A BRIEF HISTORY OF INVENTIONS
by Tim Lambert
Inventions in the Ancient World
The Egyptians invented the sailing ship about 3,100 BC. The wheel was invented in Sumer (Iraq) about 3,400 BC. It may have been invented first as the potter's wheel and later used for transport. The first carts and chariots had solid wheels and oxen or asses pulled them. Horses were domesticated about 2,000 BC and about 1,800 BC spoked wheels were invented. About 3,500 the ard was invented in Sumeria. It was a kind of light plow. It scratched the soil but did not turn a furrow as a modern plow does. Nevertheless, the invention of the simple plow greatly improved agriculture.
From about 3,300 BC onward both Sumerians and Egyptians developed writing.
The first people to commonly use iron were the Hittites who lived in what is now Turkey about 1,600 BC. They heated iron ore then pounded out the impurities. When the Hittite Empire broke up about 1,200 BC techniques of ironworking spread.
Some ancient civilizations had quite advanced sanitation. Stone age farmers lived in a village at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands. Some of their stone huts had drains built under them and some houses had cubicles over the drains. They may have been inside toilets. In the Indus Valley civilization (c.2,600-1,900 BC) streets were built on a grid pattern and networks of sewers were dug under them. Toilets were flushed with water.
On the island of Crete the Minoan civilization flourished from 2,000 to 1,600 BC. They too built drainage systems, which also took sewage. Toilets were flushed with water. Meanwhile, glass was invented about 1,500 BC.
Inventions in Ancient Greece
The Greeks were superb engineers. The most famous Greek inventor was Archimedes (c.287-212 BC). The Archimedes screw, a device for raising water is named after him (although it may have been used before his time). According to legend the king of Syracuse in Sicily wanted to know if his crown was made of pure gold or not! One day Archimedes sat in his bath and the water level rose. He is supposed to have jumped out of his bath and ran naked through the streets shouting 'Eureka!' (I have it!). Archimedes immersed the crown in water and noted the level the water rose to. Then he placed some pure gold weighing the same as the crown in the water. The water did not rise to the same height proving it was not pure gold. Meanwhile, about 400 BC the pulley was invented.
In the first century AD a man named Hero of Alexandria invented mechanical toys. He used steam to make a metal ball spin round. The Ancient Greeks are believed to have invented the watermill. (It was invented separately in China). The Greeks also invented the torsion catapult about 340 BC. Greek engineering reached a peak in the first century AD when they built the Antikythera Mechanism. This remarkable device was discovered in 1900. It seems to be a calculating device to predict the movements of the Sun, Moon, and planets.
Life in Ancient Greece
Inventions in Ancient China
The Ancient Chinese were also very inventive. About 300 BC the Chinese invented the horse collar. Previously horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not pull a heavy load because the strap would constrict its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.
During the Zhou dynasty (1022-221 BC) the Chinese invented kites. The compass was invented in China in the 3rd century BC but at first, it was used for divination (a spoon-like object made of magnetite was placed on a board and watched to see which way it would turn). It was not used for navigation until much later. During the Han dynasty (206 BC -220 AD) Chinese civilization was brilliant. Han inventions include the watermill and the chain pump (this pump was worked by feet and helped to irrigate the rice fields). They also invented the rudder. Another Han invention was the wheelbarrow.
According to tradition about 100 AD a man named Cai Lun invented paper (previously people had written on silk or bamboo). Then in 132 AD a man called Cheng Hang invented the seismometer (a device for measuring the strength of earthquakes and locating their center). The umbrella was invented in China in the 4th century AD. Covered in an oiled paper it sheltered the user from both sun and rain.
Inventions in the Middle Ages
Technological progress continued during the Middle Ages. A number of important inventions were made in Europe at that time or reached the continent from China. One big improvement in Medieval Europe was the heavy plow. Sometime before 900 a new kind of plow was invented which plowed the heavy, clay soil of northern Europe much more efficiently. Another important development was the 3-field system. In the Ancient World, the land was divided into 2 fields, one of which was sown while the other was left fallow. In Germany in the 8th century, the 3-field system was invented. One field was sown in Spring, one in Autumn, and one was left fallow. This system allowed farmers to grow more food. Another useful invention, the crank was first recorded in France in the 9th century.
Gunpowder was probably invented in China around the year 900 AD. At first, it was used for rockets, grenades, and bombs that were placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities. Printing with wooden blocks was also invented during the Tang dynasty in China (618-907). The earliest printed book is the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868 AD.
In the Middle Ages in Europe monks built stone or wooden lavatories over rivers. At Portchester Castle in the 12th-century monks built stone chutes leading to the sea. When the tide went in and out it would flush away the sewage.
Toilets in Portchester Castle
At sea a number of useful inventions were made. The Chinese invented the compass but at first, it was used for divination. By the 12th century, Chinese sailors were using the compass for navigation. By the 12th century, Europeans had also learned to use the compass. Also in the 12th century, Europeans invented the rudder (the Chinese invented them long before). Rudders made ships much easier to steer. Furthermore, shipbuilding became far more advanced and by the 15th century, ships were made with 3 masts. Ironworking was improved when a primitive blast furnace called a Catalan forge was invented in Spain in the 8th century AD. It was gradually improved and by the 14th century, Europeans had efficient blast furnaces.
Horses were also used more efficiently in the Middle Ages. The horse collar was invented in China long before it was known in Europe. However, the horse collar was known in Europe by the 9th century. Previously horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not pull a heavy load because the strap would constrict its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads. Stirrups, which literally held the knight in his saddle, were invented in China about 300 AD. By the 8th century, they had reached Europe. The wheelbarrow was also invented in Ancient China. It was probably independently invented in Europe in the 12th century. Another useful invention was the spinning wheel. It was invented in Asia (exactly where is not known) and by the 13th century, it had reached Europe. In the Middle Ages, 'Arab' numerals (they were actually invented in India) reached Europe and gradually replaced Roman numerals. They were a great boon to mathematicians.
The windmill was invented in Iran early in the 7th century AD. However, its vanes turned a vertical post. In the 12th century, a windmill that turned a horizontal post was invented in Europe. Watermills were also common in Europe. From the 11th century, they were used not just to grind grain but for a variety of tasks.
A great deal of ingenuity went into making weapons. In 678 the Byzantine Empire used a new weapon called Greek fire (naphtha), a highly inflammable liquid. Earth, dust, or cloth was soaked in Greek fire and fired from a catapult at enemy ships. Greek fire could also be held in a container of stone or metal, which exploded when it hit its target. It proved to be a deadly weapon. Greek fire was invented about 650 BC by Callinicus of Heliopolis. However, in the 9th century, the Arabs and other enemies of the Byzantines learned to make it.
The Romans used a version of the crossbow called a hand ballista. However, it died out in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The crossbow reappeared in the 10th century. Some crossbows were so powerful they had to be loaded by a mechanical device called a cranequin.
When attacking a castle people could use a kind of crane called a tenelon to get over the wall. On the end of a long wooden arm was a basket containing soldiers. The basket could be swung over the castle walls. The attackers could also hurl missiles using siege engines. A medieval catapult called a mangonel was powered by twisted rope. (It was similar to those used by the Romans). The rope was twisted tighter and tighter then released, firing a stone. Another Medieval siege weapon was called a trebuchet, which worked by a counterweight. A trebuchet had an arm set on a pivot so it had a long and a short end. The long end held the missile and a heavy weight was attached to the short end. The long end was winched down and when it was released the weight at the short end swung down. The long end swung up firing the missile.
Between the mid-13th century and the mid-14th century four very important inventions were made in Europe. The glass mirror was invented in the late 13th century. Eyeglasses were first made in Italy in the late 13th century. Mechanical clock powered by weights were invented c.1300. Then in the early 14th century guns were invented. Early guns were unwieldy, slow to reload, and dangerous but they gradually improved over the decades and eventually became a decisive factor in warfare.
Perhaps the most important invention of the Middle Ages was the printing press. It was invented by a man named Johann Gutenberg in 1445 and it made books much cheaper.
Life in the Middle Ages
Inventions in the 16th Century
In the 16th century guns transformed warfare. Early guns were lit by a slow match (string was soaked in saltpeter and when it was lit it smoldered). The slow match was touched to the gunpowder to ignite it. However, in the early 16th century, the wheellock was invented. A metal wheel spun against a piece of iron pyrites generating sparks that ignited the gunpowder. As a result, most cavalry stopped using lances. Instead, they carried two or three pistols each, ready to fire, and sabers.
Meanwhile the traditional English weapon was the longbow but handguns were increasingly used. The longbow slowly went out of use during the 16th century. However, muskets took a long time to reload, and during that time the infantry needed protection from cavalry. They were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear).
Cannons meant that Tudor fortifications had to be re-designed. Walls were now made to slope outwards to deflect cannonballs. Instead of towers forts and walled towns now had bastions. They were triangular sections of the wall that jutted out from the rest of the wall. They provided flanking fire. In other words, guns on the bastion could fire at approaching soldiers from the sides. Solid cannonballs (called shot) were useful for firing at walls during sieges and for firing at enemy ships. However, for killing enemy soldiers or sailors canister or case shot was used. That was a cylindrical container filled with sharp stones or pieces of metal. When fired the cylinder burst and sprayed the enemy.
In the 16th century surgery became a little more advanced. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) dissected some human bodies and made accurate drawings of what he saw. However, the greatest surgeon of the age was Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). He did many dissections and realized that many of Galen's ideas were wrong. In 1543 he published a book called The Fabric of the Human Body. It contained accurate diagrams of the human body. Vesalius's great contribution was to base anatomy on observation, not on the authority of writers like Galen. Another great surgeon was Ambroise Pare. In 1514 Giovanni de Vigo introduced the practice of pouring boiling water onto wounds. In 1536 during the siege of Turin pare ran out of oil. He made a mixture of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine and discovered it worked better than oil. Pare also designed artificial limbs.
Cartography was improved by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) who invented the Mercator Projection in 1569. The pocket watch was invented in 1510. The pencil was invented in 1564 and the stocking frame, a kind of knitting machine was invented in 1589.
In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented a flushing lavatory with a cistern. However the idea failed to catch on. People continued to use chamber pots or cesspits.
Inventions in the 17th Century
In the 17th century technology advanced rapidly. In 1608 Hans Lippershey invented the telescope, which had a profound impact on astronomy. In 1642 Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) invented the adding machine. Then in 1643 Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647) invented the barometer. In 1650 Otto von Guericke invented an air pump.
Meanwhile much effort went into improving weapons. In the early 17th century firearms were either matchlocks or wheel locks. A matchlock held a slow-burning match, which was touched to the powder when the trigger was pulled. With a wheel lock, a metal wheel spun against iron pyrites making sparks. During the 17th century, both of these were gradually replaced by the flintlock which worked by hitting a piece of flint and steel making sparks. In the early 17th century the cartridge was invented. The musket ball was placed in a container, which held the right amount of gunpowder to fire it. The soldier no longer had to measure powder from a powder horn into his gun.
Apart from artillery there were two branches of an army. The cavalry was usually armed with wheel-lock pistols and sabers. The infantry consisted of men armed with muskets and those armed with pikes. A musket took a long time to reload and the soldiers were very vulnerable while they did so. Therefore they were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear). In theory, there were two musketeers to each pikeman. The pikemen usually had a steel helmet but musketeers did not usually wear armor.
About 1680 the bayonet was invented. With bayonet fixed a musket could be used as a weapon even if it had been fired and was not reloaded. The bayonet did away with the need for pikemen. The British army began using grenades in 1677.
During the 17th century people became able to measure things more accurately. In 1636 William Gascoigne invented the micrometer. In 1656 Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock, which allowed people to measure time more accurately.In 1675 Denis Papin invented the pressure cooker and at the end of the 17th century people experimented with harnessing the power of steam. In 1698 Thomas Savery made the first steam engine.
Life in the 17th Century
Inventions in the 18th Century
The Agricultural Revolution
In the 18th century there was an agricultural revolution in England. It began with a man named Jethro Tull. In the 17th century, the seed was sown by hand. The sower simply scattered seed on the ground. However, in 1701 Tull (1674-1741) invented the seed drill. This machine dropped seeds at a controllable rate in straight lines. A harrow at the back of the machine covered the seeds to prevent birds from eating them. Tull also invented a horse-drawn hoe that killed weeds between rows of seeds.
Furthermore new forms of crop rotation were introduced. Under the old system land was divided into 3 fields and each year one was left fallow. This was, obviously, wasteful, as one-third of the land was not used each year. In the 17th century, the Dutch began to use new forms of crop rotation with clover and root crops such as turnips and swedes instead of letting the land grow fallow. (Root crops restored fertility to the soil). In the 18th century, these new methods became common in England. A man named Charles 'Turnip' Townshend (1674-1738) did much to popularize growing turnips. Turnips had another advantage. They provided winter feed for cattle. Previously most cattle were slaughtered at the beginning of winter because there was not enough food to keep them through the season. Now fresh milk and butter became available all year round.
In the early 18th century farmers began to improve their livestock by selective breeding. One of the most famous pioneers of selective breeding was Robert Bakewell (1725-1795). There were other minor improvements. On light soil, farmers used marl (clay with lime content). Other farmers drained their fields with stone-lined trenches. Manure has always been used as fertilizer but in the mid-18th century, farmers began to build underground tanks to protect manure from the weather.
The Industrial Revolution
In the late 18th century everyday life in Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution. Towns, industry, and trade had been growing for centuries but about 1780 economic growth took off. A number of technological advances made the revolution possible. In 1709 Abraham Darby (1677-1717), who owned an ironworks, began using coke instead of charcoal to melt iron ore. (It was a much more efficient fuel). Darby and his family kept the new fuel secret for a time but in the late 18th century the practice spread.
From 1712 Thomas Newcomen made steam engines to pump water from mines. Then, in 1769, James Watt patented a more efficient steam engine, and in the 1780s it was adapted to power machinery. The first industry to become mechanized was the textile industry. In 1771 Richard Arkwright opened a cotton-spinning mill with a machine called a water frame, which was powered by a water mill. Then, in 1779, Samuel Crompton invented a new cotton-spinning machine called a spinning mule. Finally, in 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented a loom that could be powered by a steam engine. As a result of these new inventions, cotton production boomed.
Iron production also grew rapidly. In 1784 a man named Henry Cort (1740-1800) invented a much better way of making wrought iron. Until then men had to beat red hot iron with hammers to remove impurities. In 1784 Cort invented the puddling process. The iron was melted in an extremely hot furnace and stirred of 'puddled' to remove impurities. The result was a vast increase in iron production.
Meanwhile in 1777 a man named Samuel Miller patented a machine. His patent mentions a circular saw. However, it is not certain if Miller invented the circular saw. It may have existed before.
Gaslight was invented in 1792 by William Murdoch. Meanwhile, in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon. In the USA Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning conductor in 1752. In 1784 Franklin also invented bifocal lenses. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.
Inventions in the 19th Century
In the 19th century people mastered electricity. In 1819 a Dane, Hans Christian Oersted discovered that an electric current in a wire caused a nearby compass needle to move. In 1831 Michael Faradayinvented the dynamo. In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. In the 19th century machines in factories were usually operated by steam engines. At the end of the 19th century, they began to convert to electricity.
In the mid 19th century travel was revolutionized by railways. They made travel much faster. (They also removed the danger of highwaymen). The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825. However, the first major railway was from Liverpool to Manchester. It opened in 1830. In the 1840s there was a huge boom in building railways and most towns in Britain were connected. The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. Steam locomotives pulled the carriages. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890.
Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made the first cars in 1885 and 1886. At sea, travel was revolutionized by the steamship. By 1815 steamships were crossing the English Channel. Furthermore, it used to take several weeks to cross the Atlantic. Then in 1838, a steamship called the Sirius made the journey in 19 days. However steam did not completely replace sail until the end of the 19th century when the steam turbine was used on ships.
A number of inventions to do with clothing were made in the 19th century. The safety pin was invented in 1849. Henry Seely invented the electric iron in 1882 but it did not become common until the 1930s. The zip fastener was invented in 1893.
Gaslight first became common in well off people's homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s, most working-class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s. Joseph Swan invented the electric light bulb in 1878. Thomas Edison invented another version in 1879.
During the 19th century medicine made great advances. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) proved that microscopic organisms caused disease. In the early 19th century many scientists believed in spontaneous generation i.e. that some living things spontaneously grew from non-living matter. In a series of experiments between 1857 and 1863 Pasteur proved this was not so. Once doctors knew what caused disease they made rapid headway in finding cures or prevention.
In the 19th century surgery was greatly improved by the discovery of anesthetics. As early as 1799 the inventor Humphry Davy (1778-1829) realized that inhaling ether relieved pain. Unfortunately, decades passed before it was actually used. An American dentist Henry H. Morgan began using ether in 1846. In the same year, ether was used as an anesthetic by surgeons. James Simpson (1811-1870), who was Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University, began using chloroform for operations in 1847.
In 1865 Joseph Lister (1827-1912) discovered antiseptic surgery, which enabled surgeons to perform many more complicated operations. Lister prevented infection by spraying carbolic acid over the patient during surgery. German surgeons developed a better method. The surgeon's hands and clothes were sterilized before the operation and surgical instruments were sterilized with superheated steam. Rubber gloves were first used in surgery in 1890. Anesthetics and antiseptics made surgery much safer. They allowed far more complicated operations. In 1851 Herman von Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope. The hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853. In 1895 x-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen. The same year aspirin was invented.
During the 19th century people discovered new materials. Portland cement was invented in 1824. In 1839 Charles Goodyear discovered rubber vulcanization and celluloid was invented in 1869. In 1856 Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) invented the Bessemer converter, which converts iron to steel by blowing air through it while molten.
Meanwhile a whole host of inventions improved life for people during the 19th century. These included the lawnmower in 1830 and Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper in 1831. The cash register was invented in 1879. Other useful inventions were barbed wire by Joseph Glidden in 1873, the electric fan in 1882, and the fountain pen in 1884. In 1885 Donald Dewar invented the vacuum flask.
At the end of the 19th century bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle went on sale in 1885 and in 1892 John Boyd Dunlop invented pneumatic tires (much more comfortable than solid rubber ones!) Bicycling clubs became common. Meanwhile, the steam-driven printing press was invented in 1814 allowing newspapers to become more common.
One new hobby in the 19th century was photography. Henry Fox Talbot took the first photograph in 1835. However, photography was more than just a pastime. In 1871 a writer said that one of the great comforts for the working class was having a photo of a family member who was working a long way off. They could be reminded what their loved one looked like. The first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterward, photography became a popular hobby.
The industrial revolution transformed warfare. Railways meant armies could be transported much faster than before. The telegraph meant that messages could also be transmitted much faster. At the beginning of the 19th century, Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) developed the Congreve rocket. These rockets were used at Copenhagen in 1807 and they set most of the town on fire. However, rockets lacked both range and accuracy and after the Napoleonic Wars, they fell from favor.
Meanwhile in 1807 a Scot named Alexander Forsyth patented the percussion cap. When a trigger was pulled a hammer hit a container of fulminate of mercury, which exploded and ignited the charge of gunpowder. The percussion cap replaced the flintlock. Breech-loading guns greatly increased the rate of fire. The British army began using breech-loading guns in 1865. The range of guns was improved by rifling. Some guns had been rifled for centuries but it only became commonplace in the 19th century. In the late 19th century rifles were improved further by the introduction of magazines, which greatly increased the rate of fire.
Meanwhile in 1836 Samuel Colt began making revolvers. Traditionally the cavalry fought with pistols and swords but the revolver made swords obsolete. In the 19th century, many people experimented with machine guns. In 1862 Richard Gatling invented the Gatling gun. However, the first really successful machine gun was the Maxim gun, invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884. It was adopted by the British army in 1889.
War at sea was changed by exploding shells, by steam engines and by iron ships. In 1858 the French launched La Gloire. It was made with plates of iron fixed onto timber. However, in 1860 Britain launched HMS warrior. This ship was made with an iron hull instead of a wooden hull with iron plates fixed on it. Soon the traditional gun deck on warships was replaced by turret guns on the top deck. Then in the 1860s, Robert Whitehead developed the modern torpedo. The British navy began making torpedoes in 1871.
In the 19th century new explosives were invented to replace gunpowder. TNT was invented in 1863 and dynamite followed in 1867. Cordite was invented in 1889.
Inventions in the 20th Century
In the early 20th century vehicle technology advanced rapidly. In 1934 Percy Shaw invented the cat's eye. Carlton Magee invented the parking meter. The first one was installed in the USA in 1935. In 1931 an American called Rolla N. Harger invented the first breathalyzer. It was first used in Indianapolis USA in 1939. A Swede named Nils Bohlin developed the three-point seat belt in 1959. The hovercraft was invented in 1955. Meanwhile, a German named Felix Wankel invented the rotary engine in 1957.
During the 20th century antibiotics were discovered. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming but it was not widely used till after 1940. Meanwhile, the iron lung was invented in 1928. In 1943 Willem Kolff built the first artificial kidney machine. (The first kidney transplant was in 1963). In 1953 Dr. Jonas Salk announced he had a vaccine for poliomyelitis.
Meanwhile surgery made great advances. The first heart transplant was performed in 1967. The first artificial heart was installed in 1982. The first heart and lung transplant was performed in 1987. The laser was invented in 1960. In 1964 it was used in eye surgery for the first time. The laser printer was invented by Gary Starkweather in 1969. Meanwhile, the invention of fiber optics in the 1950s made possible the development of endoscopes in the 1960s. Contraceptive pills became available in Britain in 1961. Treatment for infertility also improved in the late 20th century. The first test-tube baby was born in 1978.
In 1909 Bleriot flew across the English Channel. Then in 1919 Alcock and Brown became the first men to fly across the Atlantic. In 1919 planes began carrying passengers between London and Paris. Jet passenger aircraft were introduced in 1949.
In July 1915, during The First World War the Germans used the first flamethrowers. In 1916 the British introduced the tank. Meanwhile, in 1918 the Germans introduced the first submachine gun, which could be operated by one man. In 1920 the Thompson sub-machine gun or Tommy gun was produced.
In 1944 jet engines were introduced and planes became still faster. In 1947 a plane flew faster than sound for the first time. During the Second World War, tanks continued to play a dominant role despite the development of anti-tank guns. However, during World War II there were two new developments. The Germans began using rockets. On 13 June 1944, they launched the first V-1 flying bomb. More dangerous was the V-2 rocket. It had a range of 200-220 miles. It rose to a height of 50 miles and traveled at over 2,000 mph. In 1954 the Soviet Union made the first ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile).
The other development was the atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 one exploded over Hiroshima. On 9 August another exploded over Nagasaki. Each killed tens of thousands of people. The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. In 1952 American scientists invented the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. The USSR exploded a hydrogen bomb in 1954. During the Vietnam War, the Americans experimented with laser-guided missiles. However, they were not used on a large scale until the Gulf War of 1991. The first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus was launched in 1955. However peaceful use was also made of nuclear power. The first nuclear power station opened in Russia in 1954. The first one in Britain opened in 1956.
Great progress was made in inventing plastics. Bakelite was invented in 1908. So was cellophane. PVC was first used in the 1940s. By the 1960s all kinds of household goods from drain pipes to combs were made of plastic. Nylon was first made in 1935 by Wallace Carothers and polyester was invented in 1941. It became common in the 1950s. Vinyl (a substitute for leather) was invented in 1924.
The first steps were taken into space. The first artificial satellite Sputnik I was launched in 1957. Telstar, the first communication satellite was launched in 1962. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. In 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon.
Meanwhile in 1901 Marconi sent a radio message across the Atlantic heralding a new age of mass communications. The BBC began broadcasting radio in 1922. In 1925 John Logie Baird invented television. The BBC began broadcasting television in 1936. The transistor was invented in 1948. The first handheld cell phone was invented by Martin Cooper in 1973.
Perhaps the greatest invention of the 20th century was the computer. In the 1930s and 1940s, electronic calculators were built. However, the first computer program was written in 1948. The first commercial computer was sold in 1951. Computer technology proceeded very rapidly and computers rapidly became quicker and much smaller. The first pocket calculator was sold in 1971.
Meanwhile the mouse was invented in the 1960s by Douglas Engelbart. The internet was 'born' in 1969 when 4 computers were linked. By the beginning of the 21st century, the internet had become one of the most popular ways to exchange information and ideas. At the end of the 20th century, genetic engineering became possible. In 1997 Dolly the sheep, the first animal to be successfully cloned was born.
A timeline of inventions
A history of science
A history of measurement
A history of communications
Last revised 2020