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The Top Ten Greatest Inventions

By: Dan Lockton - Updated: 27 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Inventions Inventors Inventing Greatest

The Safety Bicycle (John Kemp Starley)

John Kemp Starley nephew of penny farthing inventor James Starley, created his Rover Safety bicycle in 1885 — the first ‘modern’ bicycle, with equal-sized wheels, chain drive, sprung saddle, cross-frame, crank and bottom bracket, and so on: essentially every element of the modern bicycle. This mass-produced design allowed cycling to become a usable form of everyday transport, recreation (and indeed emancipation) throughout Europe. Starley’s Rover company went on to be a major innovator in motoring, in particular with gas turbines and four-wheel drive vehicles.

The Car (Karl Benz and others)

Whilst a number of mainly European inventors had experimented with motorised ‘horseless carriages’, Benz’s 1885 Patent Motorwagen was probably the first production vehicle to be designed, from the outset, as a motor vehicle, and employed a large number of innovative features including roller chain drive to the back wheels. Benz’s company, which later merged with rival Daimler, went on to become one of the most significant players in the global motor industry.

Electric Motor and Generator (Michael Faraday)

Faraday’s experiments with electricity in the 1820s-30s resulted in the earliest prototypes of two devices without which the modern world would be entirely different. He also invented many techniques in chemistry, and an early version of the Bunsen burner.

Electric Lighting (Sir Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison)

Swan’s work from the 1850s to the 1880s to develop a long-lasting light bulb, together with Edison’s mass commercialisation in the US, resulted in widespread adoption of electric lighting — allowing the working day (and leisure hours) to alter radically and, over time, dramatically changing society.

Printing Press (Johannes Gutenberg)

A major enabling factor of the Renaissance, Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and the press to allow mass-production of books using it completely revolutionised the method of knowledge transmission and dissemination in Europe. For the first time, it was possible for new works to reach a larger audience.

The Internet (Many contributing inventors)

The internet itself, as the worldwide interconnected network of computers, with public access, has no single inventor, but rather developed out of the ARPANET, a US military communications project, NSFNet, an inter-university academic network, and other such networks. A number of individuals’ visions, expertise and work along the way, such as that of J C R Licklider, Laurence Roberts and Paul Baran, enabled the development of this ‘universal network’, which is ‘massively redundant’ in that data — using packet switching — can be routed many different ways from one computer to another.

The World-Wide Web (Sir Tim Berners-Lee)

Distinct from the underlying internet itself, the WWW was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989-91, whilst at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. His major innovation was the use of linked text, i.e. hypertext, in documents (web pages) to allow navigation through the network of files, which immediately allowed users to access (and create) their own presence on the web. Most of the internet with which the casual user is familiar today, aside from e-mail, is in fact the WWW rather than the ‘internet’.

Anaesthetics (Many contributors; named by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Snr, in 1846)

The ability to ease or relive pain during operations or other medical procedures allowed medicine to advance significantly after various anaesthetic methods were developed, mainly from the 19th century onwards: the evolution of modern surgery techniques dates from this era.

Antiseptics (Joseph Lister)

Antimicrobial substances, applied to living tissue to reduce infection, were widely adopted in surgery and medicine generally following a paper published by Lister in 1867 in which he outlined using phenol to wash wounds and surgical instruments.

Logarithms (John Napier)

In simple terms, the use of logarithms allows many complex mathematical operations to be progressively reduced to simple addition and subtraction, which meant that following Napier’s invention of the technique in 1614, more advanced calculations in science and astronomy were possible. In many ways, the use of logarithms allowed the rapid expansion in quantitative scientific understanding from the 17th century onwards.

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