We often think that significant, world-altering innovations demand intricate engineering and extensive scientific endeavors to develop.
However, this isn’t always true. On occasion, modest enhancements such as ball bearings and barbed wire have profoundly influenced the course of human history, frequently serving as direct precursors to the intricate engineering marvels we encounter in the present day.
1. Paper Money
Paper money had been used in various parts of the world before, but it truly flourished in Europe during the Crusades. European armies and traders required a more convenient way to carry substantial sums of money, as opposed to heavy metal coins.
This necessity led to the emergence of the first modern paper currency known as bills of exchange.
This practice quickly spread throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic, significantly impacting the colonization of the Americas. At the time, the transportation of goods between Europe and North America was time-consuming, resulting in ongoing cash shortages for settlers and merchants.
Paper money provided them with access to the funds required for their projects, eliminating the need to transport large quantities of precious metal coins across the Atlantic. Additionally, it simplified trade between European merchants and native populations and other European colonies in the Americas since paper currency was easier to transport and less prone to loss or theft compared to earlier forms of money.
Sails have served as a means of propulsion for thousands of years, though it’s challenging to pinpoint their exact inventor. Sails, for the first time, enabled ships to utilize the wind’s power, enabling travel over much greater distances than using oars alone.
Although not a complex invention, this simple improvement significantly transformed maritime navigation, facilitating trade and commerce with distant settlements. Sails also permitted ships to navigate against the wind, unveiling entirely new territories for trade or conquest.
With the aid of sailing, ancient civilizations explored new lands, established trade routes, and interacted with previously unknown cultures. This, in turn, spurred the development of more advanced economies and cultures worldwide.
At its core, a lever is a straightforward machine consisting of a straight beam or rod that rotates around a fixed point known as a fulcrum. It enables the amplification of force in various ways, making it feasible to lift extremely heavy objects with significantly less effort.
Although the exact moment of its invention remains uncertain, Archimedes was the first to provide a mathematical description of the lever. He appeared to be greatly impressed by it, famously stating, “Give me a place to stand, and with a lever, I can move the entire world,” although that might have been a bit of an exaggeration.
Nevertheless, it’s challenging to underestimate the significance of the humble lever, especially in the construction of ancient civilizations like Egypt and Greece.
It empowered the construction of larger and more intricate structures, such as pyramids and aqueducts, as it suddenly made it feasible to transport heavy stones and other building materials with ease. Nowadays, advanced types of levers are employed in nearly every aspect of our lives, from basic household tools like can openers and pliers to complex machines such as cranes and earthmovers.
4. Repeating Rifle
Before repeating rifles were invented, firearms had a slow rate of fire and needed reloading after each shot, severely limiting their effectiveness in warfare.
This changed with early repeater prototypes, enabling soldiers to shoot multiple times quickly. The first repeating rifles emerged in the mid-19th century, with the famous Henry rifle being the initial model that made a significant impact on the battlefield.
Repeating rifles fundamentally transformed early modern warfare, making firearms the deadliest weapon for individual soldiers. They could now engage multiple enemies from much greater distances, significantly influencing tactics and strategy at the time. The increased firepower also led to quicker victories, reducing casualties and battle durations.
In 1947, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley created transistors at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. This invention marked a significant milestone in electronics by replacing bulky vacuum tubes with smaller, more efficient, and reliable devices.
Transistors sparked a revolution in electronics, paving the way for the modern computer and semiconductor industry. They enabled engineers to design devices that could match the performance of larger machines, leading to the creation of smaller, faster, and more powerful electronic gadgets.
Today, advanced forms of transistors, such as integrated circuits and microprocessors, play a fundamental role in most of our everyday appliances.
6. Throwing Things
During the course of human evolution, the skill of throwing objects as projectiles emerged around two million years ago. This newfound ability provided early humans with a significant advantage for survival by granting them access to larger sources of food.
Initially, the primary projectiles used were likely stones, easily obtained and thrown with precision. It was only a matter of time before the throwing spear was invented and refined, marking the onset of a new phase in human development.
The development of the throwing spear had a direct impact on various aspects of the human body, particularly the size and shape of the shoulder. This transformation resulted in a more streamlined shoulder structure, enhancing the speed and accuracy of throws.
Furthermore, it carried significant social and cultural consequences. The emergence of cooperative hunting among early humans provided them with a sense of security and control over their environment, facilitating further expansion and conquest.
On September 28, 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish microbiologist, made one of the most significant discoveries in medical history.
While conducting experiments with the Influenza virus, he observed that a particular type of mold had contaminated one of his petri dishes, which prevented the growth of the bacteria he was researching. Even though it was entirely unintentional, Fleming had come across a fungus known as Penicillium.
Subsequently, he synthesized the antibiotic drug we now recognize as Penicillin, which has had a profound impact on modern life, particularly during times of war. From the Second World War to the recent conflict in Iraq, Penicillin has saved numerous lives by treating injuries that would have otherwise been fatal.
Prior to the discovery of Penicillin, bacterial infections like pneumonia were frequently lethal and challenging to treat. Today, it stands as the most widely used antibiotic worldwide, significantly reducing mortality rates and enhancing the quality of life for millions of people across the globe.
8. Ball Bearing
Ball bearings are a type of bearing that employs small spherical balls to reduce friction between rotating components. The concept has historical roots dating back to Ancient Egypt, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, with the advent of the Bessemer process and the bicycle, that they could be mass-produced and utilized in various applications.
The Bessemer process enabled the more cost-effective and efficient production of high-quality steel, while the bicycle marked the first widespread, real-world application of this technology.
This innovation empowered engineers to significantly diminish friction and wear in rotating parts, greatly enhancing the reliability and durability of machinery during the Industrial era. Additionally, ball bearings facilitated the creation of smaller, more compact machines due to their reduced size and weight compared to traditional bearings.
Nowadays, nearly perfect spherical bearings are indispensable for constructing functional wheels that stay securely on their axles, as they find application in a wide array of devices, ranging from simple household appliances to heavy-duty military machinery.
Flares have been utilized for various purposes, including navigation, for a considerable time. However, the modern signal flare owes its origin to Martha Coston, a pioneering businesswoman and inventor. She obtained a patent for it in 1859, and the initial design was based on her late husband’s ideas.
Coston’s flares consisted of colored paper tubes filled with chemicals that, when ignited, produced vibrant and long-lasting flares, representing a significant improvement over previous versions.
This invention played a vital role during the American Civil War, facilitating communication between ships, signaling enemy positions, and enhancing the coordination of battle strategies over long distances, particularly during night engagements.
During the World Wars, flare guns proved to be valuable tools for all parties, offering a straightforward yet effective means of conveying messages to allied units. In the present day, signal flares remain essential for emergency responders and search-and-rescue operations.
10. Barbed Wire
The modern barbed wire has its origins attributed to Joseph Glidden, an American businessman and inventor. He patented his double-stranded design in 1874, which brought about a significant transformation in how fences and enclosures were constructed worldwide, particularly in the United States.
This innovation allowed for the creation of much larger enclosed areas than ever before. Prior to this invention, farmers and ranchers had to rely on wooden fences or stone walls, which were either ineffective or extremely time-consuming and costly.
Barbed wire had a profound impact on the colonization of America, particularly in the process of ‘taming the Wild West.’ It facilitated the division of vast expanses of land into smaller, more manageable sections, enabling settlers to enhance the protection of their crops and livestock.
This, in turn, spurred the westward expansion as it simplified the establishment of homesteads and ranches in remote areas, contributing to economic and territorial growth. Additionally, it streamlined the definition and enforcement of property and enclosure laws, a task that the state had difficulty accomplishing in the more remote regions of the frontier.