key history facts - famous inventions

Famous Inventions Timeline

Timeline of Famous Inventions That Changed the World

Any list of famous inventions will always be incomplete and/or localized. Tools with cutting edges were the game changing invention that made it possible for the wheel to be invented. The wheel is the greatest invention of all time, isn’t it? Along with the axle, the wheel led to the water wheel, cart and most of the transport inventions which followed. We’ve categorized famous inventions, for example, entertainment inventions include TV and Cinema. We’ve also included a few inventions we would “un-invent” if we had a time machine!

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Famous InventionsYear / CenturyFamous InventorsCategory TagsCountry / RegionFamous Inventions Info, Background & Trivia
Airplane: Powered1903*Wright brothers, Orville and WilburTransportUSA, Germany
  • 1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with the first powered flight.
  • 1901: Gustave Whitehead (born Gustave Weisskopf, in Germany) claims to have made powered flights in 1901 and 1902.
Airship / Dirigible1852Henri GiffardTransportFranceFirst steerable airship, powered by a steam engine & propeller, took passengers.
Algebra800 CE*BabyloniansMathematicsSyriaAlgebra comes from “al-jabr” which means “reunion of broken parts” in Arabic.
Alphabet1050 BCE*PhoeniciansLiteraturePhoeniciaThe “mother of modern alphabets” and the first to contain vowels & consonants. Phoenicia was located in parts of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and Turkey.
Aluminum[US] / Aluminium[UK]1886Charles Martin Hall / Paul HéroultMaterialUSA, FranceOf course, aluminum wasn’t “invented”, but the Hall–Héroult method for producing it was.
Anesthetic[US] / Anaesthetic[UK]1804Hanaoka SeishūMaterialJapanHanaoka was the first surgeon to operate using an anesthetic he concocted himself from various unknown ingredients.
Atom bomb1945Manhattan ProjectPhysicsUSADeveloped by various scientist in the Manhattan Project and dropped in same year on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending World War II. One of the famous inventions we wish had not been invented.
Automobile, Car, Motor car1886Carl BenzTransportGermanyAlthough Benz first patented the automobile with a gas combustion engine, there were a number of other designs being developed at the time.
Axle3000 BCE*EngineeringThe axle is the invention that, together with the wheel, made it possible to construct carts and chariots and many other forms of transport.
Ball point pen1888John J. LoudGadgetUSASubsequently refined by Hungarian László Bíró in 1938, who developed the ink and ball socket to stop the ink from drying out.
Bank note600 CE*Tang DynastyCommerceChinaUsed to avoid heavy copper coinage in larger transactions.
Barometer1643*Evangelista TorricellMeasurementItalyMaybe invented previously by Gasparo Berti in 1640.
Battery: Copper / Zinc battery1800Alessandro VoltaChemistryItalyAlessandro Volta developed the “voltaic pile” battery with layers of copper and zinc based on groundwork by Luigi Galvani.
Battery: Lead battery1859Gaston PlantéChemistryFranceGaston Planté invented the lead battery was also the first rechargeable battery.
Battery: Alkaline battery1800Lewis UrryChemistryCanadaAlso invented the lithium battery while working at the Eveready Battery Company.
Bicycle (aka Bike, Dandy horse)1817Baron Karl von DraisTransportGermanyThe dandy horse was a forerunner of the bicycle, not powered by pedals.
Bicycle: Pedal powered1839*Kirkpatrick MacMillanTransportScotlandKirkpatrick MacMillan was a blacksmith who claims to have developed the first two wheeled pedal powered bicycle but this is disputed.
Bomb1200*Jin dynastyWeaponChinaShells made of iron and filled with gunpowder.
Braille1829Louis BrailleCommunicationsFranceLouis Braille, who was born blind developed Braille based on a “night writing” system devised by French military Captain Charles Barbier. Braille usage has declined due to screen reader software. World Braille Day is celebrated annually on 4th January.
Bronze3000 BCE*MesopotamiansMaterialMesopotamiaBronze is an alloy of tin and copper (approximately 1 part tin to 9 parts copper). Bronze is cast and in many applications can be as strong as steel.
Calculator: Mechanical1642Blaise PascalEngineeringFranceInvented the “Pascaline” mechanical calculator, aka “Arithmetic Machine.” The pocket calculator didn’t arrive until 1970.
Calculator: Electronic desktop1961Bell Punch Co. LtdElectronicsEnglandThe ANITA Mk VII and ANITA Mk 8 were the first electronic calculators but they still used pre-transistor vacuum tube technology.
Calculator: Electronic Handheld1970SharpElectronicsJapanThe Sharp Compet QT-8B was the first handheld electronic calculator. It was battery powered and was bigger than pocket sized.
Calculator: Electronic Pocket Calulator1971Busicom CorporationElectronicsJapanThe Busicom LE-120A “HANDY” was the first pocket calculator. The integrated circuit (IC) featured the Mostek MK6010L “calculator on a chip.” One of the famous inventions which changed the world.
Camera1839Louis DaguerrePhotographyFranceDaguerre was the first to make a camera that could take a permanent photo. One of the famous inventions which changed the world.
Can / Tin1810Nicolas AppertStorageFranceThe French confectioner used them for preserving food. One of the famous inventions which changed the world.
Cannon1200Yuan DynastyWeaponChinaA hand cannon.
Cast iron400 BCE*Ancient ChineseMaterialChinaDuring the Zhou Dynasty.
Cell phone[US]1984MotorolaTelecomsUSAThe first widely available cell phone was the DynaTAC 8000X
Cellphone[US] / Mobile phone[UK]1973MotorolaTelecomsUSAThe first handheld phone was a chunky 2.5 pounds (1.13Kg) and ran for 30 minutes before needing a recharge.
Cement1845Isaac Charles JohnsonMaterialEnglandPortland cement is still the cement most in use in the world. It is basically made of limestone and small quantities of other materials.
Chocolate1900 BCE*MesoamericansFoodMesoamericaFermented beverages made from chocolate date back to 1900 BCE. The Spanish conquistadors brought it back to Europe in the 16th century, where sugar was added, making it popular throughout society. In the 1850s in England, Joseph Fry added more cocoa butter to cocoa powder and sugar, thus making the first modern solid chocolate. Milk chocolate followed in 1875 when Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle added condensed milk to it.
Cinema1895Lumière BrothersEntertainmentFranceThe brothers called it the cinematograph.
Clock725 CE*Tang DynastyMeasurementChinaThe Chinese made the 1st mechanical clock, which, in 1656, was improved by the pendulum, invented by Dutchman Christian Huygens.
Compact Disc (CD / CD-ROM)1982Philips / SonyStorageNetherlands / JapanOriginally invented to store sound recordings and later adapted as read/write data storage. Standard CD discs are 120 mm (4.7″) diameter capable of storing up to 80 minutes of audio and 700 MiB (mebibyte) of data. Later CD formats included CD-R write-once audio/data, CD-RW rewritable, VCD Video Compact Disc, Photo CD and others.
Compass1119Song DynastyNavigationChinaThe first compasses were made using lodestone, a naturally occurring magnetized iron ore. The wet compass, using a magnetic needle floating in water. The mariner’s dry compass with a needle in a glass box followed in Europe around 1300. One of the most famous inventions in the history of navigation.
Compressor: Mechanical1776John WilkinsonEngineeringEnglandHis compressor is the prototype for all those following.
Computer1822Charles BabbageComputingEnglandBabbage is seen as the “father of computers” because of his difference engine – a mechanical computation device. “Modern” computers came about in the 1940s.
Computer: Personal (PC)1957IBMComputingUSAThe first PC (Personal Computer) was the IBM 610. One of the most famous inventions of the 20th century.
Copper5000 BCE*Vinča cultureMaterialSerbiaAlthough there is earlier evidence of copper working in Turkey, the Serbian Pločnik site claims the oldest evidence of copper making at high temperature.
Crane500 BCE*Ancient GreeksEngineeringGreeceThe trispastos or three-pulley crane
Diesel engine1893Rudolf DieselPowerGermanyDiesel was born in France to Bavarian German parents but had to leave during the Franco-Prussian War. Herbert Akroyd Stuart experimented with a compression engine 2 years before him, but Diesel’s motor was more efficient.
DNA1953James Watson and Francis CrickBiologyEnglandDNA is an abbreviation of Deoxyribonucleic acid. After Watson and Crick discovered the double helix shape they walked into a pub claiming to have “found the secret of life.” One of the most famous inventions which has changed the world.
DVD1995Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and PanasonicStorageVariousDVD stands for “Digital Versatile Disc.” Digital optical disc storage format in 12cm (4.7″) diameter standard DVD and 8cm diameter MiniDVD discs with capacities from 4.7 GB (common single-sided, single layer) up to 17.08 GB (rare double-sided, double-layer). Considerable larger than the earlier Compact Disc (CD) format.
Dynamite1867Alfred NobelWeaponSwedenDynamite was the first “safe” explosive. Nobel went on to award the Nobel Prizes as his legacy.
Electricity1600William GilbertElectricalEnglandElectricity comes from the Greek for amber.
Electricity generator1832Michael Faraday (England) and Joseph Henry [US]ElectricalEngland, USANikola Tesla went on to develop the first AC generator in 1892.
Electron1897Joseph John ThomsonPhysicsEnglandElectrons transport electricity and are negatively charged subatomic particles.
Elevator[US] / Lift[UK]1852Elisha OtisTransportUSAFortunately for those nervous about taking an elevator, he crucially invented the safety brake, a device that stops it plummeting to earth if the cable breaks.
Email1971Ray TomlinsonComputingUSAThe first email contained the dull test message “QWERTYUIOP” that Tomlinson sent to himself. He also introduced the @ sign in email addresses.
Engine: Steam1712Thomas NewcomenEngineeringEnglandNecomen’s invention was built on the ideas of Denis Papin and Thomas Savery. Steam engines powered the industrial revolution.
Explosives1847Ascanio SobreroWeaponItalyNitroglycerin, the first explosive was originally called “pyroglycerine” by Sobrero. One of his students was Alfred Nobel, who later invented dynamite among other things.
Firearm1250Ancient ChineseWeaponChinaThe Chinese developed prototype guns, notably the fire lance, during the 13th century. Firearms, along with gunpowder, spread across the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
Fireworks900 CE*Song DynastyPyrotechnicsChinaFireworks appeared between 960–1279 in the early age of gunpowder. Early fireworks were made of bamboo and gunpowder.
Fishing reel300 CE*Ancient ChineseHuntingChinaMentioned in ancient Chinese literature “Lives of Famous Immortals”.
Floppy disk1967IBMStorageUSA, CaliforniaA floppy disk (FD) is a thin, flexible, circular magnetic storage medium, which can be read and written to using a floppy disk drive (FDD). The first 8″ diskette stored 80Kb.
Football[UK] / Soccer[US]1863Football Association (FA)SportEnglandVariations of football have been played since ancient times with references in Japan dated 1004 BCE and games between China and Japan in 50 BCE. The Romans also included football like games in the original Roman Olympic games.
  • 1500: Football, recognizable as the game is played today, can be traced back to English public schools.
  • 1863: The Football Association (FA) was formed and the first “Laws of the game” were written by Ebenezer Cobb Morley, a founding member.
  • 1863: Games played by Association Football rules were nicknamed “Assoccer” (as opposed to “Rugger” for Rugby Football rules) which was further shortened to “Soccer” by Oxford student Charles Wredford Brown.
  • 1881: As “Association Football” became more popular, spread by the lower classes there was no need for the distinction and the sport in England was just called “Football.”
  • 1904: FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was formed to govern football as it spread from England across Europe and further afield.

As Association Football spread worldwide many countries already had popular games called “Football” so they stuck with “Soccer” including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States where “Soccer” was adopted to distinguish it from football and gridiron (American football).

Gears300 CE*Ancient ChineseEngineeringChinaRotating gears transmit torque making it possible to change the speed and direction of the power source, which created a mechanical advantage.
Genetics1865Gregor MendelBiologyAustriaMendel published his work “Experiments on Plant Hybridization” thus ringing in the science of genetics.
Glass3500 BCE*MesopotamiansMaterialMesopotamiaNatural glass like obsidian was used in Stone Age societies for tools, but the first true glass stems from either Mesopotamia, Syria, or ancient Egypt.
Glasses (aka eyeglasses, spectacles)1286OpticalItalyThe first eyeglasses date back to 1286, but the inventor is unknown. “Modern” specs came about when Benjamin Franklin invented the side pieces for the ear in 1728.
GUI (graphical user interface)1973XeroxComputingUSAThe first commercial graphical user interface (GUI) was introduced on the Xerox Alto, which was an early non-commercial personal computer. It featured a mouse-driven graphical user interface and influenced the first designs of Apple Macintosh.
Gun1364WeaponChina
  • 1364: First recorded use of a “hand cannon.”
  • 1380: Hand guns had spread across Europe.
  • 1400s Matchlock guns appear.
  • 1610 – 1615: Flintlock mechanism, invented by Marin le Bourgeoys in France, spread worldwide.
  • 1689: English Parliament adopted a Bill of Rights which included a right to bear arms.
  • 1718: James Puckle patented the world’s first machine gun.
  • 1807: Caplock mechanism (aka pecussion lock) patented by Rev. Alexander John Forsyth.
    The caplock merchanism was more reliable than the Flintlock mechanism and became commonplace c1825.
  • 1835: First Colt mass-produced, multi-shot, revolver.
  • 1862: The Gatling Gun is invented by Dr. Richard Gatling, US patent #36,836.
  • 1873: Winchester rifle introduced, nicknamed “the gun that won the West.”
  • 1892: First automatic pistol created by Joseph Laumann.
  • 1954: Uzi machine gun invented by Uzi Gal produced by Israel Military Industries.
  • 1968: USA President Johnson signed the Gun Control Act.
  • 1974: Taser, voltage emitting handgun, invented by Jack Cover produced. TASER is an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” and came from Cover’s favorite book.
Gunpowder800 CE*Tang DynastyWeaponChinaThe earliest known gunpowder formulations date back to a military manuscript of 1044 during the Song Dynasty.
Hard Disk1954IBMStorageUSAA hard disk (HD) stores digital data on ridgid magnetic coared circular discs, called platters. These can be read and written to using a hard disk drive (HDD). The first generation hard disks could store 3.75 megabytes. That works out at $9,200/Mb in 1961 compared to less than $0.00003/Mb today – a 300 million fold decrease.
Helicopter1480s*Leonardo da VinciTransportItalyChinese tops (a rotary wing on a stick) have been toys since 400 BCE but Leonardo’s design for an “aerial screw”, albeit without a rotor arm to stop the rotation is credited as the first vertical flying machine. Centuries later, in 1861, Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt first coined the word “helicopter” although his steam-powered model never left the ground. The first manned helicopter flight was in 1907 in “Gyroplane No. 1” and development took off from there.
Hot air balloon1783Joseph-Ralf and Jacques-Étienne MontgolfierTransportFranceThe first manned hot air balloon was called the “globe aérostatique”. The first piloted ascent took place with Étienne on board.
Ice1856James HarrisonMaterialScotland, AustraliaHarrison made the first ice making machine using the principle of vapour compression.
Integrated circuit1959Jack Kilby (Texas Instruments), Robert Noyce (Fairchild Semiconductor)ElectronicsUSAIntegrated circuits (IC) made it possible to fit resistors, transistors and capacitors far more tightly together. The forerunners of microprocessors. One of the most famous inventions of the 20th century.
Internal combustion engine1807Nicéphore Niépce, Étienne Lenoir, Nikolaus OttoPowerFrance, Belgium, Germany
  • 1807: Nicéphore Niépce developed the first internal combustion engine (ICE), called the Pyréolophore, with his brother Claude Niépce. Nicéphore Niépce is also credited as the inventor of photography.
  • 1859 Étienne Lenoir produced the first commercially successful internal combustion engine.
  • 1876 Nikolaus Otto created the Otto engine, the first modern internal combustion engine.

One of the most famous inventions of the 19th century.

Internet1960s*Lawrence Roberts, Vinton Cerf, Robert E. Kahn i.a.TelecomsUSAThe net was developed by many people, but the role of Lawrence Roberts, a computer scientist, stands out. It began with ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) who developed a communications network for the Defense Department’s computers known as ARPANET. The Internet as such followed in 1982, and the World Wide Web developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990.
Iron3000 BCE*MesopotamiansMaterialMesopotamiaMankind began bending metal around 4400 BCE with copper, silver, and then bronze. Iron, first used by the Mesopotamians (in the states of Sumer, Akkad and Assyria) was even stronger and had a major impact on human history.
Jet1928Frank WhittleTransportEnglandPilot Whittle’s first plans date back to 1928 and the first patent was granted in 1932.
Laser1960Theodore MaimanPhysicsUSALaser stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”.
Lathe1775Jesse RamsdenEngineeringEnglandAs well as the screw-cutting lathe know today, Ramsden created various other things such as surveying tools, telescopes, an electrostatic generator, and the micrometer.
Lawn mower1830Edwin BuddingEngineeringEnglandBudding designed the mower for lawns on sports grounds and the like.
Lens750 BCE*Ancient AssyriansPhysicsAncient AssyriaThe word lens comes from the Latin for lentil, because they are lentil-shaped. The oldest known example is the Nimrud lens made by the ancient Assyrians, which historians believe was used as a magnifying glass, or as a burning-glass to start fires. Assyria was a Mesopotamian kingdom in the ancient Near East.
Light bulb: Electric1879Thomas EdisonElectricalUSALight bulbs changed the world by making productivity possible at any time of the day. Many people are credited with prior development work (especially English scientist Humphry Davy who made an arc light in 1800), but the prize goes to Edison for a practical system with a generator, wiring and a filament light bulb with a useful lifetime. He was a prolific inventor who had over 1,000 patents.
Locomotive1801Richard TrevithickTransportEnglandSome believe Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who made a steam wagon in 1770, to be the true inventor. Trevithick named his first locomotive “Puffing Devil” and transported 6 people uphill with it.
Matches: Friction1826John WalkerChemistryEnglandWalker made the first friction match which lights by striking sandpaper.
Matches: Safety1844Gustaf Erik PaschChemistrySwedenBefore safety matches, they were made of white phosphorus, which is toxic and caused frequent fatalities from eating their heads. They were replaced by the “hygienic” or safety match, which used red phosphorus on the striking surface.
Matches: Sulfur577 CEAncient ChineseChemistryChinaThe first matches were small sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur.
Microprocessor1971Ted Hoff (Intel)ElectronicsUSAThe first one with 2300 transistors was the Intel 4004. It had the CPU (central processing unit) on a tiny space.
Microscope1592Various claimsOpticalunknownWho actually invented the microscope is a controversial matter. Claims are made attributing it to Galileo Galilei (Italian), Cornelis Drebbel (Netherlands), Zacharias Janssen (Netherlands) or his Dutch competitor, Hans Lippershey.
Mill300-70 BCE*EngineeringGreeceMost likely a water-powered grain mill made by Greek engineers.
Mirror6000 BCE*AnatoliansPhysicsTurkeyThe age of the first mirrors depends on the definition. Clearly people also used pools water to see their reflection long ago. The first known man-made ones were made of polished obsidian stone.
Money3000 BCE*SumeriansCommerceSumerSumer was in the region of Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. Money eased trade and replaced the barter system.
Morphine1804Friedrich SertürnerChemistryGermanSertürner named it after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. It was extracted from the opium poppy.
Morse code1836Samuel MorseTelecomsUSAHe developed the Morse code as a means to speed up communication with telegraphy.
Nail3400 BCE*Ancient EgyptiansEngineeringAncient EgyptMaking nails required the ability to cast and/or forge metal. The oldest nails are bronze and date back to ancient Egypt and nails were widely used in the Roman period. Nail sizes are referred to using a “penny” scale. 2d is 1 inch, 3d is 1-1/4 inch etc. This use of the letter “d”, which means penny, derives from the Latin name Denarius for Roman Coins.
Newspaper1605Johann CarolusLiteratureHoly Roman EmpireThe first newspaper was called “Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien” and was published in German in Strasbourg. The title translates to “Account of all distinguished and commemorable news”.
Nuclear fission1938Otto Hahn with Fritz StrassmannPhysicsNazi GermanyFission was later explained in 1939 by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, who provided the name nuclear fission. It led to the atom bomb through the Manhattan Project.
Nuclear power1951VariousPhysicsUSANuclear power was first generated by a reactor at an experimental station near Arco, Idaho. It produced about 100 kW.
Oil347 CE*Ancient ChineseChemistryChinaThe Chinese were already tapping oil with wells and boreholes at depths of up to 800 feet back in the 4th century.
Paper25-220 CE*Ancient ChineseLiteratureChinaPapyrus and amate existed beforehand but are not considered true paper. Wood-based paper didn’t appear until the 19th century.
Paper clip / paperclip1870sGem Manufacturing CompanyGadgetEnglandMost paper clips in use today are based on the “Gem type” with nearly two full loops made of wire. However, this design was never patented and it isn’t clear who invented it. But they were in production in back in the 1870s in the UK where they were produced by the Gem Manufacturing Company. Before then, a patent was awarded in 1867 to Samuel B. Fay in the United States for a similar device, but it failed to include the critical second loop that makes the paperclip so functional.
Papyrus3000 BCE*Ancient EgyptiansLiteratureEgyptForerunner of paper made “Cyperus papyrus” pith. Also used for building and boats, rope, baskets etc..
Pasteurization1768Lazzaro SpallanzaniBiologyItalySpallanzani pipped Pasteur to the post with his bacteria killing process, but Pasteur gave it the name. His more modern version that improved safety for milk-drinkers didn’t come about until 1864.
Penicillin1928Alexander FlemingBiologyScotlandDiscovered because Fleming noticed that a mold – Penicillium – killed a bacteria-filled Petri-dish in his lab. Some claim that French medical student Ernest Duchesne discovered properties Penicillium before Fleming in 1896, but his research wasn’t widely published.
Photography: Color1861James Clerk MaxwellOpticalScotlandFor the first color photograph, 3 black-and-white photographs were taken through red, green and blue filters.
Photography: Heliography1822Nicéphore NiépceOpticalFranceHeliography was the first photographic process. In 1826 or 1827, Niépce created the world’s oldest existing print of a real-world scene.
Piano1700Bartolomeo CristoforiMusicItalyBartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco crafted the first pianos. The first documentry evidence is an inventory of the instruments owned by Prince Ferdinando dated 1700.
Pill (aka contraceptive pill, birth control pill)1960Russell Earl MarkerBiologyUSA“The pill” (officially the “combined oral contraceptive pill” – COCP) caused a sexual revolution when it arrived and highly reduced the number of children in countries where it was permitted.
Piston engine1680Christiaan HuygensEngineeringNetherlandsHuygens experimented with an internal-combustion engine around 1680, but it took until 1859 for a gas-powered engine to be developed by French engineer J. J. Étienne Lenoir. The father of modern gas engines was Gottlieb Daimler, who built his prototype in 1885.
Plastic1862Alexander ParkesMaterialEnglandThe first plastic was “parkesine” aka “celluloid” and was made from cellulose and shaped. Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic followed in 1907, and was invented by Leo Baekeland.
Porcelain100 CE*Ancient ChineseMaterialChinaThere is no universal definition for what porcelain actually is, but it is generally a ceramic material which is produced by heating materials, one of which is kaolin, at high temperatures. It is stronger than other pottery sorts for this reason. Its name comes from the Italian word “porcellana” – cowrie shell, which is also translucent.
Printing press1440Johannes GutenbergPrintingGermanyHis press was in Mainz, Germany, and was based on screw presses that already existed. His was special because it mechanized the process that transferred the ink to the paper, greatly speeding up the printing process and the dissemination of knowledge, especially the bible.
Printing: Woodblock220 CEAncient ChinesePrintingChinaInvented in the Han Dynasty China.
Pump200 BCE*Archimedes of SyracuseEngineeringGreece“Archimedes screw” made it possible to pump water uphill.
Quantum computer2011D-waveComputingCanadaQuantum computers solve a number of computing problems much faster than traditional computers.
Quantum physics1900Max PlanckPhysicsGermanyPlanck developed the quantum hypothesis. Based on his research, Albert Einstein showed that light consists of individual particles known as photons.
Radio1896-1897*Guglielmo Marconi 1896 / Nikola Tesla 1897TelecomsItaly / SerbiaThe subject is controversial because of patent disputes. Marconi’s work was based on patents of Tesla’s. Either way, both their work was based on the research of many others before them like Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Joseph Henry, André-Marie Ampère and Michael Faraday. Marconi won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909 which seemed to settle the issue. But in 1943 the US decided to recognize Tesla as the inventor in order to avoid a lawsuit brought by Marconi’s company. FM Radio didn’t follow until 1933, patented by Edwin H. Armstrong.
Railway1830George StephensonTransportEnglandThe first railway linked Liverpool and Manchester. One of the famous inventions which led to worldwide travel.
Refrigerator (aka fridge)1748William CullenEngineeringScotlandCullen was the first to invent a cooling medium, but it took until 1804 for Oliver Evans (USA) to design a refrigerator, and 1844 before the first fridge was actually built by John Gorrie, also a Scot.
Safety pin1849Walter HuntGadgetUSAThe safety pin is ingenious because of its clasp preventing anyone from pricking themself as well as the coil of wire at the end which kept the pin locked. The basic design has hardly changed since.
Sailing3200 BCE*Ancient EgyptiansTransportAncient EgyptThe first known sailing boats went upstream against the Nile’s current.
Scissors1500 BCE*Ancient EgyptiansToolAncient EgyptThe first scissors had 2 blades connected with a strip of metal which aligned the blades. Modern “pivoted scissors” were invented by the Romans in about 100 CE.
Semiconductor1821Thomas Johann SeebeckElectronicsGermanyA semiconductor is simply material that has electrical conductivity due to flowing electrons. Seebeck first experimented with them in 1821 and Faraday and Becquerel built on his research.
Slide rule1630William OughtredMeasurementEnglandHe used logarithmic scales sliding by each other for multiplication and division as well as sine and cosine functions.
Smartphone / iPhone2007Steve Jobs / AppleTelecomsUSAAlthough Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple, put his engineers to work creating the first Smartphone, it included more than 200 patents, so it’s fair to call it a joint effort. The first smartphone had many capabilities like pinch-to-zoom, GPS, compass, camera etc.
Soap2800 BCE*Ancient BabylonHouseholdBabyloniaThe first soap consisted of water, alkali, and cassia oil. The Egyptians also used it when bathing, but theirs was made of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts. Modern soaps are not much different, being made from fats and oils that react with sodium hydroxide. Hard bars of soap contain e.g. coconut oil, palm oil, or lard.
Solar cell1839Edmond BecquerelPhysicsFranceHe discovered the photo-voltaic effect that makes solar cells possible. His son was Henri Becquerel, who co-discovered radioactivity. Solar cells could be one of the famous inventions which changes our future.
Stamp1837Rowland HillCommerceEnglandThe first stamp was the Penny Black. Before the postal system was introduced, the recipient generally used to pay for the delivery.
Steam engine1712Thomas NewcomenEngineeringEnglandAlthough the first recorded steam engine was described by Hero of Alexandria way back in the 1st century, and Thomas Savery also developed a working engine in in 1698, Newcomen is considered to have made the first useful steam engine. Scot James Watt improved Newcomen’s design with his steam engine in 1781, which changed the world through the Industrial Revolution.
Steel1800 BCE*AnatoliaMaterialAssyriansSteel is an alloy of iron and mainly carbon. The earliest steel was found in Anatolia in modern day Turkey. Economical modern steelmaking began in England when the Bessemer process, which removes impurities by blowing air through it, was patented in 1856.
Tank1915Ernest SwintonTransportUnited KingdomThe idea was loosely based on a caterpillar tractor. Leonado Da Vinci sketched a man powered armored car “tank” like design in 1485
Tea bag1903Roberta C. Lawson, Mary Mclaren FoodUSAAnother controversial subject as to who was the inventor. Many accounts cite Tea Merchant Thomas Sullivan as the inventor in 1908, but the earliest patent for a “tea-leaf holder” was granted in 1903 to Lawson and Mclaren. In 1944, the rectangular tea bag appeared on the scene and swept the market. Today, over 90% of tea drinkers prefer to use a tea bag. The world champion tea drinkers are the Turks by the way.
Telegraph1809Samuel SoemmeringTelecomsGermanyTelegraphs were used for transmitted signals over long distances by wire and enabled transatlantic communication. Although Soemmering invented the first telegraph in 1809 already, it wasn’t until Samuel Morse introduced the “Morse code” that it became commercially successful.
Telephone1876Alexander Graham BellTelecomsScotlandBell got the credit for inventing the telephone but his work was based on various inventors before him. In 1860, German Johann Philipp Reis designed a working electromagnetic device that could transmit mainly only indistinct speech, which is why he is not credited with the invention of a functional telephone.
Telescope1608Hans LippersheyOpticalGermans / NetherlandsA year later, Galileo Galilei improved on his design with a more powerful telescope. The Hubble telescope is among of the most famous inventions in the history of astronomy.
Television1926John Logie BairdTelecomsScotlandBaird is seen as the inventor of the first television known as a “televisor”. It had a dial like a radio for tuning and a cathode ray tube. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) followed 10 years later.
Thermometer30-70 CE*Hero of Alexandria, Galileo Galilei, Giuseppe Biancani, Francesco Sagredo, Santorio Santorio, Robert FluddMeasurementEuropeA thermometer combines a temperature sensor and a measurement scale. Various sensors, scales and applications have evolved and are in common usage today. Here’s the timeline:
  • 30 CE: Hero of Alexandria, Greek mathematician and engineer, demonstrated a closed tube partly filled with air with the open end in water would cause the water level to change as the trapped air expanded and contracted.
  • 1617: Giuseppe Biancani published a diagram of a “thermoscope” but, crucially, it had no scale. Galileo Galilei also developed a similar device.
  • 1638: Robert Fludd published the first diagram showing a sensor and a scale.Honorable mentions to Francesco Sagredo and Santorio Santorio who may also have added scales but did not publish first.

Different temperature scales have been developed since. Today temperature scales are:

  • 1724: (°F) Fahrenheit temperature scale was introduced by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit. It’s used in the USA and associated territories.
  • 1948: (°C) Celsius temperature scale was renamed from “centigrade” in 1948, to honor Anders Celsius, who developed the original scale in 1742.
    Celsius is an derived SI unit of temperature and used in most countries today.
    Celsius is derived from Kelvin, one of the seven basic SI units.
Tin3000 BCE*MaterialCentral AsiaFirst tin extraction
Tire[US] / Tyre[UK]1887John Boyd DunlopTransportScotlandDunlop made the first pneumatic tire for his son’s tricycle. It had an inner tube of air making the ride more comfortable than with solid tires.
Toilet paper550 CE*Sui DynastyGadgetAncient ChinaModern tissue toilet paper only came about in 1857, introduced by American Joseph Gayetty. His “medicated paper” was sold packs of single sheets. One of the more unusual famous inventions.
Toilet / WC1596Sir John HarringtonEngineeringEnglandIt wasn’t Thomas Crapper who invented the “crapper”, as is widely believed, although he did have various loo-related patents for plumbing products in the late 1800s. The flushing loo dates back much earlier. Harrington invented a valve that released water from the water closet (WC) when pulled.
Touchscreen1973Frank Beck, Bent StumpeElectronicsAustria / England, DenmarkCERN introduced an early touchscreen in 1973 based on earlier work by i.a. E.A. Johnson, Malvern.
Transistor1947John Bardeen, Walter BrattainElectronicsUSABardeen and Brattain made a point-contact transistor, the first solid-state transistor, at Bell Laboratories. One of the most famous inventions which lead to the first integrated circuit (IC) and miniaturized electronic devices including personal computers and smartphones.
Vaccine1798Edward JennerMedicineEnglandJenner developed the first successful smallpox vaccine, from Latin “vacca” for cow. In 1796 Jenner experimented on 8 year old James Phipps by inserting pus from a cowpox pustule into an incision on the boy’s arm.
Vacuum tube1883Thomas EdisonElectricalUSAHe found that an electrical current could travel through gas or a vacuum instead of a wire.
Velco1955George de MestralEngineeringSwitzerlandVelcro, the ingenius hook and loop fastener in widespread use worldwide as a shoe, clothing and utility fastener is modelled on the tiny hooks of the Burdock seed which Mestral noticed attached to clothing and fur when out walking his dog.
Water wheel4000 BCE*Ancient EgyptiansEngineeringEgyptThe Egyptians built the first paddle-driven water-lifting wheels, and the Greeks & Romans improved greatly on their design.
Wheel10000 BCE*EngineeringBasic wheels appeared in the Neolithic period, which dates from about 10,200 BCE to 4500 / 2000 BCE. Using a wheel to make transport required the invention of the axle around 3000 BCE. Together we think they are the most famous inventions of all time.
Written language3200 BCE*MesopotamiansLiteratureancient SumerAlthough writing originated around 3200 BCE, numbers were recorded in written form before this.
World Wide Web (www)1990Sir Tim Berners-LeeTelecomsEnglandThe engineer and computer scientist Berners-Lee is still director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which continues to develop the www. One of the most famous inventions of the 20th century.
X-ray1895Wilhelm RöntgenPhysicsGermanRöntgen was the first to systematically study X-rays and also gave them their name, which referred to their unknown quantity. In his homeland, X-rays are still called “Röntgen” recordings. In 1913, American William David Coolidge greatly improved the technology with the Coolidge X-ray tube.
Zero458 CEBabylonians, Mayan, IndiansMathematicsThe concept of zero as a number came about during the 5th century and seems to have been invented independently by three cultures. In 628, Hindu astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta developed a symbol for zero. The number 0 made it possible to perform arithmetic calculations and write complicated equations.
Zipper (aka zip fastener, zip)1851Elias HoweGadgetAmericaThe invention of the zipper (or zip, fly, or zip fastener, formerly known as a clasp locker) was a drawn-out process.
  • 1851: Elias Howe (also inventor of the sewing machine) developed and patented an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.”
  • 1893: Whitcomb Judson, an American, founded a company to make a pretty unsuccessful “clasp locker.”
  • 1913: Gideon Sundbäck, from Sweden, married the plant manager’s daughter and designed the modern zipper featuring more teeth and other refinements.
  • 1923: BF Goodrich Company used a zip fastening in rubber boots and called it the “zipper” it became popular and the name stuck.
  • 1925: Schott NYC used zip fasteners in clothing for the first time.
*Date is ADDucation’s best guess (or a date range) because the exact date is unknown or disputed which allows the famous inventions timeline to be sorted by date. [US]USA/American spelling. [UK]British English spelling, which often applies to the rest of the world.

Notes About This List of 143 Famous Inventions:

  • Some famous inventions were developed over centuries. We have used the earliest date we can find as the date of the invention (e.g. the thermometer).
  • Inventions are sometimes progressive developments of earlier famous inventions (e.g. the water wheel is a development of the wheel).
  • Inventions cannot always be attributed to a single inventor because it was developed by different people (or groups) at different times in different places, or any combination of these. We list the key innovators of famous inventions in chronological order from earliest to latest.
  • This ADDucation list of inventions uses the CE/BCE (Common Era/Before Common Era) dating system aka “Current Era” or “Christian Era.” For practical purposes it’s the same as the AD/BC (Anno Domini/Before Christ) dating system without the religious connection.

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