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A competition sponsored in 1913 by Scientific American asked for essays on the 10 greatest inventions. The rules: “our time” meant the previous quarter century, 1888 to 1913; the invention had to be patentable and was considered to date from its “commercial introduction.”
Perception is at the heart of this question. Inventions are most salient when we can see the historical changes they cause. In 2013 we might not appreciate the work of Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison on a daily basis, as we are accustomed to electricity in all its forms, but we are very impressed by the societal changes caused by the Internet and the World Wide Web (both of which run on alternating-current electricity, by the way). A century from now they might be curious as to what all the fuss was about. The answers from 1913 thus provide a snapshot of the perceptions of the time.
The airplane: The Wright Flyer for military purposes, being demonstrated at Fort Myer, Va., in 1908. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
Following are excerpts from the first- and second-prize essays, along with a statistical tally of all the entries that were sent in.
The first-prize essay was written by William I. Wyman, who worked in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and was thus well informed on the progress of inventions. His list was:
1. The electric furnace (1889) It was “the only means for commercially producing Carborundum (the hardest of all manufactured substances).” The electric furnace also converted aluminum “from a merely precious to very useful metal” (by reducing it’s price 98 percent), and was “radically transforming the steel industry.”
2. The steam turbine, invented by Charles Parsons in 1884 and commercially introduced over the next 10 years. A huge improvement in powering ships, the more far-reaching use of this invention was to drive generators that produced electricity.
3. The gasoline-powered automobile. Many inventors worked toward the goal of a “self-propelled” vehicle in the 19th century. Wyman gave the honor specifically to Gottleib Daimler for his 1889 engine, arguing: “a century's insistent but unsuccessful endeavor to provide a practical self-propelled car proves that the success of any type that once answered requirements would be immediate. Such success did come with the advent of the Daimler motor, and not before.”
4. The moving picture. Entertainment always will be important to people. “The moving picture has transformed the amusements of the multitude.” The technical pioneer he cited was Thomas Edison.
5. The airplane. For “the Realization of an age-long dream” he gave the laurels of success to the Wright brothers, but apart from its military use reserved judgment on the utility of the invention: “It presents the least commercial utility of all the inventions considered.”
6. Wireless Telegraphy. Systems for transmitting information between people have been around for centuries, perhaps millennia. Telegraph signals got a speed boost in the U.S. from Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. Wireless telegraphy as invented by Guglielmo Marconi, later evolving into radio, set information free from wires.
7. The cyanide process. Sounds toxic, yes? It appears on this list for only one reason: It is used to extract gold from ore. “Gold is the life blood of trade,” and in 1913 it was considered to be the foundation for international commerce and national currencies.