3 Inventions We Take for Granted: An Inventor Looks Back

By Peter H. Spitz

Over the last 300 years, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, an incredible number of inventions have transformed how we live in previously unimaginable ways.  Scientists, technicians, and some truly intelligent people came up with inventions that changed how we live, work, travel, and communicate. 

As an inventor myself, I’m fascinated by the common elements: opportunity, perseverance, and faith. Here are three powerful examples:

1. The steam engine and the railroad

These two inventions didn’t happen because someone was looking for a better way to transport people. They had to do with coal. And they were both the result of an inventor using general knowledge to serve an observed need.

Coal seams were located close to the surface in parts of England. To get to them, miners had to dig a vertical shaft, lower a bucket, and use ropes and pulleys to mine the coal. To mine a shaft that was deeper and wider, they used horses, or water power — and soon, a seven mile line was built to bring coal from a mine to the coast 

Then a technically inclined worker named Newcomen realized that steam heat, along with a vacuum, could  push a piston to move a beam. Thus, in 1712, a simple steam engine was invented to pull up larger buckets. By 1776, James Watt had redesigned Newcomen’s engine to make it much more efficient. . Then, to improve on the wooden rails sending coal-filled carriages to towns and factories, steel rails were produced for the first time and a larger steam engine used to propel trains — giving rise to railroads that began to crisscross England. By 1850, there were 23,000 miles of railroad track.

2. The microwave

Next time you’re microwaving that bag of popcorn, consider this: the long journey to the commercial microwave started during World War 2. And it never would have come about if an inventor had not experienced an unusual occurrence and recognized its commercial potential. A new technology — called radar — was developed to help aim anti-aircraft guns using a magnetron beam. The company responsible was Raytheon, a U.S. firm. One night Percy Spencer, one of the company’s employees, had a candy bar in his pocket when a radar beam accidentally hit it. The candy melted. It didn’t take him long to confirm that radar had heating power — and soon he was thinking about applications.

When the war was over, radar’s heating power underwent some hits and starts, including a huge restaurant heater. But Spencer wanted to create something people could use in their homes. In time, he and a higher-ranking Raytheon executive bought a company that made refrigerators (Amana), and started working with a Japanese firm that made inexpensive magnetrons. That led to the first countertop microwave oven, released by Amana in 1967.

3. Synthetic fertilizer

To increase agriculture yields and provide more food for a growing population, countries imported bat guano and saltpeter from Chile and Peru. But there wasn’t enough supply and those sources eventually gave out. Farmers were desperate for another way to boost their crops. 

In this case, we can credit Dr. Fritz Haber, a German scientist, who applied his knowledge to create a breakthrough solution to an enormous problem. In the early twentieth century, with the search on for a way to produce another source of critical nitrogen, he used his knowledge of high-pressure and high-temperature reactions to create synthetic ammonia. For his discovery, he received the Nobel Prize. Now, plants produce synthetic ammonia by the hundreds of millions of pounds every year.

Without these inventions and many others, we’d be in extremely different circumstances. What’s fascinating are the mindsets (and accidents) that led to these discoveries during an era of remarkable experimentation and growth. But that didn’t end with the close of the Industrial Revolution, as we know. Innovations are forever changing our lives. We can learn a great deal from past innovations about where we may go to next. 

Peter H. Spitz immigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1939 and embarked on a long career in the energy and chemicals industry, with 7 of his own scientific patents. He was the founder and CEO of Chem Systems, Inc. and a frequent lecturer at MIT. Always passionate about innovation, he became a scholar of our industrial past and has authored numerous books and articles. His new book is Reflecting on History: How the Industrial Revolution Created Our Way of Life.

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