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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 5

What Are the 10 Greatest Inventions of Our Time?

Before you consider, here are a few opinions from Scientific American readers in 1913 on what makes a great invention

8. The Nikola Tesla induction motor. “This epoch-making invention is mainly responsible for the present large and increasing use of electricity in the industries.” Before people had electricity in their homes, the alternating current–producing motor constructed by Tesla supplied 90 percent of the electricity used by manufacturing.

9. The Linotype machine. The Linotype machine enabled publishers—largely newspapers—to compose text and print it much faster and cheaper. It was an advance as large as the invention of the printing press itself was over the painstaking handwritten scrolls before it. Pretty soon we won’t be using paper for writing and reading, so the history of printing will be forgotten anyway.

10. The electric welding process of Elihu Thomson. In the era of mass production, the electric welding process enabled faster production and construction of better, more intricate machines for that manufacturing process.

The electric welder invented by Elihu Thomson enabled the cheaper production of intricate welded machinery. Electric Welder Image Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913

The turbine invented by Charles Parsons powered ships. Assembled in numbers, they provided an efficient means of driving electrical generators and producing that most useful commodity. Parson's turbines Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913

The second-prize essay, by George M. Dowe, also of Washington, D.C., who may have been a patent attorney, was more philosophical. He divided his inventions into those aiding three broad sectors: production, transportation and communication.

1. Electrical fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. As natural fertilizer sources were depleted during the 19th century, artificial fertilizers enabled the further expansion of agriculture.

2. Preservation of sugar-producing plants. George W. McMullen of Chicago is credited with the discovery of a method for drying sugar cane and sugar beets for transport. Sugar production became more efficient and its supply increased by leaps and bounds, like a kid on a “sugar buzz.” Maybe this is one invention we could have done without. But I digress.

3. High-speed steel alloys. By adding tungsten to steel, “tools so made were able to cut at such a speed that they became almost red hot without losing either their temper or their cutting edge” The increase in the efficiency of cutting machines was “nothing short of revolutionary.”

4. Tungsten-filament lamp. Another success of chemistry. After tungsten replaced carbon in its filament, the lightbulb was considered “perfected.” As of 2013 they are being phased out worldwide in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs, which are four times as efficient.

5. The airplane. Not yet in wide use as transportation in 1913, but “To [Samuel] Langley and to the Wright brothers must be awarded the chief honors in the attainment of mechanical flight.” In 2013 the annoying aspects of commercial airline flying make transportation by horse and buggy seem a viable alternative.

6. The steam turbine. As with Mr. Wyman, the turbine deserved credit not only “in the utilization of steam as a prime mover” but in its use in the “generation of electricity.”

7. Internal combustion engine. As a means of transportation, Dowe gives the greatest credit to “Daimler, Ford and Duryea.” Gottleib Daimler is a well-known pioneer in motor vehicles. Henry Ford began production of the Model T in 1908 and it was quite popular by 1913. Charles Duryea made one of the earliest commercially successful petrol-driven vehicles, starting in 1896.

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