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The Top 20 Scientific Breakthroughs in History


Instead of the usual list of what many scientists agree on, this list will choose the scientific breakthroughs that are relevant to us in the 21st century. For example, the Gutenberg printing press is often listed as one of history’s great inventions, but who uses paper on a regular basis anymore? The truth is, we only use paper if we have to these days. So the breakthroughs that have seen their best days have been left off.

There are likely to be a few that you never heard of before (Nitrogen fixation, really?) and some that are so common in your life you never give them a second thought – or a first thought for that matter. What qualifies a breakthrough to make this list is assessing how the average person’s life would be different without it. You will occasionally see the word “invention” used in the summaries, and can be used interchangeably.

The list is in no particular order. You are at liberty to rank them according to your lifestyle.

1. Electricity

We use electricity in two basic forms – stored, in batteries, and live, the kind that comes through wires. Forget about Old Ben Franklin. The basic concept of the battery was known as long ago by the Greeks as long ago as 600 BCE. Batteries are so common today that we complain that they don’t last long enough every time we turn on our smartphones. As for the current that flows through your wires (that charges those smartphone batteries) the credit goes to Michael Faraday. Back in 1831 he created the first electric dynamo, which was basically a really low output electrical generator. For entertainment purposes, the 2017 movie The Current War may appeal to your sense of history and capitalism.

2. Semiconductor electronics

There are a dwindling number of people who remember the days of vacuum tube electronics. The early televisions operated using a number of vacuum tubes which were simply replaced when they burned out. Transistors soon replaced tubes and evolved into today’s ubiquitous semiconductors, which are a meld between integrated circuitry and transistors. If you forgot Faraday for a day, back up and give him credit for this invention as well. He was the first to scientifically observe that the electrical resistance falls with the fall in temperature, a key principle in the development of semiconductor electronics.

3. Optical lenses

The idea that light bends (the principle of refraction) when passing through glass was an essential concept in the invention and development of things like microscopes, telescopes, and the eyeglasses you might be wearing as you read this. The early Romans get credit for this discovery, looking at objects through a bowl of water placed on top of an object. So why does this get a place on the list? The development of eyeglasses is connected to the overall increase in the IQ of humans.

4.  The internal combustion engine

What would we do without our cars? Henry Ford gets a lot of press for inventing the car but it is the internal combustion engine that makes the car possible. There is a bit of controversy as to exactly who should get credit, but the best we can tell, Italian inventors Eugenio Barsanti and Felice Matteucci went through the legal patent process under the title "Obtaining motive power by the explosion of gases" back in 1854 but were denied (?!) It would take another decade (1864) until Nickolas Otto managed to be granted the patent for the same idea. By the way, from a scientific point of view a firearm is a type of internal combustion engine.

5. The Internet

Whether the Internet is an actual scientific breakthrough is up for debate. What is even worse, the history of the development of the Internet deals with a lot of technical jargon most of us neither have the time nor interest to understand. The actual concept of the Internet should be credited to J.C.R. Licklider of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1962 he sent out several memos (it is fair to say they were the first Internet memes) dealing with the idea of connected computer networks. But there were no PCs or tablets in 1962 so the idea was based on the mainframe computers of the day. That pretty much still holds true today, but what Licklider envisioned was only the tip of the iceberg. So did this “breakthrough” actually occur or was it the result of an evolutionary process?

6. Nitrogen fixation

The man responsible for this idea, which is the basis for the Green Movement today, was kind of a Jekyll and Hyde character. Nitrogen fixation is the chemical process N2 + 8 H+ + 8 e− → 2 NH3 + H2. In layperson’s terms, it allows nitrogen (N2) to be converted into ammonia (NH3) so it can be absorbed into the soil, providing it with essential nutrients. The result is what we call fertilizer. Fritz Haber of Germany created the process which allows nitrogen fixation on a large scale, which is currently responsible for making possible the feeding of 50% of the world’s population. The dark side of Haber is that he is also called “the father of the chemical weapon.” It has a creepy Soylent Green aspect to it.

7. Sanitation systems

The truth is, when we flush the toilet we don’t care (or want to know) where it goes. But if you live in Alabama, The Carolinas, West Virginia, or Northern New England, you are more likely to take notice of where it goes a couple of times a year. That is because these states are more likely to have homes that are not connected to a public sewage system but use a septic system instead. Mayne people get credit for the development of the sanitation system, which includes the septic system. The Romans developed the aqueduct which redirected sewage away from the cities; Jean-Louis Mouras of France built the first septic tank in 1860; and Boston, Massachusetts was the first city to treat sewage at its Nut Island Headworks treatment plant in 1940. American history is full of documentation of garbage piling up in the streets of the early cities to a height of 2 – 3 feet. Add landfills and recycling plants to the list of sanitation systems. All combined, they are one of the biggest reasons the American lifespan is 40 years greater than it was in 1880.

8. Refrigeration

Refrigeration is a very large part of how we have the lifestyle choices that exist today. The original idea came from a man named Oliver Evans (who later partnered with Jacob Perkins, who would be awarded the patent for the first refrigeration system). Though it may not seem to make sense, Evans is responsible for advancements in the steam engine which are connected to his work in refrigeration. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that heat is always transferred from a degree of higher to a degree of lower. Refrigeration must have a process to draw the heat from what you put into the refrigerator out, to keep the food cold. That is why your refrigerator needs room in the back to vent. When Evans was studying heat transfer in steam engines, he came up with the idea that the reverse was also possible due to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

9. The Airplane

Other than the car, the airplane is the best use of the wheel known to mankind. We know that the Wright Brothers took off in the first airplane and have been credited with its invention for more than 100 years. But everything becomes political these days, both nationally and internationally. Connecticut has claimed that the actual inventor of the airplane was a man named Gustave Whitehead who took flight 2 years earlier. The states of Ohio and North Carolina both enter into the fray because they want bragging rights to the Wright Brothers first flight. The respected aviation publication, Jane’s All the World's Aircraft is siding with the Whitehead claim. But fly over to Brazil, where its aviation advocates make the claim that their inventor, Alberto Santos-Dumont, invented the airplane because their model took flight on wheels. We’ll go with the Brazilians on this one until a 767 can lift off like a hovercraft. Nothing like a little controversy to make history interesting.

10. Industrial steelmaking

Steel is one of the most omnipresent metals in a civilized society, yet also is one of the most ignored. Cars are rarely made of steel anymore, yet the metal is what holds up the tall buildings we go into and out of every day, and is the basis for virtually every aspect of modern industry. Making a single steel girder can take weeks or even months, so being able to produce steel using mass production is a must for a modern society. A patented process known as the Bessemer Process was bought by Sir Henry Bessemer in 1855 and came to be known as the man behind industrial steelmaking. An Englishman, Bessemer actually bought the patent from a bankrupt inventor, American William Kelly. To be fair, Bessemer was working on a similar process, and give credit to him for not trying to reinvent the wheel.

11. The telephone

We are not sure whether this should include smartphones, but if you took away the phone part of the smartphone, what would you have left? History is usually an ignored topic in most conversations these days because, well, not many people care. Given the murkiness of the inventions of the airplane and industrial steelmaking, the importance history may need to be revisited. That is because though the invention of the telephone has always been credited to Alexander Graham Bell, it is because he holds the patent to the device. Yet there is likely a “tie” for credit to its invention because another man, Elisha Gray, had applied for a patent on the same day for the same device. Bell was 5th on the list of applications, Gray was 39th. Winner by technical knockout was Bell. Gray would later become the co-founder of Western Electric.

12. Alphabetization

If you are asking if this is really an invention, the answer is a definite yes. The good news is exactly who is the inventor of the alphabet is unknown, so no controversy. There is also no controversy that every alphabet begins with the letter “A.” The Latins created the system of alphabetization and began using it to organize records and documents. Though it is easily overlooked, the entire concept of a search engine is based on the alphabet. While obvious, we don’t think about why the alphabet works as well as it does. So to whoever invented it, our society owes you a debt of gratitude. We can only hope modern societies do not regress into cave writing on the wall in digital form to communicate with each other.

13. Archimedes’ screw

Many people who hear the name Archimedes think of the dreaded subject of math. Most prefer to forget the Archimedes formula for the area of a circle is A = πr2. But he deserves credit for inventing the Archimedes screw, a device that pushed water up into a tube. This may seem unimportant, but it is the basis for many modern irrigation techniques and the above mentioned sewage treatment plants to keep us fed and healthy. Regardless if you are in a first world or third world country, the invention remains in use as a central focus to transport water up a hill, often powered by an electric pump.

14. Cement

People who live in urban areas walk on cement so much they likely think it is a naturally occurring material. But it is an invention, developed by (once again) the Romans as early as the 1st century AD. What many people don’t realize is that while it is a construction material, it has its basis in architecture. The "Ten Books of Architecture" written by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio discussed the various uses of cement in floors. Cement is the primary material for sidewalks, but also is used as the foundation for floors in office buildings. For those history buffs who remember the Chicago Fire, one reason the city almost burned completely to the ground was the sidewalks were wooden. It is simple yet it is hard to imagine modern civilization without it.

15. Air-conditioning

In the United States, air conditioning systems are not only common, but expected to be present in business and home environments. Would you work in an office in the summertime that didn’t have air conditioning? One of the important features of an air conditioner is that it requires a lot of electricity, which is why you will rarely see systems in third world countries. Either the required electricity is not available or prohibitively expensive. Air conditioning was invented by Willis Carrier in 1902. Like Oliver Evans who invented refrigeration, Carrier was looking for the solution to another problem that is related to air conditioning – lowering the humidity levels in a printing plant. The idea is really simple. Carrier pushed air through coils filled with cold water, which cooled the air while lowering the humidity level. Using modern coolants, an air conditioner can last years with only a minimal amount of maintenance because it is a closed system.

16. Television

This must be on the list, but how much can be said about it that hasn’t already been said? The basic television that is familiar to us today was invented by J. J. Thomson, an English physicist, in 1897. The idea of a cathode ray tube (CRT) was introduced, and the rest is history. Television has become more than a source of news, as it has expanded to the areas of entertainment, advertising, and information. Few inventions have impacted the cultural and social attitudes of modern time than the television.

17. Anesthesia

Most people in first world countries going in for an operation, no matter how minor, don’t give much thought to the pain associated with the procedure. In large part, the reason for this is anesthesia. The earliest records show that the earliest form of pain alleviation was opium used by the Sumerians. (That explains a lot of modern day drug problems. The use of an anesthetic by a medical professional was in 1846 William T. G. Morton on patient Edward Gilbert Abbott at Massachusetts General Hospital. (We hope he was a volunteer.) The original anesthetic was ether, and a year later chloroform was the anesthetic of choice. Advances in medical technology have created a number of options for anesthesia, both during the surgery and after.

18. The Abacus

This ancient invention that we are familiar with today was created by the Chinese and has evolved into the calculators of today. What many people do not realize is that there was a time when written numbers did not exist. Numbers were words or represented by a letter of the alphabet. What makes the abacus so important is it moved the mental calculation of numbers from the mind to a physical device. Instead of trying to remember how you got to the total of a list of 10 numbers, the abacus serves as a way to track the calculations. Its importance lies in the fact that humans have a system that could help them with long or complex calculations, a requirement for everything from bookkeeping to space exploration.

19. The Gregorian calendar

It has been said that the Gregorian calendar is an upgrade to the previously used Julian calendar. Knowing that dates prior to 1582 recorded in original historical records are vastly different from how we count the days, months, and years after 1582 is essential for keeping your facts straight. Imagine going to bed on September 2 and waking up on September 14. Under the old Julian calendar, that was a simple reality. (Blame the Romans for this one. The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE.) The Gregorian calendar adjusted the days of the calendar to be in synch with the meteorological seasons. Created by Pope Gregory II, it is the most widely used calendar in the world today.

20. Radio

As much as we love our video-everything, radio is still a centerpiece of 21st century culture. The invention of the radio took place in 1901 by Italian inventor and engineer Guglielmo Marconi. What he did was actually very simple – he sent a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. But that one signal would be the foundation for the world changing invention known as the radio. That distance travelled, across the ocean, meant that two worlds separated by physical space could now be crossed within seconds. News that happened in Europe could be made known in North America almost immediately. The 700 passengers of the Titanic that were saved were due to Maroni’s invention. Consider what would have happened in Europe during World War 2 if the Americans had to wait for messages to come by letter. Many inventions changed the world, but the radio is likely to land in the Top 10 list because of how history would have been written much differently if not for its invention.

We started with electricity and ended with the radio. You can’t have a radio without electricity, but electricity needs a device, an invention, to realize its full potential. That is why ranking the most important breakthroughs in history can be frustrating. Maybe electricity, like the wheel, should not be on this list at all.

Most of the breakthroughs that have made this list are ones that make our lives and lifestyles possible. It’s not for certain we need television, but it definitely makes our lives better. The same is true for air conditioning, but it can be safely presumed the average life span would be cut by at least a few years.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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