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101 Gadgets that changed the world - Part 8 of 10







Singer Sewing Machine




What do the light bulb, the sewing machine and the match have in common? They are gadgets that changed the world. This is part 8 of a series of 10 articles in which you will learn about the 101 gadgets that changed our world from prehistory to today.


1. Gun, 14th century

It seems that black powder, as gunpowder was originally called, emerged in 11th-century China as a medicine, but it was the mixture's explosive properties that sparked interest in Europe. It led to the creation of the cannon in the 13th century, which transformed warfare, greatly boosting the force of mediaeval armies. One of the biggest steps on the road to the modern gun was Smith and Wesson's metal-cased cartridge, first fired in 1857.

2. Light bulb, 1848

So new-fangled was the light bulb in the 19th century, it came with a warning: "This room is equipped with Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door. The use of electricity for lighting is in no way detrimental to health, nor does it effect the soundness of sleep." Joseph Swan in fact developed a bulb before Edison, but the pair later joined forces and share credit for creating the gadget we perhaps take for granted more than any other.

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3. Machine gun, 1884

Hiram Maxim, the London-based American man who invented the world's first totally automatic machine gun, was supposedly inspired by an American friend, who said the route to riches was to "invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other's throats with greater facility". It worked: Maxim's brutally efficient gun was adopted by several armies and its successors inflicted horrific casualties in the First World War. Displaying an apparent penchant for deadly devices, Maxim also invented the only slightly less destructive common mousetrap.

4. Microchip, 1958

It is impossible to sum up how much these tiny slivers of silicon and metal have transformed our lives. They feature in everything from toys to tanks and motorbikes to microwaves but when, in 1952, the engineer Geoffrey Dummer proposed using a block of silicon, whose layers would provide the components of electronic systems, nobody took him seriously and he never built a working prototype. Six years later, US engineer Jack Kilby took the baton and built the world's first monolithic integrated circuit, or microchip.

5. PC, 1977

The computers IBM were producing for businesses as early as the late 1950s cost about $100,000 (almost £500,000 today), so the idea of one in every home remained a dream. But that changed in the 1970s when a group of chip-wielding geeks based in California began tinkering in garages. One of the brightest techies operating in what is now dubbed Silicon Valley was Steve Jobs, whose Apple II, launched in 1977, was the first consumer PC to resemble the machines that went on to transform our lives.

6. Robot, 1921

The term robot dates to 1921, when the Czech playwright Karel Capek referred to put-upon serfs as "robots" in his play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots). Eventually they cause unemployment and lead to the collapse of society. That hasn't happened yet in the real world, but nearly 90 years since Capek's vision, the rise of the robot has gathered pace as a gallery of droids and autonomous machines walks, crawls and rolls out of robotics labs around the world, able to do anything from building cars to performing brain surgery.

7. Sewing machine, 1830

Humans had used bone and horn to sew for tens of thousands of years, but the first patent for a machine that could do it without the need for such cumbersome devices as pins and thimbles was submitted in 1790. It didn't work. The first functioning machine was invented by Frenchman Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1830, but his machines were destroyed in riots. In 1845, Elias Howe built the contraption that would spawn the modern day machine, including those built by one Isaac Merritt Singer.

8. Telescope, 1608

Galileo was the inventor of the word "telescope", but not the instrument. That distinction goes to the two Dutchmen who inspired him, Hans Lipperhey and Zacharias Jansen. They were the first to combine convex and concave lenses at either end of a wooden tube, a device Galileo later touted as a military aid, before turning his attention to the stars. Early telescopes could magnify up to only 20 times; today even the amateur astronomer can pick up a telescope with 500x magnification for as little as £40.

9. The match, 1826

The Stockholm-based chemist John Walker was the first to make the striking discovery that when a stick coated in potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide was brushed across stone, it created a flame. For the first time, man could make fire quickly, cleanly and safely, be it against a rock, a doorframe or the jaw of a bestubbled cowboy. A succession of chemists perfected Walker's mix and in the 1850s, a Swedish scientist split the chemicals between the match and the striking surface, creating the safety match.

10. Velcro, 1948

The Swiss inventor George de Mestral became so fed up with removing cocklebur seeds from his dog and jacket, he put one under a microscope to discover the secret of its stickiness. The answer: velours (the French for loops, in clothing) and crochets (hooks, on the burs). He took the first syllables of the words, replicated the fastening phenomenon synthetically to create Velcro, used today in everything from ski jackets to "human Velcro walls".

Read more about the 101 Gadgets that change the world in Part 9 of the series of articles.  

The content for these articles is gathered from various online resources.

See all 14 articles in category Gadgets and Technology Products



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