20 Significant Inventions of the 20th Century
1. Vacuum Cleaner, 1901
Here's how inventor H. Cecil Booth came up with the idea. He noticed a device on trains that blew dust off chairs and thought it would be better to have a device that sucked the dust instead. To test his idea he laid a handkerchief on a chair, put his mouth on it and sucked as much dust as he could. Seeing the amount of dust and dirt on the underside of the hanky effectively made it the first vacuum cleaner filter and realized the idea could work. It's a good thing he wasn't looking to invent a machine that cleans manure.
2. Disposable razor blades, 1909
Invented by King Camp Gillette (the best a man can get) as an inexpensive alternative to using a straight razor. The straight razor was like going to your kitchen and taking a chef's knife to your face. Instead of paying two bits for a shave and a haircut, men could save one bit and just get the haircut, likely parted down the middle.
3. Powered, Controlled Airplane, 1903
Orville and Wilbur Wright didn't invent the first airplane, but applied the principles of jumping before flying. Through a lot of trial and error, building their own wind tunnel, and testing 200 wing designs they were finally able to fly their prototype 121 ft (37m) in 12 seconds. The design was further improved with regards to safety, power, and control to the point in October of 1905 when the aircraft could maintain a sustainable flight and land with pilot safe and the craft undamaged. Today we see the airplane's influence in aeronautical engineering, transportation, and warfare. It was only a matter of time before the Mile High Club was invented.
4. Parachute, 1913
With the invention of the plane it is only natural to invent the parachute. Although the idea of the parachute has been around since the 15th century, Slovakian inventor Stefan Banic is credited with the invention of the first one widely used by the military. He donated the U.S. patent to the U.S. Army and received little fame or fortune for it. The parachute was used extensively during World War I. Today it continues to be used in military and civilian aircraft as well as by thrill seeking skydivers.
5. Liquid Fuel Rocket, 1914
Powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline, the first flight of a liquid fuel rocket occurred on March 16, 1926. American professor Robert H. Goddard launched it and it rose 41 feet and flew for 2.5 seconds. It demonstrated that liquid fuel rockets were possible, eventually leading to Sputnik, the Moon Landing, and the movie Armageddon- effectively making Ben Affleck a superstar.
6. Electronic Television, 1923
Inventors Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin are credited with the invention of the first fully electronic television (as opposed to electromechanical TV's). It changed the way we receive information and entertainment by providing a visual format to the sound. Nearly everyone you know now has a TV or three. We can thank Mr. Farnsworth and Mr. Zworykin for our adult ADD and the inexplicable fixation with Tila Tequila's love life.
7. Sliced bread, 1928
"The greatest thing since sliced bread" says it all. Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa invented the first machine to slice bread one loaf at a time. You could say he invented convenience. Other inventors stood on the shoulder of this giant by inventing a ready to eat PB & J sandwich with the crusts cut off for the unimaginably lazy.
8. Antibiotics, 1928
Although the ancient Chinese used antibiotics 2500 years ago, it was not isolated and identified until the 20th century. It was Scottish biologist and pharmacologist Alexander Fleming who accidentally discovered that most famous of antibiotics, penicillin. After forgetting about some germ cultures he was working on he noticed that they were contaminated with fungus, like your feet. He then noticed there were zones in certain cultures where bacteria were not growing and it turned out the fungi were causing those germ free zones. After isolating an extract he identified it as part of the Penicillium genus, hence the name. It is used to treat stuff like cellulitis, endocarditus, gonorrhea, meningitis, pneumonia, and syphilis. So yes, penicillin is good stuff.
9. Ballpoint Pen, 1938:
Hungarian inventor Lazlo Biro created this eventual replacement for the fountain pen. Though not as fancy or expressive as a fountain pen, ballpoints are cheap, reliable, and maintenance free. The ink dries after contact with paper almost immediately. With fountain pens where you have to refill the ink (way too much work), ballpoint pens are easily replaced. Ever trying writing with a fountain pen? They are for cursive writers only. All this typing has killed my penmanship anyway.
10. Slinky, 1945
Elegant and ingenious in its simplicity, the Slinky is one of the greatest toys ever. When picked up nobody with a soul can resist its allure to walk it down stairs or simply wobble it back and forth. In 1943 after observing the movement of a torsion spring (a spring with no tension or compression) after it fell off a table, engineer Richard James told his wife Betty of the possibility of making it a toy. After various tests and materials they came up with the toy we know and love today. Forget the cheap plastic ones, the metal ones rule.
11. Microwave Oven, 1945
This common kitchen appliance was discovered by accident. Working at Raytheon, Percy Spencer noticed a peanut chocolate bar he had in his pocket started to melt while he was working on an active radar set. It was the microwaves from the radar, not pocket pool,that caused the gooey mess. He then deliberately cooked popcorn, then an egg. Spencer then isolated the microwaves by feeding them into a metal box, rapidly heating the food placed in it. After Raytheon filed a U.S. patent it had the first microwave oven built in 1947. It was 6 feet (1.8m) tall, weighed 750 lbs (340 kg) cost about $5,000.00, and consumed 3000 watts (compared today's standard 1000 watt) Thankfully, today they are a tad smaller and a wee bit more economical. Because of the microwave, ordinary non-scientific types can now generate the heat of the sun's core with the apple cobbler in a Swanson's TV dinner.
12. Integrated Circuit, 1958
Although the invention of what we know as the microchip has been attempted a couple of times, the successful manufacturing of integrated circuits was done independently by two scientists: Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor. The impact of the microchip is obvious in all our modern digital technology, including the internet. Our modern society is wholly dependent on the integrated circuit. I wouldn't be writing on Hub Pages without it.
13. Laser, 1960
As with a lot of inventions, the laser didn't spring out of nowhere but was the result of a series of steps based on sound theory. Theodore H. Maiman made the first laser that worked at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California in 1960, beating some other researchers to the punch. They knew they had something with this laser, but didn't know what the hell kind of problems they were going to solve with it. Today it's used in everything from DVD players, to check out counters, to corrective eye surgery, to precision guided munitions. Sweet.
14. Video Game Console, 1968:
Although the earliest known "electronic interactive game" was in existence as early as 1948, the Magnavox Odyssey invented by Ralph Baer was the first commercially available video game console. (He also invented the light gun and the 80's game sensation Simon) The Odyssey and its successors ushered in the multibillion dollar video game industry; it makes more money than the movie industry. Definitely influential and definitely not kid's stuff anymore.
15. ARPANET, 1969
The global Internet owes its existence to the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) of the United States Department of Defense. It was the world's first operational packet switching network originally used for countermeasures in the event of nuclear attack by the commies. Today the Internet permeates our lives and greatly changed the way we communicate (e-mail), shop (Amazon, etc.), do our banking (bofa.com, etc.), conduct business (insert business name here), find information (Google), and entertain ourselves (porn). Best (and worst) of all, anyone can publish anything. It's the freest of free speech, as long as net neutrality remains in place.
16. Rubik's Cube, 1974
Erno Rubik created a monster. Ever since I got my Rubik's Cube when I was a kid in 1984, I've never been able to solve this thing. Ever. Even when I peeled off the stickers. To this day whenever I see one I impulsively pick it up and go through the motions, but my brain hurts.
17. Mobile Phone, 1977
The invention of the mobile phone in 1977 (probably the size of a Buick back then) by Bell Labs brought in a new era of communication convenience. Once reserved for business executives or the super-rich, cell phones are now so ubiquitous that they have effectively replaced payphones and in some cases household land lines. Your grandma has a cell phone. Kids in Third World countries have cell phones. If only someone would invent a machine that enforces cell phone courtesy, with force, the world would be a better place.
18. Compact Disc, 1980
Electronics giants Sony and Phillips joined forces to design a digital audio disc as a spin-off from those cumbersome and expensive Laserdiscs. The CD was commercially available in 1982. As costs of development for CD's and CD players became lower it became the primary format for music. Although MP3's are quickly replacing CDs as the primary media for music today, CD technology is still used in CD-ROMs, DVDs, and Blu Ray. I can't imagine physically rewinding or fast forwarding anything anymore.
19. Global Positioning System, 1993:
Another engineering breakthrough developed by the U.S. DoD, the Global Positioning System is the currently the world's only Global Navigation Satellite System that is fully functional. Russia, the European Union, China, and India are all working on their own versions. Our GPS is maintained by the USAF 50th Space Wing and costs $750 million per year to maintain, but it is worth every penny because I'm always getting lost.
20. Viagra, 1997:
Pfizer originally developed it to treat angina, but clinical trials demonstrated it had...other uses. Viva Viagra!
More by this Author
All Star Wars nerds know this instinctively. Here's why.
Despite the awesome trailer it's entirely possible that The Force Awakens may not be that good, but at least we'll know it'll be better than this!