Incredible Inventions That Shaped Human History

One thing that separates humans from any other beings on Earth is the ability to manipulate nature and other surroundings to create things that make our lives easier and our species more likely to survive. This process of invention is one of the critical building blocks of humanity, with new and more complex creations becoming more common than ever before as technology progresses. From hitting rocks against each other to creating sharp edges to guiding rockets through space with computers, these are the greatest inventions in human history that have shaped the world as we know it.

Stone Tools Were The Start Of Everything

Stone hand axe
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

During the dawn of mankind, stone tools were essentially the first invention ever made by humans. Some of the earliest forms of these tools discovered date back more than 2 million years and were most likely used by Homo habilis, an early ancestor of modern-day humans.

These simple, yet effective, tools are known as “choppers,” and weren’t much more than sharpened stones that were made by hitting two rocks together. These rudimentary tools were then used to cut, smash, crush, and saw other things. Without these, humans may have died off long ago.

The Phonograph Gave Us Portable Music

Thomas Edison with his phonograph
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Invented by Thomas Edison, the phonograph was the earliest form of a record player that used tin foil sheets and a vibrating stylus to produce a sound. The first one was produced in 1857 and then was improved upon by Alexander Graham Bell and a few of his colleagues.

Although it’s nothing compared to the variety of music players that we have today, it provided people at the time with the option to listen to music on their own. Before that, someone either had to be able to play an instrument or go somewhere to hear it.

The Compass Changed Navigation And Brought The World Together

Person holding a compass
ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post via Getty Images
ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Although few people use or even know how to use one today, initially, compasses allowed us to explore our world. Invented in China in the 14th century, compasses made it so travelers, especially mariners, no longer had to solely rely on the stars as a means of navigation.

Compasses allowed people to travel the world, establish more complex trade routes, discover new lands, and help to build the world as we know it. Furthermore, without the compass, many cultures would have remained isolated and unknown to the rest of the world.

The Wheel Helped Get Things Rolling

Old wheels
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

Prior to the introduction of the wheel around 35,000 B.C., early humans were extremely limited when it came to how much weight they could transport, as well as how far. Professor of anthropology David Anthony notes that constructing the wheel wasn’t the difficult part, but attaching it to a non-moving platform proved to be an issue.

It wasn’t the wheel itself that was the major breakthrough, but the combining of the wheel and an axle. Once that was successfully engineered, humans became a much more mobile species.

Steel Brought On A New Stage Of Human History

Drawing of Bessemer Process
DEA/ICAS94/Getty Images
DEA/ICAS94/Getty Images

While other materials such as iron, stone, and bronze may have been incredibly useful for earlier periods in human history, steel is what fueled the Industrial Revolution and set us on track to become the modern society we know today.

Although steel weapons and tools can be traced back to over 4,000 years ago, they couldn’t be mass-produced until the invention of the Bessemer Process. This resulted in the creation of one of the biggest and fastest-growing industries on the planet, and steel was soon used to make everything from engines to skyscrapers. It still is today!

The Nail Held Everything Together

old nail
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Without the invention of the nail, civilization would have literally fallen apart. The nail was introduced thousands of years ago once humans learned the ability to cast and shape metals.

Before this, structures had to be precisely built using interlocking boards of wood, which was challenging to accomplish geometrically. Up until the late 1700s, nails were hand-wrought by blacksmiths, were made of mostly iron, and were only mass-produced after the introduction of the Bessemer Process. By 1913, 90% of the nails made in the United States were made of steel wire.

The Printing Press Spread Knowledge Across The Globe

Printing press workers
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Around 1440 in Mainz, Germany, Johannes Gutenberg improved upon already existing presses by developing a new molding technique that allowed for the production of large quantities of movable type. This new method of copying books allowed for a single printing press to create as many as 3,600 pages a day.

By 1500, there were over 1,000 of Gutenberg’s printing presses across Europe, and by 1600, 200 million new books. Not only did the printing press provide information to classes of people who previously didn’t have access, but it also ushered in an age of enlightenment in which new ideas could be spread to the masses.

Paper Money Gave Birth To Modern Economics

Dollars and pounds
Illustration by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Illustration by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

For the majority of human history, money was transferred in the form of coins made from precious metals, or other raw materials such as food or supplies. Although paper currency had been around in China since the ninth century, the idea didn’t take hold in Europe until the 1600s.

Switching to paper money helped struggling governments that were running low on precious metals. It also established a new form of international money regulation, and therefore, our modern economy. Paper money also was the first step toward the creation of credit and debit cards.

Transistors Paved The Way For Modern Technology

Early British transistors
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

Developed by Bell Laboratories in 1947, transistors are minuscule semiconductor devices that allow for the control of the amount and flow of current through a circuit board. Although initially used in radios, today, they are a vital component to just about every modern electronic gadget ranging from televisions to cell phones.

Currently, the number of transistors in integrated circuits doubles every year, which allows for the development of new and more powerful electronic devices at a rapid pace.

The Telegraph Allowed Us To Communicate Long Distances

Old telegraph
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

The telegraph was the first device to allow long-distance communication and was later followed by the radio, telephones, and other technologies. It was developed by a series of inventors between the 18th and 19th centuries and uses Morse code to deliver messages by stopping the flow of electricity between communication lines.

Telegraph lines began to spread during the 1850s, and by 1902, there were transoceanic lines that connect the vast majority of the world. The ability to deliver messages to other parts of the globe significantly transformed trade, war, government operations, and ushered in a new age of information.

Antibiotics Such As Penicillin Have Saved Countless Lives

Woman with a syringe
Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images
Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images

Although there were scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister, who recognized the dangers of bacteria, it was Alexander Fleming who accidentally discovered the bacteria-inhibiting mold known as penicillin in 1928. It was quickly realized that antibiotics were far more effective than antiseptics, and they were widely distributed during the 20th century, especially on the battlefield.

Considering that nearly twenty percent of soldiers in World War I died from bacterial infections, by World War II, that number had dropped to one percent. Antibiotics are used just as much today and can help cure countless ailments that would otherwise be fatal.

The Lightbulb Simplified Evenings

Incandescent light
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Although there’s no shortage of them today, there was once a time when people didn’t have the luxury of the electric light bulbs that most people take for granted. Thankfully, with the help of scientists such as Humphry Davy, Warren, de la Rue, Joseph Wilson Swan, and Thomas Edison, we no longer have to rely on daylight or candles.

Edison and Swan invented the first long-lasting bulbs in 1879 and 1880, and soon enough, they were incorporated in countless facets of society until we became completely reliant on them.

Magnifying Lenses Give Us A Better Sense Of Our World

Galileo showing Milton his telescope
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

While the magnifying glass may not seem like an incredibly groundbreaking invention, it did help pave the way for future significant scientific discoveries. The first magnifying lenses used by people who were weak-sighted emerged in the 13th century, with early telescopes and microscopes appearing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Scientists such as Robert Hook and Anton van Leeuwenhoek used microscopes to study cells and other small particles. In contrast, Galileo used the telescope to learn about our solar system. Today, magnifying lenses are used in a variety of fields and provide us an insight into our world that we would have otherwise never known.

The Airplane Makes The World Feel Much Smaller Than It Is

Wright brothers in flight
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

By no means have humans evolved with the physical ability to fly, but that didn’t stop us from finding a way how. Although most people know that it was the Wright brothers who successfully created the first working airplane, other visionaries, such as Leonardo da Vinci, were pondering the idea hundreds of years before.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers took to the sky, which was the beginning of aeronautic engineering. Because of their creation, we have more access to travel than ever before, which has entirely reshaped the way we view the world.

The Steam Engine Was A Defining Moment In History

Railways Station
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

All of the forms of transportation that we have available to us now would be non-existent if it weren’t for the steam engine. While the steam-powered water pump was invented by 1698, the steam engine was perfected by James Watt in the 1700s and proved to be one of the most significant technological breakthroughs in human history.

During the 1800s, the steam engine led to the development of high-speed trains that resulted in the vast improvement of transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and more. It also helped to transform the United States and Great Britain into world superpowers.

Concrete Solidified Our Society

New York skyline
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Today, concrete is one of the most used man-made materials around the world. There was once a time when humans were restricted to building with just mud and wood, yet early versions of concrete can be traced back to 13000 BC.

Back then, Middle Eastern builders would coat the outside of their clay fortresses with a layer of burned and moist, limestone, which would then harden to create a protective surface. Throughout history, this idea was improved upon until steel-reinforced concrete was introduced in the late 19th century, allowing us to create the strong structures and skyscrapers we have today.

The Computer Is A Symbol Of Our Time

Man using a computer
Sam Mellish / In Pictures via Getty Images Images
Sam Mellish / In Pictures via Getty Images Images

Computers are easily one of mankind’s most impressive inventions to date. While they were initially created to perform automated mathematical calculations, they have evolved into devices that seem like something out of a science fiction film rather than everyday reality.

Although no one person can be solely credited with the invention of the computer, when they were first introduced, they were far from what we have today. Now, there are few things computers can’t do, from guiding spaceships through outer space to connecting the entire world on the Internet.

Refrigeration Is For More Than Just Food

Child and a refrigerator
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

In the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, around 99% of homes have at least one refrigerator. Known as the father of refrigeration, Jacob Perkins created the first vapor-compression refrigeration cycle in 1834, which was based on a theory put forth by Oliver Evans.

Since their invention, refrigerators have given us the ability to preserve our perishable foods for much longer, as well as aiding us in making advancements in science and other fields.

The Internet Connects Everyone

Photo of Google
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Before the Internet that we know today, there was ARPANET, which laid the foundation for what the Internet would become. Although the invention of the Internet cannot be credited to one individual, it started off as a project by the United States Department of Defense known as ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, with the purpose of sharing data between multiple devices over large distances.

By the 1970s, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn developed Transmission Control Protocol, which allowed computers to communicate with each other. The internet we know today was then established by Tim Berners-Lee when he created the World-Wide-Web, a system of information that anybody can access.

Vaccines Revolutionized The Field Of Medicine

Person being vaccinated
Till Rimmele/Getty Images
Till Rimmele/Getty Images

Since their creation, vaccines have been responsible for preventing countless life-threatening epidemics. Without them, people across the globe would live in constant fear of diseases such as smallpox, measles, and more. Edward Jenne (1749-1823) is described as being the main pioneer of immunization, and during his time, around 10% of the British population died from smallpox.

Jenne discovered the process of vaccination before the founding of germ theory, which has saved countless lives since. For his work, he was appointed as Physician Extraordinary to King George IV, the mayor of Berkeley and justice of the peace.