A competition sponsored in 1913 by Scientific American asked for essays on the 10 greatest inventions. The rules: “our time” meant the previous quarter century, 1888 to 1913; the invention had to be patentable and was considered to date from its “commercial introduction.”
Perception is at the heart of this question. Inventions are most salient when we can see the historical changes they cause. In 2013 we might not appreciate the work of Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison on a daily basis, as we are accustomed to electricity in all its forms, but we are very impressed by the societal changes caused by the Internet and the World Wide Web (both of which run on alternating-current electricity, by the way). A century from now they might be curious as to what all the fuss was about. The answers from 1913 thus provide a snapshot of the perceptions of the time.
The airplane: The Wright Flyer for military purposes, being demonstrated at Fort Myer, Va., in 1908.Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
Following are excerpts from the first- and second-prize essays, along with a statistical tally of all the entries that were sent in.
The first-prize essay was written by William I. Wyman, who worked in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and was thus well informed on the progress of inventions. His list was:
1. The electric furnace (1889) It was “the only means for commercially producing Carborundum (the hardest of all manufactured substances).” The electric furnace also converted aluminum “from a merely precious to very useful metal” (by reducing it’s price 98 percent), and was “radically transforming the steel industry.”
2. The steam turbine, invented by Charles Parsons in 1884 and commercially introduced over the next 10 years. A huge improvement in powering ships, the more far-reaching use of this invention was to drive generators that produced electricity.
3. The gasoline-powered automobile. Many inventors worked toward the goal of a “self-propelled” vehicle in the 19th century. Wyman gave the honor specifically to Gottleib Daimler for his 1889 engine, arguing: “a century's insistent but unsuccessful endeavor to provide a practical self-propelled car proves that the success of any type that once answered requirements would be immediate. Such success did come with the advent of the Daimler motor, and not before.”
4. The moving picture. Entertainment always will be important to people. “The moving picture has transformed the amusements of the multitude.” The technical pioneer he cited was Thomas Edison.
5. The airplane. For “the Realization of an age-long dream” he gave the laurels of success to the Wright brothers, but apart from its military use reserved judgment on the utility of the invention: “It presents the least commercial utility of all the inventions considered.”
6. Wireless Telegraphy. Systems for transmitting information between people have been around for centuries, perhaps millennia. Telegraph signals got a speed boost in the U.S. from Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. Wireless telegraphy as invented by Guglielmo Marconi, later evolving into radio, set information free from wires.
7. The cyanide process. Sounds toxic, yes? It appears on this list for only one reason: It is used to extract gold from ore. “Gold is the life blood of trade,” and in 1913 it was considered to be the foundation for international commerce and national currencies.
8. The Nikola Tesla induction motor. “This epoch-making invention is mainly responsible for the present large and increasing use of electricity in the industries.” Before people had electricity in their homes, the alternating current–producing motor constructed by Tesla supplied 90 percent of the electricity used by manufacturing.
9. The Linotype machine. The Linotype machine enabled publishers—largely newspapers—to compose text and print it much faster and cheaper. It was an advance as large as the invention of the printing press itself was over the painstaking handwritten scrolls before it. Pretty soon we won’t be using paper for writing and reading, so the history of printing will be forgotten anyway.
10. The electric welding process of Elihu Thomson. In the era of mass production, the electric welding process enabled faster production and construction of better, more intricate machines for that manufacturing process.
The electric welder invented by Elihu Thomson enabled the cheaper production of intricate welded machinery. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The turbine invented by Charles Parsons powered ships. Assembled in numbers, they provided an efficient means of driving electrical generators and producing that most useful commodity. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The second-prize essay, by George M. Dowe, also of Washington, D.C., who may have been a patent attorney, was more philosophical. He divided his inventions into those aiding three broad sectors: production, transportation and communication.
1. Electrical fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. As natural fertilizer sources were depleted during the 19th century, artificial fertilizers enabled the further expansion of agriculture.
2. Preservation of sugar-producing plants. George W. McMullen of Chicago is credited with the discovery of a method for drying sugar cane and sugar beets for transport. Sugar production became more efficient and its supply increased by leaps and bounds, like a kid on a “sugar buzz.” Maybe this is one invention we could have done without. But I digress.
3. High-speed steel alloys. By adding tungsten to steel, “tools so made were able to cut at such a speed that they became almost red hot without losing either their temper or their cutting edge” The increase in the efficiency of cutting machines was “nothing short of revolutionary.”
4. Tungsten-filament lamp. Another success of chemistry. After tungsten replaced carbon in its filament, the lightbulb was considered “perfected.” As of 2013 they are being phased out worldwide in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs, which are four times as efficient.
5. The airplane. Not yet in wide use as transportation in 1913, but “To [Samuel] Langley and to the Wright brothers must be awarded the chief honors in the attainment of mechanical flight.” In 2013 the annoying aspects of commercial airline flying make transportation by horse and buggy seem a viable alternative.
6. The steam turbine. As with Mr. Wyman, the turbine deserved credit not only “in the utilization of steam as a prime mover” but in its use in the “generation of electricity.”
7. Internal combustion engine. As a means of transportation, Dowe gives the greatest credit to “Daimler, Ford and Duryea.” Gottleib Daimler is a well-known pioneer in motor vehicles. Henry Ford began production of the Model T in 1908 and it was quite popular by 1913. Charles Duryea made one of the earliest commercially successful petrol-driven vehicles, starting in 1896.
8. The pneumatic tire. Cars for personal transportation were an improvement on railways. “What the track has done for the locomotive, the pneumatic tire has done for the vehicle not confined to tracks.” Credit is given to John Dunlop and William C. Bartlet, who each had a milestone on the road (pun intended) to successful automobile and bicycle tires.
9. Wireless communication. Marconi was given the credit for making wireless “commercially practical.” Dowe also makes a comment that could apply equally to the rise of the World Wide Web, stating that wireless was “devised to meet the needs of commerce primarily, but incidentally they have contributed to social intercourse.”
10. Composing machines. The giant rotary press was quite capable of churning out masses of printed material. The bottleneck in the chain of production was composing the printing plates. The Linotype and the Monotype dispensed with that bottleneck.
The essays sent in were compiled to come up with a master list of inventions that were considered to be the top 10. Wireless telegraphy was on almost everyone’s list. The “aeroplane” came in second, although it was considered important because of its potential, not because there were so many airplanes in the sky. Here are the rest of the results:
|Wireless telegraphy||97 percent|
|Incandescent electric lamp||35|
|Internal combustion engine||33|
|Transmitting and transforming AC current||15|
|Pneumatic tire (car and bicycle)||15|
|Kodak portable camera||10|
|Fixation of nitrogen||9|
|Welsbach gas burner||9|
|Producer gas [a type of fuel]||8|
|Flexible photo films||7|
There were also mentions for Luther Burbank's agricultural work (23); Louis Pasteur and vaccination work (20); acetylene gas from carbide (17); mercury-vapor lamp (7); preservation of sugar-producing plants (7); combined motion picture and talking machine (10); Edison's storage battery (6); automatic player piano (4); Pulmotor (a respirator machine) (4); telephone (4).
The motion picture: The hard-working Thomas Edison helped make this entertainment form technically viable. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The full contents of all the prize-winning essays is available with a subscription to the Scientific American archives.
G. Stolyarov II
July 18, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published in three parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007. The essay earned over 10,900 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time. ***
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 18, 2014
The civilization of ancient China produced a wide array of innovations in science and technology which preceded the rest of the world by centuries and sometimes by millennia. This essay examines some of these remarkable inventions and discoveries. Chinese inventors developed numerous mechanical implements, engineering advances, and new substances such as gunpowder, which took centuries to spread to or be replicated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, this essay explores the reasons for ancient China’s lack of systematic progress or an industrial revolution despite the presence there of numerous inventive thinkers.
Beginning in the 14th Century BC, the Chinese developed a decimal, or base ten system of recording numbers. This is one of the earliest such systems known.
In the first century AD, Chinese scholars compiled a volume of mathematics, Jin Zhang Suanshu,(Arithmetic in Nine Chapters). Mathematician Zu Chongzhi (429-500) calculated the first 12 digits of the value of pi, while his son, Zu Gengzhi, updated the Jin Zhang Suanshu and determined the correct formula for the volume of a sphere, V= (pi/4)d^3, where d is the diameter.
Paper was invented by Cai Lun, a scientist at the Imperial Court in 105 AD. It was produced from bamboo and hemp fibers dissolved in water situated in a mold. When the water was drained and the mixture dried, the first genuine design of paper appeared. The Chinese also developed a precursor to the first paper currency in the world, printed in the Ninth Century AD in order to lighten the load carried by tax collectors.
The first methods for developing raw iron into workable material with the capacity to be crafted into weapons and ornaments were developed in the 4th Century BC, when the Chinese became able to lower iron’s melting temperature by adding phosphorus to the heated metal.
In the 2nd Century BC, this technology served to bring about the manufacture of steel by mixing wrought and cast iron at high temperatures or draining the carbon component from cast iron.
Invented in China during the 1st Century BC, A chain pump consists of a chain attached to itself at the ends, which carries along it pallets of raw materials, such as water or sand, which are elevated to impressive heights up to about four meters.
The Chinese were the first civilization in the world to plant crops in rows, beginning in the 6th Century BC, in order to obtain rapid crop growth without the crops’ mutual interference. Chinese farmers accomplished this 2200 years before any other culture.
Beginning in the 3rd Century BC, horses were utilized in China to haul loads on farms using an upgraded harness with a collar and chest strap (known a trace harness or horse collar) , which reduced the attachment’s burden on the animal and permitted a single horse to move a ton and a half of material.
The 3rd Century BC also saw the advent of the moldboard plow, or kuan, the design of which included a sharp center for digging into the ground and gradually-sloped wings at the side in order to discard excess soil and ease the friction on the plow.
The wheelbarrow was invented in the 1st Century BC and enabled Chinese farmers to transport massive loads over vast distances with ease.
Gunpowder was invented in China during the 8th Century AD as a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter and used primarily for fireworks. The fireworks were launched from rockets made of hollowed bamboo tubes. These rockets were lighted through use of matches, invented in the 6th Century AD, carved of pinewood and coated with sulfur. Other civilizations borrowed this aspect and discovered its military utility.
In 1150, fireworks were elaborated as a result of the first multi-staged rockets, where several smaller tubes were attacked to main meter-tall stick, which were ignited in mid-air after the main rocket’s energy became depleted.
During the 1st Century BC, the Chinese discovered methods to drill some 1.5 kilometers into the Earth’s surface. A derrick was constructed, followed by a small shaft that extended until the Earth’s layer of hard rock was reached. Then a cast iron drill would be lowered with bamboo cables, after which the process would often consume years before any actual fuels were located.
Invented in the 8th Century AD, the mechanical clock rapidly spread to other regions of the world. Chinese designs were crucial to inspiring European clock inventors such as Pope Sylvester II. The Chinese mechanical clock was powered by falling water or mercury, which then transmitted the energy to a chain-drive.
Segmental Arch Bridge
A segmental arch, invented by engineer Li Ch’un in the 7th Century AD, consists of only a small fragment of a circle instead of earlier semicircular arches. Ch’un constructed his first bridge over the Chiao Shui River in 610, which was notably lighter, more durable, and more material-efficient than earlier bridges. It is still in frequent use today.
A belt-drive (or driving belt) was attached around wheels to ensure smooth transition of mechanical energy between them. Invented in China during the 1st Century BC, the belt-drive was applied extensively to silk manufacture and spinning machines.
The belt-drive made possible the invention of the spinning wheel in 1270, since it provided sufficient cover and attachment for a rimless construction such as a spinning wheel, where a network of threads replaces the rim.
Movable character blocks were invented by Bi Sheng in 1045. A method for arranging and printing pages in mass quantities was devised. However, this was not efficient when applied to the Chinese language, which possesses over 5000 characters, and thus could not spur on the same printing revolution as that which occurred in Europe.
The first magnetic compass was invented in China during the 3rd Century AD, utilizing a piece of magnetite (an ore of iron) which was heated and aligned in a North/South position, afterward being contained in a bowl of water where it floated on a piece of reed. This was integral to early 2nd millennium Chinese explorations in the Indian Ocean.
Other Noteworthy Advances
The Chinese were the first to develop a kite in the 4th Century BC. Craftsmen like Kungshu P’an possessed mastery to the extent of developing kites that stayed afloat for three days. These kites had military applications as well, carrying messages to isolated troop formations on the battlefield.
Commissioned by the imperial government in 132 AD, mathematician and cartographer Chang Heng devised the first seismograph, which allowed fairly accurate forecasts of earthquakes, leading to more efficient economic planning.
The Yellow Emperor’s Manual of Corporeal Medicine, composed in the 2nd Century BC, contains an advanced treatise on the circulation of blood. This was published fifteen centuries before William Harvey developed a work of comparable caliber in the West.
Why the Ancient Chinese Failed to Achieve Routine Technological Progress
Despite numerous ingenious technological innovations throughout its history, China failed to develop an industrial revolution and a routine theory like the Scientific Method to render inventions and discoveries systematic and not merely the spontaneous products of ingenious minds.
Ancient China was a generally stagnant society which, despite the presence of numerous brilliant thinkers, failed to achieve any regular technological progress until the late 19th century. So dramatic was this stagnation that it led Victor Hugo to compare China to “a fetus in a jar.” While it witnessed numerous promising technological developments in their embryonic stages, ancient China failed to harness these developments into a consistent advance.
The reason for this unfortunate lack of progress was above all institutional. Although the earlier Han and Tang dynasties among others were receptive to advancements and scientific practice, the Ming, following the defeat of the Mongols, isolated China from the remainder of the world and focused on civil stability to a greater extent than technological progress.
The heavily Confucian paradigm of the era from 1368 to 1911 focused more on adaptation to nature and the arts rather than the sciences. Scholars were trained in extensive law memorization rather than further studies of the external world. This caused China to lag behind the West, and contact with the Occident was required to re-establish its rich technological tradition.
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