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The History of Engineering Part 2: The Big Innovations of Engineering

Throughout engineering history, we have seen many periods of time where specific innovations have made important changes to society. The world of engineering has progressed from a point where basic mechanical principles were exploited to create function tools to a point where machines are able to be programmed to perform and think on our behalf. This has opened up a world of new opportunities but also poses various risks to humanity.


Throughout this blog, we will look at some of the most important innovations in engineering that have had major effects on humanity.


The Wheel


The wheel is often regarded as the most important invention. In engineering terms, it is one of the ‘6 simple machines’ that is used to transform the direction or magnitude of force.


We may take it for granted in modern day society but prior to the early bronze age in around 3000 - 4000BC, human civilisation would have been made very difficult. Early uses of the wheel include farming where produce could be transported easily, wheeled vehicles such as wagons for transportation purposes and horse-drawn carts.


In modern society, we use the wheel for many different applications. These include all forms of transportation as well as multiple uses in transportation such as steering and vehicular movement. It has adapted somewhat into sup-inventions which are widely used.

The history of the wheel. Source: H&H Van Hire


Columns


Columns are a structural and civil engineering component which transmits compressive forces of the structure to elements below such as foundations.


The history of columns is somewhat ambiguous with its first uses between 2000 - 1000 BC by the Ancient Egyptians, Persians and Romans. Early columns were constructed out of stone, which was soon replaced by Iron during the Iron Age.


In modern structural engineering, columns have been replaced with more complex structures to resist additional forces and reduce the total weight of the building. These structures still include columns but often shaped to a specific profile and made out of varying grades of steel.

Doric columns on the Greek temple at Segesta, Sicily, c. 424–416 BC. Source: Britannica


Steel


Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. Although not the most widely used engineering material (concrete), it is certainly the most important with its uses all around us. In the modern day it has a wide range of uses from construction to tooling, shipbuilding, cars and even weapons.


Steel has been used for a very long time, with its past even being linked as far back as 4000 years ago used for tools, however, it wasn’t until the 1850’s that the first cheap mass production process of making steel was created. This was known as the Bessemer process and fueled the industrial revolution, where this much easier and cheaper process allowed for widespread use of steel for bridges, railroads, buildings and engines.


The Bessemer process heats pig iron into its molten form whilst air is blown into the furnace which results in oxidation. This process removes the impurities found in pig iron and allows for a better alloy of steel to be produced in a cost effective manner.  


Since then, steelmaking processes have continually refined and allowed for steel to become a very cheap material and allowed for the variation in alloying elements to make steel useful for a wide variety of applications.

A Bessemer Converter in Sheffield, UK


The Electric Motor


The electric motor is a machine that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. Electric motors can be powered by alternating (AC) current or direct current (DC). DC motors were developed first and have certain advantages and disadvantages. Each type of motor works differently but they all use the power of the electromagnetic field.


It was in the 1800’s when the first real usable electric motors were developed. Many developments were made under the company created by Thomas Edison, who believed DC was the way forward, however, an employee of his, Nikola Tesla counter argued that AC was more efficient. Both made great advancements in the field of electric motors and without either, life would not be the way it is today.


Today, we almost take them for granted as they are used in so many different appliances and for many different applications. Electric motors are important in a lot of of objects society use everyday such as fans, fridges, and washing machines. New jobs are also being made in manufacturing, repair technician, and new inventions and research. Society could never be the same without electric motors. Skyscrapers could never be built with mechanical cranes, robots could exist, and life could not be the same without all the inventions that use electric motors.

The most recent developments in electric motors have been their use in electric vehicles, however, this raises some concerns. Electric motors require the generation of electricity and once humanity has mostly moved toward electric vehicles, the electricity grid may well be close to its maximum capacity. Additionally, the majority of electricity production is fueled by fossil fuels which are harmful to the environment. This means renewable energy and battery storage technology needs to improve exponentially to allow for these latest developments. Only time will tell if we can achieve these demands.


The Automobile


The automobile, or more commonly, the car is something we certainly take for granted in modern society. Most of the population relies on cars for transport but in terms of history, it is only a relatively recent development. In the late 1800’s Karl Benz invented the first production car, however, this was met with a large amount of insecurity.


For the first time in history, a machine was capable of causing chaos to the roads, which were predominantly filled with horse and carriages. It took some time, but eventually the public saw through this and regulations on the automobile were lifted, allowing for it to become a much more efficient mode of transport than horse and carriage.


In 1913, Henry Ford released the Model T which was produced using the first moving assembly line. This made it much cheaper and easier to mass produce the automobile. In 14 years, 15 million Model T’s were produced. By this point, many people were able to afford a car. This allowed for new automakers to produce innovative automobiles and continue its developments to what it is today, a safe and reliable method of transport for most of the world.

Ford Model T. Source: Day in Tech History


The latest developments in the automotive industry have included looking at new methods of vehicle propulsion with electric motors and hydrogen fuel cells the most likely to take over the conventional petrol and diesel powertrains. These developments are required for humanity to continue using automobiles as conventials combustion engines produce far too high emissions to be sustainable.


Transistors


The transistor is arguably the most important engineering innovation of the 20th century. The transistor has completely changed the world being the building block for the processor, which has transformed computational technology including computers, mobile phones, television and even computer systems that allow you car to direct you to a chosen destination. It has had an effect on so many different industries, beyond the digital industry. It has influenced transportation, government, finance and manufacturing.  A transistor is a semiconductor that is used to amplify or switch electronic signals or power.


The transistor was invented in the mid-1940’s by a company called Bell Labs as part of the technological advancements throughout WWII, although there is reports that show there were predecessors of the transistor that performed similar functions. It finally made its commercial debut as part of a hearing aid around 5 years later.


It works by using a semiconductor material with three terminals connected to an external circuits. A voltage or current is then applied to one of the terminals which controls the current through another pair of terminals. The output power can be controlled at a higher value than the input power. This is known as gain and is vital in its use as an amplifier. That comes in really useful in things like hearing aids, one of the first things people used transistors for. A hearing aid has a tiny microphone in it that picks up sounds from the world around you and turns them into fluctuating electric currents. These are fed into a transistor that boosts them and powers a tiny loudspeaker, so you hear a much louder version of the sounds around you.


Its other use is as a switch. This works by a tiny electric current flowing through one part of a transistor can make a much bigger current flow through another part of it. In other words, the small current switches on the larger one. This is essentially how all computer chips work. For example, a memory chip contains hundreds of millions or even billions of transistors, each of which can be switched on or off individually. Since each transistor can be in two distinct states, it can store two different numbers, zero and one. With billions of transistors, a chip can store billions of zeros and ones, and almost as many ordinary numbers and letters (or characters, as we call them). More about this in a moment.


The semiconductor material used in a transistor is usually composed of silicon. The transistors impact on the computer industry has lead to an area of California being known as Silicon Valley.

A transistor integrated into a circuit. Source: Explain the Stuff


The Aircraft


The aircraft is another method of transportation which helped increase the speed of travel and the distances that could be made, similarly to the automobile but on a much larger scale.

The aeroplane helped connect the world, making business easier and connecting people from different continents. Prior to planes, people had to make dangerous and long journeys by sea.

Planes played a major difference in World War I, and since then, planes have been used to transport soldiers, emergency supplies and spy on enemies abroad. Space travel is also connected to airplanes. Without airplanes, space travel wouldn't have been conceivable. Much of what is known about the universe wouldn't have been attainable without mastering the aeronautics of the planet's atmosphere.


In modern times, people can travel much faster. This has lead to the spread of culture, where more people visit foreign countries. The acceleration of travel has also played a large role in the development of international business. Before the airplane, it was very difficult for businesses to operate on an international basis because their representatives couldn't conduct important business deals in person. Now, the airplane has made it possible for business representatives to visit foreign countries and conduct their business abroad, another way the airplane has influenced a more globalized world.


The Personal Computer


The personal computer (PC) has completely changed the way we live our lives. It really is incredible how much the PC has progressed and we are now at a point where we are effectively superhuman with the extension of ourselves being a supercomputer in our pocket. The only object missing is an interface between the 2, however, we will save that for a future discussion.

The evolution of the PC made for a very dynamic industry. Apple, IBM and Microsoft were all competing to bring the best product to market and prove that the PC was a viable consumer product.


Once the hardware was developed, the software really took centre stage and drove innovation of the PC for many years. After the PC got to a point where it was user friendly for all, the hardware has more recently been developed. This has, however, been driven by improvements in software and electronic components to allow PC’s to become smaller and smaller where we now have a supercomputer at our hands at any point in our pockets.


The natural progression and currently a hot topic is the understanding of how computers can learn like humans. This has created a field known as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Will AI be the next major innovation or are we already too far down the line to control how we use AI?

The Search Engine


Many modern innovative ideas have stemmed from software engineering and the internet in general, however, it is likely none of this would have been possible without the invention of the search engine.


The World Wide Web is what has developed search engines. The world wide web was developed by Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist at CERN, invented the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989. The web was originally conceived and developed to meet the demand for automatic information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world. CERN open sourced the internet and it eventually allowed people from the public to develop websites into what the internet is today.


However, the real advancements were when viable search engines were developed that allowed easy access to these website. The most notable and popular search engine is Google which has grown to become one of the largest companies in the world. The reason for this was its simplicity. Google’s creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin created an algorithm that made it simple for users to jump between websites and find the information they were looking for.

If you believe there are any other (which I am convinced there are many from a variety of innovative minds) innovations throughout the history of engineering or potential future innovations, let us know in the comments either here or on one of our social media platforms! We would love to hear your thoughts.


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