Society - History
By: - at July 30, 2013

Top 15 Greatest Inventors in History

Symbol of invention with light bulbThe pressing needs of man, both modern and ancient, have spawned some of the greatest thinkers in recorded history. These individuals faced the most insurmountable problems of their day and emerged with successful inventions and solutions. Without their resolve and tenacity, the world as you know it would look considerably different. For many, this is a terrifying thought considering how technology has permeated every single action that human beings may become engaged in.  Everything from communication, socialization, employment, education, manufacturing, science, finance, and transportation.  Without the infrastructures that are built on technological innovations and inventions, the way civilization works would instantly grind to a halt; causing mass hysteria and confusion.

Take a moment to try and imagine a world without motor vehicles or electricity. While this seems farfetched, these and other inventions may have been delayed in their creation or completely nonexistent without the work of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and other ingenious men and women. As you look over many of life's everyday necessities, consider the people who forged past the status quo and shaped or molded these inventions. Without their help, modern life would not be as comfortable and safe as it is today.

15)  Archimedes
ArchimedesBorn in 287 BC, Archimedes went on to become a giant in the world of classic inventions. Little is known about this man's personal life. According to his work, "The Sand Reckoner," Archimedes states that his father was an astronomer named Phidias. Any information on other family members, such as a potential wife or children, does not exist or was lost over the passage of time.

The majority of Archimedes' contributions come in the form of mathematical principles. His work on formulating and extrapolating Pi would go on to shape an expanded understanding for mathematicians that still holds relevance to this day. Additionally, his theorem, "Archimedes' principle" would serve as a major asset to ancient and contemporary physicists. In his composition, "On Floating Bodies," the scientist and mathematician would expound upon the characteristics of buoyant objects. This knowledge would form the basis of his famous principle and explain how the weight of the buoyant object is equal to the water that is displaced.  King Hiero II had charged Archimedes with the task of developing a method for checking if his crown that had recently been completed by a goldsmith was in fact pure gold or if silver had been used.  Due to the beauty and craftsmanship of the crown, using the typical means of solving this problem, which included melting the crown down, was not an option.

Archimedes had been banging his head against a wall for days trying to come up with a solution.  The story goes that his wife had finally had enough of the so called genius she had married, and encouraged him to go take a bath.  When Archimedes climbed into the tub he noticed that the water level rose and that the amount of water displaced was measurable.

Archimedes principle displacement

The amount of water that the crown displaced was proportional to its own volume.  Taking the mass of the crown and dividing the value by the volume of water displaced gives a density value.  By conducting a simple control experiment using pure gold, its density could be determined and whether or not the crown was made of pure gold by determining the objects density in relation to the known density of solid gold.  The phrase "Eureka", which is now a permanent bit of scientific jargon, came from when Archimedes ran completely naked from the tub running through streets shouting, "Eureka! Eureka!," all the way to the castle.  His discovery paved the way for a branch of thermodynamics referred to as hydrostatics which deals with fluids at rest and how they behave under pressure.      

Other, more practical inventions were also on the docket for Archimedes. His screw design still serves as a method for extracting water from recessed or deep locations that is viable to this day. Other inventions focused on weapons of war. The "Claw of Archimedes" was designed to destroy enemy naval vessels, as was "Archimedes Heat Ray." While the claw sought to grapple and sink ships, the heat ray was a contraption that focused on setting the ships on fire. Both objects have been questioned by modern scientists and historians, with many tests being conducted to confirm or deny the validity of historical accounts.

14)  Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin FranklinAs a member of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin has become a major figure in the political history of the United States. However, his life was not focused exclusively on gaining independence from Britain. Over the course of his life, Franklin would work on many scientific discoveries. These studies and experiments still resonate into contemporary times. He managed to accomplish all of these findings while also holding other positions, such as ambassadorships to France and Sweden, as well as taking the position of Postmaster General of the United States.

Across various writings and documents, Benjamin Franklin discussed several theoretical and practical concepts. His 1772 letter to Joseph Priestley details a unique approach to solving a problem. According to Yale University, this is the first known written list of "Pros and Cons." Other writings detail oceanographic currents, the wave theory of light, and the concepts of cooling and refrigeration.  Along the lines of heating and cooling was the Franklin Stove.  His original design is pictured below.

Franklin stove

In your modern life, you might be using some of Benjamin Franklinís favorite inventions. Throughout his life, Franklin struggled with poor eyesight. Sometime in the mid-1780s, he decided to fix this problem by creating the first known pair of bifocals. For many Americans, these optical tools are still a major part of everyday actions.

13)  George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver portraitIf you are eating a sandwich or snack while perusing this article, you may owe some thanks to George Washington Carver. Over the course of the late 1800s and early 1900s, this inventor found hundreds of different uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Some of these creations include takes on adhesives, grease, instant coffee, and mayonnaise. As his work became more popular, Carver would be forced to file several patents to protect his findings.

Outside of food products, Carver also focused on techniques to promote and enhance the art of cultivation. In the "Leopold Newsletter," written by Dennis Keeney, who serves as the director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, Carver's work is remembered as being integral in the understanding of proper land usage and controlling elements of the agriculture process, like nitrogen levels. Many of these findings and techniques were also recorded in George Washington Carver's famous book, "The Need for Scientific Agriculture in the South."

George Washington Carver relief

Carver is also known for a series of open letters directed at farmers in general. These bulletins started in 1898 and dealt with topics like animal feeding practices and the preservation of meats and vegetables. In total, 43 bulletins were composed. The last in this series was delivered in 1943 and discussed George Washington Carver's favorite item, the peanut.

12)  Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes GutenbergAlthough books were created and maintained long before his birth in 1394, few would alter the literary world in the way that Johannes Gutenberg did. Initially, Gutenberg was a simple goldsmith. However, this profession was not to be his life's work. From the late 1430s to 1450, this inventor worked tirelessly on a machine that would redefine how books were published. His creation, the Gutenberg Press, would be the first machine to successfully create a book without the use of a monk or a scribe. Prior to this machine, only manuscripts copied by hand were available to those who wished to own literature.

Gutenberg's famous first book was a copy of the Bible. This volume was officially finished on September 30, 1452. Soon many other works would be created en masse with this tool. The press worked by using a moveable typeface system. In this system templates or plates of text would be adjusted and then stamped onto a blank page. While the speed of the process may seem archaic to modern publishers, nothing was faster during this era.

gutenberg press

By printing multiple books in a day from a single press, Gutenberg drastically altered the status quo of his time. Prior to his invention, only the wealthiest families could afford a manuscript. With the advent of a mechanical process, the value of books declined, allowing those with limited funds to purchase copies of the original.

11)  Marie Curie
Marie CurieBorn in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867, Marie Curie was destined for a life of great scientific accomplishments. Over the course of her work in research and academia, Curie would found several important theories and concepts. Chief among these accomplishments was her work on radioactivity and the discovery of two new elements with her husband, Pierre Curie.

Before exploring for new elements with Pierre, Marie Curie followed in the footsteps of one of her favorite physicists, Henri Becquerel. His work with uranium led to the discovery of forms of radiation weaker than X-rays. From here, Curie went on to describe these actions as "radioactivity" and further define the limits of this natural process. This work served as the platform that elevated Curie to her first Nobel Prize 1903. She was the first woman to be honored with this accolade and shared it with her husband and Henri Becquerel.

X Ray of human hand

Later, Curie turned her focus to searching for uncharted discoveries in chemistry. Eventually, Pierre and Marie would find two new elements, radium and polonium. This led to a second Nobel Prize award in 1911. Marie Curie set another milestone with this award by becoming the first scientist to win the award twice. Her work led to many related inventions and continues to be vital in the expansion of radioactive technologies in the medical and industrial sciences.

Thomas Edison10)  Thomas Edison
As one of the most prolific inventors ever, Thomas Edison lays claim to several crafty and useful inventions. Born in 1847, this school dropout disproved many misconceptions about individuals who forgo contemporary education. Over the course of his life, Edison worked on projects that received great success and others that were complete failures. Some of his most famous works cover audio recordings and electrical theory and utilization.

The phonograph was Edison's first great invention and was completed on August 12, 1877. This machine provided the first successful means of playback and audio recording. As an individual spoke into a mouth piece, Edison's creation would record the message by having a needle create indents on a cylinder. Afterward, the cylinder could be replayed on a separate needle, generating vibrations that translated to audio playback.  Below is an image of Edison sitting next to his phonograph.

Thomas Edison and phonograph

As for electricity, Edison worked to refine the concept of a light bulb. Many other individuals sought to create a sustainable light source, but none experienced the success that was found by Thomas Edison. The working light bulb actually covers several other inventions including the parallel circuit, light sockets, on-off switches, and safety fuses. With these inventions, Edison helped found the modern electric utility industry.

9)  Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla and Tesla CoilYou can't mention Thomas Edison without Nikola Tesla's name popping up close behind. These two geniuses constantly butted heads and fought over the monopolization and sale of electricity. Although it would seem that Edison and other industry pioneers, like J. P. Morgan, won the battle, modern science has given a resurgence to the honor of Tesla. His works covered a vast expanse of theory and practical use that still has the potential to shape the modern world.

Alternating current is the most lasting contribution from the mind of Nikola Tesla. This form of electricity was hounded as unsafe by the proponents of direct current, like Thomas Edison. However, Tesla demonstrated the safety of his favored format by using his body as a conductor at the 1983 World's Expo in Chicago. Today, electrical engineers and scientists alike are discussing the uses of this current and how to properly implement related systems.  Below is a picture of a Tesla Coil in operation.

Tesla Coil in Use - static electricity
By Arne Groh (Arne Groh) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tesla also created the first remote control with the filing of Patent No. 613809. This simple patent covered a motorized boat that was controlled by radio signals. While infrared and laser technology, which Tesla also had a hand in, have superseded radio communications in remotes, the concept was still groundbreaking. Today, remotes are used for almost every appliance or home device.

8)  James Watt
James Watt Father of modern steam engineThe Industrial Revolution irrevocably changed the manufacturing process across the world. From 1760 onward, mechanical creations were introduced to the workplace, streamlining the various processes while also promoting efficiency and safety. At the helm of this change was James Watt. Born in 1736, his work with steam engines would serve as the basis for this drastic shift in production.

After studying current engines to a great degree, Watt decided that he could create a better design. By adding in a separate condenser to the common engine, this inventor was able to create more energy with less work. The traditional steam engine wasted significant amounts of energy heating and cooling the cylinder. With the separate condenser, heating and cooling was dealt with in a far more efficient manner.

Additional advancements, like the expanded rotary motion, would help solidify Watt's place as one of the great inventors of his era.  Pictured below is a schematic of a steam pumping engine.

Watt Steam Pump schematic

Outside of physical creations, he also coined the term "horsepower." In 1882, the Second Congress of the British Association for the Advancement of Science named a unit of power, the "watt," after James Watt to commemorate his contribution to the physical sciences.

7)  The Wright Brothers
Wright Brothers Fathers of aviationOrville and Wilbur Wright are considered the fathers of flight. Without their work, the creation of planes and other powered aircraft could have been stunted years, and potentially even decades. Their tale is one of ingenuity and an unyielding desire to take to the skies. The story begins in North Carolina as the 19th century drew to a close.

Before taking on this great challenge, the brothers held a variety of jobs. Orville was a printer, publisher, and bicycle retailer. His brother also helped in the bike shop and worked as an newspaper editor. However, the years of 1903 to 1907 saw a shift in their focus and an emphasis placed on building the best fixed-wing piloted craft possible. Before this period, several gliders and other non-powered creations were used for both recreational purposes and the study of aerodynamics.

On December 17, 1903, the first successful flight by the brothers occurred. Although the flight only covered a few hundred feet, it was deemed successful based on Wilbur's ability to maneuver and pilot the vehicle.

Wright Brothers airplane first powered flight

From here, further iterations were created that added stability, safety, and power.  The Wright Brothers extrapolated their design, looking towards powered flight solutions with motors, but the fundamental Today, the work of these brothers can be seen in the proliferation of worldwide plane travel. Without their daring effort and innovative spirit, modern flight might still be relegated to the drawing board.

6)  Charles Babbage
Charles BabbageIn your everyday life, you most likely use a computer on a regular basis. But have you ever wondered where these wonders of science and technology originated? All signs point to the work of Charles Babbage. As a noted scholar, philosopher, and mathematician, Babbage sought to create the world's first programmable computer.

His computing construct served as the focus of his work during the first half of the 1800s. His plans and prototypes focused on mechanical levers and gears to resolve problems and functions. Unfortunately, his work never reached an operable stage. However, a functioning reconstruction was created in 1991. Today, this item is on display at the London Science Museum, along with parts of Babbage's original offering.

Babbage is also credited with developing his Difference Engine which is a mechanical calculator Babbage developed in 1822.  It was never built during his lifetime because of funding issues - he tried lobbying the English government for funding but never succeeded.  Below is a picture of the device on display in London.

Difference Engine by Charles Baggage
Canticle at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

In June of 1991 the London Science Museum completed it using only Babbage's schematics.  The machine proved to work as Babbage envisioned, and Babbage's work was years ahead of his time because his machine worked off of a language similar to early computer code. 

Other famous creations attributed to Babbage include the pilot and the ophthalmoscope. The pilot is used to clear debris and obstructions from the path and tracks of locomotives. The ophthalmoscope is a medical device which allows for an optometrist to look into the inner portions of a patient's eye. According to the website Medical Discoveries, Babbage created the ophthalmoscope and gave it to a physician for testing. However, the physician laid aside the creation and forgot about it. From here another scientist, Hermann von Helmholtz, invented the same device four years later without ever having seen Babbage's original. 

5)  Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham BellBorn in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1847, Alexander Graham Bell soon rose to prominence in his home country as an outstanding scientific mind. With his work on telephones and communications, his reputation took on a global perspective. The driving force for his studies, which eventually led to a membership in the Boston University faculty, was the creation of technology for the deaf and hard of hearing. From these studies, he would come up with the idea for a transmittable form of vocal communication.

Bell's construct was built around a microphone that was interfaced with a double electromagnet. This magnet was stretched on a string and allowed for vibrations and currents to be received on the surrounding membrane. In 1876, this design was awarded a patent. Several months of testing led to a successful call between Alexander Graham Bell and his understudy, Thomas Watson. The famous conversation is remembered for the first ever voice transmission. In this transmission, Graham Bell instructed Watson to "Come here."

Something must be said about the controversy surrounding who actually invented the telephone first, and who technically holds the patent on it.  It is a fact that the telephone was not invented by Alexander Graham Bell, rather Antonio Meucci did years before Graham Bell's patent was granted.  In the invention game there is something referred to as a patent caveat, something a little different than a traditional patent.  Caveats are less costly and need to be renewed annually.  When Meucci failed to renew the caveat on the telephone, after three months passed Graham Bell filed for a standard patent and was granted it on March of 1876 some 5 years after Meucci originally filed his first patent caveat. 

Graham Bell making landmark phone call

It is no surprise that such a practical device would become a staple of modern life. Today, corded telephones have given way to wireless devices and cellular phones. However, all of this technology hearkens back to the first transponder and receiver that brought fame and fortune to Alexander Graham Bell.

Tim Berners-Lee Father of the modern internet
By Enrique Dans, via Wikimedia Commons

4)  Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the contemporary selection on this list. Born in 1955, Berners-Lee was destined for a major role in the computer science industry. After attending Queen's College in Oxford, this innovator would go on to become an engineer with a telecommunications company, according to the biography on the World Wide Web Consortium web page. However, his true work would come to light with the rise of Internet terminals.

In 1989, Berners-Lee founded an information management program that had the goal of creating communications from one computer node to another. This goal was realized after he worked with Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) technologies. In mid November of that year, Berners-Lee initiated communications which took place across the Internet, making this message the first of its kind.  The picture below shows the computer Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web at CERN.

Actual computer used to create the internet as we know it today
By Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Internet has flourished into a fount of potentially unlimited knowledge and possibility. Communications technologies, such as e-mail, instant messages, and data transfers still rely on the groundbreaking work of Tim Berners-Lee. For this advancement, Berners-Lee was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. Today, he works with the World Wide Web Consortium and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), according to his MIT biographical information, to continue to push the limits of Internet technology.

3)  Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei telescope inventorAs one of the most famous inventors of all time, Galileo Galilei focused on the workings of space and time. Living during the late 1500s and early 1600s, Galileo operated in a world that was bogged down by religious dogma. Many contemporaries faced persecution for having theories that went against the accepted knowledge of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, his experience was no different. However, Galileo continued to persevere and invented several constructs that remain useful to this day.

The first major creation of Galileo was the pendulum clock. This tool was the first of its kind to accurately measure time. After studying pendulums in great detail, Galileo surmised that the arc of the swing did not affect the time it took for the pendulum complete its full motion. With this knowledge, he created a clock that used this constant to measure time fairly accurately. Modern instrumentation continued to build off of this concept and eventually evolved into the timepieces that you may be familiar with today.

Of course, the creation of the pendulum clock was minor compared to Galileo's work on telescopes. By enhancing existing techniques, and creating new methods for himself, Galileo created an exceedingly powerful variation of the telescope. With this new tool, Galileo observed and noted the existence of many heavenly bodies, included the four largest moons that orbit Jupiter.  Below is a picture of Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger) which is a report on Galileo's first observations and investigations of the night sky.

Starry Messenger Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger)

Today Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede are all considered "Galilean" moons. 

2)  Henry Ford
Henry Ford Although Ford studied bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant, & Stratton Business College in Detroit, his true desires resided in the automotive industry. Of course, Henry Ford did not create the automobile. However, he is credited with streamlining the process and making vehicles affordable to the masses. It is this contribution that lands Ford on the list.

On June 16, 1903, the Ford Motor Company was reincorporated into the modern variation that still stands as one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in the modern world. As one of the business strategies Ford promoted, the company focused on a method to mass produce cars in an efficient and financially lean manner. With this concept, the assembly line was brought into existence. This process segments the various functions of the manufacturing event, allowing for specialized training and increased productivity. From here, Ford would go on to dominate the market and build an automotive empire based on affordable production and prices.  Below is Ford with his Model T.

Henry Ford with Model T

1)  Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da VinciLeonardo Da Vinci was known for creating tomes of blueprints and plans for inventions. Many of these designs were simply ahead of their time, offering no feasible means for Da Vinci to create and test prototypes. Some of these items have gone on to hold a place of significance in modern businesses and homes.

Although he never experienced human flight, Da Vinci was fascinated by the idea of a piloted airborne construct. Many plans detailed a machine that could operate in the sky. He even went so far as to invent the parachute to reduce the terminal velocity of an individual during a fall. Another odd invention includes the first machine gun plan. This "33-barreled organ" did not fire from a single muzzle. Instead it focused on two sets of muskets. These muskets could be fired and rotated, allowing for the set not being used to cool down and be reloaded.

Many of Da Vinci's machinations were focused on the platforms of earth and air. However, he is also credited with coming up with a design for a scuba suit. These suits were intended to be a defense mechanism to repel invading naval vessels. Other war concepts included armored tanks and self-propelled carts. Both focused on more conventional avenues of battle.  He even designed an assault chariot which is pictured below. 

Da Vinci assualt chariot schematic

Da Vinci's was years ahead of his time with his designs and he even designed flying machines.  He was extremely interested in the human body and how it worked.  Da Vinci's used to participate in dissections of the human body in a time where doctors and scientists knew almost nothing about the inner workings of the body.   Even robotics weren't off the table for Da Vinci. His concept of the "robotic knight" served as the precursor for mechanical appendages and computerized production systems that incorporate the use of robotics.

The reality is that most inventions fail or remain unused. However, history is peppered with the many amazing creations that succeeded. Some of these, like the steam engine, are physical solutions to practical problems. Others, like the theorems of Archimedes and the work of Tim Berner-Lee, focus on more abstract thoughts and concepts. Regardless, without these inventions, the modern world would look very different. A planet lacking email and phone communications would move slowly. Moving even slower would be a transportation system that lacked affordable, mass produced cars and the ability fly using a powered craft. Additionally, books that required manual effort to create would be far too expensive for most individuals. Thankfully, these pioneers stepped forward and ensured that the world in which you live in is far different from a potentially less advanced, hypothetical reality.





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