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Greatest Human Inventions

Since the dawn of our species, humans have used the resources available on the Earth to survive and prosper. Our dexterous hands and our ability to think logically have enabled us to become the top predators and to use the Earth's resources to build great civilizations.

 Inventions for Survival

Our species, Homo Sapiens, originated approximately 160 million years ago, in a world filled with wild animals and other hominids, such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Today, we are the only extant hominids due to our adaptability and the use of tools and inventions.

Stone tools and projectiles
There is evidence that Homo habilis and Home erectus used stone tools to butcher animals approximately 1.8 to 1.6 million years ago. Modern humans used stone tools through the Neolithic Era, from about 10,200 BC to about 4,500 BC when the use of metals became common.

Controlled fires
Hominids routinely used controlled fires 300,000 years ago, long before modern humans appeared. Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) coexisted and interbred with modern humans in Europe approximately 35,000 years ago. Neanderthals routinely used controlled fires for cooking and for heating during the ice ages. Modern humans arose in an environment where fire and stone tools were already common.

Metal smelting
Gold and copper were known to the ancient humans because they occur as native minerals. Metal smelting was probably discovered by accident when an ore of copper, such as malachite, was placed in a charcoal fire for a long time. Metal smelting was common by 9,000 years ago. Metal alloys, such as bronze were introduced 5,300 years ago, and the iron age started approximately 3,300 years ago.

Farming and domestication of animals
Humans changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers and ranchers approximately 10,000 years ago when they learned to raise crops and care for domesticated animals. Farming required the people to stay in one place, and this gave rise to villages and cities. Humans learned to divert streams to irrigate their crops.



Steam engine
Windmills and waterwheels were used since antiquity to pump water and mill grains. The steam engine, developed during the 18th century, provided a source of power that could be placed in any industrial park where fuel and water could be conveyed. The first steam engine, developed in 1698 by Thomas Savery, was used to draw water from flooded mines using steam pressure. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed a steam engine that filled a cylinder with steam and then condensed it to create a partial vacuum that moved a piston within the cylinder. James Watt improved the design of the Newcomen engine from 1763 to 1775 by using a separate condenser and by changing the reciprocal motion to a rotary motion. Watt's engine became the major power source for the Industrial Revolution.

Electric Power
Power generating stations started being built in the late 19th century to provide electricity for the light bulbs that were commercialized by Thomas Edison. In November 1879, Edison filed a patent for an electric lamp with a carbon filament that improved on electric lights invented previously. In 1868 a hydro electric power station was designed and built by Lord Armstrong to provide electricity for his state at Cragside, England. In 1882, the Edison Electric Light Station, was built in London. It used a Babcock & Wilcox boiler to power a 125-horsepower steam engine that drove a 27-ton generator. Electricity is the major source of power used in homes today, although fossil fuels, such as natural gas, are still used for heating and cooking.

Cotton Gin
Textiles made of animal and vegetable fibers were made by humans since prehistoric times. To make an article of clothing it was necessary to shear an animal, wash the wool and then spin it into threads that could be knit or woven in a loom. Vegetable fibers, such as cotton, were used to make cloth as far back as 4500 BC.  Eli Whitney's cotton gin, patented in 1794, revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the separation of the seeds from the cotton fibers. The cotton gin reduced the cost of clothing.

Jacquard Loom
Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a programmable power loom in 1801. The loom simplified the manufacture of textiles with complex patterns by using a set of punched cards, each of which corresponded to one row of the design. The cards were chained together into a continuous sequence to repeat the design. The Jacquard Loom was one of the first programmable machines in which the program was specified by the sequence of the cards and the position of the holes in each card. The idea of punched cards was used later to program some of the early electronic computers.


Before the invention of writing, knowledge was passed through oral traditions, including poems and songs. Writing made it possible to record knowledge for a wide audience and for future generations. Writing developed approximately 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt. Writing originally consisted of symbols to represent objects. By 3,000 years ago, writing had evolved to include phonetic elements. Early phonetic writing did not have symbols for numbers. The numbers were represented by letters, as is the case of Roman numbers.

Printing press
The first known movable-type printing system appeared in China around 1040 AD. The printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 simplified the the publication of books. One key component of Gutenberg's printing process was a rapid molding method for creating metal movable type. The Gutenberg press introduced an era of mass communication and improved literacy that permanently altered the structure of society during the European Renaissance.

The telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication by transmitting electrical signals over a wire. The first practical telegraph was built by Samuel Morse. His system used a voltaic battery for the first demonstration in 1837 linking the Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol building in Washington and the railroad station in Baltimore. The first transcontinental telegraph between California and the Eastern United States was completed in 1861.

Many individuals who worked with electromagnets contributed to the invention of the telephone. An early voice communicating device was invented around 1854 by Antonio Meucci. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone on January 30, 1877, but Bell's patent was only allowed because Meucci had not paid the $10 fee to maintain the caveat for his invention with the U.S. Patent Office.

Many inventors tried to develop systems for wireless communication without success. Between 1886 and 1889 Heinrich Hertz conducted a series of experiments that proved the existence of the electromagnetic waves predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1865. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi was able to send and receive his first radio signal using a design derived from Hertz. Marconi's system for wireless communications was soon used for ships and for establishing the first transatlantic radio service.

Manual calculating devices, such as the abacus, were used since antiquity. Charles Babbage, an English mechanical engineer, originated the concept of a programmable computer in the early 19th century. Early digital computers used electromechanical switches to perform the calculations. In 1942, John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford E. Berry of Iowa State University developed and tested the first automatic electronic digital computer. Computers were large and expensive even after the invention of the transistor in 1947. The introduction of personal computers by IBM in 1981 had a big social impact.

The modern Internet started when ARPANET adopted the TCP/IP protocol on January 1, 1983 and started connecting several networks. In 1990, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and the HTML language to program web pages. The Netscape web browser, which displayed web pages, appeared in 1994. That same year Yahoo! was launched to provide an index for the large number of web pages that were then in existence. Google began in January 1996 and soon became the leading search engine because of its better retrieval capability.

Smartphones are hand-held devices with a wide variety of functions. They can be used as wireless telephones, but also as music players, cameras, video recorders, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to aid navigation, to play games, to access the Internet and to display web pages. The first smartphone, called Simon, was marketed by IBM in 1992. Several operating systems for smartphones were introduced between 2000 and 2010. Today, smartphones are used in many households and they have had a great social impact. Smartphones have been blamed for accidents caused by distracted driving and they link innumerable people in global communities through social media sites such as facebook and twitter.


The domestication of horses was one of the great achievements of humans 10,000 years ago. Horses made it easier to manage cattle, and the domestication of dogs made it easier to manage sheep. Horses remained the principal form of personal transportation by land until the early part of the 20th century.

Various types of rail systems were developed starting in the mid-16th century. One of the first public railways was the Lake Lock Railroad, which opened in 1798 near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England. The First Transcontinental Railroad was a 1,912-mile (3,077 km) contiguous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869. The coast-to-coast railroad revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West.

The first steam-powered automobile capable of human transportation was built by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769. Internal combustion engines with various types of fuels were developed during the next hundred years. The Model T Ford with a gasoline engine was produced between 1908 to 1927 and it was one of the most popular cars of the early 20th century due to its low cost and ease of operation.

Humans have always wanted to fly. Greek mythology mentions the story of Icarus, who fell to the sea when his wings made of feathers and wax melted because he flew too close to the Sun. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci designed machines that were supposed to fly by flapping wings or by rotating like a corkscrew. The era of aviation started on December 17, 1903 when Wilbur and Orville Wright made four controlled flights at Kitty Hawk in a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. Today, we can fly half-way around the world in less than 24 hours.

Rockets were first developed to deliver bombs at long distances. The first successful flights were the V-2 rockets used by Germany against England during World War II. Rockets were modified for human flight, and Apollo 11 was the first spaceflight that landed humans on the Moon on 20 July 1969. All the planets of the solar system have been explored by space probes launched by rockets.

 Housing and Shelter

Humans have always needed to find shelter from the sun, rain, snow or stormy weather. Early humans took advantage of existing caves, but they soon learned to make homes from palm fronds, adobe, wood or stone.

Modern homes have many conveniences, such as electrical lighting, running hot and cold water, air conditioning, carpeting, flush toilets and kitchens with gas stoves and refrigerators. The average household has so many conveniences that we tend to forget about them, but we would be very uncomfortable without a soft bed, a bath or shower, mirrors, fluffy towels, tables, chairs, ceramic dishes, a sofa, a television, metal cutlery and a variety of pots, pans and kitchen utensils.


Astronomy and mathematics were two important disciplines for early civilizations. The Egyptians, the Mayas and other Latin American cultures built pyramids and observatories aligned with the Sun. Astronomy was important because it was used to plan the planting of the crops. Mathematics was important for counting sheep or bushels of grain.

Scientific advances are usually made by enhancing our perception through instrumentation or by creating and refining hypotheses that fit observed phenomena (The scientific method).

The Telescope
The telescope was invented by a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey in 1608. On January 7th, 1610 the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei used a telescope to observe Jupiter and he recorded the position of three tiny stars around the planet. On successive days, he saw different alignments of the tiny stars and realized that these tiny stars were satellites of Jupiter. These observations gave support to the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. Bigger and better telescopes have enabled us to learn much about our solar system and the universe.

The Microscope
In the 1590s, Zacharias Jansen invented the first compound microscope by fitting two lenses within a sliding tube. In the 17th century, Anton van Leeuwenhoek made single-lens microscopes that could magnify objects by 270 times. Van Leeuwenhoek was the first person to describe bacteria, yeast plants, microbial life in a drop of water, and the circulation of blood corpuscles in capillaries. Robert Hooke published the first work of microscopic studies, Micrographia, in 1665.

The Greeks believed that there were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The science of chemistry originated from the efforts of alchemists to create the philosopher's stone, which allegedly was capable of turning inexpensive metals into gold. Chemistry started to emerge as distinct from the pseudoscience of alchemy through the work of Robert Boyle (1627–91) and Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94). John Dalton's atomic theory (1808) brought a new perspective to the structure of matter when the relative weights to the atoms of chemical elements were determined. Classification of the elements based on their properties led to the creation of a periodic table with which Dmitri Mendeleev (1869) was able to predict the existence of elements that had not been discovered yet.

Atomic energy
Some chemical elements are unstable and emit radiation. In 1898, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre announced the existence of two radioactive elements: polonium and radium. Further research on radioactivity led to the discovery of the self-sustaining fission reaction that occurs in nuclear reactors and bombs. The first application of this knowledge culminated in the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki toward the end of World War II. Nuclear power has the potential of generating electricity without producing greenhouse gases. However, people worry about the safety of nuclear power due to accidents like the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine and radioactive leakage from the Fukoshima power plant in Japan as a result of a tsunami. Land contaminated by radioactive will be uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Artificial Intelligence
The creation of a computer that can think like a human will be man's greatest accomplishment. A machine endowed with artificial intelligence (AI) would be able to solve many problems and learn new concepts and strategies along the way. Artificial Intelligence is in its infancy at the beginning of the 21st century, but because a lot of human knowledge is stored on the World Wide Web, it is only a matter of time before machines will be better at many things than average humans. Some people fear the social changes that could result from AI.

  Human evolution
  Future human evolution
  Geologic and Biological Timeline of the Earth

© Copyright  - Antonio Zamora