As the last week of National Inventor’s Month rolls around we thought we’d take a brief tour through the last seven decades and discuss each decade’s most important inventions. While each decade produced numerous inventions that have shaped our modern world, we wanted to pinpoint the inventions that had the greatest societal impact.
It’s amazing how many inventions that we take for granted only came into existence during the last 70 years. Innovators and inventors have had an incredible impact on our lives and it’s difficult to imagine what our world would look like without them.
Let’s start off our tour with the 1940’s.
The 1940’s were a tumultuous time of war, globalization, and scientific ingenuity. In addition to the Slinky, Elmer’s glue, and Silly Putty, the 1940’s also brought about the more menacing invention of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb played a crucial role in ending WWII and stoking apocalyptic fears in the hearts of all Americans as the Cold War escalated.
Although the Atomic Bomb changed the face of war and global politics forever, the most important invention of the 1940’s, in our humble opinion, is the development of Penicillin.
Alexander Fleming first discovered Penicillin in 1928, but the first human did not receive the drug until 1942.
Before Fleming ushered in the age of antibiotics, there was no effective treatment for bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, rheumatic fever, gangrene, syphilis, and many more ailments.
It’s estimated that Penicillin has save upwards of 200 million lives since it became available. Penicillin played a crucial part in saving soldiers lives during WWII and has continued to benefit humanity ever since.
The 1950’s were an exceptionally productive time period in terms of inventions. This decade brought the world super glue, diet soda, transistor radios, computer hard disks, credit cards, birth control and McDonalds.
But the most culturally impactful invention from this period is the microchip, also known as the integrated circuit. The microchip, invented by Texas Instruments employee Jack St. Clair Kilby, has gone to play a role in much of the 20th century’s technological advancements.
Without the microchip we would not have personal computers, the Internet, handheld calculators, smart phones, or pretty much anything else digital.
During the 1960’s, the world first saw the invention of audiocassettes, ATMs, handheld calculators, 911 phone system, and bell-bottom pants (plus tie-dye!).
While all of these inventions continue to play a crucial role in society (maybe not the bell-bottom pants), the laser easily takes the cake as the decade’s most crucial invention.
While debate over who actually invented the laser continues, the main guys involved are Charles Townes, Arthur Schawlow, Gordon Gould, Nikolai Basal, and Alexander Prokhorov. We will spare you the technical details and patent disputes that followed. But in short, lasers are concentrated beams of electrons of the same wavelength.
Today, lasers are used in many scientific contexts, such as spectroscopy and nuclear fusion, the military, medical services, and for industrial purposes, such as land surveying.
In addition to Disco, the 1970’s also brought the world home VCRs, Post-its, the first cell phone, first email, and bar codes.
While cell phones and email have gone on to play crucial roles in society, bar codes take the #1 spot for the most influential invention of the 1970s.
Joe Woodland invented the first barcode as a means of speeding up grocery lines, which had been causing decreased profits for grocers because of how long it took to ring everything up.
Using the recently developed laser technology, Woodland developed a system of codes that could be read by lasers at checkout.
Today, barcodes are used in everything from events, travel, package tracking, and advertisements.
Along with the rise of MTV and stealth warcraft, the 80’s also saw an explosion in computer technology. Not only did personal computing become a thing, but personal gaming also took a great leap forward, with Nintendo.
But the most important inventions of this era were the IBM PC and Macintosh. While the IBM PC was the first personal computer, invented in 1981, the Macintosh quickly made the device near obsolete, adding the mouse and graphical user interface. Although the Macintosh proved to be the better machine, the IBM turned out to be the more influential. For the next twenty years, thanks to Windows software, most people adopted machines based of the IBM model.
But Apple eventually reclaimed the throne with an onslaught of innovation during the new millennium.
Ah, yes, the 90’s, what a beautiful time. Indie rock exploded from suburban garages and America stayed out of war (for the most part) – things were good.
During this time, inventors brought the world GPS-guided munitions, LINUX, MP3 Players, Adobe Photoshop, and most importantly, the World Wide Web.
While we won’t spend too much time on this topic, since we wrote a full-length article on the World Wide Web last week, what’s important to note is that a man named Tim Berners-Lee developed the means of transferring hypertext documents across the Internet, allowing users in different parts of the world to share information in a flash. Also, he chose not to profit off of his innovation.
It’s crazy to think that only a decade ago the world existed without drones, a fully mapped human genome, and social media (Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, and YouTube), all of which came into being during the oughts. Without social media, we’d still be living in a world where kids played outside and bullied each other in person. Who wants that?!
But jokes aside, the most important invention of the new millennium is – drum roll please – the iPhone!
Yes, Steve Jobs brilliant little contraption brought fifty years of computer power into the pockets of citizens around the world. The iPhone has completely revamped how we communicate in the modern world. Never again will people struggle to remember a fact or tidbit of information. You can just look it up!
It’s amazing how much the inventions we create shape and define our lives. Who knows what the next decade will bring. Happy National Inventor’s Month!