It is fascinating tracing the origins of inventions such as the wheel, printing press, telephone, television, radio, jet engines, computers, even BBQs. When asked for a quote to sum up the 19th century, the President of the US Patent Office, solemnly offered this opinion during a speech in New York in December 1899: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.’ Little did he know!
What is an invention?
Perhaps any invention starts with an idea based on a need; the need for warmth, food, communication and the material things of life – elements, which contribute to our well being and comfort.
In the beginning…
Around 600,000 BC when early man discovered ways of making fire, he was better able to protect himself from wild animals and survive in colder climates; and fire of course enabled his meat to be cooked – surely the first BBQ! As primitive tool-making developed, so hunting, agriculture, building and the foundation of so many necessities of modern life, took shape. We rely on archaeologists who have pieced together information they have found in studying buried remains of human societies. Carbon age-dating allows us a useful modern development to help research the past. Man has always been an innovator. Arguably, one of his most valuable inventions was the wheel. The idea probably developed from a log used as a roller for moving heavy loads. Nowadays, wheels are essential not only in transport, but also in most machinery.
Early Chinese Inventions
Interestingly, certain inventions such as papermaking, gunpowder, porcelain and the compass are attributed to the Chinese thousands of years ago. Because they kept themselves so apart from the rest of the world, their inventions were not known elsewhere for many centuries.
Western discovery of gunpowder in the 14th century led to the invention of deadly firearms and changed the nature of warfare. In contrast, we are grateful to the German goldsmith, Joannn Gutenburg for developing thee printing press. Printed books began to take the place of the manuscripts which hitherto been written by hand in the monasteries. Books enabled people to become increasingly literate and improved education. In 1476 William Caxton, after a visit to the Continent, set up the first English printing press in Westminster.
Advances in Science
In the following century many eminent academics and scientists, such as Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and other distinguished scientists joined together to inaugurate the Royal Society and there followed many important discoveries and inventions, including the thermometer, barometer, telescope, microscope and the pendulum clock, all of which helped the start of modern science.
The Industrial Revolution began in the second half of the 18th century, turning England into ‘the workshop of the world’. Science was used to invent new machines and improve on the old ways of manufacturing; factories were built and agricultural workers left the fields to man the spinning and weaving looms. The continual search for methods of propulsion led to the development of the steam and internal combustion engines. This gave the world powered ships, trains, motor vehicles and latterly aeroplanes – man was now able to fly.
Perhaps the greatest invention of all emanated from the discovery of electricity, leading to its use in so many ways in modern life and in industry. William Gilbert, who lived in the 16th century, wrote an account of his experiments with electricity and magnetism which seems simple today but which inspired scientists like Benjamin Franklin, Sir Humphrey Swan and others who used electricity as a basis for their inventions.
During the last 50 years hundreds of new inventions have entered the modern world. From jet engines, nuclear energy, and computers to zero-emission vehicles and genetic engineering – where will it all end?