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Great Inventions 

The Whell
 The wheel is a circular device that is capable of rotating on an axis, regarded as a simple machine, and forms part of the group known as elements of machines.

It is one of the most essential inventions in the history of mankind, for its immense usefulness in pottery production, ground transport, and as a fundamental component of various machines. Knowledge of its origin has been lost in time, but in the search to determine who invented the wheel, historians point out that it must have been developed in the 5th millennium BC, in the region of Mesopotamia.

The earliest known wheels were constructed during the Mesopotamian Civilization, around 3000 years BC. A millennium later spoked wheels appeared. The Greeks and Romans used waterwheels extensively. An example can be found in the Romans’ construction, two centuries before the Christian era, of a water-powered factory in the south of France, with 16 wheels working together to run 32 mills, each of which produced nearly a ton of flour. The oldest wheel discovered to date was found in Slovenia in 2002 by Dr. Anton Veluscek. We know that it was built some three thousand years ago before the birth of Christ.

However, many investigations show that the wheel appeared almost simultaneously in Europe. Likewise, traces of the wheel in India date from the 3rd millennium BC. Furthermore, two millennia before the birth of Christ, the Chinese had made use of the wheel, to mobilize their war chariots.

This being the case, it is difficult to identify who invented the wheel, as different cultures were developing it in a variety of ways. 

The airplane
Airplanes are considered to be heavier than air and to independently produce the necessary power to fly.

There is some controversy as to the inventor of the airplane. The debate focuses on a series of technicalities. To some, strictly speaking, the airplane is capable of taking off under its own steam, without the aid of a catapult (as used by the Wright brothers).

Some believe that the person who really invented the airplane was the Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont, who successfully took flight on 12th November 1906. His achievement took place in France, where various witnesses and even some of the Press were present.

To others, the first airplane, strictly speaking, was created by Clément Ader who, on 9th October 1890, managed to take off and fly 50m with his Ėole. Subsequently he repeated the feat with the Airplane II, which flew for 200m in 1892, and the Airplane III, which flew a distance of over 300m in 1897. The Ėole flight was the first self-propelled flight in the history of mankind, and is regarded as the date that aviation was introduced in Europe, though not in America.

But to almost everyone, the inventors of the airplane were the bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Their achievement is one of those stories that sticks in the collective consciousness. Their great contribution to flying was three-axis control. Up until then, existing airplane designs were difficult to control due to not having considered the need to tilt the wings in order to change direction. The logic and meticulousness of the Wright brothers’ work laid the foundations for heavier-than-air flying machines. They went on to build the first wind tunnel to measure lift generated by different wing profiles at different angles of attack.

On 17th December 1903, in Kitty Hawk, Orville Wright carried out what is considered in some countries to be the first successful flight of a self-propelled manned airplane that lasted 12 seconds. The aircraft was named Flyer I.

The compass
The compass is an instrument used for orientation based on the property of the magnetic needle. Through a magnetized needle it marks the magnetic north, which is slightly different for each area of the planet, and different from geographical north. It operates using terrestrial magnetism. The magnetized needle indicates the direction of the terrestrial magnetic field, pointing towards the north and south poles. It is only useless in the north and south polar regions due to the convergence of the terrestrial magnetic field’s lines of force.

As is the case with many great inventions, nobody knows for sure who invented the compass. It was probably invented in China, roughly around the 9th century, and initially consisted of a magnetized needle floating in a container full of water. Later on, it was improved in order to reduce its size and increase its practicality, exchanging the water-filled container for a rotating axis, and adding a compass rose that serves as a guide for calculating directions.

Despite advances in technology and new positioning systems, the compass remains in use due to its effectiveness and the fact that it does not rely on an electricity source to work.

The steam engine
A steam engine is an external combustion engine that turns the heat energy from an amount of steam into mechanical energy. In essence, the work cycle takes place over two stages:

1. Water vapor is generated in a closed boiler to heat the water and causes the volume of a cylinder to expand, driving a piston. Through a rod–crank mechanism, the linear alternation of the cylinder piston turns into a rotating motion that operates, for example, the wheels of a locomotive or the rotor of an electric generator. Once it has completed its stroke, the piston returns to its starting position and expels the steam using the flywheel’s kinetic energy.
2. The high-pressure steam is controlled using a series of air intake and release valves which regulate air replenishment; that is to say, the flow of steam to and from the cylinder.

The engine or steam machine was widely used during the Industrial Revolution, during the development of which it had a relevant function in moving machines and devices as varied as bombs, locomotives, marine engines etc. Many consider it to be the best invention of the 18th century.

Identifying the person who invented the steam engine is, regrettably, almost certainly impossible. We must look to the work of Heron of Alexandria, ‘Spiritalia seu Pneumatica’, for the first steam engine. The Greek engineer and mathematician devised this first machine through experiments with water vapor that would lead him to discover, in an ancient fashion, the law of action and reaction.

Nonetheless, for the purposes of naming the inventor of the steam engine, just as he changed the world during the Industrial Revolution, we must recognize James Watt as its inventor. Watt patented and made improvements to an idea that had already been invented in the first century. The first steam engine invented by Watt saw the light of day in 1774.

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The automobile

Technically speaking, a vehicle that is self-propelling is considered an automobile. It refers primarily to vehicles that can be driven along an ordinary route, do not require rails, and carry an engine, usually an internal combustion engine, which sets them in motion.

The person who invented the automobile, though not as we know it, was the French inventor Nicholas Joseph Cugnot. Before working on his invention, he was a military engineer for the French army. From 1765, Cugnot began to experiment with steam-propelled vehicles in order to create some kind of automobile that could haul the heavy cannons of the period.

Cugnot was the first person to successfully perform the characteristic operation of the pistons, back and forth, a steam-driven rotary system.

Thus it was that, in 1769, the French inventor made his debut with the first steam wagon. The following year he built an improved version that could pull four tons at an average speed of 4km an hour. The vehicle’s structure was like a tricycle, as it ran on two wheels at the back and one at the front. This was a primitive version of the automobile.

The automobile, as we know it today, was created in 1886 and its inventor was the German engineer Carl Benz. He began to build industrial engines and in 1883 and 1885 installed a single cylinder engine in a tricycle, which worked perfectly. Benz patented his invention in 1886, becoming the inventor of the modern automobile.

In 1910, Henry Ford created the assembly line system for building cars, and with it revolutionized the industry, as it was now possible to manufacture a greater number of cars at lower costs. 

The chip
An integrated circuit (IC) is a very slim silicone chip that contains an enormous amount (in the region of thousands or millions) of interconnected microelectronic devices, mainly diodes and transistors, as well as passive components such as resistors and capacitors. It is miniaturized to around 1 cm2 or less. One of the more advanced integrated circuits is the microprocessor, which is used in a great deal of equipment from computers to electrical appliances to cell phones. This is another invention that has had an enormous influence on the history of mankind.

In April 1949, the German engineer Werner Jacobi (Siemens AG) filed the first patent application for an integrated-circuit-like semiconductor amplifying device. Later on, circuit integration was conceived by a radar scientist, Geoffrey W.A. Drummer (1909-2002), working for the Royal Radar Establishment of the British Ministry of Defense. Dummer was unable to successfully build such circuits.

The first IC was developed in 1958 by the engineer Jack Kilby. It consisted of a germanium device integrating six transistors on a single semi-conductive base to form a phase-shift oscillator. Kilby was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention’s contribution to information technology development.

The computer
A computer is an electronic machine that receives and processes data for conversion into useful information. It is a collection of integrated circuits and other components that can execute with surprising speed and accuracy, and as indicated by a user or automatically by another program, a variety of routines and sequences of instructions ordered and organized into a system comprising a wide range of precisely determined practical uses. This process of systematization is known as programming.

The computer requires specific data, as well as the routine or program, which must be provided at the time of implementation to produce the end result through data processing. This information can then be used, reinterpreted, copied, transferred or resent to other people, computers or electronic components locally or remotely using different telecommunication systems, potentially recorded or stored on some kind of storage unit or device.

The main feature that distinguishes the computer from other similar equipment, such as a non-programmable calculator, is that it can carry out many different kinds of tasks, retaining in its memory different programs for the microprocessor to perform.

It is difficult to attribute the invention of the computer to one person. In the experts’ opinion, variable individuals added knowledge and creations to the development of this invention. But if one person had to be designated the inventor of the computer, it would be John Atanasoff.

He was born in New York on 4th October 1903. Atanasoff studied physics and was interested in mathematical calculations made using machines. In his day, only analogue devices existed, which the physicist considered too slow and very imprecise.

The physicist came up with four basic concepts for developing the computer: electricity and electronic components, a binary system, capacitors for storing data or information and a logical calculation system.

With the help of top student Clifford Berry, they began to work on the computer in one of the basements at the Iowa State University. The machine they successfully developed cost around one thousand four hundred dollars.

The computer was named ABC, by Atanasoff-Berry Computer, and was completed in 1942. It was the first electronic digital computer. However, a dispute broke out with another inventor named John Mauchly concerning intellectual property rights to the invention. The situation went before a judge after a lengthy dispute, and in 1972 the conclusion was reached that Atanasoff was father of the first electronic digital computer in history.

23 years later in 1995, Atanasoff died in Maryland, leaving in his wake the foundations for the invention that would revolutionize the world. 

The light bulb
An incandescent lamp or light bulb is a device that produces light by passing an electric current through a metal filament until it turns white-hot.

The German mechanic and inventor Heinrich Göbel put together in 1854 what many consider to be the first light bulb, inserting a carbonized bamboo filament into a bulb in which he had made a vacuum to avoid oxidation. He continued to develop it over the next five years, making it work for up to 400 hours. He didn’t apply for a patent straight away.

Subsequently, Joseph Wilson Swan (31st October 1828 – 27th May 1914), an English physicist and chemist, was able to demonstrate a working device and obtained a British Patent in 1878 (nearly a year before Edison) but the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate source of electricity resulted in an inefficient lamp with a short lifespan.

Thomas Alva Edison successfully developed a practical and viable bulb on 21st October 1879, which shone for 48 hours continuously. Edison worked from copies of Swan’s original patent, trying to make them more efficient and obtained patents in the United States for a more or less direct copy of Swan’s lamp. He initiated a publicity campaign claiming to be the true inventor. Swan, who was less interested in making money than in the invention, agreed that Edison could sell the light bulbs in the United States as long as he maintained the rights in the United Kingdom. In 1883 the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company was established. Commonly known as ‘Ediswan’, the company sold lamps made with the cellulose filaments that Swan had invented in 1881.

It is impossible to express the impact that this invention has had on the history of mankind. Prior to the invention of the light bulb, people used combustion-based lighting. This invention was so completely new at the end of the 19th century that hotels had to put up signs with the warning: “This room is equipped with Edison electric lighting. Please do not attempt to light with a match. Simply flick the switch located on the wall, near the door. The use of electricity for illumination purposes affects neither health nor sleep”.

Nowadays, they are technically very inefficient, as 90% of the electricity used is converted into heat. 

The rocket
A rocket is a vertical flight craft or airship that achieves its thrust through the reaction caused by the rapid expulsion of combustion gases from a rocket engine.

The rocket is probably of Eastern origin. The first news of its use dates back to the year 1232, in China, where gunpowder was invented.

Stories tell of rockets known as flying fire arrows, used in the 13th century in defense of the capital of the Chinese province of Henan.

The discovery of gunpowder by ancient Chinese Taoist alchemists and their uses with different types of weapons (flaming arrows, bombs and canons) led to the development of rockets. They were originally invented for religious ceremonies linked to ancient Chinese god worship. They were the precursors of modern-day fireworks and, following intensive research, were adapted for artillery use in the wars that took place between the 10th and 12th centuries.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the first scientists to turn the rocket into a system for boosting crewed aerospace craft began to appear. Among them the Peruvian engineer Pedro Paulet stood out, who in 1897 built a small liquid fuel engine that weighed 2.5 kg and achieved a thrust of 100 kg. Subsequently, the Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovski designed a jet-propelled craft for interplanetary travel, guided by the designs and the prototype named “Autobólido” Paulet had created in 1895. Likewise, the North American professor Robert Goddard in 1912 and the German scientist Hermann Julius Oberth in 1923 both refined their experimental engines based on Paulet’s initial concept, using liquid fuel.

However, it was the aerospace engineer Wernher Von Braun, the creator of the Saturn V rocket, who would take man to the Moon. Von Braun became the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. 

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