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.
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. 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. 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.
8. The pneumatic tire. Cars for personal transportation were an improvement on railways. “What the track has done for the locomotive, the pneumatic tire has done for the vehicle not confined to tracks.” Credit is given to John Dunlop and William C. Bartlet, who each had a milestone on the road (pun intended) to successful automobile and bicycle tires.
9. Wireless communication. Marconi was given the credit for making wireless “commercially practical.” Dowe also makes a comment that could apply equally to the rise of the World Wide Web, stating that wireless was “devised to meet the needs of commerce primarily, but incidentally they have contributed to social intercourse.”
10. Composing machines. The giant rotary press was quite capable of churning out masses of printed material. The bottleneck in the chain of production was composing the printing plates. The Linotype and the Monotype dispensed with that bottleneck.
The essays sent in were compiled to come up with a master list of inventions that were considered to be the top 10. Wireless telegraphy was on almost everyone’s list. The “aeroplane” came in second, although it was considered important because of its potential, not because there were so many airplanes in the sky. Here are the rest of the results:
|Wireless telegraphy||97 percent|
|Incandescent electric lamp||35|
|Internal combustion engine||33|
|Transmitting and transforming AC current||15|
|Pneumatic tire (car and bicycle)||15|
|Kodak portable camera||10|
|Fixation of nitrogen||9|
|Welsbach gas burner||9|
|Producer gas [a type of fuel]||8|
|Flexible photo films||7|
There were also mentions for Luther Burbank's agricultural work (23); Louis Pasteur and vaccination work (20); acetylene gas from carbide (17); mercury-vapor lamp (7); preservation of sugar-producing plants (7); combined motion picture and talking machine (10); Edison's storage battery (6); automatic player piano (4); Pulmotor (a respirator machine) (4); telephone (4).
The motion picture: The hard-working Thomas Edison helped make this entertainment form technically viable. Image: Scientific American - November 1, 1913
The full contents of all the prize-winning essays is available with a subscription to the Scientific American archives.