Game changer

By Christian Heinrich
Twelve machines that have decisively driven the development of the world.

Around 1000

Compass

A magnetized needle, movably suspended: It’s hard to imagine a simpler machine – if the term machine is even appropriate in this case – yet the compass is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. To whom this invention can be attributed is still being debated today. Apparently, its origins are in China, dating back to around the year 1000 when the compass there, however, is utilized less for navigation but rather for planning and selecting the location of houses to create harmony and balance in accordance with the principles of feng shui. In Europe, the compass is mentioned for the first time in 1269 – laying the groundwork there for the age of discoveries.

Why it changed the world

  • Navigation in the pre-compass age was unreliable
  • Foundation for surveying the world: Only the compass made it possible to create reliable land and sea maps
  • Discovery of new countries and continents
  • Expansion of global trade due to the emergence of fixed trade routes
  • Navigating today: GPS instead of compass

Around 1450

Printing press

In Mainz, Germany, around 1400, a boy named Johannes Gutenberg is born as the son of a merchant. Presumably even at a young age, he sets a goal for himself: the ability to reproduce written works. Some 50 years later, he succeeds in printing the Bible for the first time. Decisive for this feat is Gutenberg’s hand mold that enables him to cast type individually, faster and more precisely, as well as the printing press and improved ink.

Why it changed the world

  • Simple reproduction of text and images
  • Without the printing press, humanity would not have culturally and intellectually evolved into present-day civilization
  • ​Democratization of education and language
  • Higher educational level
  • ​Fast and precise exchange of knowledge
  • Beginning of mass communications

1765

Steam engine

What would a world be like in which everything – from transportation to everyday work to production – largely depended on the muscle power of humans and animals and, at best, on locally harnessable forces of nature such as hydropower and wind? There’d be no cars and no trains, and nearly everything would have to be made by hand. This is what the world was like up until around 1765. It’s the year in which the Scottish inventor James Watt achieves a crucial further development of steam pumps already in use in mining at the time by adding components such as a condenser which, as a result, saves three quarters of the required fuel. The steam engine that’s attributed to him accordingly is not only able to perform work that previously had to be largely done by humans or animals. By means of the sheer power it delivers it opens up completely new possibilities as well.

Why it changed the world

  • Engine of mobility: Trains and steamships changed society, the economy and everyday life​
  • IInitiator of the industrial revolution leading to enormous population growth, urbanization and major progress in technology and science
  • Factories produced goods as efficiently as never before
  • A new upper class of factory owners emerges

1786

Power loom

Clothes are of vital importance for every human being in many respects, protection against cold and the elements being merely the most fundamental aspect. So it’s not surprising that humans since time immemorial have been trying to simplify the weaving of clothes or to even automate it. Simple predecessors of the loom using stones as weights have existed for several thousand years, but only the power loom designed by the Englishman Edmund Cartwright achieves a real breakthrough. In 1786, Cartwright files a patent for his loom that operates strictly on steam power. It marks the beginning of a new form of manufacturing.

Why it changed the world

  • Significant increase in productivity
  • First mass production using machines
  • Besides the steam engine, the power loom marks a crucial milestone of the industrial revolution
  • Factories displace craft production
  • Low-cost production of large volumes of consistent quality
  • Today, more than 60 million people are working in the textile industry

1826

Camera

For the first time in human history, the Frenchman Nicéphore Nièpce manages to permanently capture a moment on a photograph. He uses the “camera obscura” principle that is already known at the time. Nièpce solves the previously existing problem of the resulting pictures not being light-resistant, and therefore not permanent, by changing the exposure surface, now using asphalt which is extremely hard and durable. This way, on November 22, 1826, Nicéphore Nièpce succeeds in creating the first permanent picture. It shows the view from his workshop. Pictures of people and animals, however, are still near-impossible in those days due to the long exposure time of several hours.

Why it changed the world 

  • Documentation and conservation of reality
  • The photograph gives artists the liberty of greater abstraction
  • Precursor to moving images
  • Today, 1.2 billion pictures are taken per year
  • Basis for social media such as Snapchat or Instagram
  • Today, image editing programs make it possible to manipulate photographs resulting in lower credibility

1867

Dynamo

People have long been familiar with the power of electricity by the time of the 1867 World Exposition in Paris. Telegraphy, for instance, is already transmitting messages across several miles via power cables. The demand for electricity, though, keeps growing while the possibility to produce sufficient amounts of it is still lacking. Although the magnetic force of electric spools is being utilized, it takes batteries to operate them – an inefficient method. The dynamo which Werner von Siemens presents at the World Exposition is designed so that the magnetic field amplifies itself due to the electricity generated. Consequently, the dynamo machine only has to be connected briefly to an external electric power source when it’s used for the first time.

Why it changed the world

  • The dynamo is the first electricity generator that was truly and comprehensively fit for practical use
  • Enabled the triumph of electricity which has since moved into every area of life
  • Electrical light sources provide independence from daylight
  • 21 trillion kWh per year are consumed today

1876

Telephone

The invention of the telephone cannot be credited to a single individual but to several people. A central figure is the mathematician and physics teacher Philipp Reis who in his barn in 1861 constructs a “sausage casing” telephone. The skin of a sausage stretched across a wooden auricle emulates the human eardrum and the oscillations are captured by means of electric current interruptions. But only when the speech therapist and teacher of the deaf Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 no longer interrupts the electric circuit but makes it oscillate in the rhythm of the sound waves the quality is such that the transmission can actually be clearly understood on the other end of the line and the device can be called a telephone.

Why it changed the world

  • Direct communications across large distances
  • Location independence due to cell and smartphones enables new level of communications: simultaneous freedom and connection
  • Prerequisite for globalization
  • Average users reach for their smartphone 1,500 times per week

1891

Aircraft

How do birds fly? They have wings and flap them. The German Otto Lilienthal takes a closer look and discovers the principle of lift and propulsion. Based on this, he develops airfoils and ultimately a glider that carries a man. From 1891 to 1896 Lilienthal in numerous successful test flights personally demonstrates that the dream of flying has come true for humans. Building on this feat, the American Wright brothers in 1903 manage to take off and land in a powered aircraft.

Why it changed the world

  • People and goods can be hauled across longer distances faster, enormously expanding their scope of activities
  • Aircraft have globalized humanity
  • Flying internationalizes tourism
  • More than 100,000 aircraft daily are in the air around the globe
  • First step toward conquering space

1913

Assembly line

His cars are still traveling on our roads today. The name of U.S. automaker Henry Ford stands for the breakthrough of the assembly line. On October 7, 1913, Ford starts testing the operation of an initial makeshift line for the production of the so-called Model T. The introduction of this step doesn’t materialize out of thin air. Ford draws on the previous experiences of other industries, such as the Chicago stockyards where beef and pork is cut and packed in a kind of continuous production line. But only the adoption of this production concept by the automotive industry and full automation there turns the assembly line into a symbol of a new age.

Why it changed the world

  • Increase of productivity (faster and cheaper with higher volumes)
  • Automobiles become means of mass transportation due to the assembly line, 15 million units built of Ford’s Model T alone
  • Method reaches its peak in the 1950s and 1960s
  • Due to the disadvantages of assembly lines (production method is rigid and inflexible, if a process step is not performed fast enough the entire system stalls) manufacturing operations frequently use modular concepts with manufacturing cells today

Since 1914

Drone

The first radio-controlled aircraft emerge as far back as during the First World War. They’re able to fly on a pre-determined route and drop torpedoes at a specified location. In World War II, unmanned aerial vehicles are deployed on a larger scale, followed by decades in which they’re primarily used for reconnaissance flights. However, the revolutionary potential of drones has only begun to be tapped in recent years.

Why it changed the world

  • Highly agile: Drones take off, fly and land like helicopters instead of like airplanes
  • Usable for diverse applications in logistics, transportation and manufacturing
  • Easy to operate
  • Makes remote locations accessible
  • Nearly 3.8 million drones were sold in 2017
  • Autonomous drones can shift urban transportation into the airspace
  • U.S. start-up Matternet has a long-range vision of covering all areas of land around the globe with a transportation network of drones

1941

Computer

“War is the father of all things,” says Heraclitus. This dictum seems to particularly apply to computers. The first computers emerge during the days of the Second World War, frequently with the intention to calculate ballistic trajectories and to decode enemy communications. One of the first designers of a computer is the German engineer Konrad Zuse who in May 1941 builds the Z3. In the following years, other computers are designed in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. These computers are behemoths of several meters in length, the so-called ENIAC computer, for instance, built in the United States in 1946, is 17 meters (55.77 feet) long and more than ten meters (32.8 feet) high.

Why it changed the world

  • Enormous acceleration of technology development
  • ​Low-cost mass production makes high tech accessible for large parts of the population
  • ​Computers have advanced into 95 percent of all areas of life
  • 20 million units: The C64 is the most frequently sold computer of all time
  • The internet connects people around the globe and revolutionizes data and information exchange
  • Enables digital networking in Industry 4.0 (“smart factory”) operations

1986

3-D-Printer

In 1986, the American Charles Hull files a patent for the first 3D printer. Just like people print text on paper at home using laser printers, a 3D printer prints small three-dimensional objects. Initially, the technology was mainly used for prototyping purposes, but today specific contract manufacturing is increasingly using 3D printing technology too. 3D printers are gradually moving into private homes as well, albeit their use being frequently limited to gimmicks such as printing playing pieces or tokens specifically designed on a computer. The revolution, however, is already appearing on the horizon.

Why it changed the world

  • Miniaturized factory: The printer can even be standing in a living rooPrivilege of producers with factories is disappearing – and thus their market power
  • Products are tailor-made and customized to suit individual needs
  • Parts can be manufactured fast and on the spot
  • Production sites become flexible
  • Reduction of transportation and shipping requirements
Christian Heinrich
Author Christian Heinrich
Christian Heinrich is a freelance journalist writing for “taz,” “Zeit” and others. He’s eager to see what machines are going to change the world next and expects that more than likely it’ll be robots with artificial intelligence. The movies have already captured a number of scenarios of what this revolution might look like. The ones the author is particularly fond of are “Her” and “Blade Runner.”