There was a time when man used to make fire by rubbing flints together, roast some meat on the delicate flame, devour it quickly before some other predator caught the scent, and then sleep on the cold, possibly bug-ridden soil. Ideas of a usual modern 'evening plan', may it be nightclubs, a movie, a date, or a lazy dinner in front of the TV, were light years beyond the wildest of dreams. Ever wondered about the people who have made such significant contributions to making our lives so much easier? Let's take a look at those responsible for kick-starting humanity's march towards such an age of modernity and advancement.
Harbingers of Modernity
Note: The list has been compiled in an alphabetical sequence of surnames.
It is perhaps fitting that Archimedes should lead the lineup of great inventors, even in an alphabetical fashion. Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer and an inventor, producing his best work in the 3rd century BC. His contributions have been invaluable in several fields, but there are some inventions which have made him a cult icon. Some of his famous inventions include the Archimedean Screw, which was developed in order to remove flooded water from ships. It included a large screw fitted inside a cylinder. As the screw was turned, water progressively rose into the subsequent grooves, ultimately gushing out at the open end. The Archimedean screw was turned by hand and could also be used to transfer water from a low-lying body of water into an irrigation canal. Till date, the Archimedean screw (or its fundamental principle) is used in pumps. Archimedes is also famous for the (possibly apocryphal) anecdote of his discovery of the Archimedes' Principle upon entering the bathtub and rushing out naked in the joy of having found a solution.
Edwin H. Armstrong
A groundbreaking researcher and inventor in the field of radio, Edwin Howard Armstrong invented the FM transmission. The FM radio has, to a majority of people, become as important a tool in having a cheerful morning as a bath or a cup of coffee. Edwin Armstrong is the one we have to thank for that.
John Vincent Atanasoff
Atanasoff is credited with inventing perhaps the most ubiquitous device in the modern world -- the digital computer. The 'computer' built by Atanasoff was only designed to be used for 'computing', rather than in the form of the entertainment hubs of today. However, it would be a grave folly to underestimate its importance, considering the indispensable place it has gone on to command in all of our lives.
Atanasoff may have invented the digital computer, but the computer, per se, was invented by the English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage. He came up with the concept of a programmable computer and is said to have invented the first mechanical computer in the 19th century.
Alexander Graham Bell
The telephone, a fairly vital device in modern times, was invented by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell's wife and mother were deaf, inspiring him to perform extensive research into elocution and speech for the deaf. This research ultimately led to the invention of the world's first telephone.
Although the rising gasoline prices might seem like a nightmare now, you have to admit that a life without cars would have been pretty boring. And slow! Well, thank god for Karl Friedrich Benz, the German engine designer and automobile engineer who invented the gasoline-powered automobile.
Laszlo Biro was the inventor of the modern ballpoint pen. The ballpoints were much more efficient than the prevalent ink pens, and stained much less. Ballpoint pens are known as biro in many English-speaking countries after its inventor (despite it being a registered trademark and legally necessitating its usage with a capital 'B').
Remember all those times when you are just too tired to cook after you have slogged through your job in the day? Isn't frozen food a lifesaver at times like these? You need to thank Clarence Frank Birdseye II, the American inventor who is considered the founder of the modern frozen food industry.
Seat belts are nowadays considered a basic preventive device, and are fitted in cars by default. It started with Nils Bohlin inventing the three-point safety belts. Bohlin, who was a versatile engineer, was also responsible for the development of the ejector seat in airplanes.
Louis Braille was the inventor of the eponymous Braille script. Braille, who was blind himself, developed the first draft of the script in 1824; it was perfected around 1940. The Braille script has proved to be an invaluable means of communication and comprehension for the blind.
John Browning was the inventor of modern automatic and semi-automatic firearms and has as many as 128 gun patents to his name. Browning was a pioneering late-19th century designer, and brought about several important changes in the existing design of firearms. Chief among these was the telescoping bolt, a system which facilitated a reduction in the length of rifles, thus making them easier to point and handle. The telescopic bolt has been used ever since, with minimal modification.
George W. Carver
Carver was born in slavery in or around 1864, and was raised by his master Moses Carver and his wife, both of whom were opposed to slavery. Carver worked towards eliminating the monopoly of cotton in Southern US plantations by introducing alternate crops which would replenish the soil while providing nutrition to the laborers themselves. Primary among the crops he promoted were peanuts, which he researched upon extensively and modified to create several products, such as peanut butter, dyes, paints and cosmetics. Carver is sometimes credited as the father of chemurgy (an applied science of modifying and manipulating agricultural raw products to create industrial products), due to the vast number of products he was able to produce from previously ignored crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes and soya beans.
Sir Henry Cole
Henry Cole, who was an English civil servant, is credited with the invention and popularization of commercial Christmas cards. He was knighted in 1875 for his stellar contribution in organizing and expanding the 'Great Exhibitions', which would become a hallmark feature of the 19th century. One of his first Christmas cards (1843) fetched GBP 22,500 in a 2001 auction! Perhaps he should be called Santa Cole, then!
Bartolomeo Cristofori was an Italian maker of musical instruments. He is generally regarded as the inventor of the piano. However, any musical instrument has to undergo several modifications in order for it to reach its final form. Thus, Cristofori's claim as the sole inventor can be refuted, although he definitely had the most prominent role in the development of the instrument.
William K. Dickson *
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was an Anglo-Scottish inventor who created an early motion picture camera, while under the employment of Thomas Edison. He also invented the first practical celluloid film, and set the standard for its size by going for a 35 mm configuration, which is practiced even to this day.
Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel was a German inventor who is known for his invention of the diesel engine. The fuel, which is much more efficient than petrol, was named after him. Diesel's death was controversial; he disappeared aboard a steamer and was identified days later, on the strength of his personal belongings having been found on a corpse.
George Eastman was the man who invented the roll film, which was not only a great boost for the art of photography, but also became the basis for the invention of motion picture films. Eastman founded Kodak, a popular photographic equipment company even to this day, in 1889.
Thomas Alva Edison is best known as the inventor of the light bulb and the widespread commercialization of electricity, but he was also the man behind the phonograph, and the development of the video camera*. Edison is the fourth most prolific inventor in history, and holds more than 2300 patents worldwide, almost 1100 of them American.
Willem Einthoven was a Dutch doctor and physiologist. He invented the first practical electrocardiogram, also known as ECG.
Having already written about the inventors of computers, here comes the inventor of the mouse. Dr. Douglas Engelbart is well-known for his research in user-computer interactions, culminating in the invention of the mouse.
Faraday is known for his invention of the Faraday rotator and the Faraday cage. Faraday also discovered the laws of electrolysis and popularized terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion, terms largely created by William Whewell.
Alexander Fleming is popular for his discovery of the antibiotic Penicillin from the fungus Penicillium rubens (the particular fungus is also thought to be P. notatum or P. chrysogenum) in the year 1928. He also discovered lysozymes in 1922.
Benjamin Franklin is famous for inventing the lightning rod and the accompanying anecdote of him having flown a kite in a storm in order to prove his hypothesis. He also invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, a carriage odometer, and also a musical instrument known as glass armonica. Franklin was a noted polymath, and was a central figure in early American politics; he was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
William Friese-Greene *
William Friese-Greene is known as a pioneer in the field of motion pictures and also known as the inventor of cinematography.
Dennis Gabor was a Hungarian electrical engineer who invented holography. Holography is the technique used primarily to create commercially used holograms. It is a technique of capturing visual input (laser). However, in contrast to photographs, which only capture the light coming towards a specific direction, holographs capture the light scattered towards all directions, thus showing different layers of the image at different viewing angles.
Bette Nesmith Graham
Bette Nesmith Graham was the inventor of Liquid Paper, which is the brand name of opaque correction fluid used to cover up mistakes on paper without retyping the entire sheet. It was invented by Graham to mask the numerous typing mistakes made by herself and her colleagues, but has now developed to become the primary handwriting correction fluid.
Johann Gutenberg is known as the man who was the first European to use movable type printing, in around 1439. But more importantly, he was the one who invented mechanical printing. Mechanical printing facilitated a much faster and wider distribution of written text, since it could be done in an infinitesimal time compared to reproducing the manuscript by hand. The Bible was the first book thus printed.
Elias Howe was an American inventor who pioneered the sewing machine. Sewing machines had been formulated and built -- albeit on a small scale -- before Howe, but Howe's design was the first to incorporate a lockstitch mechanism. The lockstitch mechanism provided a much stronger stitch than existing designs.
Whitcomb L. Judson
Whitcomb L. Judson was an American inventor who developed and marketed the forerunner of the modern zipper in 1893. It was called the clasp-locker. Elias Howe had created the original design of the clasp locker, but didn't carry on with the idea. Judson used the basic idea of Howe's patented design, while making some useful modifications of his own.
Cornflakes are one of the most popular morning snacks all over the world. These crunchy delights were invented around 1900. John Kellogg invented cornflakes, with help from his brother Will Kellogg. Although his views on holistic health were controversial and would almost certainly be rejected in modern times on grounds of humanity, it can't be doubted that at least one of his inventions has gone on to become a universal favorite.
One of the most important inventions in the medical field is the stethoscope. Rene Laennec was a physician who invented the stethoscope. Before the invention of the stethoscope, physicians used to listen to the heartbeats of a patient by directly pressing their ears against the patient's chest. Laennec was once consulted by an obese patient, and couldn't discern the distinct pattern of heartbeats because of the extreme fatness. Thus, he made a crude early stethoscope by rolling up a newspaper and applying the tube to the patient's chest. Seeing that he could hear the heartbeats much clearer in this fashion, he designed and created the first stethoscope.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is best known for his work on the improvement of the microscope. He created over 400 different types of microscopes, and also pioneered research in lenses. His research and work in creating microscopes founded the field of microbiology, earning him the title 'the father of microbiology'.
Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian inventor who invented the radiotelegraph system in 1895. Although Marconi is generally given the credit for inventing the radio, Heinrich Hertz had validated the underlying principle in 1888 (Hertz passed away in 1894), and Jagadish Chandra Bose had demonstrated the practical use of radio waves a year before Marconi's invention.
Known popularly as the father of the periodic table of the elements, Dmitri Mendeleev created the first version of the periodic table of elements. Although Mendeleev's periodic table was largely incomplete, he deliberately left 'blanks' in the progression, predicting (often correctly) the properties of the absent elements.
Dr. Robert Arthur Moog was an American pioneer of electronic music, best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. The Moog synthesizer was highly popular from the late 1960s to the 80s. The electrical design used by Moog was later used in numerous other synthesizers.
Samuel Morse invented the single wire telegraph system, and co-invented the Morse code, which is named after him. Morse was also an accomplished painter. He was a well-known anti-Catholic, to the extent of not taking his hat off when meeting the Pope on a visit to Rome. He was also a vocal proponent of slavery (although this should be viewed in the light of it being the socially accepted custom at the time).
James Naismith invented the massively popular sport of basketball in 1891 and is also credited with inventing the first football helmet. Basketball was admitted into the 1936 Olympics, just three years before Naismith's death. For his pioneering contributions to basketball, he was posthumously included in the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, among others.
Nicephore Niepce was a French inventor, who is known as the inventor of modern photography. After realizing that he did not have a steady hand required to trace the images created by the camera obscura (a rudimentary early version of the camera), Niepce created a camera with bitumen. This required several hours of exposure for an image to be created, but paved the way for future developments in cameras and photography.
Niepce is also credited with inventing the world's first internal combustion engine, patented in 1807.
Niepce is also credited with inventing the world's first internal combustion engine, patented in 1807.
Lovers of Rock and Roll should know that Les Paul is the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, without which the modern music scene would have taken a drastically different turn. In addition to the invention of the vital instrument, Paul influenced Rock and Roll by promoting already invented (but unpopular) techniques in recording, and delay effects. He also introduced new fretting and chording techniques that are followed by many modern guitarists.
Can't live without your daily can of cola? Ever wondered who invented it? An American pharmacist called John Stith Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. Although the present form of Coca-Cola (along with other aerated drinks) has generated negative criticism for its adverse health effects, Pemberton's original formula was marketed as a brain tonic and a cure for headaches.
James L. Plimpton
James Leonard Plimpton was an American inventor whom every skater should thank. He is the man who invented and patented roller skates in 1863. He strove to promote skating, and opened some of the earliest skating rinks in the US.
Charles Richter is the co-inventor (along with Beno Gutenberg, although the sole use of Richter's name is now practically standard) of the Richter magnitude scale, which is used to measure the magnitude of earthquakes, although it is no longer the primary method. Richter had a keen interest in seismology (the study of earthquakes and the waves generated by them) since childhood.
Wilhelm C. Rontgen
Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen won the 1901 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of X-rays, a vital tool in diagnostics. X-rays were viewed suspiciously and even considered evil by the masses, and Rontgen had to demonstrate the technology on himself -- due to a lack of volunteers -- on numerous occasions. This resulted in a tragic death, having contracted intestinal cancer from overexposure to X-rays.
Yes, you guessed it right! Erno Rubik is a Hungarian inventor, sculptor and professor of architecture, who invented several popular mechanical puzzles such as Rubik's Cube, Rubik's Magic and Rubik's Snake. He was born during the Second World War -- 1944 -- in Hungary. Despite being the inventor of the toy, he rarely attends 'speedcubing' meets, and is known to be an introvert.
As can be deduced from the name, Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone. The name of the famous jazz instrument literally means 'the voice of Sax'. Sax himself was an accomplished flutist and clarinetist, and his keen passion for musical instruments, coupled with musical training, led him to create an instrument that has gone on to become as important as any.
Igor Sikorsky was a Russian-American aviator and designer, who invented and flew the world's first multi-engine fixed-wing aircraft. He developed the first flying boats of the Pan American Airways fleet in the 1930s. He also developed the now-standard rotor configuration in helicopters, with the VS-300, and went on to produce the first mass-produced helicopter, the Sikorsky R-4.
All fashion gurus will agree that a pair of blue jeans is a must-have! Well, kudos to the man who invented it, Levi Strauss. Strauss received a patent for the denim work trousers in 1873, the same year he founded the oldest jeans company in the world -- Levi Strauss & Co.
Edward Teller was the inventor of the hydrogen bomb; despite often being called 'the father of the hydrogen bomb', Teller himself didn't appreciate the epithet. Teller was a part of the Manhattan Project, where he first proposed fusion-based weapons. However, his plans, which were inherently more complicated, difficult to execute and time-consuming, were postponed to be pursued after the War. It was designed and tested in the early 1950s. Edward Teller was an advocate of nuclear energy, including weapons, polarizing opinions about him.
Venn diagrams may be boring to learn, but the system put in place by John Venn is helpful in numerous fields, such as logic and set theory. Venn was a keen walker and mountain climber and a proficient amateur linguist.
Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci is popular particularly for the Mona Lisa, and the prominent role he holds in the bestselling fiction The Da Vinci Code. He was a stunning polymath, and a prolific inventor. He designed several military and civil devices, including flying machines similar to hang gliders and helicopters, in the 16th century -- more than 300 years before the first flight by the Wright brothers. Many of his designs have been constructed by enthusiastic amateurs, including the fictional Jacques Sauniere in The Da Vinci Code.
Alessandro Volta is known for the invention of the first electric cell in 1800. Although the cell was very inefficient and slightly dangerous (especially if the need arose for transportation) due to the inclusion of sulfuric acid, it opened up a direction very few had previously even considered. The unit of measurement for electric potential, volts, is named in honor of Alessandro Volta.
James Watt is the man who improved upon the steam engine, and invented a much more efficient version of the same. Although Watt didn't invent the steam engine -- that honor goes to Thomas Newcomen -- his inventions and modifications helped the steam engine become a central figure in the subsequent Industrial Revolution.
Charles Wheatstone is accredited for his invention of the English concertina (a musical instrument similar to an accordion), the stereoscope (which is a device for displaying three-dimensional images) and the Playfair cipher (which is an encryption technique).
Eli Whitney is the inventor of the cotton gin. The gin sped up the production (processing) of cotton by several degrees, since it had to be done by hand prior to Whitney's invention. Whitney had to commit considerable finance to lawsuits over patent infringements, and ended up producing arms for the US government.
Paul Winchell is the man who built and patented the first mechanical heart. Winchell donated the artificial heart to the University of Utah, which had invented a similar contraption around the same time as Winchell, and requested the donation. Winchell, who was a ventriloquist and comedian by profession, also holds the patents for the disposable razor, blood plasma defroster etc.
The Wright Brothers
The famous Wright Brothers -- Orville and Wilbur -- are credited with making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, in an airplane that they had designed themselves. They developed the aircraft in collaboration with Charlie Taylor, a mechanic. The trio incorporated many innovative and common practices in engine mechanics, such as using an aluminum casing to reduce the weight, and a rudimentary version of fuel injection, without carburetors or fuel pumps.
The next time you get that satisfaction of having solved the newspaper crossword puzzle, thank Arthur Wynne, the inventor of the same. Working for the New York World, Wynne improved upon the existing designs of word puzzles, adding the common elements of 'black squares', and the rectangular (usually square) structure of the puzzle.
* Several inventors had made similar designs of motion cameras around the same time. No inventor can be credited as the sole inventor of motion cameras.
In addition to the inventors mentioned above, there are numerous people who have made innovative discoveries that have touched lives across the world. Today most of these inventions have become an integral part of our lives, and are usually taken for granted. In our busy schedule and jam-packed routines, it can be a nice gesture for us to take a minute to remember with gratitude the inventors who have made our lives so mind-bogglingly simple.