Whether it’s early man’s first use of fire or the birth of the space shuttle, innovations have always been the major catalysts behind humankind’s success. Some of these breakthroughs brought about immediate change, while others humbly laid the groundwork for important developments down the road. From pioneering inventions to bold scientific and medical advancements, find out more about 11 innovations that changed the course of human history.
The Printing Press
Prior to the rise of the Internet, no innovation did more for the spread and democratization of knowledge than Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Developed around 1440 in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg’s machine improved on already existing presses through the use of a mould that allowed for the rapid production of lead alloy type pieces. This assembly line method of copying books enabled a single printing press to create as many as 3,600 pages per day. By 1500 over 1,000 Gutenberg presses were operating in Europe, and by 1600 they had created over 200 million new books. The printing press not only made books affordable for the lower classes, but it helped spark the Age of Enlightenment and facilitated the spread of new and often controversial ideas. In 1518 followers of the German monk Martin Luther used the printing press to copy and disseminate his seminal work “The Ninety-Five Theses,” which jumpstarted the Protestant Reformation and spurred conflicts like the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). The printing press proved so influential in prompting revolutions, religious upheaval and scientific thought that Mark Twain would later write, “What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.”
Magnetic compasses may have been made somewhat obsolete by satellites and global positioning systems, but their impact on early navigation and exploration was inestimable. Originally invented in China, by the 14th century compasses had widely replaced astronomical means as the primary navigational instrument for mariners. The compass provided explorers with a reliable method for traversing the world’s oceans, a breakthrough that ignited the Age of Discovery and won Europe the wealth and power that later fueled the Industrial Revolution. Most importantly, the compass allowed for interaction—both peaceful and otherwise—between previously isolated world cultures.
Throughout much of human history, money took the form of precious metals, coins and even raw materials like livestock or vegetables. The inception of paper money ushered in a bold new era—a world in which currency could purchase goods and services despite having no intrinsic value. Paper currency was widely used in China in the ninth century, but did not appear in Europe until the late 1600s. Spurred on by frequent shortages of coins, banks issued paper notes as a promise against future payments of precious metals. By the late 19th century many nations had begun issuing government-backed legal tender that could no longer be converted into gold or silver. The switch to paper money not only bailed out struggling governments during times of crisis—as it did for the United States during the Civil War—but it also ushered in a new era of international monetary regulation that changed the face of global economics. Perhaps even more importantly, paper currency was the vital first step in a new monetary system that led to the birth of credit cards and electronic banking.
While early human societies made extensive use of stone, bronze and iron, it was steel that fueled the Industrial Revolution and built modern cities. Evidence of steel tools dates back 4,000 years, but the alloy was not mass-produced until the invention of the Bessemer Process, a technique for creating steel using molten pig iron, in the 1850s. Steel then exploded into one of the biggest industries on the planet and was used in the creation of everything from bridges and railroads to skyscrapers and engines. It proved particularly influential in North America, where massive iron ore deposits helped the United States become one of the world’s biggest economies.
The Electric Light
While they are easy to take for granted, all it takes is a short power outage to remind us of the importance of artificial lights. Pioneered in the early 19th century by Humphry Davy and his carbon arc lamp, electric lights developed throughout the 1800s thanks to the efforts of inventors like Warren de la Rue, Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Alva Edison. It was Edison and Swan who patented the first long-lasting light bulbs in 1879 and 1880, liberating society from a near-total reliance on daylight. Electric lights went on to be used in everything from home lighting and street lamps to flashlights and car headlights. The complex networks of wires erected to power early light bulbs also helped lead to the first domestic electrical wiring, paving the way for countless other in-home appliances.
Domestication of the Horse
Since their domestication some 5,500 years ago, horses have been inextricably tied to human development. They enabled people to travel great distances and gave different cultures the chance to trade and exchange ideas and technology. Equine strength and agility meant that horses could also carry cargo, plow farmland and even clear forests. Perhaps most influential of all, horses changed the nature of war. Nothing was more feared than a horse-drawn chariot or a mounted warrior, and societies that mastered the use of cavalry typically prevailed in battle.
A criminally underappreciated innovation, the transistor is an essential component in nearly every modern electronic gadget. First developed in 1947 by Bell Laboratories, these tiny semiconductor devices allow for precise control of the amount and flow of current through circuit boards. Originally used in radios, transistors have since become an elemental piece of the circuitry in countless electronic devices including televisions, cell phones and computers. The amount of transistors in integrated circuits doubles nearly every two years—a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law—so their remarkable impact on technology will only continue to grow.
Magnifying lenses might seem like an unremarkable invention, but their use has offered mankind a glimpse of everything from distant stars and galaxies to the minute workings of living cells. Lenses first came into use in the 13th century as an aid for the weak-sighted, and the first microscopes and telescopes followed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Figures like Robert Hook and Anton van Leeuwenhoek would go on to use microscopes in the early observance of cells and other particles, while Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler employed the telescope to chart Earth’s place in the cosmos. These early uses were the first steps in the development of astonishing devices like the electron microscope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Magnifying lenses have since led to new breakthroughs in an abundance of fields including astronomy, biology, archeology, optometry and surgery.
The telegraph was the first in a long line of communications breakthroughs that later included radio, telephones and email. Pioneered by a variety of inventors in the 18th and 19th centuries, the telegraph used Samuel Morse’s famous Morse code to convey messages by intermittently stopping the flow of electricity along communications wires. Telegraph lines multiplied throughout the 1850s, and by 1902 transoceanic cables encircled the globe. The original telegraph and its wireless successors went on to be the first major advancements in worldwide communication. The ability to send messages rapidly across great distances made an indelible impact on government, trade, banking, industry, warfare and news media, and formed the bedrock of the information age.
A giant step forward in the field of medicine, antibiotics saved millions of lives by killing and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. Scientists like Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister were the first to recognize and attempt to combat bacteria, but it was Alexander Fleming who made the first leap in antibiotics when he accidentally discovered the bacteria-inhibiting mold known as penicillin in 1928. Antibiotics proved to be a major improvement on antiseptics—which killed human cells along with bacteria—and their use spread rapidly throughout the 20th century. Nowhere was their effect more apparent than on the battlefield: While nearly 20 percent of soldiers who contracted bacterial pneumonia died in World War I, with antibiotics that number dropped to only 1 percent during World War II. Antibiotics like penicillin, vancomycin, cephalosporin and streptomycin have gone on to fight nearly every known form of infection, including influenza, malaria, meningitis, tuberculosis and most sexually transmitted diseases.
The Steam Engine
Cars, airplanes, factories, trains, spacecraft—none of these transportation methods would have been possible if not for the early breakthrough of the steam engine. The first practical use of external combustion dates back to 1698, when Thomas Savery developed a steam-powered water pump. Steam engines were then perfected in the late 1700s by James Watt, and went on to fuel one of the most momentous technological leaps in human history during the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the 1800s external combustion allowed for exponential improvement in transportation, agriculture and manufacturing, and also powered the rise of world superpowers like Great Britain and the United States. Most important of all, the steam engine’s basic principle of energy-into-motion set the stage for later innovations like internal combustion engines and jet turbines, which prompted the rise of cars and aircraft during the 20th century.
This article is about the technology in human history. For the book series, see History of Technology (book series). For the academic discipline that studies the history of technology, see History of science and technology. For an account of the contemporary use of production techniques, see Technology. For a historical account of economically important technologies, see Productivity improving technologies (economic history). For other uses, see Technology (disambiguation).
The history of technology is the history of the invention of tools and techniques and is similar to other sides of the history of humanity. Technology can refer to methods ranging from as simple as language and stone tools to the complex genetic engineering and information technology that has emerged since the 1980s. The term technology comes from the Greek word techne, meaning art and craft, and the word logos, meaning word and speech. It was first used to describe applied arts, but it is now used to described advancements and changes that affects the environment around us.
New knowledge has enabled people to create new things, and conversely, many scientific endeavors are made possible by technologies which assist humans in traveling to places they could not previously reach, and by scientific instruments by which we study nature in more detail than our natural senses allow.
Since much of technology is applied science, technical history is connected to the history of science. Since technology uses resources, technical history is tightly connected to economic history. From those resources, technology produces other resources, including technological artifacts used in everyday life.
Technological change affects and is affected by, a society's cultural traditions. It is a force for economic growth and a means to develop and project economic, political, military power and wealth.
Measuring technological progress
Many sociologists and anthropologists have created social theories dealing with social and cultural evolution. Some, like Lewis H. Morgan, Leslie White, and Gerhard Lenski have declared technological progress to be the primary factor driving the development of human civilization. Morgan's concept of three major stages of social evolution (savagery, barbarism, and civilization) can be divided by technological milestones, such as fire. White argued the measure by which to judge the evolution of culture was energy.
For White, "the primary function of culture" is to "harness and control energy." White differentiates between five stages of human development: In the first, people use the energy of their own muscles. In the second, they use the energy of domesticated animals. In the third, they use the energy of plants (agricultural revolution). In the fourth, they learn to use the energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In the fifth, they harness nuclear energy. White introduced a formula P=E*T, where E is a measure of energy consumed, and T is the measure of the efficiency of technical factors using the energy. In his own words, "culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased". Nikolai Kardashev extrapolated his theory, creating the Kardashev scale, which categorizes the energy use of advanced civilizations.
Lenski's approach focuses on information. The more information and knowledge (especially allowing the shaping of natural environment) a given society has, the more advanced it is. He identifies four stages of human development, based on advances in the history of communication. In the first stage, information is passed by genes. In the second, when humans gain sentience, they can learn and pass information through experience. In the third, the humans start using signs and develop logic. In the fourth, they can create symbols, develop language and writing. Advancements in communications technology translate into advancements in the economic system and political system, distribution of wealth, social inequality and other spheres of social life. He also differentiates societies based on their level of technology, communication, and economy:
In economics, productivity is a measure of technological progress. Productivity increases when fewer inputs (labor, energy, materials or land) are used in the production of a unit of output. Another indicator of technological progress is the development of new products and services, which is necessary to offset unemployment that would otherwise result as labor inputs are reduced. In developed countries productivity growth has been slowing since the late 1970s; however, productivity growth was higher in some economic sectors, such as manufacturing. For example, in employment in manufacturing in the United States declined from over 30% in the 1940s to just over 10% 70 years later. Similar changes occurred in other developed countries. This stage is referred to as post-industrial.
In the late 1970s sociologists and anthropologists like Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock), Daniel Bell and John Naisbitt have approached the theories of post-industrial societies, arguing that the current era of industrial society is coming to an end, and services and information are becoming more important than industry and goods. Some extreme visions of the post-industrial society, especially in fiction, are strikingly similar to the visions of near and post-Singularity societies.
By period and geography
The following is a summary of the history of technology by time period and geography:
- Olduvaistone technology (Oldowan) 2.5 million years ago (scrapers; to butcher dead animals)
- Acheulean stone technology 1.6 million years ago (hand axe)
- Fire creation and manipulation, used since the Paleolithic, possibly by Homo erectus as early as 1.5 Million years ago
- (Homo sapiens sapiens - modern human anatomy arises, around 200,000 years ago.)
- Clothing possibly 170,000 years ago.
- Stone tools, used by Homo floresiensis, possibly 100,000 years ago.
- Ceramics c. 25,000 BC
- Domestication of animals, c. 15,000 BC
- Bow, sling c. 9th millennium BC
- Microliths c. 9th millennium BC
- 6000 BCE Handmade bricks first used for construction in the Middle East
- Agriculture and Plough c. 4000 BC
- Wheel c. 4000 BC
- Gnomon c. 4000 BC
- Writing systems c. 3500 BC
- Copper c. 3000 BC
- Bronze c. 2500 BC
- Salt c. 2500 BC
- Chariot c. 2000 BC
- Iron c. 1500 BC
- Sundial c. 800 BC
- Glass ca. 500 BC
- Catapult c. 400 BC
- Horseshoe c. 300 BC
- Stirrup first few centuries AD
Main article: Prehistoric technology
Main article: Stone Age
During most of the Paleolithic - the bulk of the Stone Age - all humans had a lifestyle which involved limited tools and few permanent settlements. The first major technologies were tied to survival, hunting, and food preparation. Stone tools and weapons, fire, and clothing were technological developments of major importance during this period.
Human ancestors have been using stone and other tools since long before the emergence of Homo sapiens approximately 200,000 years ago. The earliest methods of stone tool making, known as the Oldowan "industry", date back to at least 2.3 million years ago, with the earliest direct evidence of tool usage found in Ethiopia within the Great Rift Valley, dating back to 2.5 million years ago. This era of stone tool use is called the Paleolithic, or "Old stone age", and spans all of human history up to the development of agriculture approximately 12,000 years ago.
To make a stone tool, a "core" of hard stone with specific flaking properties (such as flint) was struck with a hammerstone. This flaking produced sharp edges which could be used as tools, primarily in the form of choppers or scrapers. These tools greatly aided the early humans in their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to perform a variety of tasks including butchering carcasses (and breaking bones to get at the marrow); chopping wood; cracking open nuts; skinning an animal for its hide, and even forming other tools out of softer materials such as bone and wood.
The earliest stone tools were irrelevant, being little more than a fractured rock. In the Acheulian era, beginning approximately 1.65 million years ago, methods of working these stone into specific shapes, such as hand axes emerged. This early Stone Age is described as the Lower Paleolithic.
The Middle Paleolithic, approximately 300,000 years ago, saw the introduction of the prepared-core technique, where multiple blades could be rapidly formed from a single core stone. The Upper Paleolithic, beginning approximately 40,000 years ago, saw the introduction of pressure flaking, where a wood, bone, or antler punch could be used to shape a stone very finely.
The end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago is taken as the end point of the Upper Paleolithic and the beginning of the Epipaleolithic / Mesolithic. The Mesolithic technology included the use of microliths as composite stone tools, along with wood, bone, and antler tools.
The later Stone Age, during which the rudiments of agricultural technology were developed, is called the Neolithic period. During this period, polished stone tools were made from a variety of hard rocks such as flint, jade, jadeite, and greenstone, largely by working exposures as quarries, but later the valuable rocks were pursued by tunneling underground, the first steps in mining technology. The polished axes were used for forest clearance and the establishment of crop farming and were so effective as to remain in use when bronze and iron appeared. These stone axes were used alongside a continued use of stone tools such as a range of projectiles, knives, and scrapers, as well as tools, made organic materials such as wood, bone, and antler.
Stone Age cultures developed music and engaged in organized warfare. Stone Age humans developed ocean-worthy outrigger canoe technology, leading to migration across the Malay archipelago, across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and also across the Pacific Ocean, which required knowledge of the ocean currents, weather patterns, sailing, and celestial navigation.
Although Paleolithic cultures left no written records, the shift from nomadic life to settlement and agriculture can be inferred from a range of archaeological evidence. Such evidence includes ancient tools,cave paintings, and other prehistoric art, such as the Venus of Willendorf. Human remains also provide direct evidence, both through the examination of bones, and the study of mummies. Scientists and historians have been able to form significant inferences about the lifestyle and culture of various prehistoric peoples, and especially their technology.
Copper and bronze Ages
Main article: Bronze Age
The Stone Age developed into the Bronze Age after the Neolithic Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution involved radical changes in agricultural technology which included the development of agriculture, animal domestication, and the adoption of permanent settlements. These combined factors made possible the development of metal smelting, with copper and later bronze, an alloy of tin and copper, being the materials of choice, although polished stone tools continued to be used for a considerable time owing to their abundance compared with the less common metals (especially tin).
This technological trend apparently began in the Fertile Crescent and spread outward over time. These developments were not, and still are not, universal. The three-age system does not accurately describe the technology history of groups outside of Eurasia, and does not apply at all in the case of some isolated populations, such as the Spinifex People, the Sentinelese, and various Amazonian tribes, which still make use of Stone Age technology, and have not developed agricultural or metal technology.
Main article: Iron Age
The Iron age involved the adoption of iron smelting technology. It generally replaced bronze and made it possible to produce tools which were stronger, lighter and cheaper to make than bronze equivalents. In many Eurasian cultures, the Iron Age was the last major step before the development of written language, though again this was not universally the case. It was not possible to mass manufacture steel because high furnace temperatures were needed, but steel could be produced by forging bloomery iron to reduce the carbon content in a controllable way. Iron ores were much more widespread than either copper or tin. In Europe, large hill forts were built either as a refuge in time of war or sometimes as permanent settlements. In some cases, existing forts from the Bronze Age were expanded and enlarged. The pace of land clearance using the more effective iron axes increased, providing more farmland to support the growing population.
Main article: Ancient technology
It was the growth of the ancient civilizations which produced the greatest advances in technology and engineering, advances which stimulated other societies to adopt new ways of living and how they governed their people
The Egyptians invented and used many simple machines, such as the ramp to aid construction processes. Egyptian society made significant advances during dynastic periods in areas such as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. They also made paper and monuments. The Egyptians made significant advances in shipbuilding. Astronomy was used by Egyptian leaders to govern people.
The Indus Valley Civilization, situated in a resource-rich area, is notable for its early application of city planning and sanitation technologies. Indus Valley construction and architecture, called 'Vaastu Shastra', suggests a thorough understanding of materials engineering, hydrology, and sanitation.
The peoples of Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians) have been credited with the invention of the wheel, but this is no longer certain. They lived in cities from c. 4000 BC, and developed a sophisticated architecture in mud-brick and stone, including the use of the true arch. The walls of Babylon were so massive they were quoted as a Wonder of the World. They developed extensive water systems; canals for transport and irrigation in the alluvial south, and catchment systems stretching for tens of kilometers in the hilly north. Their palaces had sophisticated drainage systems.
Writing was invented in Mesopotamia, using the cuneiform script. Many records on clay tablets and stone inscriptions have survived. These civilizations were early adopters of bronze technologies which they used for tools, weapons and monumental statuary. By 1200 BC they could cast objects 5 m long in a single piece. The Assyrian King Sennacherib (704-681 BC) claims to have invented automatic sluices and to have been the first to use water screws, of up to 30 tons weight, which were cast using two-part clay molds rather than by the 'lost wax' process. The Jerwan Aqueduct (c. 688 BC) is made with stone arches and lined with waterproof concrete.
The Babylonian astronomical diaries spanned 800 years. They enabled meticulous astronomers to plot the motions of the planets and to predict eclipses.
The Chinese made many first-known discoveries and developments. Major technological contributions from China include early seismological detectors, matches, paper, sliding calipers, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the wheelbarrow, the suspension bridge, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the compass, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the crossbow, the South Pointing Chariot and gunpowder.
Other Chinese discoveries and inventions from the Medieval period, include block printing, movable type printing, phosphorescent paint, endless power chain drive and the clock escapement mechanism. The solid-fuel rocket was invented in China about 1150, nearly 200 years after the invention of gunpowder (which acted as the rocket's fuel). Decades before the West's age of exploration, the Chinese emperors of the Ming Dynasty also sent large fleets for maritime voyages, some reaching Africa.
Greek and Hellenistic engineers were responsible for myriad inventions and improvements to existing technology. The Hellenistic period, in particular, saw a sharp increase in technological advancement, fostered by a climate of openness to new ideas, the blossoming of a mechanistic philosophy, and the establishment of the Library of Alexandria and its close association with the adjacent museion. In contrast to the typically anonymous inventors of earlier ages, ingenious minds such as Archimedes, Philo of Byzantium, Heron, Ctesibius, and Archytas remain known by name to posterity.
Ancient Greek innovations were particularly pronounced in mechanical technology, including the ground-breaking invention of the watermill which constituted the first human-devised motive force not to rely on muscle power (besides the sail). Apart from their pioneering use of waterpower, Greek inventors were also the first to experiment with wind power (see Heron's windwheel) and even created the earliest steam engine (the aeolipile), opening up entirely new possibilities in harnessing natural forces whose full potential would not be exploited until the Industrial Revolution. The newly devised right-angled gear and screw would become particularly important to the operation of mechanical devices. That is when the age of mechanical devices started.
Ancient agriculture, as in any period prior to the modern age the primary mode of production and subsistence, and its irrigation methods, were considerably advanced by the invention and widespread application of a number of previously unknown water-lifting devices, such as the vertical water-wheel, the compartmented wheel, the water turbine, Archimedes' screw, the bucket-chain and pot-garland, the force pump, the suction pump, the double-action piston pump and quite possibly the chain pump.
In music, the water organ, invented by Ctesibius and subsequently improved, constituted the earliest instance of a keyboard instrument. In time-keeping, the introduction of the inflow clepsydra and its mechanization by the dial and pointer, the application of a feedback system and the escapement mechanism far superseded the earlier outflow clepsydra.
The famous Antikythera mechanism, a kind of analogous computer working with a differential gear, and the astrolabe both show great refinement in astronomical science.
Greek engineers were also the first to devise automata such as vending machines, suspended ink pots, automatic washstands, and doors, primarily as toys, which however featured many new useful mechanisms such as the cam and gimbals.
In other fields, ancient Greek inventions include the catapult and the gastraphetes crossbow in warfare, hollow bronze-casting in metallurgy, the dioptra for surveying, in infrastructure the lighthouse, central heating, the tunnel excavated from both ends by scientific calculations, the ship trackway, the dry dock, and plumbing. In horizontal vertical and transport, great progress resulted from the invention of the crane, the winch, the wheelbarrow and the odometer.
Further newly created techniques and items were spiral staircases, the chain drive, sliding calipers and showers.
The Romans developed an intensive and sophisticated agriculture, expanded upon existing iron working technology, created laws providing for individual ownership, advanced stone masonry technology, advanced road-building (exceeded only in the 19th century), military engineering, civil engineering, spinning and weaving and several different machines like the Gallic reaper that helped to increase productivity in many sectors of the Roman economy. Roman engineers were the first to build monumental arches, amphitheatres, aqueducts, public baths, true arch bridges, harbours, reservoirs and dams, vaults and domes on a very large scale across their Empire. Notable Roman inventions include the book (Codex), glass blowing and concrete. Because Rome was located on a volcanic peninsula, with sand which contained suitable crystalline grains, the concrete which the Romans formulated was especially durable. Some of their buildings have lasted 2000 years, to the present day.
Inca and Mayan
The engineering skills of the Inca and the Mayans were great, even by today's standards. An example is the use of pieces weighing upwards of one ton in their stonework placed together so that not even a blade can fit in-between the cracks. The villages used irrigation canals and drainage systems, making agriculture very efficient. While some claim that the Incas were the first inventors of hydroponics, their agricultural technology was still soil based, if advanced. Though the Maya civilization had no metallurgy or wheel technology, they developed complex writing and astrological systems, and created sculptural works in stone and flint. Like the Inca, the Maya also had command of fairly advanced agricultural and construction technology. Throughout this time period, much of this construction was made only by women, as men of the Maya civilization believed that females were responsible for the creation of new things. The main contribution of the Aztec rule was a system of communications between the conquered cities. In Mesoamerica, without draft animals for transport (nor, as a result, wheeled vehicles), the roads were designed for travel on foot, just like the Inca and Mayan civilizations