Inventions Throughout History

June 14, 2010
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There is no doubt that mankind's inventions have shaped the course of human history, although it was the world we lived in that caused these inventions to arise. Inventions can be misused, or have dangerous byproducts and cause controversy. Throughout the ages, inventions have improved the standards of living, as well as killed countless numbers of people. (Mokyr) However, it is hard for one to deny how inventions have improved life. Although opposing viewpoints are likely to remain, it seems that nothing can slow the relentless march of humankind's technological advances.

As many inventions rely on the flow of electrons that we know as electricity, it seems an appropiate place to start an explanatory journey throughout the history of human ingenuity. Electricity had many developments and many people were involved in the great network that is now present. The tale stretches back to ancient times, as the ancient Greeks first discovered the strange properties of some objects, particularly amber when rubbed with a cloth, as well as the ability of magnetite, or lodestone to attract iron. In fact, our word "electric" is derived from the Greek word for amber, "elektron" (Jones)

"Philosophers and scientists eventually understood the connection between the forces associated with lodestone and amber." Although it took over 2,000 years, this insight would enable the generation and harnessing of electricity to fuel society. Several experiments and innovations later, methods of storing static electricity were developed, such as the Leyden jar. However, they had no practical purpose, and methods of using electricity to produce light were not developed for centuries. Benjamin Franklin's famous experiment proved that lightning was made up of electricity. (Jones)

As time progressed, more research was conducted, and more people joined in the line of history that would shape the world today. "Alessandro Volta, a professor of physics at the University of Pavia, tested various materials with an unusual instrument: His tongue. He placed combinations of silver, tin, brass iron, and other metals in his mouth. A bitter sensation, he theorized, might be caused by a current that flowed from metal to metal via saliva." (Jones) "Volta built his "pile," stacking dozens of metal discs, each separated by a brine-soaked cloth. Touching each end produced a shock, which was repeated with each touch." (Schlesinger)

"In 1820, Hans Christian Orsted, a physics professor at the University of Copenhagen, gave a lecture about electricity. During a demonstration, he held a wire charged from a voltaic pile. He had intended to show how an electric current heats a platinum wire, but he became distracted by a swinging needle of a nearby compass. The compass needle reacted as if the charged wire produced a magnetic force. Later, he discovered that the needle would swing into a position right angles to a charged wire. The needle deflected in the opposite direction when Orsted reversed the flow of electricity. Orsted had discovered that electric current induces a magnetic field. " (Jones)

Not surprisingly, Parisian professor of mathematics Andre-Marie Ampere was disbelieving when he read Orsted's report. Nonetheless, Ampere repeated the experiment. He verified that the power of the magnetic field's potency rises with the power of the electric current. He also showed that wires charged with currents flowing parallel in the same direction attract each other, whereas wires with currents flowing in opposite directions repel one another. He made an electromagnet by running an electric current through coiled wire. The strength of an electromagnet increased as he added wire coils. Ampere experimented, and succeeded in strengthening the magnetic force by wrapping the coils around a piece of iron.(Jones)



In 1831, Michael Faraday tried reversing the experiment, to use magnetism to create electricity. He attempted to pass magnets through coils of wire, which succeeded in generating an electrical current. This new development allowed more inventions to be produced. The arc light used electricity to produce illumination by "an arc of electrical current passing through ionized gas between two electrodes." ("Arc lamp")

Later, George Westinghouse creates the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, in 1896. This pioneered generating electrical power from stations far away from those communities that would use it. The first station transmits power to Buffalo, New York, twenty miles away. Thomas Edison created a power service using direct current, supplying people with electricity with current that is transferred in one direction. (Goodwin) However, Edison competed with Westinghouse, whose company used alternating current, where the current periodically reverses direction. Alternating current has advantages over direct current, since direct current can only be transmitted over a short distance. We now use alternating current worldwide today. (Jones)

The invention of electricity paved the way for all the modern inventions that we have today. Nothing, it seems though, can prevent controversy from arising. New developments in science, such as nanotechnology, are disputed. Some say it will cause significant social disruption and worsen global inequities. Others claim that "Nanotechnology could soon be applied to address the critical health, food, water, and energy needs of the 5 billion people in the developing world." (Langwith) It seems that people argue more than they invent now. Some say that this is the great flaw in our inventiveness. It seems that the inventions of the past were much more beneficial to society than the ones created today. (Cox)

These great inventions of the past would include the crossbow, which revolutionized battle, allowing anyone to operate a weapon with minimal training. The printing press, which allowed everyone to become more literate and brought books to the general public. Most inventions that are revolutionary bring something to the general public. Inventions that have been around for ages are revolutionized by electricity, such as public transportation. Electric railways have significantly expanded urban areas. Also, Inventions are not always an item, they can be a process, such as the chemical treatment of rubber known as vulcanization. When combined with sulfur, the new rubber is much more durable, so it is applicable in many more uses and forms. Before this process was created, rubber would melt in high heat, so was not very useful in many outdoor environments. ("Inventions")

Electricity may have been a starting point for many modern inventions, but as the relentless march of scientific progress ensues, it seems to be a mere stepping stone. People assimilate new inventions so quickly it appears that they do not consider the impacts of such on the world around them. People become more and more reliant on technology. The majority of the most useful, revolutionary inventions were created in the past. (Cox) It seems that many new inventions are pointless, such as laser-guided scissors or a motorized ice-cream cone. ("The Most Useless Inventions Ever")

Humans have created some amazing devices and techniques, and they have changed the way we live. Inventions are created out of need, and as it seems that people are needing less and less as cities grow and civilization advances. Inventions shape the life of people, as people shape the design of inventions. An intriguing question is contemplated, being, whom is the master of whom?





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