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How technology shapes history

Do you have a pragmatic view of technology? Do you see it as the accumulated mass of scientific knowledge harnessed and applied to solve problems and generally improve the human condition? Or do you whisper its name reverently—Technology—and hold it timidly as a mysterious and awe-inspiring power you don’t really understand?

We think there may be a little of both in most of us. Let’s face it: There are probably dimensions of technical knowledge that escape all but a special few of us. On the other hand, most of the rest of us seem to have a healthy respect for and appreciation of how human ingenuity has continually found new uses for scientific knowledge throughout our history.

Nowhere is the idea of incremental improvements over time as obvious as it is in the march of technology. The discovery of one application leads to another and another and so on. The more we learn, the more we are able to discover. The fascinating story of how inventions (applications of scientific knowledge) are interconnected and in large part sequential is documented in James Burke’s brilliant book, Connections.

In the introduction, the author writes: “Innovation occurs for many reasons, including greed, ambition, conviction, happenstance, acts of nature, mistakes, and desperation. But one force above all seems to facilitate the process. The easier it is to communicate, the faster the change happens. Every time there is an improvement in the technology with which ideas and people come together, major change occurs.”

So it stands to reason that in our information age, where communication has never been easier or faster, the speed of adoption of new advances would be quicker than ever. Just look, for example, at what has occurred with mobile in just a few short years. Maybe we should view each new advancement as technology’s gift to mankind, the rounding out of our potential—our reward for curiosity. The payback for investments of ingenuity.

Looking back over the span of history, the temptation to pinpoint technology’s most important gifts is almost resistible. Which advance has been the most significant and wrought the greatest change? This is one of those hopeless exercises where there are as many lists as there are list makers. Everyone has an idea. So view the following list in the spirit it is offered—but not as the final word on the subject.

10 inventions that changed the world

10. The plow. It may seem like a very unglamorous contribution, but the plow was the instrument that helped man bridge the gap between a hunting/gathering or subsistence farming existence and an easier life marked by the beginnings of commerce. The plow freed man of a life totally dominated by the search for food. Work was easier and accomplished faster. The plow was far more efficient so farmers could grow bigger crops. They had all they could use with enough left over to trade for goods and services.

9. The wheel. Although there is no way to determine the exact origin of the wheel, the earliest wheel and axle found to date were unearthed in Slovenia and date to about 3100 B.C. The wheel made transportation of goods faster and more efficient, but poor roads limited its contribution in this area for centuries. But the utility of the wheel extends far beyond transportation. It is also the centerpiece of many other inventions and the fundamental reason early man could begin to build machines.

8. The printing press. Although John Gutenberg is generally credited with inventing the printing press, he stood on the shoulders of previous inventors to make pre-existing efforts more efficient and practical. The greater efficiency meant widespread acceptance and popularity. The new invention made it possible for massive quantities of information to be quickly recorded and easily spread throughout the world. This reduced the price of books and was the beginning of education for the masses.

7. Refrigeration. Carl von Linde (1876) and Oliver Evans (1805) both had a hand in the invention of the refrigerator. However, in the early 1900s natural ice was still the most common means of keeping things cold. Ice-making machines soon appeared, hastening the decline of hand-cut ice. The development of better and safer chemicals for refrigeration occurred throughout the 1920s, making home refrigerators commonplace. Clearly, the ability to keep food cold in storage and shipment revolutionized food production and the eating habits of the entire world.

6. Communications. While it may not seem proper to lump several communications devices (telegraph, telephone, radio and television) together and call them communications technology, few would argue that they are hopelessly intertwined. Communications inventions have shrunken the world, putting more and more information in our hands and changing forever how we view our surroundings and how we relate to one another.

5. The steam engine. The steam engine ended the need to make virtually everything by hand. By providing a source of power to do countless jobs, large and small, the steam engine became the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. Thomas Newcomen created a version of the steam engine in 1712. In 1769 James Watt modified Newcomen’s design, offering greater power and the ability to produce rotary motion. Later modifications by other inventors, including Richard Trevithick, led to smaller high-pressure steam engines for countless applications.

4. The automobile. The dream of self-propelled personal vehicles had been around for years before Karl Benz’s Motorwagen appeared in 1885. However, Henry Ford is more closely linked to the automobile, primarily because of Ford’s improvements in the production process and persuasive marketing. These improvements lowered the price and brought the automobile within reach of most citizens of ordinary means. To this day, the automobile wields tremendous influence on commerce, culture, employment patterns, leisure—virtually every facet of society.

3. The light bulb. This invention serves as another example of incremental improvements by several individual over time. Although Thomas Edison is generally given credit for inventing the incandescent bulb, there were many people working on the same idea in the 1870s. While the electric light bulb itself was revolutionary, the real game changer was the infrastructure built to bring electricity to every home and small business that changed the world forever.

2. The computer. The computer is an information transformer that takes data in, manipulates it in some way, and outputs new information. Its ability to store vast volumes of information and recall it instantly has changed everything. They are workhorses of incredible strength, versatility and potential. So much of life that we take for granted would be impossible without computers.

1. The Internet. This planet-wide network of computers means users can access virtually any information anywhere in the world at any time. The implications of this accessibility for communications and commerce are incalculable. The Internet grew out of the efforts of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) of the U. S. military apparatus, which created a network of computer-to-computer connections called ARPANET in the 1960s. It was intended for academic and military research. The development of a single protocol in the 1970s allowing computers of any network to communicate with computers on other networks was the real beginning of the Internet. 

Each new breakthrough encourages ever bolder initiatives. In reality, technology encourages us to dream bigger and bigger dreams. Why? Because it is both inspiration and fulfillment. So what-if to your heart’s content. Technology is waiting to make your dreams come true.

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