10. Jet Engine
A scant seven years after the Wright Brothers made their historic 1903 flight, Romanian Henri Coanda built what might have been the world’s first jet, the Coanda-1910. While a few aviation experts believe Coanda deserves credit for the milestone, most hotly contest the claim. Adding to the confusion surrounding the issue, some 40 years passed before Coanda claimed his “jet” achieved flight, a boast he made only after others began achieving jet-powered flight. Also, critics point out Coanda’s original patent drawings lacked any mention of fuel injection and combustion, a key principle in jet technology. Dr. Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle are more commonly credited as the inventors of the jet engine. While Whittle was the first to register a patent in 1930, von Ohain’s jet became the first to take to the skies in 1939. Whittle’s first jet took flight two years later. That didn’t stop Coanda’s native Romania from celebrating “A Century of Jet Flight” in 2010 to commemorate his achievement. Although most experts question Coanda's claims, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt here because he seemed to have the right concept, albeit with a gap or two.
If you thought Alexander Graham Bell, in a contentious race with Elisha Gray, invented the telephone in 1876, think again. Sure, Bell got the official credit — and the lucrative patent rights — but telephone technology was the creation of a little-known Italian-American scientist, Antonio Meucci, who debuted the concept decades earlier. While Meucci developed his “talking telegraph” in 1849, he never enjoyed the name recognition of Bell or even Gray. Health and financial problems, as well as his poor English-speaking skills, impeded his ability to obtain a patent. He actually filed a $10 provisional patent on what he called the “Sound Telegraph” in 1871, but let the patent lapse in 1874. More than 110 years after his death in 1889, Congress finally recognized Meucci for his “great contribution” to the invention of the telephone. Meucci’s achievements are commemorated at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Staten Island.
While the fridge was popularized in the last century, the first known “artificial refrigeration” dates to the mid-1700s and Scotsman William Cullen. The first “practical” refrigerating machine would emerge as more than just a design or concept close to a century later, in 1834, courtesy of American inventor Jacob Perkins. Throughout the remainder of the century, many other inventors would build upon these breakthroughs. Eventually, the first fridge for the home became available in the early 1900s, essentially as a unit on top of an icebox.
Most seem to think of the submarine as an early 20th century invention. But the Confederacy famously used a primitive submarine, the CSS H.L. Hunley, to sink a Union ship during the Civil War. And astute history buffs may vaguely recall that a sub dubbed the “Turtle,” unsuccessfully attacked a British ship in New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War. But the first sub goes back much farther, starting with English innkeeper and mathematician William Bourne, who developed the design for an undersea vehicle in his Inventions and Devises (1578). A few years later, in 1620, a Dutchman and “court inventor” for King James I, Cornelius Drebbel, put Bourne’s concept into practice. This first working sub resembled a typical rowboat, flanked on either side by six oarsmen. Only this boat was covered and capable of submersion some 15 feet underwater. While reports are unclear on this matter, it’s unlikely the royal monarch ever made a trip underwater.
6. Motion Control Machine
Some 30 years before the Wii, we had Pantomation. The earliest “motion control” system of its kind, Pantomation used chromakey technology (think of those “green screens” used in newscasts to impose backgrounds or graphics alongside broadcasters) to follow colored objects. While rudimentary by today’s standards, the concept was far ahead of its time.
5. Microwave Oven
While the microwave didn’t really catch on in commercial use until the late 1970s and early 1980s, the invention had been around for at least three decades before that. Harnessing World War II technology, Dr. Percy Spencer developed a device in 1945 that used radiation to cook food. Two years later, Spencer’s company, Raytheon, debuted the “Radarange,” the world’s first microwave oven. These early ovens were almost the size of a modern refrigerator and cost a whopping $3,000 (more than $25,000 in 2012 dollars). The first commercial microwaves were introduced in the mid-1950s, and Raytheon’s acquisition of Amana Refrigeration in 1965 began widespread commercial sales of the device.
4. The Fan
The first electric ceiling fan used a motor from a Singer sewing machine and was introduced in the late 1800s. But its predecessor emerged literally thousands of years before that. It’s believed the first mechanical ceiling fan emerged in 500 B.C. in India. Servants known as “punkawallahs” pulled a rope attached to a large frame suspended from the ceiling, which would then trigger the fan, or punkah, to move back and forth — providing some relief from the heat to their masters.
3. Video Games
While video games gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the emergence of arcades, consoles and home games, the first-ever video game was invented shortly after the end of World War II. It involved a “gamer” using knobs and buttons to manipulate a beam that would fire at airborne “targets.” But the first game to gain widespread attention was Spacewar!, a game developed by a group of MIT students in 1961. The game pitted two players’ respective space vehicles against each other. Each spacecraft was capable of firing missiles, and the game was made more challenging by a large obstacle represented by a star in the center of the screen. Early tech fans not only played Spacewar!, but also took turns improving its coding and features. In fact, one enthusiastic developer incorporated a real star chart into the background. The upgrades were all the more remarkable considering the computer limitations that included about 9K bytes of memory.
2. Contact Lenses
Yes, even our ancestors from more than a century ago could shove foreign objects into their eyes for the sake of actually seeing better. In 1888, German ophthalmologist Adolph Fick invented the first contact lens. That’s where the similarities end. The lens was huge — at least two times the size of the lenses we know so well. A lens that size covered even the whites of the eyes and, more alarmingly, it was made out of glass. Not exactly breathable, huh? For this reason, users could only wear the lens for four hours at a time. Perhaps it’s no surprise that only a few hundred people ever wore such an impractical lens. It would be more than 50 years later before the first plastic lens made its debut. Perhaps more surprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci had a vision for the lens, by way of an illustrated design, in 1508 — nearly 400 years before that mega-glass contact lens was created.
1. Fax Machine
Remember the 1980s, when fax machines — in all their curled paper glory — began showing up in offices? Most people assumed the technology was relatively new at the time. It had actually been around for some 140 years. In the 1840s, Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain developed a system using pendulums to transfer poor-quality images electrically. While there were some improvements upon Bain’s invention, it would be another decade before Giovanni Caselli would produce the first “workable” fax machine, which came to be called the “pantelegraph.” He sent the first fax in 1860 from Paris to Amiens — a distance of 70 miles. Five years later, a regular fax service would emerge in France.