Thursday, November 10, 2011

A world of inventions

I don't generally get too excited about so-called technological advances, though I imagine I'd get pretty fired up if someone came up with something truly useful, like an automatic potato peeler, a portable hot fudge machine or some kind of miraculous device that would keep my socks matched, even in the dryer.
But this one had me downright enthused. So much so, that I made a pronouncement on Facebook that was, for me, at least, pretty darn gleeful.
"Got a mobile broadband hotspot today!"
Now, I didn't expect anyone to get all worked up over the news. After all, it wasn't like I was announcing something truly important, like the birth of a baby or a great new recipe for chocolate chip cookies. But I was pretty excited given that the new gadget would, if it worked as advertised, allow me to wirelessly connect to the internet via my cell phone network just by carrying a little phone-sized devise along with me. In more practical terms, it meant I could get online anywhere a cell phone signal could reach, which is pretty heady stuff for a self-proclaimed road warrior like me. No more searching for the golden arches and the free WiFi they provide along with Big Macs and Happy Meals. No more skulking through prosperous-looking neighborhoods cyber-searching for a stray signal to latch onto.
"I'm free!" I proclaimed, while noting that the service most certainly isn't.
Later on, a friend made a comment regarding my jubilant post that kind of put it all into a new/old perspective for me.
"Mobile, broadband, hotspot. Try to imagine those three words used together 10 years ago."
Heck, how about 10 months ago? Or for a technodinosaur like me, 10 days, even?
I know I've written before about the plethora of new stuff that both benefits and besieges us all the time. But the extraordinary changes in the way we communicate ideas and information ranging from mathematical theorems to pictures of new puppies to the really important stuff, like chocolate cookie recipes, got me thinking about the innovative trends of the past compared to what seems to be important today. Some of them seem almost generationally themed, as in my paternal grandfather's day, when the big thing seemed to be transportation, or better, faster, safer ways to get from point A to point B to better enable stealing land from the Native Americans. He was born in 1866, so that meant he lived in a world that saw the advent of transcontinental railroad travel and the invention of both the automobile and the airplane. He was, apparently, an early adopter of that technology, as noted in "Homeburg Memories," an early-20th century novel based on my hometown of Galva that was written by native son and nationally known humorist George Fitch.
“Our oculist was our pioneer automobile owner.  He bought a home-made machine and a mule at the same time, and by judiciously combining the two, he got a great deal of mileage out of both.  He would work all morning getting the auto down-town and all afternoon getting the mule to haul it back.”
For my dad, who was born in 1904, it was energy, and the ways it made life safer, more comfortable and more efficient that seemed to really change things on a daily basis. A 1910 publication entitled, "The Electrical World" included a recounting of a meeting of the Galva Commercial Club, where the introduction of electric power was discussed. According to the article, a New Yorker named Glenn Marston gave an address on the advisability of securing adequate electric power for industrial purposes.
Mr. Marston noted that "public improvements and public utilities mark the progressiveness of any city. No community can succeed without the best of both. Electric power means more industries, better pay, shorter hours and more money in circulation."
We know what happened next. Along with gas-fired furnaces, which meant no more coal to shovel or clinkers to dig out and dispose of, electricity helped make life brighter, safer and easier for everyone, which was a pretty good deal, I think.
But those are just a couple of examples of ways ideas have changed lives over the years. Some developments have been incredibly important. Others, not so much. But what, I wondered, are the most important inventions ever, uh, invented?
So I did a quick bit of research, just to see what people were thinking nowadays.
One online poll listed the telephone, computers, television, the automobile, the cotton gin, the camera, the steam engine, the sewing machine, the light bulb and penicillin as their top ten modern inventions, while a British poll conducted last year included this eclectic mix: the wheel, airplanes, the light bulb, the internet, personal computers, the telephone, penicillin, the iPhone, flush toilets and the internal combustion engine.
The telephone faired well on most lists, despite a more recent trend that now seems to place it lower down the list of preferred communications tools as indicated in a recent episode of "The Big Bang Theory,"
Sheldon: Sorry. I’m a little distracted. I can’t seem to get in touch with Amy. I tried e-mail, video chat, tweeting her, posting on her Facebook wall, texting her, nothing.
Leonard: Did you try calling her on the telephone?
Sheldon: The telephone. You know, Leonard, in your own simple way, you may be the wisest of us all.
One article I read said the camera was the greatest invention ever, and I've gotta admit that a device that's recorded images of everything from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address to a man walking on the moon to my youngest grandson less than a minute after birth is pretty darn close. I was a little surprised that the internet didn't grab the top spot on more of the lists I encountered, but it was number one in plenty of minds and places, with lots of time to continue in an evolution that affects--in one way or another--virtually ever facet of modern life.
But an invention that continues to top many lists--and my personal choice for number one--is the one developed way back in the 1400s by Johannes Gutenberg. His moveable-type printing press fostered a veritable knowledge revolution in the sciences, arts and religion by making it possible for books and other printed information to be shared by more than the The Church and the very wealthy. His amazing printing method quickly replaced most of the handwritten manuscript methods of book production and spread literacy throughout the world to people of all classes and backgrounds.
Arguably, it's thanks to Gutenberg that you're doing what you're doing right now.
Now, that's what I call an invention.


  1. While attending a bridal shower many years ago, we were asked to say what invention was most important to modern day women. Young ladies were sure it was dishwashers, phones, etc. When this senior's turn came, she said, "Indoor plumbing." Rather a sobering thought on essentials.

  2. From the industrial revolution to the digital what is next for mankind? Maybe some sort of spiritual revolution? I think innovation and technological growth will only quicken in pace.