100 inventions that changed America

Written by:
June 23, 2020
Consumer Reports // Wikimedia Commons

100 inventions that changed America

The course of American history has been changed by countless inventions, from the tiny things that made everyday life different to huge landmark projects that made history. To compile a list of 100 inventions that changed America, Stacker looked at lists like ones from the Atlantic and philosophical STEM brain trust Edge.org along with a healthy dose of food history. The rest is a mix of marquee events like the launch of Sputnik and the invention of the internet and some wildcards that you probably can’t imagine your life without.

What are the parameters here? Well, we’ve left out inventions from before the idea of “America” even existed, so a rough cutoff of the year 1500. Yes, the Gutenberg printing press influenced America, but it already existed when maps first began to reflect Amerigo Vespucci’s name in the 1500s. The compass, many kinds of clocks, many kinds of weapons, the scientific method—these ideas date way back and underpin the development of much of the world, not just America. Eyeglasses and steel already existed.

We can’t promise everything you imagine will be on this list, but the items represent everything from manufacturing and computers to personal care and convenience foods. Ice cream wasn’t invented in the United States, but Thomas Jefferson brought the first recipe known to be made in the U.S. after his travels in France. Some major inventors were known briefly but largely forgotten, like the handwashing pioneer who helped Florence Nightingale save lives during the Crimean War. Other breakthroughs, like aspirin, were only formal inventions following years of, in that case, treatments made from willow bark.

Some of the best ideas aren’t inventions, so you won’t find those here either. Democracy and evolution are great, but we’re sticking with concrete inventions or at least concrete methods, like the calculus that helps describe how real objects act and the notation system people made up to use it. Charles Darwin didn’t invent the idea of evolution, but scientists who began to sequence the human genome invented the techniques and systems to do that laboratory work. Let’s jump in and learn about some important inventions.

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James Barry // Wikimedia Commons

1500s: Math representation

René Descartes invented analytical geometry, and by doing so he put a name and set of notations to different math ideas in a way that brought them together and communicated their relationship. In doing so, he changed the course of history and paved the way for calculus.

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Franciscus Villamoena // Wikimedia Commons

1582: Gregorian calendar

The calendar we still use today dates back to 1582, when it replaced and fine-tuned the previous Julian calendar. With 12 months of various lengths and an elaborate formula for the frequency of leap years, the Gregorian calendar keeps us on track with the real length of Earth’s orbit around the sun.

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Giuseppe Angeli // Wikimedia Commons

1600s: Telescope

In Classical times, people around the world saw an astonishing amount with the naked eye. But in the early 1600s, Hans Lippershey applied for the first-known patent for a magnifying lens to be fitted into what we now know as the telescope.

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Cooper Hewitt // Wikimedia Commons

1600s: Ice cream

Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream back from France in the very late 1700s, but the food itself dates all the way back to the 17th century in Italy. The original gelato-like formula combined egg custard and sugar, making it both a rich treat and an exemplar of the craze for costly sugar at the time.

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W. Hole/Wellcome Images // Wikimedia Commons

1609: Microscope

What is a microscope if not a telescope in reverse? In fact, telescope inventor Hans Lippershey also filed for a patent on a compound microscope. Just 60 years later, cells were observed and documented for the first time.

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Paul Hermans // Wikimedia Commons

1650s: Calculus

It’s wild to think of calculus as an invention, but at the time it was the subject of heated debate between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. One difference in their very similar ideas is how they chose to notate different parts of their theories. In fact, while the public usually calls Newton the father of calculus, the notation we use is mostly from Leibniz.

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Rijksmuseum // Wikimedia Commons

1654: Probability theory

Like calculus, probability theory changed the way people looked at the world itself. And probability goes a step further by offering a way to make educated guesses about future events, bringing ideas like forecasting and long-term trends into everyday life.

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The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments // The Metropolitan Museum

1700: Piano

The piano feels absolutely timeless, but it’s pretty new compared to instruments like the guitar or drums. The first true piano dates back to the early 1700s, when its softly dampened hammers replaced the pluckier, tinnier sound of the harpsichord.

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J. Pass // Wellcome Collection

1700s: Moldboard plow

The John Deere steel plow may be more well-known, but the moldboard plow, carved from wood, made a major impact on agriculture around the world in the 1700s. Later, Thomas Jefferson made a precise “improved” moldboard plow design, which he started making from iron in the 1810s.

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Jim Lambert // Wikimedia Commons

1700s: Hardtack

By preparing a certain bread recipe a certain way, bakers were able to make long-lasting supplies that soldiers and sailors could take on long journeys. This was hardtack, which was invented in the 1700s but perfected, so to speak, for the U.S. Civil War.

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Currier & Ives // Wikimedia Commons

1712: Steam engine

Several men iterated better steam engines starting in the 1690s, but Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 design may be the most well-known today. The engine turned the heat from a boiler into steam that could power industrial equipment as well as locomotives. At the time, this quickly became the fastest way to travel.

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Science Museum London // Wellcome Collection

1714: Mercury thermometer

Temperature technology existed before the first mercury thermometer, but Gabriel Fahrenheit designed a predictable, extremely consistent instrument to measure temperature. Mercury is a liquid metal that always behaves the exact same way as the temperature changes, growing or shrinking in volume.

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Robert Bénard // Wellcome Collection

1720s: Surveying

The legend holds that Christopher Columbus only ran into the continent of North America because of an incomplete map. Surveying by triangulation, invented in the 1720s, helped mapmakers use plotted points and trigonometry to get an accurate picture of landscapes they’d never been able to measure.

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Wellcome Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1723: Dentistry

Yes, people have pulled out loose teeth since, well, the first loose tooth. But in 1723, a landmark dentistry book laid out the first official comments on modern dentistry like cavity fillings. Unfortunately, Novocaine wasn’t invented until almost 200 years later.

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Thomas Murray // Wikimedia Commons

1757: Sextant

Today, ideas of navigation are almost a foregone conclusion because of the prevalence of GPS technology. Before, sailors had only the stars and their computations to decide where they were on the entire Earth. The sextant gave them a reliable way to gauge where they were using the position of the stars.

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Marzolino // Shutterstock

1770s: Street lighting

The ability to light the outdoors into the night changed everything for people who lived in the growing American cities of the 1770s. Benjamin Franklin was postmaster in Philadelphia at the time of these early gas street lamps, and he helped make a better design that stayed clearer and resisted accumulating soot.

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Wellcome Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1783: Hot air balloon

Like the telescope many years before, the development of the hot air balloon represented as much a spirit of scientific imagination and wonder as of palpable discovery. Inventors sketched designs with one big balloon, multiple small ones, and all manner of cabins and baskets. Some of the earliest science fiction followed.

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Wellcome Collecion

1793: Cotton gin

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin is a major talking point in American history classes, but the machine itself was a major technology breakthrough. Early American industry revolved around cotton plantations run by slave labor, and the cotton gin streamlined the step where cotton is separated from its seeds for processing.

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Ernest Board // Wikimedia Commons

1796: Vaccines

The earliest known smallpox vaccine was first used in 1796. Early researchers did astonishing things like test vaccines on themselves and their family members, because this technology predates most modern notions of medical ethics codes or FDA-style testing.

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Giuseppe Pistelli // Wikimedia Commons

1799: Electric battery

The first version of the electric battery was made by Alessandro Volta in 1799. Steam powered the first locomotives in the mid 1800s, but batteries powered the original automobiles later in the century. Today, consumer goods are laden with batteries—try to imagine a day without them.

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Aimee Lee Studios // Shutterstock

1803: Gumbo

Gumbo is an early example of quintessential American food, created in New Orleans but likely brought at least in part from West Africa. The final dish combines African, Native American, and French influences together into a literal melting pot that represents early American culture as well as the costs of slavery and colonialism.

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Jim Heaphy // Wikimedia Commons

1806: Webster's Dictionary

In a long list of global inventions, Noah Webster’s first dictionary is truly and specially American. Webster standardized spelling in an unprecedented way and made a lot of decisions that still color the way we use and spell American English.

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Daniel Hardy Frederick // Wikimedia Commons

1810: Pressure canning

For the uninitiated, pressure canning is the way commercial canned goods come to be, but it’s also a method for jarring and sealing pickles using sterile equipment and lids. It dates back to a contest that Napoleon started in 1795.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston // Library of Congress

1810s: Photography

The ability to document real life with live images represented a technological leap that rivals the computer in the 20th century. Suddenly, many jobs were transformed or even obsolete, from quick portrait painters to scientific illustrators. Photographs were only for the wealthy at first, but regular people could visit photo booths or go to portrait events.

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Wellcome Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1817: American Sign Language

American Sign Language dates back to a regional sign language used in the United States, but adopting one standard for the nation, as with American English just ten years earlier, meant that deaf people anywhere in the nation could communicate with one another. This also allowed for the publication of guidebooks and other literature to help teach the language.

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New York Public Library // Wikimedia Commons

1829: Braille

Young Louis Braille lost sight in one eye and then the other, and he invented Braille at just 15 years old. He became a teacher at a school for blind children and spent his life giving away money and helping his students. He was also a talented musician and designed Braille not just for language but for musical notation.

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A. Bosse // Wellcome Collection

1835: Mirror

We can almost hear your skepticism, but imagine your daily life without ever looking in a mirror. And when the first silver-backed mirror for the public was sold in 1835, gazing at one’s own reflection became a populist pastime at last. Not coincidentally, many modern beauty businesses emerged in the wake.

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tantawat // Shutterstock

1837: Telegraph

Cast your mind back in time to when the only way to contact someone even a mile away was by letter. Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph by himself, but his is the name we associate with the technology, and his standardized Morse code endured for decades as the go-to language for telegraphy.

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Science Museum London // Wikimedia Commons

1837: Data storage

Today, we think of data storage as something digital—on our phones or computers or in “the cloud.” But the idea of storing data has analog roots as an offshoot of manufacturing, which Charles Babbage adapted for his 1837 “difference engine.” Punch cards weren’t new, but he used them as a physical way to run electricity through certain pieces of circuitry and not others.

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Southworth & Hawes // Library of Congress

1846: Anesthesia

Surgery in and before the 1800s was already a coin flip, and for thousands of years, people offered whatever they could to patients undergoing procedures. In the 1840s, physicians first used specific methods like nitrous oxide and ether to put patients into twilight sleep, leading to better procedures and much better outcomes for patients who no longer experienced the shock of surgery firsthand.

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Compton Litho Company // Wikimedia Commons

1846: Sewing machine

Elias Howe invented the first lockstitch sewing machine in 1846, but he was unable to manufacture it for another 20 years due to disputes with other inventors. The invention itself is knotted between competitors, but its influence on clothing manufacturing can’t be overstated, as it led to ready-to-wear retail clothes.

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A. Reeve // Wellcome Collection

1846: Soap

Soap existed for centuries or more, but it wasn’t until the 1840s that someone made a connection between washing hands and better health outcomes. Even without the specific knowledge of germ theory, Ignaz Semmelweis observed that people who washed their hands before treating patients, for example, had less infection than those who didn’t.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

1850s: City sanitation

Running water dates back to ancient Rome for a lucky few, but water treatment is far newer. Indoor plumbing arrived in some American businesses in the early 1800s. By the mid 1800s, cities had more and more residents with running water—and more water-borne illness from contaminated water supply. Beginning in the 1850s, they began piping water from cleaner sources and treating it with filtration technologies.

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William Henry Jackson // Wikimedia Commons

1850s: Refrigeration

Commercial and industrial refrigeration predated home refrigerators by a decade. Even so, it changed the way food was stored and shipped, including on brand-new refrigerated train cars. Regular people had access to iceboxes, making it possible to keep perishable foods in the home.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

1850s: Steelmaking industry

Steel is centuries old, but industrial steelmaking dates back to the 1850s. The brand-new Bessemer process improved and scaled up steel smelting, and in the next few decades, other scientists made further improvements. The cost of steel continued to stabilize and fall.

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Elzbieta Krzysztof // Shutterstock

1850s: Oil refining

The wide availability of petroleum tipped a domino effect that continues today, and industrially refining oil from its crude state into products like kerosene and gasoline didn’t begin until the 1850s. After that, cleaner-burning petroleum products began to trickle into everyday life.

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Albert Edelfelt // Wellcome Collection

1850s: Germ theory

Scientists circled around the idea of germs for centuries, blaming bad air and miasmas and even “cadaver particles” for the transmission of disease. Finally, they observed germs, meaning bacteria, and began learning effective ways to identify germs as the cause of many diseases.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

1852: Elevator

The safety elevator, which means the kind that doesn’t freefall in the event of a malfunction, debuted in 1852. The kind with a capable brake didn’t come for many more decades, and today elevators are programmed to stop at specific points—something the inventors would find unthinkably advanced.

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Joe Mabel // Wikimedia Commons

1856: Baking powder

Store-bought baking yeast has experienced a new heyday in 2020, but in the 1850s, bakers welcomed the development of baking powder. Instead of relying on yeast or carefully whipped and folded egg whites, bakers could sprinkle a teaspoon of commercially made leavener. In turn, the nature and prevalence of cakes in particular were never the same.

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Everett Historical // Shutterstock

1859: Oil drilling

The first oil drill in America began operation in 1859, marking the beginning of a petroleum revolution that shaped industry and American life. This first commercial oil well sought to meet increasing demand for kerosene for oil lamps.

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Wellcome Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1860: Recorded Sound

The first sound recording is often described as eerie, which makes sense given the low fidelity of the experimental recording and the age of it today. Early recording pioneers etched sounds into beeswax or even greased cardboard to try to figure out what worked best.

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Britannica Kids // Wikimedia Commons

1863: Pasteurization

Louis Pasteur’s method for zapping the germs from fresh milk changed the way people bought and consumed dairy, and today many more food products are pasteurized for safety. Pasteur’s work was one of the most immediate consequences of germ theory, where he worked to kill something invisible to the naked eye that nonetheless could cause grave illness.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1863: Powered submarine

When the legendarily doomed Confederate submarine the Hunley sank in 1864, it was powered only by the crew’s turn-cranking. The honor of the first powered submarine rests with the French submarine Le Plongeur, which had a small, quickly exhausted air-pressure engine.

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Sam Hood // Wikimedia Commons

1865: Plywood

Materials like plywood date back thousands of years in different forms, but in 1865, the first patent for plywood was issued. The material was widely used on interior doors, and it’s what most interior doors are still made of now, since plywood offers sound dampening and security at a much lighter weight than solid wood. It’s also an early form of recycling.

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Popular Science Monthly // Wikimedia Commons

1876: Telephone

The telephone was a major technological leap from the telegraph, turning the transmission of simple on and off signals into a legible, instantaneous voice. Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call from his Boston lab to his assistant Watson, who was in the next room. Remember this the next time you feel a little silly for texting a family member downstairs.

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Internet Book Archive // Flickr

1876: Tomato ketchup

Heinz tomato ketchup is maybe the quintessential American condiment, representing a sweet change from the traditional mushroom or even banana ketchups at the time. It’s the basis of the prototypical American meatloaf as well as the basis for many barbecue sauces and even some American Chinese food.

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Wellcome Collecion

1879: Saccharin

Saccharin was the first widely available artificial sweetener, discovered by accident during a chemistry experiment. Diet soda and sugar-free foods in general owe a debt to saccharin, which has been rivaled and ousted over time by aspartame and other sugar-free sweeteners.

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STAL Industrial Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1884: Steam turbine

The steam turbine uses the heat energy produced by steam to a turn a mechanical part. Through this process, the turbine can power any number of attached technologies. Today, much of America’s power is still made from steam turbines, where the steam is created by burning coal or by nuclear reaction.

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Coca Cola // Library of Congress

1886: Coca-Cola

The quintessential American soft drink dates back to 1886, and its iconic ads over the decades have made Coca-Cola one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Diet Coke has only existed since the 1980s.

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Alfred T. Palmer // Library of Congress

1890: Arc welding

You may not recognize the term “arc welding” offhand, but it’s holding together the entire constructed world around you. Welding existed in some form for hundreds or even thousands of years, but arc welding, where electricity courses through an “arc” and heats the metal, changed everything.

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1890s: Electricity

The so-called "current wars" between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla raged on for years, but electricity changed American life almost instantaneously for those who had it. The dim light of gas lamps became the powerful illumination of the incandescent light bulb, turning the evening into a time of unprecedented activity.

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Gottlieb Daimler // Wikimedia Commons

1890s: Internal combustion

Today, more consumers are choosing electric or hybrid vehicles, but the course of automobile history was set by the internal combustion engine. Inside, a carefully timed rotating explosion of gasoline fumes sends energy through the entire powertrain. The same technology also powers airplanes, but instead of turning wheels, the engine turns propellers.

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Fronteras // Wikimedia Commons

1890s: Automobile

Early automobiles were electric at first, and then powered by gasoline. These were created one piece at a time and all by hand. There was no regulation or modern notion of safety, and automobiles were considered more powerful versions of horse-drawn carriages.

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Edward P. Allis Co, Robert Henry Thurston // Wikimedia Commons

1890s: Hydraulic waterworks

Indoor plumbing was a major landmark, but that wasn't the only use for advanced water pump technology. In 1893, the most powerful water pump to date was built and used to drain a dangerous mine. The powerful pump could bring up millions of gallons of water each day.

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Bayer AG // Wikimedia Commons

1890s: Aspirin

People around the world have used willow bark as a pain reliever since antiquity, but in the 1890s, acetylsalicylic acid was standardized and sold as aspirin. Unlike popular headache and pain “remedies” made from opium, aspirin was effective, non-drowsy, and non-habit-forming.

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Thoth, God of Knowledge // Flickr

1892: Thermos

The insulated food carrier sounds unimportant, until you try to imagine life without any kind of travel mug or cooler—or even the technology that powers cryogenic freezing. Organs and blood are still often carried in what amounts to an Igloo lunch pail filled with dry ice.

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The Genesee Pure Food Co. // Wikimedia Commons

1897: Jell-O

Gelatin as a dessert dates back decades before the development of the product called Jell-O, but these recipes often called for boiling the gelatin directly out of hooves—and they could have a distinctly animal flavor. Jell-O offered a flavored version that was easy to prepare in the home without any of the fancy, well, footwork.

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Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America // Wikimedia Commons

1902: Air conditioning

It’s true that much of the world still lives without air conditioning, but even apart from residential usage, the technology turned deadly heat waves into something much more survivable. In workplaces, especially since the invention of computers, air conditioning can mean the difference between equipment working as designed or shutting down.

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John T. Daniels // Library of Congress

1903: Airplane

Wilbur and Orville Wright got the Wright Flyer off the ground in 1903, and flight developed rapidly after that. Unlike existing hot air balloon technology, airplanes could travel fast and in a much more pointed direction.

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Everett Historical // Shutterstock

1906: Radio

The first radios were used by the military and government, allowing groups to communicate in tandem and in real time over great distances. This allowed broadcasts of important announcements and dissemination of critical information more quickly than ever before.

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Consumer Reports // Wikimedia Commons

1906: Food safety

The USDA was technically founded in 1862, but after Upton Sinclair’s 1905 book “The Jungle” caused a widespread uproar over the state of food safety, the organization was able to pass both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. This greatly reduced adulteration of commercial foods like flour with plaster and other non-food fillers, and ensured access to cleaner, more sanitarily butchered meat.

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Cynthia Shirk // Shutterstock

1907: Bakelite plastic

Original plastics like Bakelite were designed to emulate natural ivory or more costly manufactured goods like resin. These brittle plastics were improved over time, especially with the adoption of petroleum-based plastics, for better or worse. The rest is history.

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Everett Historical // Shutterstock

1910s: Television

Commercial television didn’t reach much of the country until the 1940s or 1950s, but the technology to power a television—sending images as information through the air—first emerged in the 1910s. The first public demonstration of a television set took place in 1927.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

1913: Assembly line

Henry Ford is infamous for his anti-Semitic views, but he also implemented the first assembly line in his factory in 1913. Turning factory jobs into uniform, turnkey individual tasks reduced cost, increased efficiency, and kept workers safer in dangerous conditions.

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DiamondGalaxy // Shutterstock

1915: Thermionic valve

The thermionic valve, or vacuum tube, is a key piece of hardware in early computing. By extracting electrons from certain conditions inside the vacuum, early hardware assemblers could direct messages and communication by arranging vacuum tubes in different setups.

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Black and Decker // Wikimedia Commons

1916: Power drill

The power drill and other power tools cut down the tedious work of drilling and digging, reducing construction time and making for more uniform work. Soon, full-size construction vehicles like bulldozers and backhoes followed.

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John Vachon // Library of Congress

1918: Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers

Until this point, creating fertilizer was a matter of finding and mixing the right combinations of natural ingredients. When scientists first isolated and manufactured “synthetic” nitrogen, they turned fertilizing into a chemist’s game rather than a farmer’s work alone.

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Keystone View/FPG // Getty Images

1918: Universal schooling

The decision to put all children in school began on a state by state basis but finally went nationwide in 1918. By requiring all children to be in school until a certain age, the American government reshaped the idea of childhood itself. Afterward, children were expected to have at least a few years of education toward goals like literacy and numeracy.

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Bain News Service/Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

1920: Radio station

The first commercial radio broadcasts went out in the 1920s, when people tuned in to music and talk radio on stations that could transmit hundreds of miles during the quiet nighttime. Some major radio stations formed the foundation of what became the major television networks just a few decades later.

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Walker Evans // Library of Congress

1920: Platform framing

Almost anyone who’s watched HGTV can tell you how to put up the walls of a house, which is a testament to how accessible and straightforward platform frame construction is. A frame of two-by-fours leaves room for insulation, wiring, and structural studs, which are then covered with gypsum sheets and put up in sections. It’s modular, it’s effective, and it’s been the American home standard for 100 years.

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Popular Science Monthly Vol 80 // Wikimedia Commons

1920s: Plant breeding

Farmers and fruit growers understood how to physically graft fruit trees together in order to cross-breed better and different varieties. But with the discovery of genes in the form of Punnett squares, plant breeders could carefully document outcomes and breed both dominant and recessive genes in apple trees and other flora.

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Everett Historical // Shutterstock

1920s: Convertibles

Henry Ford had sold millions of Model Ts by the 1920s, but the real invention was around the corner: the convertible-top car. The first convertibles faced major safety challenges because removing the top from the car’s frame reduced its structural integrity and led to flexion and bending.

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Esther C. Goddard // Wikimedia Commons

1926: Rockets

Where airplanes take off from a horizontal roll, rockets blast straight up and fight gravity head on. The development of rockets led directly to satellite launches and then spaceflight, where massive power is needed to push a huge payload out of Earth’s downward-pushing atmosphere.

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Everett Historical // Shutterstock

1928: Penicillin

The first antibiotic was formulated from naturally occurring molds and cultivated, first in erratic mixes and eventually in more standardized formats. In an instant, illnesses that were previously often fatal weren’t just curable—they were easily curable.

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Dorothea Lange // Library of Congress

1930s: Combine

The powered combine harvester turned a tedious farm job into a well-oiled machine—literally. Using one of the first mechanical farm implements freed up labor and spared farmers from grueling harvest work.

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NARA // Wikimedia Commons

1935: Social Security

By inventing and implementing the unique Social Security system, the U.S. put an almost complete end to the endemic elderly poverty that marked American society beforehand. Congress signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935.

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EQRoy // Shutterstock

1936: Turing Machine

The Turing Machine is a theoretical model of everything a programming language would need to be able to do almost any task—to be “Turing complete.” And in fact, surprising systems can meet the qualities of Alan Turing’s theoretical language, including the game “Minecraft.”

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1939: Nuclear fission

The technology that eventually lit up nuclear power plants emerged in the 1930s as scientific research on splitting the atom. The earliest nuclear bombs were also fission weapons, where splitting the atom releases massive energy that explodes outward.

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1940s: Borlaug agricultural revolution

Norman Borlaug’s research into high-yield, high-survival dwarf wheat saved millions of people from starvation by increasing yields multiple times. His secret was that shorter wheat stalks were more able to hold up their heavy fruits, so they were less likely to bend or break and then decay.

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FEMA // Wikimedia Commons

1940s: Atomic bomb

“Important” can mean terrible, and in this instance, the atomic bomb is arguably the most terrible thing ever invented. The United States is still the only nation to use a nuclear bomb in warfare.

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Oleksandr Kostohlod // Shutterstock

1945: Transistor

Vacuum tubes were an inefficient way to build the computers that scientists were designing during the 1940s. In their stead, Bell Labs’ Mervin Kelly invented the transistor. This pronged semiconducting widget is many times smaller than a vacuum tube, requiring far less energy and space to operate.

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Everett Historical // Shutterstock

1945: Programming

In the development of the first computers, scientists found ways to encode information in the form of repetitive instructions. In punch card computing, this means the open spaces in the punch card connect the circuits in the right way to do certain tasks.

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ARL Technical Library // Wikimedia Commons

1946: Computer

ENIAC, the first computer, was housed in an entire room and employed a team of operators feeding it punch cards. This breakthrough rapidly led to ideas like the operating system and even computer word processing through a combination of computing and telegraph-like ticker tapes.

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CSIRO // Wikimedia Commons

1946: Carbon dating

When materials in nature age and decay, they release different kinds of carbon in the form of isotopes. Using this information, scientists discovered they could pinpoint the age of layers of rock and other materials by measuring the amount of carbon isotope present.

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Picture Post/Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1949: Contact lens

Glasses date back centuries, but contact lenses worn over the irises date back to just 1949. These lenses clung to the natural topography of the eyeball and used existing technology to change vision directly from the surface of the eye.

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Nico Traut // Shutterstock

1950s: Advanced semiconductors

The semiconductor is what enables computer microchips, which turned computers from huge collections of vacuum tubes into smaller and smaller machines that now fit easily in our pockets. The secret lies in using the right semiconductor materials to build tiny electrical circuitry that sends signals in order to operate.

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AFP // Getty Images

1957: Satellite

Sputnik was the beep heard ‘round the world, but the technology itself rivaled the satellite’s international security threat. Today, satellites form a mesh that blankets the world for communications, navigation, and more.

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United States Department of Energy // Wikimedia Commons

1958: Nuclear power plant

Nuclear fission discovered in the 1930s quickly led to the idea of the nuclear power plant, the first of which appeared in the United States in 1958, just a few years after similar plants in Russia and Europe. Plants grew larger and larger with subsequent generations, providing power for entire cities.

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

1960: Database/search

Today we use Google to find single words from the entire internet; however, that technology dates back to both compiled databases and the idea of full text search. Instead of human eyes scanning entire printed documents, computers consider documents as collections of characters that are scannable one at a time for keywords.

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1960: Computer aided design

The first semblance of modern computer aided design, or CAD, was 1960’s revolutionary Sketchpad software. Like a computer-boosted Etch-a-Sketch, the program let users see what they were drawing and carefully control an image for the first time.

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1960s: Internet

The overall computer network we call the internet dates back decades to a government-built network. Like telephones, the internet is enabled by a physical web of cables that blanket the nation, and at first they connected sites like government labs and university computers.

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1960s: Birth control pill

The World Health Organization considers contraception access to be a human right, but the first reliable chemical contraceptive pill didn't become widely available until the 1960s. Today, there are dozens of varieties with different formulations.

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1961: Mercury mission

Project Mercury put the first Americans in space. Over several years and half a dozen trips, astronauts mostly drafted from test pilot programs rode in tiny capsules positioned on the nose of single-use rocket boosters.

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1969: Home pregnancy test

Before the invention of the reliable home pregnancy test, only a doctor could run the blood test that identifies pregnancy. Putting that power in the hands of families in their own homes reduced cost, increased access, and gave people a lot more decision-making power over their own bodies.

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1970s: Personal computer

Unlike the bulky research and government computers found in labs around the world, the personal computer had to be small enough to fit into a home setting and be used by a civilian. From there, technology rapidly evolved, from huge floppy disks to CD-ROMS and beyond.

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1970s: Gene sequencing

Sequencing the human genome is a complex mix of computing, microscopy, and of course the very DNA itself. With the ability to search and identify patterns, scientists have unlocked secrets, repetitions, and genetic “switches” that reveal health and even human nature.

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1970s: Public key crypto

Cryptography dates back thousands of years, but public key cryptography, where the scramble comes in the form of complex math rather than secrecy and hidden information, changed the game for computing over brand-new public networks. For now, the math has stayed ahead of the most powerful computers trying to hack it.

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1973: Cell phone

The ancestors of the phone you carry around today date back to the early 1970s. What was initially a glorified walky-talky transformed into the bulky portable phones spotted in ’80s movies and then Zack Morris’s hand on “Saved by the Bell.” Better batteries and computer chips continue to both shrink and expand the “cell phone.”

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1981: Space shuttle

The U.S. Space Shuttle was a groundbreaking reusable spacecraft that operated for decades. It took off vertically as a rocket but landed horizontally like an airplane, creating a blueprint that other spacecrafts still follow.

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2019: Quantum supremacy?

What will the next invention be that changes America forever? The roots of the things changing our lives today date back years or even decades. But in 2019, Google made headlines when they claimed to have reached quantum supremacy. That’s the hypothetical state where quantum computers reach the warp-speed promise that scientists have suggested since the notion of quantum computing began decades ago.

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