Machines That Changed the World

Famous machines that helped to change the world – from the Archimedes screw to the computer and petrol engine.

Archimedes_screw Archimedes Screw. The ability to draw water uphill, against the flow of gravity revolutionised irrigation and the supply of water. Designed in 213 BCE by the polymath, Archimedes, the Archimedes screw is still used for irrigation today.

printing press The printing press. In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg developed the first mechanised printing press. He converted an old wine press to enable a heavy screw to press a printing block against paper. His machine enabled a huge reduction in the cost of producing books and helped lead to a rise in literacy, knowledge and was a key part of the Enlightenment. It would remain in use until the steam-driven press in the 19th Century.

gun Guns. The earliest forms of guns evolved around 1,000 AD. But, it was not until the seventeenth century they began to become a dominant force on the battlefield. Guns essentially make killing people easier and enable killing with a minimal effort. As guns developed into rifles and machine guns, their killing power increased and mortality rates during the First and Second World War became far greater than any previous wars. Guns have also changed life for civilians. On the one hand, they are useful for hunting and killing animals for meat, but their prevalence in society means they are frequently the weapon of choice in murder, suicides and mass shootings. Between 1968 and 2011, 1.4 million Americans died from guns.

Grant_mechanical_calculating_machine_1877 Calculator A very primitive form of the calculator was developed by Blaise Pascal. The first solid-state calculator was invented in the 1960s, with digital calculators using microprocessors being invented in the 1970s. It increased labour productivity and enabled increased computing power.

pendulum-clock Pendulum Clock. In 1656, Christiaan Huygens developed a pendulum clock which kept time accurate to within a few seconds. His pendulum clock was based on the ‘Grandfather clock designing with weights and a pendulum swinging.) It was the first time, we had accurate clocks to tell the time.

Spinning_jenny The Spinning Jenny. The Spinning Jenny was invented by Richard Arkwright in 1765. It is a machine that enables multiple weaving at the same time. Rather than the time-consuming single hand-weaving, the machine enabled the operator to weave eight threads at a time, vastly increasing the productivity of weaving and enabling the industrialisation of the cotton industry. The Spinning Jenny was later expanded and made more powerful by the Water-powered frame.

Cotton_gin Cotton Gin. A machine for automatically separating cotton fibres from their seeds. It was invented in 1793 and it vastly increased the productivity of cotton plantations – helping to make cotton much more affordable. This led to a boom in demand for cotton clothes and also workers for the cotton fields. In America, the cotton gin contributed to increased demand for African slaves – indirectly exacerbating America’s issue of slavery.

threshing-crop Threshing machine – from 1786. In the eighteenth century, around 25% of agricultural labour was spent on manually threshing crops to remove wheat and corn seeds from their husks. The first machine to reduce the amount of labour needed was developed in 1786. Over the next 50 years, threshing machines became larger and more efficient. It reduced the amount of manual labour needed on farms and freed up labour to move to cities and industry.

The Telescope. telescope Galileo is credited with building the first telescope. This was later improved upon, and the first reflecting telescope was built in 1668 by Sir Isaac Newton. Newton used parabolic mirrors instead of lenses and which operated using reflection. His telescope designs would later be used in mapping the stars and gaining a much better understanding of the earth’s position in the Universe.

The Steam engine The first steam engine was built by Henry Newcomen in 1712, but this inefficient steam engine was limited to a stationary point, such as using in mines. James Watt played a key role in making the steam engine more efficient. He introduced inventions such as dual-action piston, gears and insulation. Watt’s steam engine became lighter, more efficient and therefore could be used in a variety of uses from transport to factories. It was a key invention behind the industrial revolution, which saw widespread economic and political changes.

The Steam Train. The first working steam engine is often credited to be Richard Trevithick in 1804. However, George Stephenson’s engines were more famous because of their greater impact. For example, the steam train “Rocket”, built in 1829, was used along the Great Liverpool-Manchester railway and this helped to usher in the new railway age and industrialisation of the world.

engine The Internal Combustion Engine The internal combustion engine enabled the development of the modern motor car and related transport. It was developed by Nikolaus Otto.

radio Radio. The radio enabled popular entertainment to be broadcast into every home. It also became an important source of news and propaganda. In the second world war, the radio was instrumental in influencing public opinion. For example, Churchill’s famous speeches were broadcast on radio and reached nearly the whole population. Previously, great speeches could have taken weeks to reach the rest of the population. The allies even used BBC world service to broadcast coded messages to agents in occupied territories.

Old_television_set TV. TV brought cinema to people’s home. It also revolutionised the distribution of news and information. Since the second world war, society has spent more time watching TV than any other leisure activity. Often TV is bland entertainment. But, TV images have also shaped public opinion in a way, the written or spoken word couldn’t. For example, images of casualties in Vietnam made the war deeply unpopular. TV images of starving children in Africa led to worldwide charity drives. Key person in the development of TV was John Logie Baird.

Enigma Enigma machine The Enigma machine was a prototype of the computer. The real importance of the Enigma machine is that it allowed the allies to break the German high commands secret code and give Allied commanders information in real-time. This helped them know about troop movements and morale in the German forces.

computer The Computer.  When Charles Babbage created the first type of computer, no-one could have realised how later computers would influence the world. Even when the first microcomputers were sold in the 1970s, few saw how powerful and wide-ranging they would become. The pace of computer development took most people by surprise It enabled more efficient communication and databases. Through the internet, computers have been used to reduce the distance of communication.

Mobile_phone_evolution_Japan1997-2004 Mobile phone. The earliest mobile phones were seen as something of a luxury good, but within a few years, they had become ubiquitous changing the way we communicate. It meant people were no longer tied to a landline but could make a call from anywhere. The biggest development though was the development of the smartphone (Apple iPhone first introduced in 2007) This enabled a consumer to use phone, text, email, check the internet, take photos all from the same machine. It is of tremendous convenience but has led to concerns of over-use and addiction with the ease of posting to social media meaning it can lead to bullying and frequent arguments.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Machines that changed the world”, Oxford, UK. Last updated 4 March 2020. Originally published 23rd May 2010.

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