When Italian scientist Alessandro Volta made his voltaic pile in 1799 he started the journey to today’s widespread electrochemical batteries. The pile, which was a stack of silver and zinc discs separated by pieces of brine-soaked fabric, was crude but when its ends were connected via metal wire, it produced a small electric current. In the years following the pile’s invention, the battery was improved again and again, and now it is a fundamental source of portable power many of us couldn’t live without.
Okay, so this isn’t an invention but rather a discovery. It is still, however, so momentous that it deserves a mention. While scientists had been fascinated with lightning and electricity for thousands of years -indeed, great philosopher Thales of Miletus undertook numerous experiments into the nature of static electricity in 600 BCE — it wasn’t until Benjamin Franklin studied the phenomenon in 1752 that the two were reconciled and its true power realised. Following Franklin’s work, electricity was harnessed in increasingly diverse ways, with Michael Faraday using it to lay down the foundations for the electric motor.
From the 1712 Newcomen steam engine through to Karl Benz’s two-stroke petrol engine used in cars and on to today’s hi-tech hydrogen varieties, there is no doubt that the engine is one of the most significant inventions ever. Its usefulness has essentially been unrivalled for over 300 years as a motive force and, looking to the future, it seems to have plenty of life left in it. We pick out some of the key developments in its evolution now…
Steam engines date back to the first century CE, but it wasn’t until Thomas Newcomen’s engine in 1712 that they became useful machines.
Karl Benz’s invention of a reliable two-stroke petrol engine marked the end of the steam engine and led to the proliferation of the motor car.
While the petrol engine was more momentous, Rudolf Diesel’s creation of the diesel equivalent was just as useful and more eco-friendly too.
When Camille Jenatzy built an electric car in 1899, his electric engine was openly mocked. The car went on to break the land speed record.
The invention of the telescope is generally now attributed to the German-Dutch lensmaker Hans Lippershey, but many have argued it was not until Galileo Galilei copied his designs and improved upon them in 1609 that the telescope, as we know it today, was born. Galileo’s telescope reportedly offered 20x magnification and through it the astronomer discovered four of Jupiter’s satellites and that the Sun was covered in spots. Since then, the telescope has evolved massively and today enables us to explore some of the very deepest reaches of space. Check out some of the key points in the telescope’s development now…
Toilets had been in use for centuries by the end of the 16th century, often with a sewage system. However, these toilets were in reality mere pits/holes, with no moving mechanisms in the waste removal process. That changed in 1596 when writer John Harington installed a flush toilet in his house in Kelston, England. The design used a special valve to let water out of a suspended tank and into the bowl, flushing away the waste.