Greatest Inventions: 2012 and 1913 Editions

O. Wright aeroplane, in flight. George Grantham Bain Collection , 1908.

As we approach the end of another year of the Gregorian calendar, publishers and the media provide a look back at their top news stories or ‘best of’ from the past year. Scientific publishers also provide retrospectives of the year that tend to focus on top inventions, such as Popular Science’s Invention Awards (also see its 100 Innovations of the Year, December 2012 issue) or top science stories, such as  Discover Magazine’s Top 100 Stories of 2012 (Jan/Feb 2013 ) and Scientific America’s Top 10 Science Stories of 2012 . Time Magazine also gets into the mix with its Best Inventions list (The 50 Best Inventions, Nov. 28, 2012 ). 

There is no absence of books on the subject of best inventions either. Titles such as Kendall Haven’s 100 greatest science inventions of all time (2006), Jack Challoner’s 1001 inventions that changed the world (2009),  Tom Philbin’s  The 100 greatest inventions of all time : a ranking past and present (2003), or John Brockman’s The greatest inventions of the past 2,000 years (2000) provide an analysis of various inventions throughout history.

Of course naming the best, greatest or top invention is mostly subjective, and how we define it can vary from functionality to popularity and from groundbreaking to most profitable.

A couple of months ago I was thumbing through a 1913 volume of Scientific American looking for an article when I noticed an announcement of a contest in the June 7th  issue asking its readers “What are the Ten Greatest Inventions of Our Time, and Why?” Readers were asked to submit an essay listing their top 10 greatest inventions of the past 25 years and explain their selections. First place prize was a cash award of $150.

The awards were announced in the November 1, 1913 issue and first place went to “Esam” by William I Wyman of Washington DC who based his selection on the “most revolutionary in character in the broadest fields, which affected most of our mode of living, or which opened up the largest new sources of wealth.” (p.337)

Melba & wireless phone. George Grantham Bain Collection

Wyman’s top ten, along with its “approximate date of commercial introduction” are as follows:

  1. Electric Furnace (1899)
  2. Steam Turbine (1894)
  3. Gasoline Automobile (1890)
  4. Moving Pictures (1893)
  5. Wireless Telegraphy (1900)
  6. Aeroplane (1906)
  7. Cyanide Process (1890)
  8. Linotype Machine (1890)
  9. Induction Motor (1890)
  10. Electric Welding (1889)

The second place essay “Altair” by Mr. George Dowe of the U.S. Patent Office was published in the November 8th issue and the third place essay “Cherry Valley” by W.C. Cahill was in the Nov. 15 Supplement. Additional honorable mention essays were published in the November 11th, 22nd, and December 13th issues.

As you can imagine, this contest spurred much discussion, more like arguments, among the editors, judges, and readers. The Scientific American editors noted that they were surprised by the diversity of opinion, and “no two competitors selected the same set of inventions. In fact, only one invention, that of Wireless Telegraphy, was conceded unanimously to belong among the greatest. The vote on aeroplanes was almost unanimous.” (p.339)

Patent Office does record business as inventions pour in, Thomas E. Robertson, Commissioner of Patents (1930).

So in the spirit of this 1913 Scientific American Greatest Invention contest, I challenge you to send me (via the blog comment feature) the  greatest inventions from the past 25 years with a short explaination as to why you picked those inventions.  The rules - do not promote services or products and no gratuitous links. Sorry there is no cash award for the best comment.

And if the history of inventions and scientific discoveries interests you, we have created guides on these topics that can provide you with a selection of resources to consult:

 Happy New Year!



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