g., nucleotides for DNA and RNA and amino acids for proteins. Therefore nitrogen fixation is essential for agriculture and the manufacture of fertilizer. It is also an important process in the manufacture of explosives (e.g. gunpowder, dynamite, TNT, etc.). Nitrogen fixation occurs naturally in the air by means of lightning.

12. Sanitation systems, mid-19th century

Our modern sanitation systems are a major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880, but to many peoples surprise it has been more about water treatment than sewage treatment. Piped water service began in the early 19th century in major cities, before sewers were used for anything other than storm water drainage. Convenient water that didn’t have to be hauled from a shared pump led to a 10-fold increase in water consumption that overwhelmed infiltration and open drainage systems. Worse, wealthier urbanites installed another new invention, flush toilets. This new, unanticipated technology started overflowing the cess pits. Sanitary sewers were built to mitigate overflowing sewage and eliminate the health risk related to the threat of disease from sewer gas.

Legal changes during the 18th and 19th centuries encouraged the industrialization of rivers as UK and US common law shifted from a “prior use” to a “beneficial use” doctrine of natural resource allocation, leading inadvertently to heavy industrial pollution by the early 19th century. Pollution was seen as inevitable and recovering a clean drinkable river an impossibility, so in the late 19th century cities invested in drinking water treatment instead of sewage treatment and an end to river dumping of industrial waste. The decision was made to let rivers become open sewers. Treated drinking water, not toilets and sewers, stopped epidemic enteric disease.  Mortality rates juxtaposed with sewer construction mileage demonstrate this point most clearly in the well documented cases of Paris, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Trenton, and Toledo, and sketch a similar picture in other cities.

Clean, treated drinking water took the wind out of the sails of nascent environmental initiatives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and untreated sewage discharge steadily increased until the 1950′s and 1960′s when legislation such as the Clean Water Act and its many local precursors lead to the construction of wastewater treatment plants. Since the 1970′s the US, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan have been doing an excellent job of keeping diseases out of waterways, are doing better than any other industrialized areas at pollution control, and are even doing better than most non-industrialized areas too.

13. Refrigeration, 1850s

Before mechanical refrigeration systems were introduced, people cooled their food with ice and snow, either found locally or brought down from the mountains. The first cellars were holes dug into the ground and lined with wood or straw and packed with snow and ice: this was the only means of refrigeration for most of history.

Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from an enclosed space, or from a substance, to lower its temperature. A refrigerator uses the evaporation of a liquid to absorb heat. The liquid, or refrigerant, used in a refrigerator evaporates at an extremely low temperature, creating freezing temperatures inside the refrigerator.

It’s all based on the following physics; a liquid is rapidly vaporized (through compression), the quickly expanding vapour requires kinetic energy and draws the energy needed from the immediate area – which loses energy and becomes cooler. Cooling caused by the rapid expansion of gases is the primary means of refrigeration today. Three Swedish engineers, Baltzar von Platen, John Tandberg and Carl Georg Munters invented the gas absorption refrigerator for domestic use.

14. Gunpowder, 10th century

Killing used to be a personal, physical act. Gunpowder outsourced killing to machines. Gunpowder was the first chemical explosive and propellant. Prior to the invention of gunpowder, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire.

The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to Chinese alchemy, and is popularly listed as one of the "Four Great Inventions" of China. The invention was made perhaps as early as during the Tang Dynasty (9th century), but certainly by the Song Dynasty (11th century). Knowledge of gunpowder spread throughout the Old World as a result of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 14th century, although the development of effective artillery took place during the 15th century, and firearms came to dominate Early Modern warfare in Europe by the 17th century.

15. The airplane, 1903

The airplane transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world.

The inventors of the first airplane were Orville and Wilbur Wright. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first successful experiment in which a machine (aka airplane) carrying a man rose by its own power, flew naturally and at even speed, and descended without damage. We only have to look up into the sky to see an airplane, and most of us have travelled by airplane to places that would have taken much longer by any other means of transportation.

An airplane by definition is an aircraft that has a fixed wing and is powered by propellers or jets. However, before the first airplane was invented by the Wright Brothers, inventors made numerous attempts to make like the birds and fly. These early inventions included kites, hot air balloons, airships, gliders, and other devices. However it was with the modern innovation by the Wright brothers that the world very quickly got accessible and smaller.

16. The personal computer, 1970s

A personal computer is a general-purpose computer, whose size, capabilities, and original sale price makes it useful for individuals, and which is intended to be operated directly by an end-user with no intervening computer operator. This contrasted with the batch processing or time-sharing models which allowed larger, more expensive minicomputer and mainframe systems to be used by many people, usually at the same time. Large data processing systems require a full-time staff to operate efficiently. As a personal device, personal computers augmented human capabilities.

PCs trace their history back to the 1970s when a man named Ed Roberts began to sell computer kits based on a microprocessor chip designed by Intel. Roberts called his computer the Altair 8800 and sold the unassembled kits for $395. Popular Electronics ran a story about the kit in its January 1975 issue, and to the surprise of just about everyone, the kits became an instant hit. Thus, the era of the personal computer began.

While the Altair 8800 was the first real personal computer, it was the release of the Apple II a couple of years later that signalled the start of the PC as a sought-after home appliance. The Apple II, from inventors Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, proved that there was a demand for computers in homes and schools. Soon after, long-established computer companies like IBM and Texas Instruments jumped into the PC market, and new brands like Commodore and Atari jumped into the game.

17. The compass, 12th century

Sometime in the 12th century, mariners in China and Europe made the discovery, apparently independently, that a piece of lodestone, a naturally occurring magnetic ore, when floated on a stick in water, tends to align itself so as to point in the direction of the polestar. This discovery was presumably quickly followed by a second, that an iron or steel needle touched by a lodestone for long enough also tends to align itself in a north-south direction." and further that the "Chinese were using the magnetic compass around AD 1100, western Europeans by 1187, Arabs by 1220, and Scandinavians by 1300. The compass essentially allowed for the age of exploration to happen. It has made sea travel possible all year long and in fog and clouds. Ships did’t have to winter in port.


18. The automobile, late 19th century

The automobile transformed daily life, our culture, and our landscape.  The year 1886 is regarded the year of birth of the modern automobile – with the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, by German inventor Carl Benz. Motorized wagons soon replaced animal-drafted carriages, especially after automobiles became affordable for many people when the Ford Model T was introduced in 1908. It was estimated in 2010 that the number of automobiles had risen to over 1 billion vehicles, up from the 500 million of 1986. The numbers are increasing rapidly, especially in China, India and other developing economies.

19. Industrial steelmaking, 1850s

Steelmaking has played a crucial role in the development of modern technological societies. Cast iron is a hard brittle material that is difficult to work, whereas steel is malleable, relatively easily formed and a versatile material. For much of human history, steel has only been able to be made in small quantities but since the invention of the Bessemer process in the 19th century and subsequent technological developments in injection technology and process control, mass production of steel has become an integral part of the world’s economy and a key indicator or technological development

20. The pill, 1960

The contraceptive pill is often described as one of the most significant medical advances of the 20th century and it launched a social revolution. The pill has made a tremendous impact on the lives of women and men around the globe and it is one of the most transformative medical breakthroughs. Linked to the swinging 60s, free love and women’s liberation, the pill, a combination of the hormones oestrogen and progestin, was developed in the US in the 1950s by the American biologist Dr Gregory Pincus. It was approved for release in 1960 and take-up was swift. The pill comes in 32 different forms and worldwide is taken by around 100 million women.

21. Nuclear fission, 1939

The control of nuclear fission gave humans new power for destruction, and creation. The science of atomic radiation, atomic change and nuclear fission was developed from 1895 to 1945, much of it in the last six of those years. The discovery of nuclear fission occurred in 1938, following nearly five decades of work on the science of radioactivity and the elaboration of new nuclear physics that described the components of atoms. Over 1939-45, most development was focused on the atomic bomb and then from 1945 attention was given to harnessing this energy in a controlled fashion for naval propulsion and for making electricity. Since 1956 the prime focus has been on the technological evolution of reliable nuclear power plants.

22. The green revolution, mid-20th century

The green revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1960s, that increased agriculture production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s. The initiatives, led by Norman Borlaug, the "Father of the Green Revolution" credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. In the most basic sense, the Green Revolution was a product of globalisation as evidenced in the creation of international agricultural research centres that shared information, and with transnational funding from groups like the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

23. The sextant, 1757

The sextant made maps out of stars. It is a navigational instrument used to measure the angle of elevation of celestial bodies, usually the sun or moon, in order to determine one’s location and direction. More generally, a sextant can be used to measure the angle between any two objects. The sextant was first developed around 1730 and soon after began to replace the astrolabe as the navigational instrument of choice. The sextant is still in use today, primarily in nautical contexts, as it is a good backup if more sophisticated systems, such as global positioning, fail.

Sir Isaac Newton was the first to conceive of the doubly reflecting navigational instrument, which would later become the sextant, but the instrument would not come into production until after his death. English mathematician John Hadley and American inventor Thomas Godfrey independently developed the sextant around the same time. The instrument is called a sextant because it spans 60°, or one sixth of a circle. There are similar navigational instruments of different sizes known as the octant and the quadrant.

24. The telephone, 1876

The telephone allowed our voices to travel. Its invention is the culmination of work done by many individuals, the history of which involves a collection of claims and counterclaims. The development of the modern electrical telephone involved an array of lawsuits founded upon the patent claims of several individuals and numerous companies. In the 1870s, two inventors Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell both independently designed devices that could transmit speech electrically (the telephone). Both men rushed their respective designs to the patent office within hours of each other, Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone first. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell entered into a famous legal battle over the invention of the telephone, which Bell won.

25. Alphabetization, first millennium b.c.

Made knowledge accessible and searchable—and may have contributed to the rise of societies that used phonetic letters over those that used ideographic ones

26. The telegraph, 1837

Before it, Joel Mokyr says, “information could move no faster than a man on horseback.”

27. The mechanized clock, 15th century

It quantified time.

28. Radio, 1906

The first demonstration of electronic mass media’s power to spread ideas and homogenize culture

29. Photography, early 19th century

Changed journalism, art, culture, and how we see ourselves

30. The moldboard plow, 18th century

The first plow that not only dug soil up but turned it over, allowing for the cultivation of harder ground. Without it, agriculture as we know it would not exist in northern Europe or the American Midwest.

31. Archimedes’ screw, third century b.c.

The Greek scientist is believed to have designed one of the first water pumps, a rotating corkscrew that pushed water up a tube. It transformed irrigation and remains in use today at many sewage-treatment plants.

32. The cotton gin, 1793

Institutionalized the cotton industry—and slavery—in the American South

33. Pasteurization, 1863

One of the first practical applications of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, this method for using heat to sterilize wine, beer, and milk is widely considered to be one of history’s most effective public-health interventions.

34. The Gregorian calendar, 1582

Debugged the Julian calendar, jumping ahead 10 days to synchronize the world with the seasons

35. Oil refining, mid-19th century

Without it, oil drilling (No. 39) would be pointless.

36. The steam turbine, 1884

A less heralded cousin of steam engines (No. 10), turbines are the backbone of today’s energy infrastructure: they generate 80 percent of the world’s power.

37. Cement, first millennium b.c.

The foundation of civilization. Literally.

38. Scientific plant breeding, 1920s

Humans have been manipulating plant species for nearly as long as we’ve grown them, but it wasn’t until early-20th-century scientists discovered a forgotten 1866 paper by the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel that we figured out how plant breeding—and, later on, human genetics—worked.

39. Oil drilling, 1859

Fueled the modern economy, established its geopolitics, and changed the climate

40. The sailboat, fourth millennium b.c.

Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 15)

41. Rocketry, 1926

“Our only way off the planet—so far.” — George Dyson

42. Paper money, 11th century

The abstraction at the core of the modern economy

43. The abacus, third millennium b.c.

One of the first devices to augment human intelligence

44. Air-conditioning, 1902

Would you start a business in Houston or Bangalore without it?

45. Television, early 20th century

Brought the world into people’s homes

46. Anaesthesia, 1846

In response to the first public demonstration of ether, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote: “The fierce extremity of suffering has been steeped in the waters of forgetfulness, and the deepest furrow in the knotted brow of agony has been smoothed for ever.”

47. The nail, second millennium b.c.

“Extended lives by enabling people to have shelter.” — Leslie Berlin

48. The lever, third millennium b.c.

The Egyptians had not yet discovered the wheel when they built their pyramids; they are thought to have relied heavily on levers.

49. The assembly line, 1913

Turned a craft-based economy into a mass-market one

50. The combine harvester, 1930s

Mechanized the farm, freeing people to do new types of work

1 comment

  1. Great information. Lucky me I recently found your blog by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve book-marked it for later!

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