We tend to believe that powerful, world-changing innovations require complex engineering and a lot of scientific effort to come up with, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, simple improvements like ball bearings and barbed wires have had a huge impact on the course of human history, often directly leading to the more complex works of engineering we see around us today.
10. Barbed Wire
The modern barbed wire could be traced back to an American businessman and inventor, Joseph Glidden. His double-stranded design, patented in 1874, revolutionized the way fences and other enclosures were built around the world – especially in America – allowing for much larger areas of enclosure than ever before. Before the invention, farmers and ranchers had to use wooden fences or stone walls to enclose their land, which was either ineffective or immensely time-consuming and costly.
Barbed wire had a profound effect on the colonization of America, especially in ‘taming the Wild West’. It allowed for the division of vast amounts of land into smaller, more manageable units, enabling settlers to better protect their crops and livestock. It helped spur the expansion of the western frontier by making it easier for settlers to establish homesteads and ranches in remote areas, leading to economic and territorial expansion. It was now much easier to define and enforce property and enclosure laws, as the state was largely unable to do that in the more far-flung regions of the frontier.
While flares have been used for navigation and other purposes for a long time, the modern signal flare was first produced by a businesswoman and inventor named Martha Coston. Patented in 1859, the prototype was based on designs left behind by her deceased husband. Coston flares were made of colored paper tubes filled with chemicals that produced bright, colorful flares when lit, massively improving upon its predecessors in both longevity and brightness.
This invention would go on to play a significant role in the American Civil War, as it was quite useful for communication between ships, signaling enemy positions, and in better coordinating battle strategies over large distances, especially during night battles. Even during the World Wars, flare guns would prove to be important tools for all sides, providing a simple-yet-effective way of sending messages to allied units. Today, signal flares continue to be crucial for emergency responders and search-and-rescue efforts.
8. Ball Bearing
Ball bearings are a type of bearing that use small, spherical balls to reduce friction between rotating parts. The concept dates back to at least Ancient Egypt, though it wasn’t until the invention of the Bessemer process and the bicycle in the mid-19th century that they could be mass-produced and used in a wide range of applications. Where the Bessemer process made it possible to manufacture high-quality steel more cheaply and efficiently, the bicycle provided the technology with its first popular, mass-produced application in the real world.
The invention allowed engineers to significantly reduce friction and wear in rotating parts, which massively increased the reliability and durability of Industrial-era machines. Ball bearings also allowed for the creation of smaller, more compact machines, as they took up less space and weighed less than traditional bearings. Now, it’s impossible to make a working wheel that stays on its axle without almost-perfectly-spherical bearings, as they’re used in a wide range of devices ranging from simple household appliances to heavy military-grade machinery.
On September 28, 1928, a Scottish microbiologist named Alexander Fleming made one of the most important discoveries in medical history. While experimenting with the Influenza virus, he noticed that a kind of mold had contaminated one of his petri dishes, preventing the growth of a bacteria he was studying. Even if completely unintentionally, Fleming had stumbled upon a fungus called Penicillium.
From that, he synthesized the antibiotic drug we now know as Penicillin, which has since had a huge impact on modern life, especially in times of war. From the Second World War to the recent war in Iraq, Penicillin has saved countless lives by treating injuries that would have otherwise been fatal. Before Penicillin, bacterial infections like pneumonia were often fatal and difficult to treat. Now, it’s easily the most widely-used antibiotic drug in the world, reducing mortality rates and improving the quality of lives for millions of people around the world.
6. Throwing Things
In the course of human evolution, throwing things like a projectile shows up some time around two million years ago. This ability gave early humans a distinct advantage in survival, allowing them access to new, larger food sources. The first throwing projectiles were likely stones, which were easily accessible and could be picked up and thrown with precision. It was only a matter of time before the throwing spear was invented and perfected, beginning an entirely new stage in human evolution and development.
The evolution of the throwing spear directly led to a number of important changes in the human body, particularly in the size and shape of the human shoulder, which became more streamlined and allowed for greater speed and accuracy when throwing. It had other important social and cultural implications, too, as the rise of early hunting as a cooperative activity gave early humans a sense of security and control over their environment, allowing for further expansion and conquest.
Transistors were created in 1947 by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was the first major step in the miniaturization of electronics, as transistors replaced bulky vacuum tubes with a smaller, more-efficient, and reliable device.
It revolutionized the world of electronics, eventually paving the way for the development of the modern computer and semiconductor industry. Transistors allowed engineers to design devices that could perform the same function as much larger machines, making it possible to create smaller, faster, and far-more-powerful electronic gadgets. Today, improved and modern forms of transistors – like integrated circuits and microprocessors – play an elemental role in most of our everyday appliances.
4. Repeating Rifle
Before the invention of repeating rifles, firearms were limited in their rate of fire and required a reload after each shot, vastly limiting their overall effectiveness in warfare. It changed with early repeater prototypes, allowing soldiers to fire multiple shots in rapid succession. The first repeating rifles were invented in the mid-19th century, with the famous Henry rifle being the first working model to make a difference on the battlefield.
Repeaters fundamentally changed early modern warfare, as firearms emerged as the deadliest weapon that could be wielded by a single combatant. One could now engage multiple enemies from a far greater distance than ever before, which had a major impact on the tactics and strategy of the time. The increased firepower also meant that battles could be won more quickly, reducing the number of casualties and duration of battles.
At its most basic, the lever is a simple machine with a straight beam or rod that rotates around a fixed point called a fulcrum. It allows force to be multiplied in many ways, making it possible to lift really heavy objects with considerably less effort. While we don’t know exactly when it was invented, the lever was first mathematically described by Archimedes. He was apparently so impressed by it that he said, “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world,” though that was perhaps stretching it a bit.
Regardless, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the humble lever, especially in the construction of early civilizations like Egypt and Greece. It allowed us to build bigger and more complex structures, such as the pyramids and aqueducts, as it was suddenly possible to move heavy stones and other building materials with ease. Today, advanced types of levers are used in almost every facet of our lives, from simple household tools like can openers and pliers to complex machines like cranes and earthmovers.
We’ve been using sails as a means of propulsion for thousands of years, even if it’s difficult to determine exactly who invented them first. For the first time, sails allowed ships to harness the power of the wind, allowing travel over much-longer distances than was possible with oars alone.
While it wasn’t a complicated machine, this simple improvement revolutionized maritime navigation, making trade and commerce with faraway settlements possible. The use of sails also allowed ships to travel against the wind, opening up entirely new lands for trade or conquest. With the help of sailing, early civilizations were able to explore new lands, establish trade routes, and communicate with new cultures they had never known before, which in turn led to the development of more sophisticated economies and cultures around the world.
1. Paper Money
While paper money had been used in many parts of the world before, it was only in Europe during the time of the Crusades that the system really came into its own. European armies and merchants needed a way to carry large sums of money without being burdened by the weight of metal coins, giving birth to the first forms of modern paper currency called bills of exchange.
The practice soon spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, as the introduction of paper money also played an important role in the colonization of the Americas. At the time, shipments between Europe and North America took a long time, resulting in continued cash deficits for settlers and merchants. Paper money allowed them to access the capital they needed to finance projects without having to transport large quantities of precious metal coins across the Atlantic. It also made it easier for European merchants to trade with native populations and other European colonies in the Americas, as it was far simpler to transport and less likely to be lost or stolen than previous forms of currency.