During our time on Earth, we humans have stimulated growth and industry through various world-changing inventions. Characterized by our curiosity and desire to understand our surroundings, we have discovered resources and developed ways to use them to our benefit.
Our inventive mentality has allowed us to thrive like no other species. America’s relatively-recent history has no shortage of inventors, who have found ways to meet our perceived needs. Yet some of the most groundbreaking inventions in U.S. history came about, not only as a response to individual, economical or national necessity, but also as a result of fortunate accidents.
Cost effective alternatives – The light bulb and the moving assembly line
Electricity was a major discovery that, to this day, is key to our quotidian lives. Although Benjamin Franklin is commonly credited for this discovery, scientists have found that ancient peoples may have experimented with electricity over 2,000 years ago.
An unearthed clay pot containing copper plates, tin alloy and an iron rod suggests that past civilizations had already created the first batteries by simply filling the pot with an acidic solution such as vinegar.
For modern man, however, electricity first entered our daily life in the form of the light bulb. Before Thomas Edison invented the first practical light bulb in the late 1870’s, people relied on candles and oil lamps after dark. Not only was it inconvenient—since they had to be close at hand to be effective—it was also expensive, and a veritable fire hazard.
In his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Scottish economist Adam Smith refers to people’s dependence on candles and how costly they were to the average worker: “As all those four commodities [salt, leather, soap and candles] that are real necessaries of life, such heavy taxes upon them must increase somewhat the expense of the sober and industrious poor…”
The light bulb appeared as a bright solution. Initially employed to illuminate streets and factories, light bulbs became home amenities after Thomas Edison and his team discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could produce light for over one thousand hours. This cost-effective and longer-lasting electric light source replaced their fire-dependent predecessors, allowing factories to operate for extended hours and introducing a nightlife like never before.
Three decades later, factories saw the emergence of the moving assembly line, which reduced production costs and revolutionized the industry in an unprecedented way.
In his book, Adam Smith introduced the division of labor as a strategy to decrease production time and increase output. It had already been put into practice by the French to build guns during the Napoleonic Wars, and by the Chinese to produce metal agricultural implements.
In 1913, Henry Ford made history by creating a system that employed the division of labor in the mass production of an entire automobile. This moving assembly line used a conveyor belt to build a vehicle step-by-step by moving it from worker to worker.
This reduced the production time from 12 hours to approximately 90 minutes, increasing productivity and profits, and allowing Ford to reduce the price of cars from $825 in 1908 to $260 in 1925.
The internet and GPS – Implements of war
During the tensions of the Cold War, the U.S. government grew increasingly worried that a potential nuclear attack from the Soviet Union would wipe out the country’s communication system.
In 1958 the U.S. launched the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an organization designed not only to develop more effective forms of communication, but also to keep up with the country’s technological race against the USSR, who had recently launched the first Earth satellite “Sputnik 1.”
DARPA developed a network system called ARPANET to enable remote access to computers, which were large and immobile at the time. In 1970, TCP/IP was developed and adopted as a standard language for computers to “talk” with each other.
This made it possible for more computer networks to join the ARPANET, resulting in a globally interconnected network, referred to as “internetwork” or simply “internet.”
The Space Race during the Cold War also motivated the creation of the Global Positioning System (GPS). After Sputnik 1 was launched into space in 1957, American researchers noticed that they could track the satellite’s movement based on the strength of its radio signals. This inspired the possibility of tracking not only the satellite, but any object on Earth.
In 1973, the The Department of Defense developed the GPS, originally intended to aid military planning by locating military vehicles, aircrafts and ships worldwide. It was made available for public use after a civilian airplane got lost over Soviet territory.
Personal computers and fuel dispensers, for your convenience
Early computers were heavy and sizable. The ENIAC, one of the first American computers built during World War II, weighed 60,000 pounds and occupied nearly 2,000 square feet.
At that time, computers were operated by experts or technicians. Time-sharing enabled several individuals to utilize a computer simultaneously without owning their own.
This situation changed In 1971 with the invention of the microprocessor. The thumbnail-sized device was capable of running computer programs, making it possible to build smaller computers that eventually evolved into the personal computer, which soon became part of the average household as “home computers.”
The gas pump was another breakthrough in convenience. Before 1885, stores sold kerosine out of large tanks, and customers purchased it in bulk, pouring or ladling the desired amount into their own containers. The risk of freely handling flammable liquid was sufficient incentive to find a reliable and safe way to measure and dispense the fuel.
Sylvanus Bowser, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, invented and sold the first fuel pump in 1885. The appliance was in high demand for about 50 years and later evolved into the metered gasoline pump we know today.
The telephone and air conditioning – Accidental eurekas
When Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with a device to create a harmonic telegraph, he accidentally spilled acid on his clothing. In agitation, Bell called his assistant through the device saying the now famous words “Watson, come here! I need you!,” to which his assistant, sitting in an adjacent room, replied “Mr. Bell, do you understand what I say?”
Bell was thrilled to discover that the device could not only send, but also receive messages using electricity. Later that day, Bell wrote to his father, saying that he had discovered a way for friends to converse with each other without leaving home.
The telephone was developed in 1876 and Bell Telephone Company was formed. Although this invention ended the careers of messenger boys around the world, it allowed people to connect in real time and share information more efficiently.
The electrical air conditioning system was another accidental invention, emerging from the early dehumidifier.
In 1902, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn saw its pages shrink and swell due to extreme humidity in the printing plant. When Willis Carrier, a young engineer, brought his experimental humidity machine to the plant, he found that his invention emitted cool air while drying the environment.
Recognizing the potential for this application, Carrier refined the apparatus into a Centrifugal Refrigeration Compressor, which eventually evolved into our modern air conditioning systems.
His device not only introduced the idea of “comfort cooling” but also revolutionized the theater industry by improving public theaters, which were known for being humid and smelly.