The 20th century was a beehive of inventive activity. Some inventions improved on 19th century developments, such as moving pictures, gasoline-powered automobiles and plastics. Other inventions made slight improvements in daily life, such as the invention of a new kind of zipper by Gideon Sundback or the invention of the pop-up toaster by Charles Strite. Other inventions were more important. The most important inventions played a significant role in the evolution of modern society.
Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the first successful aeroplane in 1903. They developed a heavier-than-air plane that moved through the air by the power of its own motor. Moreover, it had a steering system by which the pilot successfully controlled its movements through the air during its short maiden voyage at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Other inventors built upon the Wright brothers' work and improved air travel throughout the 20th century. Of special significance is the turbojet engine developed independently by Hans von Ohain and Frank Whittle in the 1930s.
The 20th century witnessed the development of rockets that could travel to the moon and beyond. Many minds contributed to this development, but the pioneering work of Robert Goddard stands out. In 1926, he successfully launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket, an achievement which "was as significant to history as that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk," according to NASA.
The Atomic Bomb
During World War II, a team of scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, invented the atomic bomb, a weapon of mass destruction employing nuclear energy. Its significance has been incalculable. It led to the invention of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. In addition, its mere existence has influenced politics and diplomacy ever since its invention.
The 20th century invention of television has provided entertainment and education for people of all ages around the world. John Logie Baird invented a partially mechanical television in the 1920s. Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth were important figures in the development of purely electronic television.
The 20th century witnessed the development of a fully electronic computer called ENIAC, an invention of John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. This large, awkward invention developed into a facile communication tool by the end of the century. It led to many other inventions, such as software, computer languages, the Internet and the World Wide Web.
A transistor regulates electric current in such electronic devices as radio, television and computers. It replaced the more bulky vacuum tube. Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley invented it in 1947. The invention of the transistor facilitated the radical reduction in size of electronic devices.
In the late 1920s, Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered that a mould with the scientific name Penicillium notatum inhibited bacterial growth. This led to the development of penicillin, the first antibiotic. In the course of the 20th century, many other antibiotics were developed. These antibiotics proved to be a blessing to the sick, often saving their lives.
Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska invented the electron microscope in 1931. This device has facilitated scientific discovery by making it possible to see such minute phenomena as the structure of chloroplasts, which could not be discerned with the light microscope. Improvements in the electron microscope culminated in the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer. This microscope can see individual atoms.
- Computer World: The Transistor -- The Most Important Invention of the 20th Century?
- Encyclopedia.com: Wright Brothers
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Dr. Robert H. Goddard, American Rocketry Pioneer
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration: The Impact of Science on Society
- Computer World: A Lost Interview with ENIAC Co-inventor J. Presper Eckert
- Caltech Authors: Overview of Electron Microscopy