Take a look at the history of mankind, and it’s clear that all the great leaps of progress have coincided with the appearance of amazing inventions that changed the world.
Some came from the mind of a scientist. Others might have been conceived by a businessman and philanthropist. Either way, amazing inventions have the power to radically alter the present and create new possibilities for the future.
It would take a lifetime to create a complete list of inventions that changed the world. However, some inventions are so innovative and influential that they still impact our world today.
Here are 12 amazing inventions that have helped shape the modern world, and might point our way towards innovation in the future.
1. The Domesticated Horse
Admittedly, mankind did not “invent” horses as such! However, the decision to start using them for labor is undoubtedly amongst those simple inventions that changed the world in significant ways.
Since their domestication roughly 5,500 years ago, they have been instrumental in enabling humanity’s premodern development. It allowed early peoples to travel significant distances, which helped to accelerate the development of trade and cultural exchange in the ancient world.
Horses were also instrumental in early agricultural processes, while their strength helped clear forests for human habitation and transport heavy cargo over long distances.
Last but not least, horses had a huge impact on the military effectiveness of ancient armies, and the cultures that mastered horse cavalry usually dominated their opponents in battle.
2. The Printing Press
Today, digital media is starting to replace the written word. However, you could make a good argument for the printing press being the internet of its day, since its capacity for communicating ideas and information was so powerful.
Historic records show the printing press first emerged from the French city of Strasbourg in 1439. Previously, reading and writing were symbols of privilege for the very wealthy and scholars appointed by churches and noblemen.
With the invention of the printing press, a cheap and easily reproduced means of media communication was created. This allowed people to channel thought and philosophy far and wide, making knowledge accessible to more than just the very rich.
It’s impossible to measure the impact of freely available writing. Yet without the printing press, it’s certain that art, science and politics would have developed much more slowly around the world.
3. The Compass
Nowadays, if we want to get somewhere we simply whip out our smartphones and rely on global positioning satellites to point us in the right direction, but it wasn’t always so easy.
No one knows exactly who first discovered magnetic compasses, but we can trace these ancient inventions that changed the world back to 14th century China. Before compasses, travelers had to use the stars in the night sky to navigate. With the compass, however, adventurers had a reliable means of staying on course during long journeys.
This was instrumental in successful long-distance sea travel, leading to Europe’s Age of Discovery in the 1600s spearheaded by explorers like Francis Drake and Marco Polo. The compass played a huge part in accelerating the development of international discovery and creating an accurate map of the globe.
4. The Lightbulb
Although Thomas Edison is credited with the discovery in popular culture, an earlier example of electric illumination was recorded in 1806.
Before an audience of Great Britain’s Royal Society, the inventor Humphry Davy demonstrated a prototype for an electric arc lamp. However, it was undoubtedly Edison’s design for a lightbulb that made electric light possible for mass use.
Soon, electric light allowed people to continue going about their day after the sun had gone down. This revolutionized public life as illuminated streets created nighttime economies.
A great invention brings light to where there was once darkness, but few displayed this as literally as Thomas Edison!
5. The Vaccine
There’s no shortage of medical inventions that changed the world. But few marked such a seismic shift for modern healthcare as the invention of the vaccine.
In 1796, the English scientist Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids were unusually immune to the smallpox disease afflicting the population. Taking a skin sample from a milkmaid with the related cowpox disease, he injected this into a small boy. Despite a brief fever, the child showed no long-term ill effects. Yet he retained a demonstrable immunity to smallpox. Thus, the first immunization in history took place.
Soon, his smallpox vaccine spread across the globe, and Jenner was hailed as a champion of mankind. Even today, smallpox is the only human disease to have been completely eradicated from the world.
With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to run amok, the achievements of the “father of immunology” seem more timely than ever.
6. The Magnifying Lens
Compared to the discovery of nuclear energy or electricity, the humble magnifying lens may seem relatively insignificant. On closer inspection, however, it’s one of many small inventions that changed the world in many impactful ways, enabling scientific breakthroughs crucial to human development.
Magnifying lenses helped astronomers chart the night sky to develop early forms of navigation. Later on, lenses powered microscopes used the first breakthroughs in chemistry and biology.
Magnifying lenses continue to be used in scientific research in the present day. Without them, our scientific and technological progress would be decades or even centuries behind where we are now.
7. The Steam Engine
The industrial revolution that took place in the 1800s would never have been possible without one crucial invention: the steam engine.
The first recorded use of an external combustion engine for industrial purposes occurred in 1698. Englishman Thomas Savery designed a steam-powered water pump. By the late 1700s, the engineer James Wayy had perfected a design for widespread use, single-handedly sparking the industrial revolution.
Soon, steam engines were powering transportation, manufacturing and agriculture. They enabled a period of staggering economic growth in Europe and North America. Without the steam engine, the industrial economy as we know it could never have existed.
8. The Automobile
Great inventions don’t just expand our horizons; they also help connect people around the world.
That’s certainly true for the American industrialist Henry T Ford. His Model T vehicle became the first motorcar created for mass purchase in 1908. The automobile soon gave people independence and freedom that was previously unimaginable.
It also had a profound impact on where and how people lived: soon, cities would be rebuilt around their road networks. Later on, highways would be constructed to allow people to travel from one end of their country to the other, and beyond.
Today, the Ford Motor Company that bears Henry’s name continues to make cars, and long-range personal transport remains a cornerstone of our personal freedom.
9. The Airplane
Mankind famously first took to the air in the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th, 1903.
Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright recorded the first manned and powered flight with their Wright Flyer aircraft. News of their invention flew traveled around the world, and soon the US military was funding their efforts to develop aircraft for mass manufacture.
Soon countries around the world were working from their designs to create their own aircraft, and the world never looked back.
Just over a decade later, the First World War saw both sides deploy their own fully-developed air forces to devastating effect.
10. The Personal Computer
If we’re boiling the definition of a computer down to an electronic digital calculating machine, then the first examples appeared in the 1940s during the Second World War.
However, it wasn’t till the advent of the microchip in the 1970s that the revolution in personal computers first took off.
Silicon chips miniaturized computer processors to create one of the significant modern inventions that changed the world. Gradually, personal computers appeared across and homes and workspaces across the world, transforming modern life.
Today, most of us walk around with a personal computer tucked into our coat pocket, and there is no aspect of modern life that’s been untouched by the digital revolution.
11. The Internet
The story of the internet is far from over, but it’s almost certainly the biggest scientific revolution of our lifetime.
Scientists first began looking at sending data through phone lines in the 1950s. By the next decade, the US military has developed ARPANET, a primitive network for transferring military intelligence as packet data.
Research in information networks continued to bubble: the term “internet” was first employed by scientists Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf in 1974. With the standardization of Internet Protocol Suite for TCP/IP design in 1982, the internet as we know it truly came into being.
Today, the internet affects everything from how we buy groceries and watch television; to how we read the news and the kind of jobs we work. Now we have the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). It seems as if we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible when everyone is plugged into the same global network.
12. The Telephone
Without the telephone, there would be no internet, and the speed of exchange of scientific and cultural ideas would undoubtedly have been much slower.
The telephone was first invented by the Scottish scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Ironically, both Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, which lead to his earliest work experimenting with hearing and speech.
His research eventually led him to create the first telephone that allowed sound to travel over long distances through wires. Bell, however, considered his creation to be a distraction from his other projects: he wouldn’t even allow a telephone in his study!
Conclusion: Inventions That Changed the World Forever
These are some of the greatest inventions that changed the world. They have helped mankind shed its ignorance while generating incalculable scientific and economic progress.
Subtract a single one of these innovations from history. Our development would undoubtedly be decades or even centuries behind where we are now.
Are there any major inventions that altered human history we forgot to mention? Let us know in the comments section below.
Emily Moore is an English & programming teacher with a passion for space and blogging. She believes that current exploration should be focused on preserving our planet’s resources. With satellites circling the orbit, it is easier to get relevant data on any environmental changes. This, in turn, should help people quickly address any challenges.