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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Inventions: Technology’s Miracle of Being Necessity’s Offspring

Technology is mankind’s greatest gift – it represents the ability to adapt and innovate. Today, it has become synonymous with civilization and people are asking questions such as “what is push to talk” and “what is the importance of SEO” which would have been unheard of in decades past.

When urgency prods a necessity over the edge, the resolution is generally nothing short of invention. In fact, necessity is indeed the mother of inventions.

The very first invention was probably a wooden scraper or wooden chopping contraption used over 2.6 million years ago. The humans of the Early Stone Age also probably discovered how to control and use fire, but it was only in 1826 that an Englishman named John Walker invented the first real matchstick. The invention was not exactly successful, and five years later, a Frenchman named Charles Sauria developed matches with white phosphorous, which, apart from lighting up unexpectedly, was a health hazard. It was only in the 1900s, that that the American and European governments pushed manufacturers to use non-toxic chemicals in matches. At the time, with matches being produced manually, inventors were experimenting on mechanizing the process. In 1888, Ebenezer Beecher was awarded a patent for his automatic match making machine. Subsequent improvements led to today’s modern match manufacturing process, with continuously operating machines producing about 10 million matches in 8 hours.

Thus, inventing is proliferated by building upon already recorded discoveries. As American entrepreneur and innovator, King C. Gillette said, “A successful razor can be made on the principles of the Gillette patent… and the advance of anything known can be reached.” For instance, Thomas Edison did not invent electric light, but with much effort, he produced the first commercially viable, durable electric bulb. Having created a demand for electricity, Edison went onto create his first power plant in Manhattan in 1882. Then again, Marconi, the Italian inventor, did not invent the radio. German physicist, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz was the first to conclusively prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. Independent of him, British physicist Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge established radio waves and was awarded a patent for radio. Marconi studied these discoveries and converted radio into commercially viable technology and captured the world’s attention with long-distance radio transmissions. He established Marconi’s Law and the radio telegraph system, dwelling on antenna height and radio transmissions’ maximum signaling distance. In 1909, Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun, a German physicist, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contribution towards the development of wireless telegraphy. As Edison once said, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.”

Inventing, is indeed a lonely, difficult and exhausting process. Many inventors of bygone days, died disillusioned, disappointed and poor, having relentlessly and hopelessly trying, for many years, to achieve results. Many give up on the way. Edison said about inventing, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Also it is a matter of perspective. Where other inventors believed themselves to be failures, Edison looked differently at the process of trying and not succeeding. He said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Also, today, inventions take place, not in the laboratories of individuals, but in mammoth, powerful corporate settings, making the whole process less personal and more professional.

Furthermore, history shows that inventions did not always come about through scientific discoveries. Neither were inventors necessarily scientists. Thomas Newcomen, ironmonger and Baptist lay preacher, created the first practical steam engine in the 19th century. It was his invention that Scottish inventor James Watt improved on and created the Watt steam engine in 1781. Watt was led onto his invention while reparing a Newcomen steam engine in 1764. Edison, upon occasion said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Some inventions in the world are not attributable to any one inventor, such as a calculating machine. Over years, people improved on existing devices, until today, people have calculators on their smartphones. Similarly, vehicles on wheels was a concept that existed for thousands of years, but the original inventor is long forgotten. In contemporary times, American business magnate Henry Ford is remembered for popularizing an affordable car, while German engineer Nikolaus Otto is credited for inventing the gasoline engine. German engine designer, Karl Benz, subsequently took Otto’s invention and produced the first practical car in 1886.

Some inventions were miraculous accidents, like the microwave oven which has taken kitchen conveniences to a whole new level. Percy Spencer, an American self-taught engineer stumbled on microwaves’ capability to cook food, when he was testing magnetrons – electron tubes that generate microwaves – at a lab at Raytheon Company. Spencer found a candy bar in his pocket had melted because of the microwaves. He tested the phenomenon with popcorn kernels, making the first ever microwaved popcorn. In 1945, Raytheon patented the microwave cooking oven, later named the Radarange. In 1999, Spencer was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame.

Other inventors have studied Spencer’s discovery, and engaged in further research. Today, microwaves of varied wavelengths are used in satellites, to track weather conditions and to monitor ocean levels. Radar guns used by traffic policemen also make use of microwaves.

Thus, contemporary inventions are more focused on improving than transforming – to do things more efficiently, economically, and faster. US Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, said, “There will be more great leaps. We have a momentum and acceleration I think we can all feel.” She lists the world top ten innovations as the printing press, the light bulb, the airplane, the personal computer, vaccines, the automobile, the clock, the telephone, refrigeration and the camera.

Billionaire and philanthropist, Bill Gates once foretold the upswing of smartphones and social media. He also talks of inventions to come that will pave the way for the future of the world. He believes agricultural productivity will increase and the African continent will be self-sufficient in food by 2030. He also envisages mobile banking will make a difference in the lives of the poor, and looks to a world where polio will be eradicated by 2019 and poverty will be eliminated by 2035.

As the late Steve Jobs once said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

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