Monday, August 18, 2014

Tiny Size, Enormous Impact: Scientific Breakthroughs That Changed History

If Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 version of mankind is true, then without the big monolith, we would still be picking fleas off of our fuzzy neighbors. Whether it is because of benevolent space aliens or simple human ingenuity, there was a flash of brilliance where a bone became a tool and the world changed in response. Over the past hundred years, these technological breakthroughs have come fast and furious. These innovations are changing the world so quickly that children cannot comprehend a time without them and futurists question where they may lead us.

The O-Ring

It is just a little piece of rubber, but it played a big part in the industrial revolution, the space race and World War II. In 1936, Denmark born inventor Niels Christensen created the first O-ring as a seal for automobiles. Before that, cars had a tendency to leak fluids, which severely limited the amount of power possible. However, it did not become widely used until the United States purchased the patent during World War II and used it as the primary seal for its aircraft. Additionally, the importance of O-ring manufacturing was emphasized during the Challenger disaster when the SRM Joint failed, breaking the O-ring and causing the ship to crash.

Flash Drives

In the 1980s and '90s, computer technology was moving so rapidly that a new personal computer was obsolete before you got it out of the box. In 1980, a one gig hard drive cost around $40,000 and weighed 550 pounds, states PC World. By 1991, the same storage capacity weighed 2.2 pounds. In that decade, we also went from floppy disks to CDs. And now, the flash drive and its magical parallel, the cloud, allow a person to carry and share a lifetime of work, memories and theories. Where once we had a tattered leather notebook, now we have the flash drive.

Remote Control

The best reason for a 1970s parent to have children was so that they had someone to change the channel. For you younger folks, there was a time when people actually had to stand up to put on a different show. It was Edison’s contemporary and rival Nikola Tesla that patented the first radio controlled device in 1900, claims PBS. However, it was not until the 1980s that the TV remote as we know it was developed for common commercial use, and now we have smartphones and devices that control our TV. TiVo tells us what to watch, and we can play Mario Bros while watching football on the small screen in the corner. Tesla was such a brilliant futurist that he predicted some of this technology as far back as 1901.

The Electron

Technically people did not invent the electron, but what we did with it in the last hundred years is world changing. In your fifth grade science book, the atom would be described as having protons, electrons and possibly neutrons, and the electron would be described as a negatively charged particle. Today’s definition of the electron is a probability weighted, possibility structure in potentia. This change in meaning has lead us from technology where we plug in our toaster to the possibility of artificial intelligence. Using the quantum mechanical definition of an electron may give us quantum computers and AI, worm holes and faster than light travel. Elementary school science class didn’t tell us any of that.