They say necessity is the mother of invention, but invention drives the economy. The great importance of invention is that it solves problems and changes the world. Innovation shapes the way life is lived and it transcends culture. The modern era is arguably the greatest time in the history of the world for innovation, but none of it would have happened without the invention of electricity supplied on demand. With that one advancement, in came the fastest-changing period in human history — and the greatest population growth, too.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Inventions create new technologies, which spur the economy. Often, such advances simplify and improve the average person's quality of life.
How Electricity Changed the World
Before electricity, life was conducted largely in daylight hours. To have evening illumination was somewhat of a privilege, as you needed oil or candles, lamps and fuel for fire. It meant having to cure food with salt or smoke it to preserve it, thanks to no refrigeration, and having to stoke a fire all through the night to stay warm in the winter. Electricity brought longer business hours, more time each day to get things done and the ability to use appliances to do everything from cooking food to heating the home.
In 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the first electric cell, the framework for the electric battery. In 1831, British scientist Michael Faraday figured out the concept of electromagnetic conduction and energy generation. All of this came about during the Industrial Revolution, after the invention of steam power had created a world "full steam ahead" with automation and mass production. Electricity ushered in the Machine Age, which led to the Age of Oil, followed by the Atomic Age, then the Digital Revolution and the Information Age. Each epoch was defined by its technologies, such as the evolution of rivet-fastened steel ocean liner hulls in the Machine Age.
Much of modern life’s conveniences require electricity, but today's innovations have made it possible to start generating electricity of one’s own with turbines and solar panels. In fact, by 2021, the first-ever partially solar-powered car will be on the market, thanks to the Dutch auto start-up, Lightyear.
What Do Inventions Do?
Inventions influence all aspect of modern existence. Even things like the toilet and modern plumbing, for instance, made it possible to improve hygiene and reduce exposure to human waste, which in turn made cities cleaner and more desirable to live in. The modern bathroom also helped reduce the spread of disease, which in turn helped extend the average life expectancy, and that has led to the Earth's population quintupling in the last 150 years.
People eat better, and more safely, because of innovations we now take for granted like the refrigerator, the oven, running tap water, safely manufactured pots and pans, pasteurized products and even meat thermometers. Daily life at work has transformed because heavy-lifting jobs can be done by forklifts rather than grunt work. Automation means faster, more accurate assembly and mass production. In fact, technology is reaching another milestone with factories using robots for many tasks now. More people than ever before need to sit for work, with office jobs and the like changing our fitness level but also lowering the risk of injury during a workday.
Even entertainment has changed because no longer do people have to make their own fun by playing games, they can turn to their phone, TV or radio. How people interact, work, eat, travel, shop — it’s all subject to innovation and invention. Advances don't always improve life, though, as many people are learning through the constant-access struggles of smartphones and ever-present noise pollution in cities.
The Cost of Obsolescence
Unfortunately, with technology comes eventual forced obsolescence. Companies that don’t adapt to new technologies quickly can get left behind and lose their market share. Companies that hitch their wagon to tech that fails to catch on can also suffer consequences.
With every dawning technology, another falls to the wayside or gets overshadowed. The steam engine and locomotive meant the westward push in North America was on for real — but the invention of the car meant even more freedom could be experienced, and rail expansion was slowed as people began exploring places where trains didn’t go. Then came air travel, and suddenly you could fly coast to coast in six hours, not six days — slowly making trans-Atlantic ship travel and slow westward trains fall from demand.
Adaptation and Adoption
It takes a long time for market saturation to occur, but adopting new technologies can be a slow ripple. Color TV, for instance, was deemed a frivolous expenditure until color TV tubes became more and more affordable, and black-and-white television slowly disappeared.
Telephones were a reason to go to cafes or visit town back when they were too expensive for the average home. Then they had “party lines” because a solo phone line was an extravagance; pay phones were every couple blocks in every city, even on the wall in pizzerias, cafes and donut shops. In the 1980s, brick-sized cellular phones began appearing in rich circles, but by 2000, flip phones were all the rage until Apple released its iPhone in 2007. Today, nearly everyone has a phone more powerful than the combined computing power of Apollo 11-era NASA.
Smartphones are also an example of the phase-in between obsolescence and demand. These "pocket computers" now provide flashlights, calculators, music devices and timers — gadgets every house once had but many now don't. Today, people just need a Bluetooth speaker to pair with their phone, not a stereo.
History-Changing Invention List
When looking for examples of inventions that changed the world, it’s not just about that item but everything it spawned. Electricity has always existed, but finding a way to harness it changed life forever because everything from toys to airplanes relies upon it now. Here are a few others:
- Steel: Stronger and easier to work with than other metals, steel brought us everything from new ship hulls to making it possible to have high-rise buildings. And the invention of the elevator also meant high-rises got higher and higher, reshaping the modern world.
- Refrigeration: From 1834 on, the refrigerator changed the world by making it possible to keep food cold, or even frozen, preventing spoilage. This would impact everything from people’s health to what kinds of businesses could exist — and how far food could travel to new markets.
- Computers: Charles Babbage invented the first sort of computer in 1822 to work weights and measures. As transistors became available over a century later in 1947, the potential for computers and other tech would explode.
- Printing Press: When Gutenberg’s printing press made moveable type possible and created a cheap printing technology, it meant the written word would no longer be something only found in esteemed, rare libraries belonging to the clergy and the wealthy. Slowly, reading would become possible across all classes of society. The accessibility it gave education would be rivaled by only one other technology in all of human history.
- The Internet: Preceded by ARPANET in 1969, today’s internet crosses all borders and cultures; even remote indigenous tribes are using smartphones to record species and nature threatened by deforestation to conserve their areas. The internet makes education and communication possible around the world. As more people access education and technology through the internet, so grows the potential for innovating even more solutions for problems that vex people and businesses.
- Mashable: 7 innovations that are crucial to living in today’s society
- Business Insider: From the internet to the iPhone, here are the 20 most important inventions of the last 30 years
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Inventors and Inventions of the Industrial Revolution
- Interesting Engineering: 19 Great Inventions That Revolutionized History
- CNN: Dutch company develops partly solar powered car
Steffani Cameron is a professional writer who has written for the Washington Post, Culture, Yahoo!, Canadian Traveller, and many other platforms. Some writing projects have included ghost-writing for CEOs and doing strategy white papers. She frequently writes for corporate clients representing Fortune 500 brands on subjects that include marketing, business, and social media trends.