What Are the Most Important Inventions of the 20th Century

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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 Most Important Inventions of the 20th Century of the twentieth century.

10. Nuclear Power

Image result for 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

Image result for first 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.

6. Rocketry

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.

Image result for first Submarine

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.

4. Antibiotics

Image result for first Antibiotics

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.

3. Television

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

Image result for first 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?

1. Radio

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.

Image result for first radio

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.


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68 Comments

  1. …. an outstanding list of Top 10…. now that's a hard one to decide between for #1 and #2…. the Internet or Radio…. the Radio or Internet !! πŸ™‚

    • Without radio there wouldn’t even be a lot of the Internet. Satellites communicate by radio.

  2. tasmanian devil on

    Don’t want to sound like a smart arse but in the first sentence of the nuclear power list you liken it steam power in the 19th century. However, the electricity that is created in nuclear power station is from steam turning turbines. It is the source that heats the water to cause steam that has changed over the centuries: from coal to a nuclear reaction.

  3. Sorry, but antibiotics don't heal viral infections, such as smallpox. That was eradicated by vaccination, which started in the 18th Century (well, the effective one came on later).

  4. I was a bit thrown out of place by the #1 given to radio, if anything it could be switched with television, but I guess radio played a much more vital and functional role during it's time than television.

    • Television depends on radio as well. How do you think TV signals are transmitted and received? Via radio.

  5. There’s one more that was forgotten: audio and video storage. It doesn’t necessarily come in one format (vinyl, film, tape, digital, etc.) but it’s impact is massive.

    Before storage was possible, performances could not be captured, whether visual, musical, spoken or sound. People could not share things they had experienced, could not hear or see first hand what others saw. Most times, experience came second hand by writers and newsprint.

    Storage changed not only experience, it changed time. Things could be known or shared immediately over distance, or kept for the future. A picture is worth a thousand words, if by word you mean two bytes on a computer. Movies and songs are worth millions of words and the experience of seeing or hearing them can never be conveyed by words alone.

  6. I beleive all but 1 or 2 were invented by AMERICANS in this list!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just had to point that out!

  7. I’m so glad there are submarines!! I can’t survive a day without one!! Not….. WTF are submarines doing in this list? A world without submarines will make no difference at all. I think for example the invention of the refrigerator is WAY more important then the submarine:S

  8. how about the pet Tickle Me Plant you can now grow from seed that closes its leaves like crazy when you Tickle It

  9. hello people internet should be first if we didnt have it we would not be commenting now πŸ™‚

  10. my list

    1. Internet
    2.Radio
    3. Television
    4. Antibiotics
    5. Airplane
    6.Rocketry
    7. The Auto Mobile
    8.Submarine
    9.Nuclear Power
    10.The Personal Computer

    • You guy theres no reason to really say internet becasue if nuclear power never exsited then where would your screens come from the have plasma whiich is procceds at a nuclear power plant

      • name who you dont know on

        jason_b that has to be the stupidest thing i have ever heard in my whole life. there in no such thing as “nuclear” plasma in a computer screen. Did you skip kindergarden? A common computer screen has a liquid crystal display. it is not “plasma whiich is procceds at a nuclear power plant”.

        • name who you dont know on

          and to add to what i said, a kindegarten would not know what an LCD is, but i dont think even they would think its “nuclear plasma”

    • Transistor is pretty important, but so was its predecessor the tube (valve if you’re UK), which dominated the first half of the 20th century. You might as well also suggest the integrated circuit (ie., chip). Similar functions, just different in size and cost.

    • Well, Dang! I read through/scrolled down to the end to find that Tom White beat me to the punch. Whilst I agree with Tom that the valve (vacuum tube, DeForrest triode, etc) was crucial in the development of radiocommunications, I am typing this missive on a Mac laptop that i can hold in one hand. There has never been a vacuum tube based computer that I could hold in one hand.

      As for the IC, it is nothing more than someone recognizing that it is possible to put two transistors on one block. Then three. Etc.

      My opinion, for what it’s worth: Vacuum tube technology made radio, TV, and long range communication possible. (Not to mention RADAR in WW2 – arguably among the more significant advantages the Allies held. It also made digital computers, as we know them, possible. The computer upon which I am writing this, and the computer upon which you are reading this, would NOT be possible without cheap large scale integrated circuits. Which are all derived from one transistor.

      IMHO – after much consideration, the VALVE is NOT the predecessor of the transistor. The transistor was an entirely NEW thing. And the laptop computer upon which I am composing this message and the computer (laptop or otherwise) upon which you are viewing this missive, ALL derive from the original transistor.

      • BTW – I forgot to mention that I actually have some familiarity with and fondness for vacuum tube technology.
        “Real Radios Glow In The Dark!”
        Lafayette Explor-Air, Knight-Kit, Heathkit, Eico, Dynaco kits. Real Radios that my mentors owned:
        Collins, Drake, Hammarlund, Hallicrafters, Viking, etc.

        G Woody – formerly aka WA4TIZ

  11. Good article but try to be less biased in your writing. Keep it factual, don’t add in opinions. That’s what makes a perfect top ten list. Other then that, great job.

  12. The biggest of all innovation is TRIZ – Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. A Methodolgy for innovating systematically. Unfortunately it did not become popular

  13. I think internet is the best invention in the 20th century. It made our life more convenient and comfortable.