23 Greatest Inventions of the 20th Century

The 20th century is, undoubtedly, the century that changed the world entirely. Now, this has had both, positive and negative, impacts. But, for the most part, the lives of humans have vastly improved.

Although there have been hundreds of remarkable inventions, this list has only covered 23. These include some of the most used items along with a few miraculous inventions that no one had ever even imagined of.

Greatest Inventions of the 20th Century

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Hold tight as this is going to be a venturesome ride through the 20th century!

1. Airplanes

In the 20th century, humankind touched the sky, literally. The credit is given to the Wright brothers who made the first flying airplane in 1903. Now, this is a confusing topic in other parts of the world, such as Brazi. The reason behind this is that even though the Wright brothers initially invented the airplane, a lot of other scientists from other parts of the world contributed to the improvement of the aviation industry. One such example is Alberto Santos-Dumont who was a Brazilian expert. He was the first to build a heavier-than-air aircraft in the European countries, although this was an unsuccessful invention.

As for the works of the Wright brothers, they did lay roots of the craft that has made it a piece of cake to travel to the other side of the world. The mere invention of airplanes contributed to the increased rates of trade, tourism, and lots of other good things. You may also blame this invention for wars and chaos, but overall, it won’t be wrong to say that the entire future of this world has been altered with this miraculous creation.

2. Personal Computer

Computers were not something that only one scientist was working on. There were many experts who were putting in efforts to create a successful final product around the same time. However, the first-ever computer that was programmable and worked effectively is said to be the Z1. This computer came into existence between 1936 and 1938. But, the works in this industry didn’t stop.

Alan Turning is regarded as the person who introduced the concept of a personal computer. He suggested that a machine should be invented that would be able to solve any problem as long as the problem was entered in the form of certain instructions. Alongside this, Konrad Zuse was working on creating similar machines. He is the one who made the Z3 computer. Other than that, the US Army sponsored the creation of Eniac. This was an all-electronic computer, run by a program, but without any storage space. After WW2, the US Army made this machine public. This is when Manchester University introduced an improved prototype that could store programs. You may consider this prototype the closest to today’s computers. However, the improvements did not stop and continue to this day.

3. Radio

You may think that radios are not as useful. But, the truth is, radio waves are used continually, all around you. The transmission of your mobile’s signals is also a form of radio waves. Keeping this in mind, it is clear that radio is a vital part of today’s world. Yet, it is unclear who really invented the radio.

The name most commonly associated with the invention of the radio is Marconi. He was the first to have sent a transatlantic radio message. This happened in 1901. However, before Marconi cashed it, Tesla had already introduced the idea of a radio. Moreover, the idea of wireless communication was not new at this point. Back in the 1800s, scientists were working on the concepts of electromagnetic waves. This led to the discovery of what we know as radio waves now. This long-wavelength light was discovered a long time ago, but yes, the practical implementation did not happen until the 20th century. Now, we don’t know which one point to name the real inventor. But we do know that this invention had been in the works for long and has surely been a life-changing addition to this world.

4. Television

Can you imagine your life without television? No entertainment, news updates, movies or background music through your chores. How boring would that be? Luckily, that is just a thought because back in 1927, Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented the first TV. Before this, a few people had come up with mechanical TV systems but they were a fail. This invention was the first electronic television that could also capture moving images. Although, this device was very different from what we know TV as of today.

The works of this 21-year old have helped educate the world beyond imagination. Word spreads from one side of the world to the other within seconds through TV transmissions. It has been a source of information in times of urgency. The whole broadcast media industry has flourished based on this invention alongside the radio. Moreover, it is a part of every household which is enough to explain its importance in this age.

5. Nuclear Power

It all started in the 1940s when some genius minds started working on the idea of nuclear power. The world awaited brilliant inventions that could possibly make the world an easier place to live in. Nuclear energy operated cars, free power generation, and other similar ideas started emerging. Everything was going great until the practical aspect of the work began. There was a lack of funds since sponsors had a hard time trusting this new, unknown idea. They much rather prefer the good old coal, oil, and gas instead of a risky investment. However, with the war in middle-east during the 1970s, the oil prices boosted immensely.

Within the next decade, people started showing way more interest in the idea and nuclear reactors started emerging all across the world. There is most definitely the risk of destruction. Radioactive emissions can make an area unsuitable for living things. However, the long list of pros of nuclear power cannot be ignored either.

6. Antibiotics

Considering the high rate of illnesses, it won’t be wrong to say that antibiotics have saved humankind. Had it not been for these bacteria fighters, the death rate would be way higher. The history behind antibiotics is pretty interesting. The discovery of this life-changing substance was more of an accident than an invention. Alexander Fleming, in 1928, first noticed the presence of a ‘mold’ that was killing the bacteria that he was studying. This was researched further and in 1941, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain presented this substance as a medicine named Penicillin.

Penicillin was only named as antibiotic 30 years later. Antibiotics played a huge role in not just saving human lives, but also in increasing the production of meat and milk. It came with the side effect of killing good bacteria along with the bad ones. Now, this exposed everyone who consumes meat or dairy to the risk of a lower resistance against diseases even if they have never consumed antibiotics themselves. The governments of many countries have banned the use of antibiotics in farms today which has lowered this risk while maintaining the positive effects of antibiotics.

7. Cell Phones

You’re probably reading this article on a smartphone right now. Although smartphones did not come into the picture until the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, the roots were laid down with the invention of the first cell phone. You probably have a very different image in your mind than what the first cell phone actually looked like. It did not have a touch-screen, internet or tens of entertainment options. All that this device could do was make phone calls. The cell phone had an antenna, actual buttons to dial the number, and a small display to show notifications. Unlike today’s compact and smart designs, this cell phone was huge, bulky, and not pretty at all.

As for the brains behind this invention, the credit is given to the company Motorola. Like most creations, the cell phone was only in the works simultaneously in multiple companies. However, Motorola was the one who made the first successful phone call from their invention. Ironically, Martin Cooper, an executive at Motorola, made this first legendary phone call to a rival company to inform them of their success. This was on April 3, 1973. Ever since then, the device has improved and to this day, the updates haven’t stopped.

8. Rocketry

One thing this world is very proud of is that humans have been able to reach the moon. Without the invention of rockets, this would never have been possible. Not only that, but rockets are also to be credited for a lot of other things we use on a daily basis. The only reason we have access to GPS is that rockets put satellites in space. Moreover, the majority of what our cell phones offer is all because of rockets.

Although rockets have been around in China since the 10th century, the true use of rockets only began in the 20th century. The earlier rockets were mere weapons of war, used to shoot arrows. However, after the 20th century, they became much bigger and stronger. Newton’s cradle and the second law of motion were just some of the theories used by scientists to explain that reaching the moon was possible. But, the first one to ever implement these was Robert Goddard who built the first liquid propelled rocket in 1926. Though, his rocket’s first flight was only up to a height of 12.5 meters.

9. Automobiles

The 20th century really did make commute possible. A world without automobiles may have been less polluted, but would be as advanced as it is today? From the everyday ease of traveling to the boom in trade, automobiles have helped this world move forward, literally. The first automobile invented was the motor car designed by Carl Benz in1879. This car ran on a gasoline-powered engine. However, the automobile that made this invention more accessible and user-friendly only came into existence in the 20th century.

Henry Ford is the man who made Model T in 1908. This car was affordable for an average middle-class American. Although the brains behind this invention were someone else’s, it was only due to Henry Ford that this industry flourished. Hence, Henry Ford is the man associated with the boom of automobiles. His company was able to sell millions of automobiles and to this day, Ford is a world-famous and successful business.

10. Submarine

Who knew that one day, humans will be able to survive underwater? Like many other 20th century inventions, the submarine has also been in the works long before it was officially announced. The use of submarine vessels in the Civil War back in the 1880s is proof that the idea was not new. But, the base of the modern submarines was nothing like the submarines of this time.

Submarines got a glow-up in the 20th century. They became an important weapon during the WW2. Today, the submarine paired with nuclear power is more powerful than one can imagine. The submarines used by the navy forces worldwide have an unlimited shooting range. Other than their use during wars, submarines also play a huge role in scientific research.

11. Internet

I can confidently say that the internet is ultimately the most important invention of all times and I’m sure you’ll agree. This ‘network of networks’ was initially assembled in 1983 by Robert E. Kahn and Vint Cerf. But, it became more accessible in the 1990s after the ‘world wide web’ was created.

The internet shrunk the world to the size of whatever device you own. Yes, airplanes and automobiles brought places closer, but the internet literally put them in your palm. Today, the entire world is dependent on this invention. From business to economy to politics to entertainment, you name it and it is somehow connected to the internet in one way or another. People from all across the world can connect with just one click. It has promoted the development of this world, in general. A huge money-making industry has flourished on the roots of the internet. This genius invention shook the world to its core like nothing else ever has!

12. Xerography

Xerography, or electrophotography, came into existence in 1938. All the ‘xerox’ copies you are able to make are because of the works of Chester Carlson. He was mostly inspired by the publications of Pal Selenyi, as I’m sure many more were too. However, Chester Carlson was the one to receive the patent for this invention.

Now, xerography has played a huge role in offices as well as in educational institutes. Like most American shows depict, xerography has also served as an easy excuse to meet up with your office fling in the xerox room. All jokes aside, the invention of xerography reduced handwork immensely. Prior to the availability of a photocopying device, people had to make exact copies of the printed documents by hand in order to reduce the printing expenditure. Xerox machines are also used for the printing of books and magazines in bulk. Although xerography was only available in grayscale at first, with time it was developed enough to produce colored prints too.

13. Vacuums

Have you ever noticed the amount of dust that gathers in your home when you don’t vacuum it for a few days? Now imagine how worse it would’ve been if there were no vacuum cleaners at all. Manually cleaning surfaces is way harder and time-consuming too. Fortunately, Hubert Cecil Booth and David T. Kenney created the masterpiece that we call a vacuum cleaner in 1901.

The general idea on which this machine operated was pretty similar to the vacuum cleaners we use today. However, famous names such as Kirby and Hoover continued to improve this machine. Daniel Hess was the man who came up with the idea of a vacuum that could be used on carpets. The bottom line is that over time vacuums have become more and more efficient.

14. Robots

A lot of people are afraid that someday robots will be smarter than humans and take over the world. Then there is also the hassle of filling out security checks on websites to confirm that you’re not a robot. These and all other robot-related issues cannot be blamed on one person since robots have been in the making for centuries. It all started with simple automated devices that eventually turned into human look-alikes that can talk, feel, and understand.

A modern robot with complex behavior was made by William Grey Walter in 1949. His robot had more similarities with a human, mainly because that is what his aim was. He wired up this robot to portray how brain cells work. Later, George Devol created the first programmable digital robot in 1954. This was called the Unimate and is credited for laying roots of the modern robotics industry.

15. Microwave Oven

The machine that heats up your pizza, pops your corn kernels and warms your hot chocolate was born in the 20th century too. The well-loved, well-used device in every kitchen, the microwave oven, was invented by Percy Spencer after the WW2. It was called a Radarange instead of a microwave oven back then. The first Radarange was sold in 1946.

You may not believe this but this invention only happened due to candy. Spencer was an American engineer. He noticed that some sort of waves on the radar that he was working on were cooking the candy in his pocket. Of course, he experimented here and there to finally find out that if microwaves were concentrated on food, the food will heat up and cook.

Here’s a fun fact:

To test his invention, the first thing he cooked in his microwave oven was popcorn!

16. Tea Bags

If you’re a tea lover, it might be hard for you to imagine a time when there were no tea bags. Yes, tea leaves didn’t always come in a permeable paper that you could dip into warm water. Before this time, and in some places even today, tea leaves are cooked in boiling water on flames. However, some tea enthusiasts who craved tea on the go came up with the brilliant idea of tea bags.

We don’t know who the mastermind behind this invention is. But, we do know who the first importer was. It was Thomas Sullivan who shipped tea bags all around the world. The sacks full of tea leaves were around since 1904. However, the rectangular tea bags we see today came into existence in 1944.

17. Safety Razor

Before the 20th century, people used a sharp metal blade to shave. Since there was no safety shield around it, it was a very tricky and dangerous tool to use. Luckily, King Camp Gilette, along with William Emery Nickerson, came up with a disposable razor in 1901. This invention was a huge success from the get-go due to its feasibility and safe use. These disposable safety razors were sold under the company name of the American Safety Razor Company. In 1904, the company was renamed to the Gilette Safety Razor Company. King Camp Gilette quickly became a millionaire. Who would have guessed that safety razors were the beginning of this world-famous company?

18. Compact Disc

Compact discs came in the 20th century and pretty much disappeared by the 21st. Although there isn’t much use of CDs in this day and age, they were once in a phase of a boom. It all started with James Russell’s love for music. Vinyl records just wouldn’t satisfy him. They had a low sound quality and would also damage easily. He started by replacing the needle on the record player with different items. However, none of them worked. That is when it hit him, what if the record player read the disc without touching it?

In 1965, Russell introduced his idea of digitized music to the Battelle Memorial Institue. After some hesitation, Russell got the heads up to start working on his project. He first created an audio CD, then he perfected the CD-ROM, and by 1973, there was a video disc in his hands.

19. Ballpoint Pen

A ballpoint pen is a writing instrument that works on pretty much all surfaces. Unlike a fountain pen, a ballpoint pen can write on leather, wood, coarse paper, etc. It dries quickly and is smudge-proof too. The phenomenon behind this device is a free-moving ball on the nib of the pen which cannot come out or go in but can rotate in its place easily. Based on this idea, John J. Loud invented the first ballpoint pen in 1888. However, it was not a practical invention.

The first ballpoint pen to be sold was one created by Laszlo Biro, hence the alternative name ‘Biro’ used for ballpoint pens. This happened in 1938. The ballpoint pens manufactured today are based on Biro’s invention.

20. Polio Vaccine

Did you know that there has been a 99% decline in polio cases since 1988? Had it not been for the polio vaccine, 17 million people who are healthy today would have been affected by polio. The credit for this lifesaving invention goes to Jonas Salk. His vaccine was approved in 1955. Later, an oral vaccine was introduced by Albert Bruce Sabin in the 1960s. This new vaccine quickly replaced Salk’s since it was commercially viable and also easier to treat patients with.

21. Helicopter

The first helicopter that this world saw was designed by Igor Sikorsky with a single main rotor and a tail rotor. It was built by the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Division in 1939. In September of the same year, this helicopter flew for the first time, although it was only for a couple of seconds. However, in 1940, an improved version of this helicopter flew at a speed of around 300mph. This VS-300 helicopter is still on display in the Henry Ford Museum.

22. Toaster

The crispy bread you enjoy in your breakfast is a luxury that only the people who came after the 20th century have enjoyed. There were no toasters before the 20th century. Actually, there was the Eclipse Toaster that was invented in 1893 by Alan MacMaster in Scotland. However, the first official toaster in the USA was made by Frank Shailor in 1909 and he is the one who got the patent for it. These toasters did not pop-up automatically. In fact, the user had to turn over the bread himself and once the bread was toasted, the device had to be turned off by hand too. A pop-up toaster only came in the market in 1919 after being invented by Charles Strite.

23. Electricity

The best was saved last. Most of the inventions mentioned above are useless without electricity. Fortunately, in the early 20th century, the concept of electrical power generation and distribution was expanded, which is what led to thousands of other creations. Originally, electricity was invented in the 1700s by Benjamin Franklin. However, the use of electricity was neither feasible not accessible.

The major work regarding electricity generation had been done in the late 19th century. The transmission of larger electricity units began within the first decade of the next century. Slowly but gradually, coal and oil generated power sources were replaced with electricity. Eventually, the feasible distance of transmission increased, the technology improved, and today, the entire world is lit by this invention.