8 Machines that Shaped Our World

September 16, 2008

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Where would we be today without refrigeration? Or without the computer? Here we take a look at just a few machines that influenced the world as we know it.

People have long been reliant on machines to make their lives easier. It would be difficult — dare we say impossible — for us keep up our lifestyles without machines.

The following are a mere eight machines that dramatically shaped the world we live in today.

Airplanes Airplanes have made the world a much smaller place — allowing people to span the globe in hours. Aviation has come a long way since that 12-second flight on Dec. 17, 1903, when Orville Wright piloted the Flyer — a 700-lb. motorized aircraft. (Source: About.com: Inventors)

Almost 30 years later, English aviation engineer and pilot Sir Frank Whittle received his first patent on turbojet propulsion in January 1930. The Whittle engine, known as the W1, powered the Pioneer aircraft, which took its first flight on May 15, 1941. This engine had a single-stage centrifugal compressor with a single-stage turbine that became the prototype for the modern turbojet engine used today. (Source: About.com: Inventors)

Automobiles Try to imagine New York City without yellow taxis, Los Angeles freeways that are free of traffic or Indianapolis without its 500.

None of these would be possible if not for French engineer and inventor Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, who is credited with inventing the first self-propelled, steam-powered road vehicle in 1769. In 1859, the first working internal combustion engine started up thanks to Belgian inventor Étienne Lenoir, the Independent noted late last year in its 101 Gadgets that Changed the World. Though a mere one horsepower engine, it spawned numerous engines that are now in use in factories, boats and trains.

It also advanced Cugnot's vehicle. In 1885, Karl Benz designed and built the world's first automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine. That same year, German mechanical engineer Gottlieb Daimler took it a step further and patented the prototype of the modern gas engine and later built the world's first four-wheeled motor vehicle, according to The List Universe.

Computers What enables machines in factories to talk to each other? Computers. How do people thousands of miles away troubleshoot a single machine in a particular plant? Computers.

Without computers, our cars would not be as smart, we would not be able to perform calculations in the blink of an eye and there would be no Internet.

In 1890, the U.S. census was performed by a large-scale, automated data-processing machine designed by Herman Hollerith and manufactured by the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, which later became IBM. (Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology Virtual Museum)

By the late 1950s, IBM began producing computers for business. But, it wasn't until 1977 when Steve Jobs launched the Apple II that the thought of computers in every household became a reality. (Source: The Independent)

Five years later, British industrial designer Bill Moggridge created the GriD Compass 1100 — the first laptop to sport the clamshell case, weighing only 11 lbs.

Power Generators Manufacturing operations would not be able to run without electricity. Fortunately, there are electric generators — machines that can turn mechanical energy into electricity. (Source: About.com: Inventors)

Thomas Edison's Pearl Street station was the world's first central electricity-generating station, but it was Nikola Tesla's alternating current technology that made it possible to send out electricity over long distances. This led to the nationwide grid we know today, notes ListVerse.com.

Printing Presses German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg constructed a press that comprised movable metal type that is then laid over ink to print repeatedly onto paper. In 1454, Gutenberg used his invention — the printing press — to print 300 Bibles, of which 48 copies survive. (Source: The Independent)

The printing press revolutionized communication, bringing news and education to the masses. "It has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution," the Independent adds.

Refrigeration No longer did people need to cure meats in order to preserve them for later use. With the advent of the refrigerator, people were able to keep perishables fresh for days.

In 1834, Jacob Perkins brought up the notion of how pipes filled with volatile chemicals whose molecules evaporated very easily could keep food cool. Perkins, however, neglected to publish his invention. Fridges would not be commonplace for another 100 years. (Source: The Independent)

Robots The term robot has gloomy roots as Czech playwright Karel Čapek referred to put-upon serfs as "robots" in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1921. (Karel apparently named his brother Josef as the true inventor of the word robot.) In the play, these robots eventually lead to unemployment and society's collapse.

It has been almost 90 years since the play debuted, and, despite the fact that robots are everywhere, society has yet to collapse. There are robots that build cars and, among many other tasks, even perform complicated surgery.

Telephones Much like the printing press, the telephone transformed the way we communicate. Frenchman Charles Bourseul was the first to propose transmitting speech electronically in 1854. Six years later, German physicist Johann Reis used a cork, knitting needle, sausage skin and a piece of platinum to transmit sound, though not quite speech.

In the 1870s, it was a race between Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell as to who would be able to make the first working phone. Bell won. As of 2007, there were 1.3 billion phone lines around the world, according to the Independent.

Try imagining life without automobiles, going across the country without an airplane or even sending an urgent letter via post, not through e-mail. The world is a much quicker place and has advanced so much because of these machines. How many of these tech marvels will you use before today's end?

Note: Some machines are clearly absent from this list. Let us know which machines you think should be among those listed here. And for more great inventions that shaped our world, see our earlier Top 20 Engineering Breakthroughs.


The History of Flight About.com: Inventors

Jet Engines - Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle About.com: Inventors

Top 10 Greatest Inventions The List Universe, Sept. 13, 2007

101 Gadgets that Changed the World by Simon Usborne The Independent, Nov. 3, 2007

The History of Electricity and Electronics About.com: Inventors

Re-Living the Wright Way NASA

Sir Frank Whittle Royal Air Force History

Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot Biography World of Invention

Étienne Lenoir Encyclopædia Britannica


Herman Hollerith National Institute of Standards and Technology Virtual Museum

Pearl Street Station: The Dawn of Commercial Electric Power IEEE Virtual Museum

Tesla AC Electricity Tesla Memorial Society of New York

Johannes Gutenberg Encyclopædia Britannica

Jacob Perkins Encyclopædia Britannica

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek, 1921 Complete English translation by Claudia Novack-Jones, 1989

Adventures in Cybersound - Charles Bourseul:1829-1912 Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Johann Reis Encyclopædia Britannica

Elisha Gray PBS.org

Alexander Graham Bell PBS.org

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