LIFE Magazine’s celebration of 2000
The following articles were originally posted online by LIFE magazine to celebrate the new millennium (year 2000). The links have since been taken down but the material is preserved in its original form below. In the original LIFE post, they listed the top 100 events, inventions, and discoveries they felt made a major impact on our lives. Not all articles are included … only the advances in technology that are relevant to this class. For example, articles relating to political, social, and economic events were not included. The numbering system is in the order they listed on their original site. Since it was not ordered chronologically, my guess is they listed it by importance.
1 Gutenberg prints the Bible in 1455
Of all the millennium's technological revolutions, the most far-reaching started just before the era's midpoint. Throughout history, the ability to read and write had been confined mostly to tiny elites of nobles, priests and scribes. But in the 15th century a literate middle class arose in Europe. Its hunger for knowledge led inventors to seek a way to mass-produce the written word. And when German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg succeeded--creating his masterpiece, a run of 200 gorgeously typeset Bibles, in 1455--he unleashed an information epidemic that rages to this day.
To appreciate Gutenberg's achievement, it is necessary to understand what he did not do. He didn't invent printing: The craft emerged in 8th century China, using multiple characters carved on a single woodblock. He didn't invent movable type (letters rearranged for each new page): Chinese printer Pi Sheng did, around 1040. Gutenberg didn't even invent movable metal type: The Koreans did, in the 14th century. But wood-block printing of text reached Europe only in the early 1400s, and it appears that no one on the continent knew of Asia's more advanced techniques. Movable type had not, in fact, caught on widely in China or Korea, where writing involved 10,000 characters. In Europe, however, such technology seemed full of promise. What Gutenberg devised was the first Western movable-type system that worked--so well that it remained virtually unchanged for 350 years.
Gutenberg designed a new kind of press, based on those used to squeeze olives. He came up with an alloy of lead, tin and antimony, and a precisely calibrated type-mold to pour it into. He concocted a smudge-resistant ink of lampblack, turpentine and linseed oil. Each page of his Bible probably took a worker a day to set, but once the type was in place, the rest was relatively easy.
Gutenberg's methods spread with stunning rapidity. By 1500, an estimated half a million printed books were in circulation: religious works, Greek and Roman classics, scientific texts, Columbus's report from the New World. An acceleration of the Renaissance was only the first by-product of the Gutenberg press. Without it, the Protestant movement might have been stillborn, as well as the industrial and political revolutions of the succeeding centuries. Gutenberg, however, got none of the glory. His brainchild bankrupted him; in 1455 a creditor took over his business. Little more is known of the inventor--in part because he never put his own name into print.
4 The steam engine kicks off the industrial revolution in 1769
A column of black smoke splits the millennium. People who lived before the Industrial Revolution could not have imagined what the world would someday look like, just as those living in its wake can scarcely envision a time without its conveniences and ills.
A mathematical instrument maker at Glasgow University triggered the change by tinkering with a model of the Newcomen steam engine, built in 1712 to pump water out of mines. James Watt patented a version in 1769 that saved 75 percent in fuel costs. Soon his superior engines powered coal mines and textile mills, plus the railroads and ships that carried the new technologies to the Continent and the New World. Before, Britons had been agrarian; by 1870, 70 percent of them had moved to cities, living mostly in slums, where overcrowding, poor sanitation and outbreaks of typhus, cholera and dysentery were common. Factories producing iron belched smoke. Mines and quarries scarred the earth.
The landscape of the postrevolution family also changed. Women and children as young as six were exploited by factory bosses. For the upper classes, the result was an elevated quality of life. Rapidly expanding prosperity, combined with the new cost-efficiency of machines, gave bankers, entrepreneurs and merchants wealth on an unprecedented scale. A middle class of managers grew more educated, enjoying better health, more leisure time and greater mobility. Even the lower class could afford better, cheaper products. Despite Luddite attacks on machinery, the revolution kept gathering steam.
7 Gunpowder is invented in the 9th century
Chinese alchemists discovered the recipe for gunpowder--saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal--in the 9th century. But the great development of gunpowder weapons began in the early 1100s when the Song dynasty was besieged by the Jurchen Jin Tatars. Over the next 200 years, as the Jin conquered northern China and were in turn overrun by the Mongols, an arms race raged between defenders and invaders. Bamboo flamethrowers evolved into metal-barreled guns. Paper incendiary grenades gave way to iron bombs that shattered stone walls. When gunpowder technology reached Europe--it was first used at the siege of Metz, now in France, in 1324--the effect was explosive. Since only kings could afford large numbers of muskets and cannons, the nobility's power declined. Centralized states, backed by standing armies, replaced feudal fiefdoms. Guns gave colonizers a big advantage over native peoples. But the spread of such weapons eventually leveled the field--making possible an age of revolutions, world wars, guerrilla conflicts and terrorist bombings.
10 The compass is used at sea 1117
T’ was little more than a magnet floating in a bowl of water, but without the nautical compass the millennium's great voyages of discovery could never have occurred. First used in feng shui (the Taoist system of environmental design), compasses appeared in China in the 4th century B.C. Lodestone pointers were replaced by flat slivers of iron, and then by needles, which arrived in the 6th century A.D. But the first account of seagoing compasses doesn't come until 1117, from Zhu Yu's P'ingchow Table Talk: "In dark weather, sailors look at the south-pointing needle." The compass reached Europe around 1190, almost certainly from China. (Its powers were so little understood that captains forbade their crews to eat onions, which were thought to destroy magnetism.) For Mediterranean sailors, used to long periods when overcast skies made navigation difficult, the device meant liberation. By the 15th century, they were ready to venture be- yond familiar seas.
11 Thomas Alva Edison starts inventing at Menlo Park 1876
He tamed both lightning and thunder in a tiny lab in New Jersey. Born in small-town Ohio in 1847, Thomas Alva Edison parlayed an early fascination with chemistry and telegraphy into a string of business successes that enabled him in 1876 to build a boxy, two-story building in Menlo Park. It was the first factory in the world designed to produce nothing but inventions. The next year he and a colleague created a machine that translated recorded vibrations into a representation of sound--the phonograph. Then, in November 1879, the Menlo Park team tested a carbonized cardboard filament that could glow for days on end. After more than 1,000 trials, Edison had done it: He had given birth to a useful incandescent lamp. His goal had not been to invent electric light--that had been done decades earlier--but to create a lightbulb that would be long-lasting and inexpensive, along with a system, from power station to screw-in socket, that would render it viable on a large scale. Before Edison, the artificial light that people had to live in was harsh, flickering, ephemeral and dangerous.
In 1903 Edison produced an important early motion picture, The Great Train Robbery, to accompany his many other advances, such as his telephone transmitter, stock ticker, fluoroscope, storage battery and the "Edison effect" lamp (it would lead to the tubes used in radio and television). In all, he held more than 2,000 patents, many of them from Menlo Park. It is difficult to overestimate their significance. The can-do intelligence in that little lab let us see and let us hear.
14 TV invades our lives 1928
As a television show, it had a somewhat limited appeal. Live from General Electric's radio laboratories in Schenectady, New York, it's . . . a guy removing his glasses. And then putting them on again. Then blowing a smoke ring. So went the world's first television broadcast--into three homes. And yet on that January afternoon in 1928, GE's brilliant Swedish-born engineer, Ernst F.W. Alexanderson, laid the crude foundation of one of the most powerful, influential media in history.
Ever since the launch of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s, the race had been on to combine and transmit sound with moving images. Two years before Alexanderson's demonstration, Scotsman John Logie Baird used a mechanical scanner to transmit a flickering image of a human head. But GE surpassed Baird's efforts. Four months after Alexanderson's transmission, the company was broadcasting images three times a week, and the basic elements of television were in place. Then in 1937 an electronic system employing the more sophisticated cathode-ray tube was adopted by the BBC in England. The broadcast of the 1947 World Series clinched television's growing importance. By the end of the 1950s, nearly 90 percent of U.S. homes could boast at least one TV set. The world no longer needed to be imagined--now it could be seen and heard. America had a new communal fireplace.
17 Henry Ford and the Model T 1908
The automotive age began in 1908 when Henry Ford unveiled his "car for the great multitude." At $850, the tough and homely Model T was the first car that could fit a farmer's budget. Prices fell still further after Ford introduced a revolutionary system of manufacture--the moving assembly line, which eventually spewed out a Tin Lizzie every 24 seconds. As other automakers adopted Ford's methods, cars altered the face of the planet. Industries arose to serve a flood of travelers. The economics of petroleum decided the fate of nations. Traffic deaths mounted (43,700 fatalities last year in the U.S. alone). Smog spread inexorably. And so did another by-product of the assembly line: the culture of mass consumption.
20 Alexander Graham Bell gives telemarketers something to do 1876
The first telephone transmission, on March 10, 1876, was a one-way message--"Mr. Watson! Come here! I want you!" But Alexander Graham Bell's invention would change two-way communication forever. A professor of vocal physiology at Boston University, the Scottish-born Bell, 29, had dreamed for a decade of sending speech through wires. He was trying to invent an improved telegraph when he discovered the phenomenon that would make the telephone possible: Sound vibrations caught in a drumlike membrane could be translated into electromagnetic waves. Aided by technical assistant Thomas Watson, Bell found a way to transmit those waves to a receiver and turn them back into sound. The company he cofounded, Bell Telephone, morphed into AT&T, one of the largest corporations anywhere.
For businesses, governments and ordinary people, the telephone represented a quantum leap in efficiency. Instead of composing a letter or telegram and waiting for a reply, one had only to get on the horn. But the phone altered human relations on a deeper level, too. Millions isolated by circumstance could reach out and touch someone, if only figuratively. No longer requiring physical proximity, intimacy became both easier and less intimate.
Today, there are some 750 million telephone subscribers worldwide. Computers, including 10.7 million Internet hosts, share the circuits. And letter-writing is staging a surprise comeback--this time over the phone lines, via E-mail.
22 Penicillin starts a medical revolution 1928
FROM ORDINARY MOLD! proclaimed the ad in the August 14, 1944, issue of LIFE. The Greatest Healing Agent of This War! As infection fighters, molds had been used for 2,500 years, although their effects were unpredictable, puzzling and sometimes toxic. Until 1928, that is, when Scottish physician Alexander Fleming noticed that a small amount of mold growing on a staphylococcus culture had destroyed the bacteria. He later named an extract of the mold penicillin. It wasn't until the early 1940s, after other scientists had refined the potent antibiotic, that drug companies began mass-producing it. Fleming's chance discovery revolutionized the treatment of infections previously considered incurable--pneumonia, rheumatic and scarlet fevers, syphilis, tetanus, gangrene. But penicillin's "miracle" status led to overuse. Recently, invulnerable classes of "superbugs" have sprung up--a phenomenon Fleming warned of in 1945.
24 The Iron Horse 1830
For most of human history, all land transport depended on a single mode of propulsion--feet. Whether the traveler relied on his own extremities or those of another creature, the drawbacks were the same: low cruising speed, vulnerability to weather, the need to stop for food and rest. But on September 15, 1830, foot power began its long slide toward obsolescence. As brass bands played, a million Britons gathered between Liverpool and Manchester to witness the inauguration of the world's first fully steam-driven railway.
Other rail lines existed at the time, but all used horse-drawn cars along parts of their routes. And none could sustain the 30-mph clip of the Liverpool & Manchester's engines. Those machines, and the roadway they ran on, were designed by George Stephenson--a former coal-mine mechanic who hadn't learned to read until he was 18--and his university-educated son, Robert. The older man was already known for innovations that had transformed the locomotive (introduced by Englishman Richard Trevithick in 1804) from a balky contraption into a long-distance workhorse. Now, with Robert's help, he had created an iron racehorse.
Despite the death of a member of Parliament who was run down at the opening ceremony, the Liverpool & Manchester inspired a rash of track-laying around the world. The railroads sent the industrial revolution into overdrive, stimulated trade, built cities from Chicago to Nairobi. In the U.S. they ferried settlers westward, uprooted Native Americans and attracted thousands of Chinese and Irish laborers who stayed on after the spikes were driven. Wherever the engines ran, they brought their lonesome whistle, the distillation in sound of that most modern of blessings and curses--mobility.
25 Marconi invents the radio 1901
At the start of the 20th century, few people imagined that an electromagnetic wave could travel without wires or cables over any significant distance. How could a radio signal possibly bend along the curvature of the earth? Surely it would shoot right off the horizon in a straight line. But Guglielmo Marconi believed that radio waves, if given the chance, would follow the earth's contours. In 1895, in his native Italy, he transmitted a radio signal about a mile and a half; six years later, on December 12, 1901, Marconi raised the stakes. Affixing antennas to high-flying kites, Marconi, only 27, arranged for one signal--the Morse code letter S--to cross the Atlantic, some 2,000 miles. The signal was sent from the town of Poldhu, in Cornwall, England; in a fraction of a second, at a receiving station in St. John's, Newfoundland, Marconi heard three faint clicks. It was the sound of the communications industry being hatched, the first wave of an electronic age that would include radio broadcasts, television and cellular telephones--a discovery that would open up our imaginations.
27 Orville and Wilbur Wright fly at Kitty Hawk 1903
On December 17, 1903, on a stretch of sand near Kitty Hawk, N.C., two bicycle mechanics achieved one of humanity's maddest dreams: For 12 seconds they were possessed of true flight. Before the sun had set, Orville and Wilbur Wright would keep their wood-wire-and-cloth Flyer aloft for 59 seconds. Few newspapers deigned to comment on the event because the notion that human beings would take to the air, like some contemporary Daedalus and Icarus, was deemed absurd by most sober citizens. Now, of course, some of our greatest heroes--Lindbergh, Earhart, Yeager--have been fashioned out of the wild blue yonder. While it had taken almost forever to get airborne, once there, the advances came fast and furious. Indeed, a mere 15 years later nearly all the elements of the modern airplane had been imagined, if not realized.
30 Transistors revolutionize electronics 1947
No cable television. No space travel. No CD players or faxes. Computers as big as refrigerators. Without the transistor, the past 50 years take on a decidedly retro look.
The triode vacuum tube, the original electronic amplifier, powered the development of radio, TV and early digital computers. But tubes were bulky and power-hungry, a drag on the development of complicated electronic machines; engineers needed a reliable, small, cheap device. The likely building blocks? Semiconductors, crystals of nearly pure germanium or silicon that could selectively allow or deny the transmission of electricity. A team of scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey demonstrated the first semiconductor amplifier, a primitive transistor, on December 23, 1947. First used in telephone equipment and hearing aids, the devices found their way into everything with a plug or battery. Integrated circuits--a silicon chip etched with microscopic transistors--were developed in the late 1950s; chip-based computers invaded the kitchen, the car, the office, the den. Today, most Americans are usually within a few feet of one.
32 Moving pictures 1895
In the beginning there was nonfiction ("I was chased by a pterodactyl . . .") and fiction (". . . and killed it in one blow"). People told stories, wrote them in words or pictures or acted them out. From cavemen until 1895, that was about it. Then 33 people met in a cafe for the only new storytelling form of this millennium: They watched a movie.
George Eastman introduced roll film in 1889, which Thomas Edison used to show movies to one person at a time with his Kinetoscope. In France two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, worked on projecting moving pictures to a group. On December 28, 1895, they premiered 10 films. At a later showing of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, startled viewers ducked from the locomotive.
With the technology in place, the grammar of movies rapidly developed. Audiences kept up, though many found close-ups of intimate acts like kissing to be unnerving. Edison replaced an actor with a dummy to simulate the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, and sci-fi pioneer Georges Méliès made film magic in A Trip to the Moon (1902). Not so many years later, German expressionists would use weather to convey a character's mood and Orson Welles would sum up Charles Foster Kane's disintegrating marriage by elongating a breakfast table before the viewer's eyes. In the U.S., movies became a giant industry; never before had so few people influenced the culture of so many. The nature of film, as opposed to, say, theater, means that the same images are banked in the consciousness of generations past, future and worldwide--people who would otherwise have little culture in common. After seeing Jurassic Park, kids from Beverly Hills to Bombay could suffer the same nightmare that they, too, were being chased by a pterodactyl.
37 Photography is born 1826
Surely there have been windows more legendary. Rapunzel's. Juliet's. Hitchcock's rear one. But in 1826 a window swung open wider than any before, revealing a new way of seeing. The window was an attic perch on an estate in Burgundy. And it was from this pastoral vantage point that Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce took the world's first photograph--a ghostly picture of a courtyard and a granary, framed by a pigeon house and a bread oven's chimney. Niépce, who would soon join forces with brilliant promoter Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, was the first man to fix an image, subtly rendering its essential light and shadow in permanent form. Using a primitive camera, a pewter plate and light-sensitive chemicals, he took a daylong exposure of the view, creating what he called a heliograph. From these humble beginnings, photography changed our perspective on the world: It helped elect Lincoln (Mathew Brady's campaign portrait), offered tangible proof of the horrors of war (journalists began carrying cameras into battle) and brought us to the nuclear brink (spy planes). Most important, Niépce's invention has allowed us to fix our own images of faraway places and familiar faces--and share them with friends, strangers and future generations.
41 The telegraph makes the world a smaller place 1844
No other invention has shrunk the world so dramatically as the electric telegraph, capable of moving messages across land and sea at 16,000 miles per second. No wonder that when Samuel F.B. Morse inaugurated his first telegraph line (between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore), on May 24, 1844, he tapped out an exclamation from the Bible: "What hath God wrought!"
Morse's telegraph, unveiled in 1838, was not the first such device--Englishmen William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone beat him by a year with a model that used needles to spell out words--but it was by far the most practical. The sender simply pressed a key in a pattern of dots and dashes, which were automatically marked on paper at the other end. Morse's machine and code became the international standard.
The telegraph spurred the growth of multinational corporations and transcontinental railways. It helped change the pace and scope of warfare. And it gave a boost to the news media. In 1848, six newspapers formed what would become the Associated Press to collect and distribute reports by telegraph. Soon news from anywhere could reach people everywhere the very day it happened.
44 Microscopes see a smaller world 1674
It was only a tiny lens, smaller than a postage stamp. It was not the first microscope, nor the most powerful. Its creator, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch linen merchant, had heard that by grinding a lens out of clear glass, one could see things bigger than with the naked eye. First he used it to peer at the stinger of a honeybee, the leg of a louse, the brain of a fly. Soon he was grinding more-powerful lenses, using diamond dust scooped from the floors of local spectacles makers. With these he became the first person to see bacteria and spermatozoa. In August 1674, while examining a drop of lake water, Leeuwenhoek saw "animalcules" with tiny heads, limbs and fins, one-celled animals later called protozoa. On that day the science of microbiology was born. Leeuwenhoek's work unlocked doors for Pasteur, Fleming, Darwin and others. Today, microscopes, which can magnify to the millionth power, are essential not only to medicine but also to fields as diverse as criminology, metallurgy and archaeology--all because of a curious shopkeeper.
46 Water purification starts in 1829
A person consumes 16,000 gallons of water in a lifetime. But before 1829, when the Chelsea Water Works of London installed its landmark slow-sand filter on the Thames River, no one had effectively cleaned it. Even after 1829, most drinking water remained unfiltered and epidemics of cholera and typhoid made sanitation an urgent issue. Finally, in 1854, physician John Snow, though ignorant of bacteria carried in water, traced an outbreak of cholera to a pump near a sewer. The filtration of drinking water (plus the use of chlorine) is probably the most significant public health advance of the millennium.
47 The "Oil Revolution" begins 1859
The story of oil has always been one of high-risk wildcatting, boom-or-bust land deals, robber barons and international intrigue. People had known of the combustible properties of surface oil for centuries, but it wasn't until 1859 that a band of American entrepreneurs, led by retired railroad conductor Edwin Drake, stumbled on a way to pump it from a shallow well in Titusville, Pa. They didn't even want oil--it was a derivative, kerosene, they were after. By the end of the Civil War, 3.6 million barrels a year were being pumped from around Titusville, and derricks were going up all over the U.S. Then the bottom fell out of the market. Enter John D. Rockefeller. Starting with one kerosene refinery, he gobbled up his competitors and integrated his company, Standard Oil, with storage facilities and a transportation network. Oil fueled Rockefeller's fortune and--with the invention of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines--the machines that made the world run.
48 Food becomes preserved 1812
The first canned foods appeared in 1812, the first can opener in 1885. Hard as cans were to open initially, they were culinary time capsules providing the bounty of summer in the dead of winter. Napoléon reportedly offered a reward to anyone who could supply his troops with food that would keep. In 1795, French brewer Nicolas Appert, without understanding the principle of sterilization, preserved foods in jars by heating them to kill bacteria, then sealing them airtight. By 1809 his factory was supplying the ports of France. The London company of Donkin, Hall and Gamble applied his methods to tin cans, which became the preferred method of storage.
52 First pendulum clock revolutionizes timekeeping 1656
For centuries, sundials and water clocks--none too accurate--told us all we needed to know about time. Mechanical clocks, using deadweight-powered gears, started appearing on towers in Italy in the 14th century, but their timekeeping was less impressive than their looks, wandering up to 15 minutes a day. By the 17th century a who's who of geniuses, including Galileo and Pascal, had theorized about, but failed to build, better timepieces. Then, in 1656, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens constructed the first pendulum clock, revolutionizing timekeeping. The precision of Huygens's clock allowed scientists to use it for their physics experiments, shopkeepers to open and close at fixed hours and workers to be paid by the hour. Time discipline permeated private life, too: Punctuality became a virtue. In 1761, Englishman John Harrison perfected a clock that worked at sea and put accurate time--and thus longitude--in a navigator's pocket. At last man knew where he was.
53 Refrigeration keeps it cool 1834
Humans have been keeping themselves and their food cool for eons. The Chinese placed ice in cellars as early as 1000 B.C. An 8th century Baghdad caliph packed imported snow between the walls of his summer home. But it wasn't until Jacob Perkins, a 68-year-old Massachusetts inventor living in London, received a patent for a compressor in 1834 that anyone figured out how to make ice artificially. Perkins's machine used the same principles found in household refrigerators today: A compressed fluid--ether in his case, later ammonia and Freon--was evaporated to produce a cooling effect, then condensed again.
It was 17 years before the first commercial refrigerators were installed in an Australian brewery. By the end of the century they were being used to ship beef around the world, chill wine in Paris restaurants and build skating rinks. In 1902, Willis Carrier installed the first air conditioner in a Brooklyn printing plant--it not only cooled but also controlled humidity--and before long his machines were showing up in department stores and movie theaters. The first household refrigerators appeared in the early 1920s. Less than 1 percent of the homes in America are now without one, and most contain frozen foods--thanks to a process developed by Clarence Birdseye--another marvel of the Cool Age.
58 Vulcanization of rubber 1839
Who can examine it," asked Charles Goodyear of rubber, his lifelong obsession, "without glorifying God?" Whether or not we share the 19th century inventor's fanaticism, the object of his passion--the basis for some 40,000 products, including electrical casings, tennis balls, condoms, erasers and, most of all, tires--is indispensable in our modern lives. Made from latex, a gum originally found in South American trees, the substance had been around at least since Columbus watched natives bounce rubber balls in Hispaniola. But by the early 1800s, when a small industry developed, consisting mostly of boots and life preservers, it became clear the stuff did not hold up: In the winter it would harden like rock and in heat ooze into a sticky mess.
A Connecticut native not known for his financial prowess, Goodyear was determined to make rubber commercially viable. While incarcerated in debtors' prison, he began mixing raw rubber with everything from witch hazel to cream cheese. In 1839 he accidentally spilled a drop of rubber and sulfur on his burning stove. He had discovered the process of vulcanization, named for the Roman god of fire, and set the stage for the business boom spurred by the advent of cars. But Goodyear failed to secure the rights to his discovery. When he died, he left behind scores of suggestions for rubber's applications--the inflatable tire, alas, not one of them--and a $200,000 debt.
59 First regularly printed newspaper 1609
Among the items appearing in Issue 47 of Relation, the first regularly printed newspaper in history, was this understated news flash: "Signor Gallileo [sic] . . . found a rule and visual measure, by which one can . . . look at places 30 miles away, as if they were close by." That year's papers would also include reports of a ne'er-do-well lieutenant general and two men prohibited from playing ninepins, demonstrating the mix of groundbreaking and trivial that still defines a newspaper. The weekly, four-page Relation, first published in Strassburg, Germany, in 1609, wasn't much to look at--no headlines, no ads, no catchy graphics. It attracted a readership consisting mostly of the wealthy, powerful and well educated. But by the mid-17th century, the first print daily was being published in Leipzig; and the "penny press," debuting in the U.S. in 1833, would later transport news to the general public. Then as now, the free press filled an important role: campaigning for reform, focusing public attention on political and social problems, and stirring up trouble when trouble was needed.
60 Flushing Toilets 1596
We're not eager to talk about toilets--our euphemisms are many, including the throne, thunder box, privy and head--but as the title of one surprisingly popular children's book puts it, Everyone Poops. Which is why it's not at all surprising that rudimentary toilets date back to 2000 B.C., in the Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete. But until 1596, when British nobleman John Harington invented the first prac- tical "water closet"--a wooden seat with a cistern and a valve for flushing--waste disposal hadn't begun to move into the modern age. Before the WC, the most common place to go was the nearest tree, hole or river. (In outhouses in America, still in use among 10 percent of the population, at least one gets a seat.) Indoors, the top choice was the chamber pot, which city folk emptied out their windows onto the street. The French warning that accompanied the dumping--"Gare l'eau" ("Watch out for the water")--may have inspired another favorite euphemism, "the loo."
Though Harington's WC was installed in Richmond Palace, inadequate sewage systems prevented its widespread use, and 265 years passed before British plumber Thomas Crapper made his name marketing an advanced watersaving flush system. By the 1920s the toilet had become a standard fixture in most newly built homes--though in developing nations, a staggering 2.9 billion people still don't have access to one.
61 Discovery of X rays 1895
As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the discovery of X rays happened by accident. A German physicist named Wilhelm Röentgen was investigating the properties of electricity. On November 8, 1895, he learned more than he bargained for. He placed a vacuum tube with a wire attached to either end inside a black box, switched off the lights in his lab and turned on the electrical current. A mysterious fluorescence began emanating--not from the tube in the box but from a cardboard screen nearby that had been treated with barium. Röentgen could see that the screen was glowing in response to something coming from the tube. It was not cathode rays or any other emissions he knew of. Experimenting further, he discovered that these rays of unknown origin--"X rays"--could penetrate thick books and blocks of wood. Holding up his hand before a screen, he became the first person to see the shadow of bones.
Röentgen announcement of his discovery two months later caused an immediate sensation. Magazines published poems about X rays. Stores in Victorian London advertised X-ray-proof clothing. Within months physicians were using the new technology to look at broken bones and bullets in wounded soldiers. Eventually, improved technology lessened side effects--burns to the skin and hair loss. By the 1970s xeroradiography reduced exposure time and cancer risk. And related technologies, from CAT scans to MRIs, have opened a window into the structure of matter and the workings of the body.
62 Tempering of Steel 1854
Civilizations can be traced through steel--those who made it won the wars. The Arabs had their legendary Damascus swords, tempered in blacksmiths' forges. The Swedes had been making small amounts of steel since the 13th century by melting iron ore in crucibles. But it was not until 1854, when English inventor Henry Bessemer set out to build a better cannon for French Emperor Napoléon III, that anyone figured out how to produce steel strong enough to withstand an explosion or hold up a bridge. The problem was impurities. Bessemer's method used a blast of oxygen to burn off excess carbon in molten iron ore, and from that moment the Steel Age was in gear. (An American, William Kelly, made the same discovery at roughly the same time but didn't hurry fast enough to the patent office.)
Soon steel framed tall buildings and stenciled skylines. It supported bridges over rivers, laid railroad tracks around the world and put America on wheels. And steel built fortunes as well as cities. By the turn of the century, American mills were rolling out 8.5 million tons of steel a year. Space-age alloys have tarnished steel's luster, and cars are now made of plastic. But the demand for steel remains enormous--a billion tons worldwide last year--even if it is delivered on aluminum trucks.
63 Invention of dynamite in 1867
It might have taken centuries to dig the 92 miles of tunnels feeding water to Los Angeles had Alfred Nobel not invented dynamite in 1867. It took just seven years. With dynamite, dams, railways and roads were built, the Panama Canal was dug, and the earth cracked open to yield mineral riches. Nobel's invention--mixing nitroglycerine, an explosive liquid, with an absorbent sand and molding that into sticks--made it possible to ship the explosive safely to war fronts and building sites everywhere. Suddenly man could remap his environment, then obliterate his handiwork. The ironies were not lost on Nobel, whose brother died in an accidental blast at their Swedish factory. Called by some "the merchant of death," Nobel left his fortune to establish the prizes that bear his name. Too late for comfort: He died sad and alone, taking nitroglycerine for an ailing heart.
67 Singer made sewing machine 1851
The sewing machine suited up the armies of the U.S. Civil War in record time and stitched the wings on the Wright brothers' plane. But in 1830, when French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier patented the first one, few of his colleagues foresaw any benefit. Rather, they felt they would be rendered obsolete: This new device made 200 stitches per minute, while a man made only 30. In 1841 they ransacked Thimonnier's Paris shop. The credit for automating the garment industry would instead go to the son of a German immigrant to America, Isaac Merritt Singer, who in 1851 improved on an earlier design by Elias Howe. Then, in 1856, Singer made sewing machines affordable by offering the first layaway plan. For five bucks down, one could take home a $125 machine and pay off the rest in monthly installments with interest.
The "iron seamstress" also led to ready-made clothing: A woman could walk down Fifth Avenue and--horrors!--run into someone wearing an identical garment. But even as ready-to-wear liberated those with spending power, it enslaved immigrant women and children in sweatshops. Despite the formation in 1900 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, clothing today is available thanks not only to Singer but to the people around the world operating his machines for little pay.
77 First safe elevator 1854
In a top hat and with a beard trimmed level as a ruler, an unsuccessful 42-year-old mechanic stood on a platform that, by means of a rope coiling around a power-driven drum, was hoisted high above a mass of on-lookers at an 1854 New York City fair. Suddenly, Elisha Graves Otis ordered the rope slashed. The crowd gasped. The platform fell a few inches, then stopped. Otis doffed his hat and cried: "All safe, gentlemen, all safe!" And the city as we know it was born.
Elevators had existed before Otis. But by designing a spring that set two iron teeth into notches in the guide rails when tension in the rope failed, Otis created the world's first safe elevator. A pity he died seven years later, $3,000 in debt, before seeing his invention alter the urban landscape. Its ultimate symbol: the Empire State Building, which, with 10 million bricks, 6,400 windows and 102 stories, can be seen 50 miles out to sea--and ascended in just a few minutes.
90 Invention of plastics 1907
Nobody was happier to learn of the invention of plastic than the world's elephants. For centuries, ivory had been the standard for everything from knife handles to billiard balls. In the 1880s, a dwindling supply of tusks and a billiard boom conjoined to create a crisis. The country's largest maker of balls, Phelan and Collender, anxiously offered $10,000 in gold--"a handsome fortune"--to any "inventive genius" who came up with a synthetic substitute for ivory. Pachyderms everywhere held their breath.
And held it and held it, for it wasn't until 1907 that Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-born inventor who'd made a bundle on quick-action photo paper, hit upon the right combo of phenols and formaldehyde. This first entirely synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was impervious to heat, electricity and acid. It was therefore a plus for pool, but also for the nascent auto and electronics industries. One great asset of plastic was versatility, and it came to be used in everything from telephones to toilets, ashtrays to airplane parts. By 1968 a young graduate looking for a surefire field was being urged to listen to "just one word--plastics"; 30 years later the miracle material has turned into a $260 billion industry that employs 1,381,000 worldwide. It's a plastic world we live in, and that's not always bad.
93 Anesthesia eases the pain 1846
Strapped into a chair, a pale young man with a tumor in his jaw awaited his fate without showing a twinge of fear; he said he even felt "confident." Surprising remark, considering he was about to undergo surgery at a time when screams accompanied incisions and whisky was often the best way to dull the pain. But on October 16, 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, dentist William Morton administered ether before the surgery, and the patient felt no pain. Morton did not discover ether. Valerius Cordus did, in the 16th century. Nor was he the first to use it during a surgical procedure. Georgia physician C.W. Long excised a tumor from a patient using ether in 1842--for a $2 fee. As for coming up with the word anesthesia, Oliver Wendell Holmes gets the credit. But because Morton was the first to spread the news to the scientific community--an account of the operation appeared in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal--he is remembered as the man who opened a new era for surgeons around the globe.