20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind

Peter Baxter - September 9, 2018

At some point in history, humankind established the elemental principle of harnessing and utilizing fire. This, many historians suggest, was the moment of transition from primitive to modern man. At the instant that this tool became manageable by a human hand, a world of possibilities was opened up. From the simplest of functions, like heating and cooking, to the complex construction of the machines that drove the Industrial Revolution, it was all suddenly within the curve of human innovation. From this flowed the extraordinary creativity that characterizes our species – a solution to every problem, a tool for every purpose.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Beginnings of Metallurgy, from an illustration by John Clark Ridpath, 1912. Fantasy of Prehistory

1. Metallurgy, the basis of every tool and every weapon

The control and use of fire set in motion a massive acceleration of human creativity, both constructive and destructive. The oldest evidence of metalworking can be dated to around 8,7000 BCE, in the form of a cast copper pendant found in northern Iraq. Not all metals required heat to work, of course, since on occasions gold was, and still is found in workable nuggets. It is probably fair to say, however, that until smelting was perfected, the applied working of metal was impractical, if not impossible.

That was the beginning, however, and from copper, metalworking technology passed through the Bronze Age, generally regarded as between 3,300 to 1,200 BCE, before the Iron Age. Once the ability to liberate iron from ore had been perfected, then an entire spectrum of tool and weapon making possibilities came into the frame, and life, technology and warfare as we know it began its evolution. Soon we were experimenting with different metal properties, and creating everything from iron and steel components of early machinery to the complex componentry of electronics and communications.

It probably would be fair to say that aside from the most elemental breakthroughs of fire, the wheel and the plow, all of which could be made with wood, the separation of metal from ore was the first significant step in mankind’s technological journey.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
A pair of Roman crucifixion spikes, an early use of nails. Demonic Paradise

2. The nail, a simple little device that holds the whole edifice together

Who first thought of it? Most references will tell you that the nail evolved in three phases: a hand-wrought object of pre-history, a ‘cut nail’ which was the first system of manufacturing nail, which dates it to the early Industrial Revolution, and the ‘wire nail’ which is what we think of as a nail today. As with so many construction technologies, the nail first surfaces in history in ancient Egypt, where it facilitated the extraordinary architecture of that society. The Roman Empire, however, was also held together by nails, and quite a considerable tonnage of Roman nails have been unearthed, and in fact, Roman nails are today the most widely accessible and affordable authentic Roman artefact.

Besides that, nails, standardized and portable, have at times in history been a medium of exchange, and in the Christian world, the symbolism of a Roman nail is integral to that of the Cross. The name Naylor, or Nailer, comes from the ancient craft of nail making. In early American house construction, at a time when England was the leading manufacturer, nails were so valuable that a house was typically burned down when abandoned so that the nails could be collected and reused.

Nails are still ubiquitous today, and all in all, we owe a lot to the nail, so it ranks high on the list of humankind’s engineering achievements.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The printing press, the dawn of the information age. Manchester Historian

3. The printing press, making possible the archiving of technological knowledge

Yes indeed, it is one thing to have an idea, but another to pass that idea on to the generations. For technology to advance, innovators of the future must be able to innovate by innovations of the past. In other words, in order not to have to rethink the same idea in every generation, information regarding the development of technology must be passed on. Oral tradition can achieve this in simple technologies, but the march of progress owes more than we probably appreciate to the humble printing press.

The printing press, of course, debuted by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, contributed much more than just developmental knowledge to the human experience. It was the beginning of the information age. For the first time ideas could circulate without the necessity of the spoken or handwritten word. Ideas certainly did circulate, and most of those ideas tended to be political and religious, and the liberalization of the human mind and the human consciousness was the result. In fact, in the age of technology, there have been one or two great leaps forwards, and the advent of the printed word was certainly one of these. It was the trigger for perhaps the greatest explosion of human creativity that would follow.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The Archimedes Screw, a simple but elegant solution. E&T Magazine

4. The Archimedes screw, a simple and elegant way to lift water

Dropping a bucket in a well and hauling it up was the simple way of lifting and elevating water, and one or two ancient technologies helped here and there, but it was the advent of the Archimedes screw that truly revolutionized the business of moving water. The Greek mathematician Archimedes, whose name is attributed to the invention, was in fact not the inventor, but just the note taker. The technology was already in use in Egypt in the third century BCE when Archimedes first recorded it, and it remains in common use today.

The idea is elegantly simple, a rotating screw contained in a tubular housing will raise any liquid or granular substance if the rotation is steady and reasonably fast. The Archimedes screw is still the basis of most pump technology today, and in any grain silo, it is that Archimedes screw that keeps the wheat moving. The concept can be found in just about every industry were a commodity is moved, and it does not look like it is about to be phased out.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The telescope, a simple but far reaching device. Wikicommons

5. Optical lenses, opening a world of invisible possibilities

The Archimedes Screw is an example of complex engineering, insofar as it required some design and construction skill to devise a working model. Human creativity and ingenuity really entered a stratospheric level when man began to tinker with devices and materials, exploring the laws of physics, and creating engineering formulas around those laws. The Antikythera Mechanism proved that ancient Greeks were already pondering gears and levers, and correlating them to the observable celestial movements.

Glass technology goes back to the use of obsidian as a toolmaking material, but glass manufacturer, its origins again lost in history, was one of those formative processes coalescing as the Industrial Revolution loomed. It is hard to imagine modern life and technology without glass, and certainly the science of optics would be stillborn. Optics began, of course, with an appreciation of the refractive qualities of glass, which led to the development of the eyeglass, and soon the microscope, the camera and the telescope. The word ‘lens’ comes from the shape of a ‘lentil’, and the earliest mention of the principal can be found in old Greek texts, although the technology developed along a much broader front.

Most importantly, though, optics meant the extended viability of individual scholarship, and so as the march of the information age gathered strength, optical lenses certainly sharpened the edges and made it all readable.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
A combination of art, science and engineering. Clocks and chronographs mark the zenith of mechanical design. Wikicommons

6. The Chronograph, a combination of artistry, engineering and science

What came first, the hour or the hour hand? At the basis of some of the most elemental advances in technology lies time, the division of time, and the rhythm of time. It is often said that the most influential development of human technology was the sail, but this could only be in combination with practical navigation, itself only viable only by an understanding of astronomy. Indeed, the first modern chronograph was invented by French Louis Moinet in 1816, exclusively to work with astronomical equipment.

The chronograph is specifically the type of timepiece utilizing the sequenced rotations of three arms, defining a minute, an hour and twelve hours. A high degree of accuracy and prowess in fabrication is required, and this marked a point when engineering almost began to overlap into art. There certainly is something beautiful about the innards of a well-constructed clock, and the tools required to make it. It marks the acme of man’s understanding of the properties of the physical world, and the pinnacle of manufacturing technology in the age before electronics.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The Sextant, a simple device to interpret a world of information. WorthPoint

7. The Sextant, the instrument that mapped the world

The great enigma of technology and engineering is the serendipitous way certain threads of thought and development have coalesced, almost by accident, into epoch-changing innovations. The sextant is, in fact, a straightforward device designed to measure the angle of a particular star from a fixed point at a specific time. Notwithstanding that a reliably accurate chronograph must be available to know that time, thousands of years of astrological observation were required, so that astrological charts could be prepared to display that necessary information upon which it was all based.

So yes indeed, the sextant was one of the great developments of the age, even though it is nothing more than a simple means of interpreting information gathered over the entire human cognitive experience. In the age of at-a-glance GPS readings on a personal device, it is easy to forget the precision and artistry that went into every individual reading that defined the maps of the world.

The construction of a sextant is simply an aperture through which a star is located, and a weighted arm that always points to the place upon which the navigator stands. When a line of sight reading is taken, the angle of the star about the navigator is crossed referenced by time against an astronomical chart. Thus the point at which a person is standing on the surface of the earth can be calculated and pinpointed on a map.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
A Parisian public urinal, combining art with utility. Trip Savvy

8. Modern sanitation, a case of the solution catching up with the problem

It is so easy to take for granted the simple convenience of flushing, and gone in an instant is that inconvenient by-product of metabolism. It passes through a system, and by application of technology, it is sanitized and returned to the environment at no inconvenience to the producer. However, as modern cities began to develop, it seems that no one gave any thought at all to something as fundamental as waste. Most European cities were built around major rivers, but very quickly the limitations of a river like the Seine, the Rhine or the Thames to deal with the waste of an entire city became clear. We are also not just talking about human waste, but vast amounts of animal and production waste. With no formal system of waste management, it would not take long…

But as with everything we have touched on in this list, it was necessary first for sanitation as a holistic, urban concept to take root before the infrastructure of a city could be designed around it. Functioning sewers, in other words. Often these advances have come about thanks to some great disaster like the Great Fire of London, although, in fact, it was the ‘Big Stink’ of 1858 that really got London’s city fathers thinking. That year witnessed one of the great heat waves of the age, and in a city drowning in human, animal and industrial waste, the stench reached a critical level.

It is hard to imagine that the human species, so endlessly creative, would not have at some point devised a solution to this real effect of urbanization, but it certainly was an odorous journey to get there.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
An early steam engine, the first great advance in industrial engineering. Beta News

9. Getting to grips with steam power, and changing the world

What came first, the steam or the steam engine? Of course, what I am saying is that without a means of generating steam, and an understanding of atmospheric pressure, the whole chain of events that saw the first successful rotation of a steam piston would never have come about. In fact the first use of steam as a power source, or as a means to provoke movement, predates ‘Newcomen Atmospheric Engine’ by millennia. It was only with Thomas Newcomen’s steam piston engine, test run in 1712, that a viable power source for industrial use was on the table.

It was that moment that witnessed the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, probably the original Great Leap Forward. Suddenly accumulated technologies from ages passed were revitalized, revisited and re-evaluated. Initially, these engines were used only to pump water out of mines, and hundreds were built as stand-alone machines in the early decades of the eighteenth century. The design was improved upon by the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watts, and it was this that in the end provided the efficiency and standardization necessary to develop industrial production.

Within a few generations, commercial sail was a thing of the past, and before long, cottage industry was a fringe activity. It the was the beginning of the consumer age, the wage economy and the welfare state – in fact everything we live with and love today!

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Taking the heavy labor out of farming, mechanization revolutionized food production. Flickr

10. Agricultural mechanization, releasing the slaves and revolutionizing production

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits to mankind of the development of steam power was to make redundant the institution of slavery, paving the way for an abolitionist movement that certainly would have made no headway if there had been no alternative. Of course, mechanized agriculture preceded steam by centuries, and long before steam power, there was animal power, and even something as fundamental as a plough could be regarded as mechanization.

Animal power, however, did drive early reaping and threshing machines, but these devices were engineered and came about more or less in parallel to steam, and horsepower was phased out very quickly. The adaptability of steam power in terms of machines to plant and reap and thresh far exceeded human or animal power, and the reliability, and complexity of mechanisms have in the modern age almost entirely superseded the labor of man and beast. The most important result, however, has been a massive increase in agricultural production with a fraction of the labor input. Needless to say, this has helped drive the population explosion, and to sustain a population that could never realistically exist under conditions of cottage industry.

So we have it. Mechanized agriculture was undoubtedly one of the great engineering and technological advances of the age.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The Cotton gin, saving time and creating labor. Wikicommons

10. The Cotton Gin, the first phase of production manufacturing

When Eli Whitney devised a method of separating cotton seed from lint in 1793, one of the most labor-intensive aspects of cotton production was mechanized, and an industry was revolutionized. A cotton gin is merely a device that uses hooks to drag raw cotton through a series of mesh screens to separate lint from seed. Before this, the process was undertaken by hand, which, of course, was both labor and time intensive.

The revolutionary effect of the cotton to gin was to massively increase the profitability of cotton, which resulted in a massive increase in acreage, and a steep rise in the price of slaves. On the other side of the world, however, as the machine came into common use in industrial England, it had the same effect of hugely increasing cotton production in India, where the British Empire sourced most of its cotton. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, mechanized cotton production was feeding into mechanized weaving.

The whole business of cloth production revolutionized the industry, but also industry in general, and it would probably be fair to say that the conversion of cotton into linen was the first intensively mechanized production system of the Industrial Revolution.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Without steam power there would have been no factories, and no mass production. History Learning

12. The use of steam power in manufacturing and mass production

Textiles led the way in industrial production as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, but it was harnessing steam power that was the basis of mechanization, and everything else that was to follow. The manufacture of textiles in fairness preceded steam power, and early textile mills were powered by waterwheels, but waterwheels had limitations. It was the adaption of early steam engines to rotary motion, and the development of belts and pulleys, that made it possible at last for steam engines to drive machines.

Advances in the efficiency of steam engines also had much to do with the development of alternative fuels, in particular, coke, which made possible much larger blast furnaces and a much higher power to fuel ratio. The basis of it all, however, was the development of machine tools which in turn released a dam-burst of creativity in the production of industrial machinery, after which just about anything could be mass produced. T

he harnessing of steam without a doubt was the most important innovation of the nineteenth century.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Pistons, pots, cams and cranks, the same principal for two centuries. Linda Hall Library

13. The Reciprocating, or Internal Combustion Engine, a technology unchanged since 1794

It is truly an extraordinary fact that for over 200 years, barring one or two refinements, the essential design of the internal combustion engine remains unchanged. As a technology, it developed along parallel lines in various parts of the world, and in the 1970s, a number of unrelated patents were filed in the United States and Europe covering various components and aspects of what would later become the standard operating system of every car on the road.

The first fully functioning and practical liquid fuel engine was patented by Italian engineer Eugenio Barsanti in 1853. Others, of course, were quick to follow, and the first gasoline engine to be produced in the United States was in 1872, by George Brayton. Rudolf Diesel, needless to say, invented the first heavy fuel compression firing engine thereafter known as the ‘diesel’ engine. How did this revolutionize the world? Well one need only imagine how many horses, and much horse poop we would be dealing with if someone had not thought to replace the horse with horsepower.

There have been numerous variations over the years, but to date, the combination of a piston and a cylinder, with the addition of gas and air, all connected to a crankshaft has yet to be beat.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The electromagnetic principle lies at the heart of power generation even today. Water & Power Associates

14. Electrification, and everything that came with it

If it is hard to imagine life without an engine and four wheels, then without the essentials of electrification, life, as we know it today, would be impossible. From the moment that mankind gazed up in wonder at the extraordinary spectacle of lighting, the phenomenon of electricity has been with us. The harnessing of fire was one thing, but controlling and harnessing power was one of the great achievements of humankind.

Where did it begin? Well, according to Wikipedia, it started with the development of a practical electromagnetic generator, which occurred between 1831 and 1832, when British scientist Michael Faraday stumbled on the principle. However, many men of science were also actively experimenting with electricity, among them, of course, the great polymath Benjamin Franklin.

The principal of electromagnetic generation came to be known as ‘Faraday’s Law’, and so Michael Faraday stands as the modern father of electrical generation. He also, of course, built the first practical electromagnetic generator, known as the Faraday Disc.

From that point onward, a technological journey began to which hundreds of individuals contributed, a journey that continues to this day. The fundamentals of electromagnetic generation remain unchanged from Faraday times, and whether powered by steam, hydro or nuclear, the principal is the same. What impact has electrification had on modern life? Well, in short, universal and absolute. Modern life would simply not be possible without it.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Without refrigeration it would be back to salting and smoking. Live Science

15. Refrigeration, the only practical way to chill

If there was to be a single feature of modern life that makes modern life possible, then it is industrial food production. Fertilization, pesticidation, mechanization and irrigation all combine to make possible food production on a level sustainable for our current population. However, perhaps more important still is food distribution, and without refrigeration, that would just not be possible.

Refrigeration is also one of those minor revolutions that would never have been possible without electrification. Again, many different threads of research came together to create the first working refrigeration unit, and surprise, surprise, one of the earliest contributors was Benjamin Franklin. Initially, however, experiments involved chemistry and the rapid evaporation of volatile liquids, but although fascinating, the devices had no practical application.

In the 1820s, Michael Faraday’s name pops up again, this time in manipulating liquefied ammonia and other gasses. Directly from this came the first closed-cycle, vapor compression refrigeration system in the world, patented by British mechanical engineer Jacob Perkins. A prototype was built, but commercial success eluded the inventor. The system, however, was developed by others, and the first functional, practical system was patented and manufactured in Australia by British journalist James Harrison. By the 1880s, refrigeration units were installed in ships, and for the first time, Australian beef arrived on British grocery shelves.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
The Fleming diode vale, a a great leap forward in modern electronics. Wikiwand

16. The semiconductor, and the birth of modern electronics

If it is hard to imagine life without four wheels and an engine, or the light bulb and the plug socket, then electronics must surely come a close third. A semiconductor is a material, such as silicon, that has an electrical conductivity value that falls somewhere between the full conductivity of metals like copper or gold, and insulators such as glass, plastic or wood. They can be manipulated to behave in specific ways, creating semiconductor junctions, which is the basis of diodes, transistors and every aspect of modern electronics.

Who made the first recorded observations of a semiconductor effect, well, more surprise, surprise, none other than Michael Faraday. However, add to that such names as Isaac Newton, Alessandro Volta, André‑Marie Ampère and, of course, Nicola Tesla, and you have not only the origins of the measurements ‘volt’ and ‘amp’, but also a direct line of development from the earliest observations to actual, practical electronics. In 1904, John Ambrose Fleming, a former employee of Thomas Edison, patented thermionic diode, the first functional vacuum tube electronic device, and the journey to Silicon Valley began.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
An early telephone exchange, simple but practical. Santa Banta

17. Telecommunications, the best possible use of electronics

The electromagnetic telegraph spelt the end of semaphore towers, smoke signals and carrier pigeons. From the moment that Samuel Morse failed to test his electrical telegraph, but nonetheless devised the iconic ‘Morse Code’, global communication has never been the same. Sending an electrical impulse down a copper line, and forming it around a simple code of dots and dashes presaged the electronic age with uncanny accuracy. This binary system allowed for practical communication over long distances, and as such it revolutionized everything from warfare to travel.

The first trans-Atlantic cable line was successfully completed in July 1866, and before long, international cable systems were linking Europe with Africa, Asia and Australia, commencing the age of the ‘telegram’. Alexander Graham Bell, of course, was the first to test drive a conventional telephone, and by the turn of the century, the telephone was ubiquitous throughout the world.

It required a heavy outlay of infrastructure, but it gradually shrunk the world. Before long we had the radio, and soon the television, all thanks to the work in wireless technology pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi. FM, AM became a fact of life, and WWII sparked an explosion of creative innovation. The post WWII period saw a telephone in every home, a TV in every corner, and computerization…

Yes indeed, without telecommunications, where would we be?

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 Mercury Capsule. Wikicommons

18. Space travel and rocket technology, making plans to escape the small world

As electronic communications made the world smaller, so humankind began to look to space. Rocket technology, of course, is just a small part of space travel, and in fact, if there ever was a combined human technological achievement that combines every great innovation, then this is it. Astronomy, the original basis of animist worship, and a field of study thousands of years old. Mathematics, no less of an ancient field of knowledge. Advanced physics, chemistry, mechanics and, of course, computerization.

We all know that rocket technology began in China with the discovery of gunpowder, and was used primarily for religious, ceremonial and festive purposes. It was not long, of course, before ballistics emerged as an unintended consequence, but rockets remained a feature of the battlefield more or less from the moment that aiming a rocket in a given direction became possible.

Space travel, however, is, without doubt, the acme of rocket technology, although, despite its grand scale, the principal remains simple, and mostly unchanged. Space travel, however, is more than simply a means of propulsion to break the gravitation pull of the earth, and it is more than a means of delivering earth-shattering weapons systems. It is the sum of all human aspiration and the basis upon which we as a species will leave this earth. Hopefully, that comes in time to avoid MAD, or ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, the net result of that other use of rocket technology, nuclear weapons.

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Pre-Intel circuitry. We have come a long way since then. Miradore

19. Computerization, everything that we know and understand today

What can be said about computerization that has not been said already? The essence of computerization from the point of view of day-to-day life is information. Information, they say, is power, and if 6 million men between 1914 and 1918 had possession of a device to educate them on the exact nature of war, that war would never have been fought. Then, of course, there is the difference between knowledge and wisdom, but that is a philosophical question, and we will not go there.

Astrolabes, such as the Antikythera Mechanism, probably represent the earliest achievements in computerization, followed by clocks and other clockwork devices. It was Charles Babbage, an innovator active in the mid-nineteenth century, who was the first to produce a programmable device that he called his ‘Difference Engine’. ‘Enigma’, the Nazi code generator that was famously cracked by British mathematicians in Bletchley Park was an early system of mechanical computerization, but it was with the advent of electronic computerization that the future was really born.

One of the first practical deployments of computerization, however, in a way that we would understand it today, was in the space industry. The great polymath Alan Turing was thinking about it after WWII, and he was one of the first to develop an algorithm, followed by storage computers and, of course, transistors.

We could go on and on, tracing a journey that ends in Silicon Valley, a journey that continues today, taking us who knows were. When the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates delivered computers to our laps, the world certainly changed, and where it will go from here, who knows?

20 Revolutionary Innovations in the History of Mankind
Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. Beginning to understand human biology. Vista Today

Advances in medicine, far too many to mention…

It is probably not as widely appreciated as it should be the impact of modern medicine in our lives. Imagine, however, a life expectancy of twenty-five and infant mortality of fifty per cent.

The most significant advances in medicine were often the most simple, but most profound. Alexander Fleming, for example, observing the antibiotic qualities of mold, or Louis Pasteur determining the advantages of boiling milk. The simple idea that a minor and controlled infection of smallpox could act as a vaccine and, perhaps most importantly, that malaria was spread by the Anopheles mosquito and not by ‘mal aria’, and that quinine was an effective cure and vaccine.

It was the latter discovery, so long in coming, that made possible European expansion into the tropics, with all of the ramifications that has had for the course of human history. Moreover, it rendered life in the tropics more viable for the natives too, and hence now the tropics are the most populated quarters of the earth.

Just about every facet of human ingenuity has been employed in medical research and development. From the multiple developments of chemical drugs to laser surgery technology, optics, mechanics and computerization. If a zenith of human creativity was to be sought in the modern world, medicine does, or at least it ought to, answers to everything.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Benjamin Franklin and the Kite Experiment.” The Franklin Institute.

“What is Metallurgy?” Special Piping Materials.

“How Did the Invention of the Steam Engine Change the Way People Worked?” Classroom, Joseph Cummins. June 2018

“The Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney.” History. July 2010