Inventing a useful product or process is serious business — turn a great idea into a marketable widget, and you could earn millions of dollars. But that doesn't mean your widget has to be straitlaced and conservative; hundreds of seemingly off-the-wall or laughter-inducing products become big hits for their inventors because they're big hits with consumers.
In this article, we'll look at 11 inventions that changed the world. A few are as modern as the mobile phone. Others are as ancient as Aristotle. All of them have made a significant impact on how we live and work in the modern world.
5 Pre-Industrial Revolution Inventions That Changed the World
Beer not only makes things more humorous to those consuming it, but its creation is also comical — even thousands of years ago, people still added an extra punch to their feasts and gatherings with intoxicating beverages.
As archaeologists continue to piece together where and how the first brew was crafted, one thing's for sure: This intoxicating beverage changed the way people lived and had fun. Physical evidence of fermented beverages dates as far back as 9,000 years ago, experts say, with beer entering the scene some time before 6,000 B.C.E. [source: Britannica].
But beer isn't the first thing to come to mind when you want to tie modern societies to ancient civilizations. Even so, the beverage likely played a role in determining which crops to harvest, and potentially, where large groups of people chose to settle.
Intoxication may have also fostered cultural activities, including artistic expression, medicine and spiritual rituals [source: Tucker].
Beer's Sanitation Perks
Brewing beer provided sanitation perks in Europe during the Middle Ages and later for the North American colonies. It turns out the process of fermenting the beverage can kill harmful bacteria in water supplies. In some cases, beer was not just a preferred choice — it was safer to drink, too.
It's strange to think of comedy being invented, but as a dramatic or literary genre, it had to begin somewhere. That somewhere was ancient Greece, probably around the fifth century B.C.E.
Most scholars believe that comedy arose out of the revels associated with the rites of Dionysus, a god who embodied the fertility of nature. In fact, the word "comedy" comes from the Greek verb komos, meaning "to revel."
If you know anything about the Dionysian festivals — known as Bacchanalia to the Romans — then you know what took place. Revelers drank a lot, had sex and, in general, participated in all forms of debauchery. Joking and laughing most certainly played important roles in the celebration.
In Greek theater, comedy evolved through three forms — Old, Middle and New. Old and Middle comedies took aim at myths or practiced political satire. Early comedies, however, could have complicated plots and were not bust-your-gut funny.
This gave rise to New Comedy, which focused more on the mundane lives of mere mortals [source: Poundstone]. As such, it tended to be cruder and simpler — sort of like "Arrested Development" or "Three's Company" with a chorus.
Arguably, the most notable practitioner of New Comedy was Menander, a prolific Greek playwright who lived from about 342 to 291 B.C.E. Menander may have been the first insult comic [source: Poundstone]. His influence has resonated throughout the centuries.
Condoms can induce giggles in just about any crowd. What other object can be used either to make balloon animals or to prevent pregnancy? Condoms may seem funny, but this early form of birth control changed the world.
The Egyptians were the first to use condoms them 3,000 years ago, albeit in a slightly different form [source: Usborne]. Those ancient condoms were constructed from animal gut or fish membrane.
By the 1840s, they were made of vulcanized rubber and could be washed and reused. Then came latex and the disposable condom. In fact, modern condoms should be removed immediately after ejaculation and disposed of properly, which means not in the toilet.
Condoms are extremely effective in protecting against sexually transmitted infections and preventing pregnancy — the pregnancy rate when the male condom is used perfectly is just 3 percent over 12 months [source: WHO].
So, condoms may make you giggle, but if you're sexually active, they can really, ahem, keep you covered.
It's hard to think of a more life-changing invention than the toilet, or, as some call it: the crapper.
The nickname "crapper" may be attributed to Thomas Crapper, the device's supposed inventor. In reality, Thomas Crapper didn't invent the toilet. Although he was a plumber and did hold patents, including three for water closets, Crapper can't take credit for the combination of bowl, plumbing and flushing mechanism we recognize today as a toilet.
That honor goes to Sir John Harington, an Elizabethan courtier, translator and writer who installed a flush toilet in the palace of Queen Elizabeth in 1591. Harington described his invention in "The Metamorphosis of Ajax," the first book in a saucy trilogy that threw the writer into disgrace.
So, the next time you go to the john, give a bow to Sir John Harington for his contribution to modern sanitation.
And if you prefer to use the crapper instead, then take note: The word "crap" isn't derived from Thomas Crapper's name. Some dictionaries trace the origins of the word back to the Dutch krappe, which itself is derived from the Dutch krappen, "to pluck or cut off." We'll let you figure that one out for yourself.
1. Printing Press
The printing press was arguably the most important invention of the preindustrial world.
The first mechanized printing press was developed in 15th-century Europe for Johannes Gutenberg. The mechanized printing press combined Chinese movable type with a Mediterranean grape press (more proof of how alcoholic beverages changed the world).
Gutenberg's mechanized press produced books and pamphlets in record time, allowing information to spread relatively quickly throughout Western Europe for the first time. Some people call the invention of the mechanized printing press the beginning of the first Information Age. (The second Information Age involves the invention of the modern internet.)
3 Crucial Inventions From the 19th and 20th Centuries
3. The Steam Engine
The steam engine set the stage for the Industrial Revolution, powering transportation and equipment that allowed for new processes like mass production to completely alter the way people worked. Many of the inventions on this list would not have made their way into our homes without the steam engine. It was later replaced by the internal combustion engine.
A Funny Reaction to a Bright Invention
In 1879, Thomas Edison obtained the first patent for the incandescent light bulb. But when electric lighting arrived on the scene in Victorian Britain, the technology wasn't embraced by everyone. Women in particular were concerned electric lamps would cast a harsh light on their complexions, rendering them less attractive.
2. Duct Tape
Use the right tool for the job, but if that tool isn't available, then the next best thing just might be duct tape. People reach for their handy roll of silver-sided tape for almost everything, from keeping their car's dangling side-view mirrors hanging on to making fashion statements (duct tape shoes, anyone?).
Duct tape began as a serious solution. During World War II, the U.S. military needed a strong, waterproof tape to help keep ammunition cases dry.
By modifying medical tape, researchers at the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson came up with a three-ply tape that sandwiched a fabric mesh between a layer of polyethylene on top and a rubber-based adhesive on the bottom.
Their take on tape performed better than anyone expected. It was exceedingly strong, yet allowed soldiers to rip it easily into strips. And its ability to repel water became legendary, inspiring admirers to call it "duck" tape because it reminded them of a waterfowl's waxy feathers.
After the war, the housing industry boomed. As soldiers returned home and took jobs on building sites, so the legend goes, they remembered the really strong tape from their military days and recommended it to heating, ventilating and air-conditioning contractors, who needed something to hold ductwork together.
Soon, manufacturers started making the tape with a silver-colored polyethylene top so it matched the aluminum ducts. Shortly after that, people began to realize the universal usefulness of duct tape.
Now That's Counterintuitive
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory exposed a variety of sealing materials, including duct tape, to conditions that might be experienced in a real HVAC system. According to those tests, the worst duct sealant solution is duct tape [source: Preuss].
1. TV Dinners
The idea of the television affecting humans' diets may seem silly, but take the case of the TV dinner. The popularity of the TV during the mid-20th century carried into dinnertime for the average U.S. family. To make tube-viewing more convenient during mealtime, companies created ways to prepackage foods for easy consumption.
TV dinner meals popped up in a variety of forms, some more humorous and palatable than others. Inspired by packaged airplane meals, the TV dinner hit markets in the late 1940s.
Meals would be processed at factories and purchased at the grocer to store in the freezer at home. They could be heated up by oven (or later, microwave) at the person's convenience. It's contested who invented the dinner TV, but when the company Swanson started marketing its frozen meals in the mid-1950s, the foods' popularity sky-rocketed [source: The Library of Congress].
Regardless of inventor (see "History of TV Dinners" for more details), frozen meals have changed how humans think about and consume food. Today's frozen meals save people time as well as lengthen how long people can store food.
3 Information Age Inventions That Changed the World
3. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X Phone
Ah, the 1980s. Who can forget the advent of MTV, big hair bands, parachute pants, leg warmers and "greed-is-good" Gordon Gekko, taking a stroll down the beach while he speaks to hero Bud Fox on a monster-sized mobile phone? That telecommunications device could be one of the funniest machines ever built.
Start with the DynaTAC moniker, which stands for "Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage." Maybe Motorola figured the unwieldy name would distract people from the fact that the world's first commercial hand-held mobile phone was barely mobile at all. It measured 13 x 1.75 x 3.5 inches (33.02 x 4.45 x 8.89 centimeters) and weighed 28 ounces (793 grams).
Compare that to an Apple iPhone 15, which is just 5.81 inches (14.76 centimeters) long and tips the scale at 5.02 ounces (171 grams).
But the DynaTAC's size wasn't its most amusing feature. That honor belonged to the rubber-sheathed whip antenna, long enough to take out an eye if the caller wasn't careful. The phone's battery life was just as silly. You could only talk for 30 to 60 minutes until it was time to recharge, which could take 10 hours unless you wanted to pay extra for a fast charger.
Paying extra, however, wasn't a palatable option for most users, especially when you consider the cost of the phone itself: almost $4,000 in 1983 dollars. You did get enough memory to store 30 contacts and a cool LED display showing red numbers, so maybe it was all worth it.
The DynaTAC is laughable today, but it paved the way for future mobile phones that would completely change how the world communicates.
2. Personal Computer
The first personal computer, or PC, may not impress us today, when most people have 24/7 access to a a powerful computer so small it can fit in your pocket, but it marked a huge shift in technology back in the 1970s. Before the PC, computers were room-size machines found in office buildings, not homes — and certainly not pockets!
1. The World Wide Web
The internet is arguably the greatest invention of the 20th century and the one that has most impacted modern life. But what most of us think of as the internet is actually the world wide web, an information-sharing system consisting of web servers that host websites containing web pages. Learn more about the the internet versus the world wide web.
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