There were two technological innovations that profoundly changed daily life in the 19th century. They were both “motive powers”: steam and electricity. According to some, the development and application of steam engines and electricity to various tasks such as transportation and the telegraph, affected human life by increasing and multiplying the mechanical power of human or animal strength or the power of simple tools.
Those who lived through these technological changes, felt them to be much more than technological innovations. To them, these technologies seemed to erase the primeval boundaries of human experience, and to usher in a kind of Millennial era, a New Age, in which humankind had definitively broken its chains and was able, as it became proverbial to say, to “annihilate time and space.” Even the most important inventions of the 19th century that were not simply applications of steam or electrical power, such as the recording technologies of the photograph and the phonograph, contributed to this because they made the past available to the present and the present to the future.
The 1850 song, “Uncle Sam’s Farm,” written by Jesse Hutchinson, Jr., of the Hutchinson Family Singers, captured this sense that a unique historical rupture had occurred as a result of scientific and social progress:
Our fathers gave us liberty, but little did they dream
The grand results that pour along this mighty age of steam;
For our mountains, lakes and rivers are all a blaze of fire,
And we send our news by lightning on the telegraphic wires.
Apart from the technological inventions themselves, daily life in the 19th century was profoundly changed by the innovation of reorganizing work as a mechanical process, with humans as part of that process. This meant, in part, dividing up the work involved in manufacturing so that each single workman performed only one stage in the manufacturing process, which was previously broken into sequential parts. Before, individual workers typically guided the entire process of manufacturing from start to finish.
This change in work was the division or specialization of labor, and this “rationalization” (as it was conceived to be) of the manufacturing process occurred in many industries before and even quite apart from the introduction of new and more powerful machines into the process. This was an essential element of the industrialization that advanced throughout the 19th century. It made possible the mass production of goods, but it also required the tight reorganization of workers into a “workforce” that could be orchestrated in various ways in order to increase manufacturing efficiency. Individuals experienced this reorganization as conflict: From the viewpoint of individual workers, it was felt as bringing good and bad changes to their daily lives.
On the one hand, it threatened the integrity of the family because people were drawn away from home to work in factories and in dense urban areas. It threatened their individual autonomy because they were no longer masters of the work of their hands, but rather more like cogs in a large machine performing a limited set of functions, and not responsible for the whole.
On the other hand, it made it possible for more and more people to enjoy goods that only the wealthy would have been able to afford in earlier times or goods that had never been available to anyone no matter how wealthy. The rationalization of the manufacturing process broadened their experiences through varied work, travel, and education that would have been impossible before.
There can be no doubt that the twentieth century is one of the most remarkable in human history for its previously unparalleled rate of technological advances and scientific discoveries, a rate that continues to this day. In fact, there were so many new gadgets invented and discoveries made in the last century that it’s difficult to pare the list down to just the ten (which is why there will be a number of glaring omissions from my list). However, I think I have managed to whittle it down to those ten innovations or technologies that have had the greatest influence on humanity—both positively and the negatively. And so, without further ado and in no particular order, here are my nominees for the ten greatest inventions/discoveries of the twentieth century:
10. Nuclear Power
Nuclear power was to the twentieth century what steam power had been to the nineteenth: a game changer. Suddenly humanity had a power source that didn’t pollute, was efficient and practically unlimited, and so had the potential to change the planet overnight. Unfortunately, it was a two-edged sword in that this same energy source could be used to create the most destructive weapons in history, threatening human survival with its very presence. Additionally, while nuclear power plants didn’t spew pollutants into the air, in the hands of the truly incompetent they had the capacity to render whole regions radioactive and, as such, uninhabitable for generations (as was demonstrated at Chernobyl in 1986).
However, it is hard to deny the overall positive impact nuclear power has had. The fear of mutually assured destruction probably prevented the world from experiencing a third world war and, when operated safely, nuclear power plants truly are a superb and cost-efficient energy source that has the capacity to power entire cities. The only question is whether we’re mature enough to handle that power into the next century.
9. The Personal Computer
It’s difficult to imagine our world today without computers. Of course, they have been around since World War Two, but they were clunky, massively expensive things that had all the calculating power of a brick. When Steve Wozniak and Stephen Jobs introduced the Apple in 1976, however, it changed everything and the rest is, as they say, history. Today, of course, they are everywhere and we have become so dependent upon them that many people almost feel naked without one. For some, they even provide the very means of maintaining a livelihood: we use them to keep track of our finances, write books, design logos and sell real estate. Plus, they are rapidly replacing the stereo and television in their ability to entertain us with music, movies, and games. Makes it hard to understand how our ancestors did so well without them, doesn’t it? (Image: the Apple 1, 1976.)
8. The Airplane
Just as the locomotive made the world a smaller place in the nineteenth century, the airplane did the same for us in the twentieth century, shrinking our planet to the point that a person could fly anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Not only have they made travel quick and safe, but aircraft provide many other services as well: from crop dusting and fighting forest fires to overnight delivery of packages and chasing hurricanes. They have also revolutionized warfare, turning battle into a long-range affair fought at arm’s length by machines of such sophistication that the way wars are fought has completely changed. Of course, they’ve also been responsible for leveling whole cities and bringing war to the civilian population—who had rarely been directly affected by war until the twentieth century—but then no invention is perfect.
7. The Automobile
Though under development in Europe during the nineteenth century, the automobile didn’t really become a practical and reliable source of transportation until the twentieth century. Once it did, it changed everything; overnight the horse and buggy became quaint anachronisms while much of the country was paved over to make room for endless ribbons of asphalt. It also brought about a revolution in the market place, suddenly making it possible to truck in goods that otherwise would be impossible to acquire. Most of all, Henry Ford’s assembly-line production style made the automobile affordable and accessible to the average person (before Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, only the fabulously wealthy could afford a car). The automobile gave everyone a degree of mobility and personal freedom our forefathers could only dream of, and turned entire generations of teenagers into raging revheads.
While the rocket was first invented and used by the Chinese over three thousand years ago—and used occasionally by the Greeks and Romans since —it wasn’t until the twentieth century that it came into its own and became more than just a dazzling amusement or a largely harmless but still effective “terror weapon” for ancient armies. In the twentieth century, rockets became bigger and more powerful. Most importantly, they became controllable, which suddenly made them useful both as weapons of war and, even more vitally, as our means of accessing outer space.
Without the rocket, it is safe to say we would not only have never gone to the moon or visited every planet in our solar system. Rockets also place satellites into orbit around our planet, so without them we also wouldn’t be able to use GPS, predict the weather, make international calls or, for the most part, even use our cell phones much of the time.
5. The Submarine
Though submersible vessels had been used in the past (the CSS Hunley during the Civil War) and the first true submarine was invented in the 1880’s, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the modern submarine came into its own. What started as an irritating, but still deadly, weapon in World War One grew into a monstrosity in World War Two- sinking more than any other type of weapon used.
Today, with the advent of nuclear power—which gave the submarine nearly unlimited range and endurance—it has become the capital warship in every first-class Navy in the world and as such has effectively rendered naval warfare of the past obsolete. How effective is the modern submarine? Ask anyone who has ever served on one. They’ll tell you there’s only two types of ships in the world: submarines and targets. ‘Nuff said.
Until Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, almost any little bug that someone picked up was potentially fatal. Once penicillin—and later a whole range of other antibiotics—came on the scene, however, death due to bacterial infection became rare, resulting in a greatly reduced mortality rate and much longer life-span. It also rendered many scourges of the past—from small pox and typhoid to gonorrhea and syphilis—obsolete or, at least in the case of venereal disease, something easily treatable.
Yes, I know it destroys brain cells and renders people emotionally and psychologically damaged, but really, where would we be without the boob tube? It is society’s baby-sitter, news source, teacher, entertainer, and story-teller. When in competent hands, television can even be useful at times.
Mostly, though, it fills our days with vapidity and all manner of inane and obnoxious commercials, and is the single greatest reason that families no longer eat in the kitchen or dining room anymore, but instead huddle in the living room around their television eating microwavable food and spilling soft drinks on the sofa. Still, even while we pretend we hate it, we can’t help but seeing what’s on tonight. Worse, most of us would have no idea what to do with our time without it, which is probably the saddest commentary of all.
2. The Internet
The computer rendered the typewriter obsolete and made writing in long-hand a thing of the past, but it took the internet to truly turn the computer into the monster it is today. While the airplane shrank our planet to the point that one could fly from New York to London in six hours, the internet made it possible to be there in a few seconds. It allows truth to make it into and out of repressive countries, it foments revolutions, and spreads lies at the speed of light. It also gives anyone the ability to buy and sell almost anything imaginable, find and torment old school mates, watch the latest you-tube videos, and even find their perfect life partner, all for a few bucks a month. Oh, and you can also get useful information off it if you don’t mind scrolling through 15,000 hits to find out just how long snails really live. Where would we be without it?
Few people today can appreciate the impact the advent of radio had on the twentieth century. Not only did it suddenly make it possible for a person to be heard from hundreds or even thousands of miles away without the use of a wire (quite an accomplishment in the first years of the century) but it was the center of family life through the end of the Second World War and into the doldrums of the fifties, when it was gradually replaced by that new-fangled contraption, the television.
Today, it seems to only be useful in the car as a means of keeping the driver from falling asleep behind the wheel or as a tool of talk radio designed to rile the masses. In its day, however, it was every bit as vital to existence as the television, the computer, the microwave, and the cell phone are to us today.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.