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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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Posted at: Apr/17/2014 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Perspectives, Science,

Humans are fascinating creatures, we fight, we make up, we destroy, we create and we alter our world. I am sure some cultural anthropologist would say that these traits to some degree define what it means to be human and not merely another mammal among many. Using tools is considered part of what it means to be human. More important to me is the ability to create things that allow us to change the way we live and the world we live in. I thought I would explore my list of humanities most transformative inventions.

As with any list, there is a perception that ranking and order matters. It would be easy to make one invention more important than another, but I will resist and restrict my insights to a relatively short list. In the spirit of fairness I will also present my transformative inventions in alphabetical order.

An available food supply is obviously a critical aspect to maintaining a stable and potentially vibrant society. The advent of farming allowed for the development of more than a basic subsistence lifestyle, but safe and sufficient winter food supplies have plagued mankind for a long time. Even the best fall harvest suffers with time when stored for use through the winter and spring. Vegetables spoil and grains mold or rot.

Warfare for most of human history has been limited to the spring and summer seasons. As armies moved across large tracts of land they would seize all available food, crops and livestock. Military campaigns were often planned based on a route that provided a bounty to feed the troops much like locust moving across the land in a biblical depiction.

During the French revolutionary wars, the French newspaper Monde, prompted by the government and Napoleon’s military needs offered a cash award of 12,000 Francs to any inventor who could come up with a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. The armies of the period required substantial supplies of food. A method of food preservation would give the armies the flexibility to go where they wanted, when they wanted. In 1809, French candy maker Nicholas Appert collected the award for his process of vacuum-sealing food inside glass jars. While glass jars proved unsuitable for transportation, they were soon replaced by tin or steel cans. In the short run, the French armies did not benefit from this new process because they failed to anticipate the transportation needs of moving thousands of tons of canned food with wooden wagons once the roads got muddy. Additionally, the invention of the can opener would wait another 30 years so cans were often violently opened with rocks or bayonets incurring a significant amount of waste.

A number of people worked to refine the process of canning and by the 1860’s, the process had been reduced from 6 hours to 30 minutes. “Tinned” food became a winter staple for many people across the western world by the early 1900’s.

Canning is basically a method of preserving food by first heating it to a temperature that destroys contaminating organisms, then sealing it in an air-tight container. Properly done, this reduces the risk of botulism and other illnesses related to contaminated food. While not a cure for world hunger, it has enabled healthier foods to be available during non harvest seasons and transportation to communities without their own ready food supply. Effectively, canning has been a factor in the growth of urban populations across the globe.

For most of man’s history, the structures we built were limited in scale or design by the size of the stones that could be quarried, or the length of the available timbers to span open spaces or support roofs. Concrete effectively rewrote the rules on what an architect could envision and create.

Concrete is a composite material composed of water, coarse granular filler or aggregate, and the cement that fills the spaces and binds it all together much like a glue.

The earliest identified uses of concrete date back to the floor of the royal palace of Tiryn in Greece roughly 1400 BCE. By 700 BCE the Greeks were using lime mortars extensively for the construction of waterproof aqueducts and other structures.

The Roman’s were the first to realize the full potential of concrete. With size no longer a restriction, they built such structures as the Coliseum of Rome and the domed roof of the Pantheon. For the Coliseum the Roman’s used old brick for the aggregate filler and decorative stone on the concrete surface as a façade. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the use of concrete became rare until the technology was re-pioneered in the mid 18th century.

Modern concrete is reinforced with steel allowing for bridges, domes, waterways, and a myriad of structures that would not be possible in our modern world without this specialized material. Some of the most noteworthy concrete structures include the Hoover Dam and the locks of the Panama Canal.

The aggregation of materials to create concrete has allowed man to substantially manipulate the shape of the world as it naturally occurs and redefine what can be built. On its largest scale, concrete is used to redirect rivers, channel water in new directions, hold back the sides of mountains, build roadbeds, span rivers and create structures never previously imagined. Where stone and lumber came with limitations, relatively speaking, concrete and reinforced concrete comes with virtually no limitation beyond the architect’s vision.

Electronic communications:
Much of the way societies act is driven by what they know. When news of a war in a distant land traveled for weeks via ship and messenger, its reception was often muted and perceived more as newly received history than as a current event. It was entirely likely that by the time you got the word, the great battles had been fought and the war was over. For this reason, the concerns of life were seldom about events more than 100 miles away; electronic communication changed all that.

The first practical electrical telegraphic was patented by Samuel Morse in 1837. While it can be disputed who invented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell received the first patent in 1876 and Tivader Puskas ‘s switch board invention of the same year allowed for the development of networks of telephones. James Clerk Maxwell predicted the propagation of radio waves in 1873. Heinrich Hertz, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla all made efforts at implementing Maxwell’s theory, but Guglielmo Marconi gets the undisputed credit for creating the first viable radio transmitter and receiver.

While many would separate the telegraph, telephone and wireless communication as three distinct inventions of greatness, they can be argued as natural evolutions of each other on a successive theme. This critical theme is the use of technology to create near real-time communication. Whether the telegraph or the internet, the knowledge of world events on a nearly immediate basis has changed how the world is seen. War, famine and natural disaster are no longer events to be instantly cataloged as history. Now when we hear of a war we question how it will change our own lives. When informed of a natural disaster, empathy and concern for the welfare of others is at the forefront of our thoughts.

The instantaneous nature of electronic communication has change our day-to-day world view from the next town down the road to the entire globe. It could be debated endlessly whether this is truly an improvement for mankind or unwanted anxiety, but without question this family of inventions has truly spurred forward the globalization of the world we live in today.

The credit for black powder could go to any of a number of cultures depending on whose history one reads. More likely, these diverse societies all developed variations on black powder independent of each other. It is well known that for hundreds of years black powder was exclusively used in weapons.

In 1679 explosive powder was used by civil engineers for the first time in the mining and construction of the Malpas Tunnel of the Canal du Midi in France. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule for the next 150 years. Between 1863 and 1866 nitroglycerine, trinitrotoluene (TNT) and dynamite along with the detonating blasting cap were all invented with Alfred Nobel being credited with many of these breakthroughs. While these products have significant military histories, their civil engineering uses moved from the novel, to the accepted and mainstream.

Many of the great railroad routes were carved with the use of explosives for roadbeds on the side of mountains and tunnels through the mountains that previously divided populations. By the late 1800’s explosives were common place on civil engineer projects allowing engineers to literally move mountains rather than going around them. The Greek mathematician and engineer, Archimedes of Syracuse is noted to have said with respect levers “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” Explosives for the last 150 years have become that lever that Archimedes spoke of, being used to level mountains, create roadbeds, re-route rivers and generally reshape the earth’s surface to meet our immediate needs.

The light bulb:
Prior to the light bulb, peoples productive cycle each day was limited by the availability of natural sun light; lacking artificial light, when the sun went down, people went to bed having little else to do. Actually, the aforementioned is a little bit of an over simplification. Kerosene or gas lighting had been around on a large scale for 20 years lighting many city streets, some factories along with a few homes. Unfortunately, gas lighting was generally not bright enough for detailed work or reading and proved to be a significant fire safety hazard.

Taking advantage of the new technology of electricity, there were a lot of people working on creating a reliable incandescent light bulb in the 1870’s. There were a number of bulb designs that would burn for 5-6 hours. Edison’s patented design of 1879 ultimately averaged over 40 hours per bulb. Edison’s true success was not merely the light bulb, but the entire lighting system. During the next decade Edison received a number of contracts for the entire package from the generator, to the distribution wiring and ending with the lights. Edison’s DC (direct current) electrical distribution system was eventually replaced by Tesla’s AC (alternating current) system, but western society would never be the same. Cheap and safe lighting was now available for streets, factories, businesses and homes.

Electric light bulbs allowed us to expand our activities and creative efforts well beyond those hours when the sun would shine. Factories no long needed skylights and roof windows, and the concept of a night-life with all its related activity began to flourish. The light bulb has had a significant impact on everything from our sleep patterns to our productivity. Any night time satellite image of the world speaks volumes about the respective geographical populations. Where there is little if any light at night, activity and productivity is very similar to the standards of 1870 and before. Where communities are well lit, there is vibrant activity and productivity virtually around the clock. The light bulb in application has clearly expanded man’s ability to be active and productive beyond those times when the sun is not available.

The word paper is a derivation on an ancient Egyptian writing material called papyrus, which was woven from the plant of the same name. Papyrus was produced as early as 3000 BCE Egypt, and then later in Greece and Rome. Having a flexible and durable writing material was often dependent on the materials available. In northern Europe where papyrus did not grow, parchment or vellum made from sheepskin or calfskin was used. Early forms of paper in China were bamboo or silk based, though neither of these was very practical. All of these forms of paper were costly making their availability quite rare.

The first version of a cotton rag based paper appeared in China at around 150 BC, but spread west very slowly. It was in the early 13th century that the Chinese rags process finally made it to the Middle East and Italy where it was adapted to hemp and linen.

Paper remained a luxury item until the advent of the paper mill. The water powered mills of the 18th century expanded availability and the steam-driven paper mills of the 19th century completed papers’ evolution to being a “common place” item. Unfortunately, most of these early “milled” papers used a wood-based pulp which was more acidic and therefore more prone to disintegrate over time. Documents written on the more expensive rag paper were more stable.

Many historians would at this point focus on the significance of the printing press because it made the printed word available to a more populace audience. Nevertheless, paper has its own important place in mankind’s history. Paper has fulfilled two important roles in its long history. The first role is as a means to document trade. Book keepers and merchants have actually changed very little in the last 4-5000 years, they all want a record of the transaction they are doing, or will soon do. Anthropologists have already shown that isolated societies who do not trade with the neighboring village will likely never develop a written language. More important than trade is recording history and lore; even when paper was rare, it was often be used to record and preserve the legends, history and values of a society from one generation to the next. Even though few in a society could read; the value to preserving and passing history from one generation to the next using something other than campfire stories is immeasurable. Whether the private diaries of an important figure, or the words of a scribe; a written history allows those who have lived to pass their experiences and lessons to those who have yet to come.

Portable Engines:
The industrial revolution was driven by new forms of power. Whether the large scale cotton mill powered by a series of water wheels or a classic steam engine; the large scale of new manufacturing was dependent on large quantities of previously unavailable power. Fortunately, systems of mechanized power were not confined to the large cities, rivers, industrial plants or fixed locations.

When steam engine technology became reliable, it was rapidly scaled to fit on boats and what became the railroads. Everyone knows of the importance to trade of the steam ships and railroads. Goods and passenger traffic could move where ever the infrastructure took it rather than being confined to the routes described by rivers or ocean shorelines. There is of course the automobile; being able to move people and goods with an even simpler infrastructure such as roads gave society more flexibility in how it grew and how populations migrated. In between these two critical milestones was the steam powered tractor that should not be overlooked.

Most farms of the late 1800’s were barely more than subsistence farms. Because of the time it took to plow or harvest, individual farms were seldom more than a couple hundred acres. Plows were dragged behinds work animals furrowing at best 2-4 rows at a time and generally only one row. This meant that productive farms seldom produced more than 4-5 times what the farm family could themselves consume. The belching, noisy steam tractor changed farming in American and eventually across the globe.

With the new powered tracker technology, farmers could effectively manage more than a thousand acres. The portable machines for the farm evolved quickly into tractors capable of plowing 10-12 rows at a time and massive combine harvesters that could bring in quantities of wheat or corn acreage in a single day never before seen. In less than a generation, high yield, mechanized farming was born. The farm equipment converted from steam to gasoline or diesel quickly and the power and farming capability grew.

Relative to their power the development of small, yet portable engines have changed the size of the world. Cars, boats and planes now easily move goods and people across great distances easily. These same forms of portable power have mechanized the farming industry allowing a substantially greater amount of land to be farmed and in response to changing weather, harvested quickly.

Keeping perishable food fresh and eating healthy has always been a challenge once life ventured more than a few miles from a farm. A big part of this hurdle was meat and dairy products. Milk would turn quickly at room temperatures and meat would go rancid within a few days of slaughter.

The process of refrigeration cools things down by taking advantage of the way substances absorb and unload heat while changing phase from gas to liquid and back again. There were a lot of inventors and scientist working to gradually move this technology to a practical and producible design. Carl von Linde’s design of 1876 is widely considered the precursor to the modern kitchen refrigerator.

Prior to the refrigerator, produce and meat were kept fresh using harvested natural ice transported over large distances. Transporting ice might seem extremely wasteful and loss prone, but was also the only viable way to preserve butchered meat without smoking for more than a few days. It was not until the development of safer refrigerant chemicals in the 1920’s that home refrigerators and refrigerated transport really became possible.

The ability to keep food cold and therefore “fresh” for prolonged periods, even during shipping drastically changed the food production industry. Refrigeration gave us easy access to fresh meats and dairy products even in the hottest months and at great distances from the slaughter houses. Concurrently, refrigeration has meant that food supplies were not longer tied to the expensive process of harvesting and distributing natural ice. There are many who would argue that this technology has been critical to having food supplies keep pace with the world’s growing population as well.

One of the important adaptations of the refrigeration technology was “air-conditioning” also know as AC. AC is basically the process for forcing air to pass over or through a system of refrigerated coils, then distribute that cool or conditioned air into a room. It is doubtful that population centers such as Houston Texas & Phoenix Arizona would have grown beyond being hot dusty little cattle towns without the widespread adaptation and implementation of inexpensive air-conditioning.

Steel is an alloy of iron with carbon where the carbon acts as a hardening agent. Steel is not new; the knowledge for creating steel has been around for thousands of years. The hardness and ductility of steel has made it the primary and most desired material for weapons through the years including spear heads, swords and shields. Unfortunately, for most of this time, the only known way to make steel used a process called a bloomer furnace. This process worked well, but was limited in scale and therefore also output so steel was mostly confined in application to items where a sharp edge was needed.

With the invention of the “Bessemer process” in the mid-19th century, a new era of mass-produced steel began. The Bessemer process saw refinements with the Siemens-Martin and Gilchrist-Thomas processes, but the big change all the processes represented with the ability to produce large pieces of steel in large quantities, quickly expanding steels value beyond sharp-edged weapons.

Bessemer type steel change the way man built things. One of the first significant structures to leverage large quantities of steel was the Eads, or St Louis Bridge spanning the Mississippi. The bridge was originally built to support heavy train transport. Building with ribbed steel was considered a daring design concept in 1874, so the designer John Robinson lead an elephant on a stroll across its span to prove it was safe. In 1889, the World’s Fair in Paris opened with the 300 foot tall Eiffel Tower as its signature feature. Using steel in a lattice-work structure for vertical construction was novel at the time. Within a few years, New York and other great cities were building tall buildings leveraging Eiffel’s notion for an internal steel structure. Modern cities with their majestic skylines representing 10s of millions of new square feet of usable space growing vertically owe their structure to the strength and versatility of steel as an innovative building material.

Mankind’s struggle for survival has meant dealing with the heat and cold of the elements, finding safe food and creating shelter. During all this history, man has also fought at a microscopic level against attacking pathogens and viral agents that often led to severe handicaps or death.

A major aspect of having a transformative idea is being able to think about everyday things in an unconventional manner; vaccinations are a defining member of this unique category. With an advancing understanding of the human immune system, the notion of administration of a vaccine is still quite intriguing. Effectively, a vaccine is antigenic material this is given to a person. This pathogen is intended to be weak enough not to hurt the patient, but strong enough to stimulate the individuals adaptive immune system to react and develop an immunity specific to the toxin or virus.

There are written records of inoculations going back many centuries, but the application was mostly for the elites of society and may have been more mysticism than medicine. In the period 1716-1718, Lady Montagu while in Istanbul as the wife of the English ambassador became aware of a local method of inoculation. Hearing of this unique practice and fearing for her son’s safety during a smallpox outbreak she had her son inoculated. On returning to England, she wrote heavily of the experience and the technique she observed. Responding to Lady Montagu’s insistence, the family physician, Dr Emmanual Timoni submitted a scientific description of the inoculation operation to the Royal Society in 1724. Leveraging the writings in the Royal Society, Edward Jenner adapted the technique for his famous smallpox vaccine of 1796.

Since the introduction Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, millions of lives have been saved through a growing list of inoculation products and the vaccination process.

Despite their obvious value and proven success, the biggest hurdle to public health is often misguided ignorance that manifests as short sited rationalizations for not getting vaccinated. Unfortunately, there is no known immunization for public ignorance, and the risk it creates for others.

The Wheel:
The oldest documented use of a wheel or wheel and axle combination dates back approximately 6500 BCE, but did not appear in common use until 3300 BCE in the Slovenia region of southern Europe. It is likely that the wheel, like so many other important innovations was developed in multiple locations across the globe independently. For modern man, the wheel is so fundamental to our daily existence it is considered intuitively obvious. Unfortunately, for anyone who has tried to teach algebra, it is well known that one man’s obvious is another’s obscure mystery.

Anthropologists have made it clear that the wheel made a late arrival in the America’s. This phenomenon is likely driven by the understanding that wheels were first used to move heavy loads in conjunction with work animals such as horse or oxen for power. Considering the late arrival of large domesticated manuals in the Americas, the concurrent late utilization of the wheel seems more logical.

The earliest wheels apparently saw very limited use because they were made from solid pieces of wood and no roads were yet developed. A solid wheel would be prone to splitting on rough surfaces unless cut very thick. Once an ancient wheel became thick enough to not split, it was also nearly as heavy as any load it was intended to help move therefore self-limiting in value.

By 3000 BCE, Europeans were skilled enough with carpentry to create wheels out of thinner planks with securely fastened backstays to prevent splitting. During the middle of the “Bronze-Age” (2100-1900 BCE) the first wheels appeared with spokes. Spoked wheels significantly reduced the overall wheel weight and created the first really useful wheels.

With a practical wheel, trade good could be moved from village to village and networks of roads evolved to serve these wagons and carts. In the 1st millennium BCE the iron rim was introduced making the wheel reliable at relatively high speeds which had definite advantages with chariots and wheeled warfare. Wheels did not enjoy any additional major modification until the 1870s, when wire wheels and pneumatic tires were introduced.

The obvious value of wheels is in trade and creating a network of travel between villages and cities. The more subtle value of the wheel is in the spread of what is considered “Western Civilization.” Tracing the movement and advancement of the wheel and axle across a world map is virtually the same as mapping the expansion of “western” civilization.

Man has used innovation and creativity to change the face of the world and advance society. While there are plenty of people who love to dwell in an idealistic past with lines like “back in the day”, “in a simpler time”, I personally don’t want to live in a mud hut with a thatched room that shelters a couple of dozen mice or rats along with my family.

The likelihood that innovation is done is naïve and easily disputed by a simple applications of Moore’s Law. The more interesting question to ask is what the next big innovation will be? It is likely that one of the most life alternating technologies of the future is already here.

3D printing, while in its infancy is beginning to take remarkable strides. This technology is also known as “additive manufacturing.” 3D printing is the process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model by laying successive layers of material until the shape is complete. The machines that can accomplish this with various types of plastic materials to make novelties such as a whistle are already commercially available for only a few thousand dollars. Moving beyond toys and simple items, there is a house being built in Norway from modular sections that are being created on site with additive manufacturing.

In science fiction and futurist movies we are often presented with visions of cities and vehicles of a near unfathomable scale. It may not be that unreasonable to envision these great structures in a not too distant future being manufactured by a team of 3D printers doing additive manufacturing on a larger scale in hostile environments that are not suitable for man with little or no manual intervention.

Archimedes spoke to the idea that given the right place to put a lever and a high enough place to stand, he could move the world. Clearly given enough opportunity, mankind finds a way to move beyond merely surviving in this world; eventually develops ways to alter his environment for advantage.

There is no telling where this will all lead.

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Frederick Douglass
If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
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