Human Accomplishment: Technology
In the technology ranking of Human Accomplishment, the instrument maker and mechanical engineer James Watt (1736-1819) of Scotland and the prolific inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) of the USA, who created an early research laboratory, are tied for the maximum score of 100. There is a large gap from them down to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who is then followed by Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) from the Netherlands, one of the greatest polymaths in all history; Archimedes of Syracuse (ca. 290-212 BC); the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937); the Roman engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio – Vitruvius – from the first century BC, author of the celebrated multivolume work De Architectura (“On Architecture”); John Smeaton (1724-1792), a great civil engineer from Leeds, England and a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham; the English inventor and steel manufacturer Henry Bessemer (1813-1898); and Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729), an English ironmonger and creator of the atmospheric steam engine, the first version engine that did a useful work.
After them follows Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the English inventor of the mechanical computer; the innovative German-born inventor and engineer Carl Wilhelm Siemens (1823-1883), whose brother Werner von Siemens (1816-1892) founded the telecommunications company Siemens in Berlin in 1847; the dynamic English industrialist and ironmaster John Wilkinson (1728-1808); Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the prolific scholar, writer, publisher, diplomat and statesman from North America who also invented the lightning rod, bifocal eyeglasses and the Franklin stove; the English physicist and inventor Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875); the industrial chemist and armaments manufacturer Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) from Sweden, who invented dynamite and used his wealth to found and fund the famous Nobel Prizes; the great English naturalist and electrical engineer Michael Faraday (1791-1867); Denis Papin (1647-1712), the French-born engineer who invented the steam digester and the pressure cooker in 1679, major stepping-stones in the evolution of the steam engine; the English civil engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848), who together with his son Robert built the world’s first inter-city public railway line employing steam locomotives between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830; and finally the American painter Samuel Morse (1791-1872), one of the main creators of the electric telegraph and co-inventor of Morse code.
Names such as Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Jean Lenoir, Nikolaus Otto and Rudolf Diesel are listed for their contributions to the development of internal combustion engines and cars, the English entrepreneur Richard Arkwright for aiding the development of a modern factory system during the Industrial Revolution, and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre, William Fox Talbot, George Eastman and others for the creation of photography. But why is a first-rate scientific instrument maker like Jesse Ramsden not mentioned at all?
The Montgolfier Brothers from France in the late 1700s with balloons and the Wright Brothers from the USA in the early 1900s with airplanes are credit for manned human flight. Robert H. Goddard of the USA gets a high ranking for pioneering liquid-fueled rocketry during the 1920s, which is richly deserved. The rocket engineers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergey Korolyov from the Russian Empire/the Soviet Union are briefly mentioned, but not Hermann Oberth or Wernher von Braun, despite the fact that von Braun’s work on very large and sophisticated rockets in Germany and eventually the USA had begun well before 1950.
A few other notable names in technology include Leon Battista Alberti, Nicolas Appert, Edwin Howard Armstrong, Leo Baekeland, Alexander Graham Bell, the Biro Brothers, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Carl Bosch (but oddly enough not Fritz Haber), Matthew Boulton, Isambard Brunel, George Cayley, Claude Chappe, Samuel Colt, Ctesibius of Alexandria, Abraham Darby, Abraham Darby III, Humphry Davy, Lee De Forest, Cornelius Drebbel, John Boyd Dunlop, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, John Ericsson, Oliver Evans, Reginald Fessenden, John Ambrose Fleming, Henry Ford, Robert Fulton, Galileo Galilei, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Henri Giffard, Charles Goodyear, Zénobe Gramme, John Harrison, Joseph Henry, Hero of Alexandria, Jonathan Hornblower, Robert Hooke, David E. Hughes, John Wesley Hyatt, Joseph Marie Jacquard, John Kay, William Kelly, Edwin Herbert Land, Gustav de Laval, John Bennet Lawes, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Otto Lilienthal, the Lumière Brothers, John L. McAdam, Ottmar Mergenthaler, Thomas Midgley, William Murdoch, Alexander Parkes, Charles A. Parsons, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Popov, Valdemar Poulsen, John Roebuck, René A. F. de Réaumur, Thomas Savery, Marc Seguin, Alois Senefelder, Joseph Swan, Nikola Tesla, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Richard Trevithick, Jethro Tull, Jacques de Vaucanson, Felix Wankel, Robert Watson-Watt, Wilhelm Weber, Josiah Wedgwood, George Westinghouse, Eli Whitney, Ferdinand von Zeppelin and finally Vladimir K. Zworykin.
Once again, several individuals mentioned among central events in technology early in the book are left out from the final rankings. Murray writes about the evolution of batteries in the 1800s with figures such as Alessandro Volta, John Frederic Daniell, William Robert Grove, Gaston Planté and Georges Leclanché, but the first three are not listed in the index. Volta’s prototype was revolutionary and might have brought him near the top twenty in technology.
Frank Whittle of the British Royal Air Force and Hans von Ohain from Germany are correctly credited with independently inventing the jet engine in the 1930s, yet Ohain isn’t ranked. The Ukrainian-born American aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky and Henrich Focke in Germany had independently created practical helicopters by 1936, following up earlier advances made by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva with his autogyro a few years before, yet Focke is not credited in the index. Finally, I cannot see the Romanian inventor and aerodynamics pioneer Henri Coandă mentioned by name anywhere in the book, which he perhaps deserves to be.
It is mentioned in the book that the French naval officer, explorer and prizewinning filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau, an ambassador for the European spirit of curiosity, exploration and innovation at its very finest, invented the aqualung together with Émile Gagnan in 1943 and donned the first autonomous diving gear, yet Mr. Cousteau is not rated in the technology index. This proved a decisive turning point in the centuries-long evolution toward what we now call scuba diving, an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
Freediving, that is, swimming underwater simply by holding your breath, has been done for thousands of years by pearl divers and sponge divers. Both Eastern and Western peoples made experiments with what can be dubbed primitive diving bells, but these had serious limitations. Experimentation finally accelerated in Europe and the West from the late 1500s to the 1900s, aided by new science and technology such as air pumps and later high-pressure air and gas cylinders for compressed air breathing sets. Diving helmets appeared in the 1800s. The great breakthrough came in the 1900s, and submarines were first extensively used in World War I.
The inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard from Basel, Switzerland, who served for years as a professor of physics in Brussels, designed the bathyscaphe or “deep boat” Trieste, with which his son Jacques was soon to explore the deepest reaches of the oceans. Jacques Piccard together with Don Walsh from the USA in 1960 used Trieste to travel 10,911 meters down to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. The pressure there was well over one thousand times the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level, yet amazingly Piccard and Walsh spotted several flatfish living under these extreme conditions.
The mountaineer Edmund Hillary, born in Auckland, New Zealand to a family of British descent, together with Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, in 1953 became the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. By the mid-twentieth century Europeans had, as the first civilization in all of human history, explored and mapped every single corner of the Earth: from Antarctica via Australia to the interiors of Africa, from the North Pole to the South Pole and from the highest mountain peaks to the ocean floor. European man was now ready to leave our planet and start exploring space, which he also did.
For every individual who is credit with a particular breakthrough, you could often potentially list a handful of others who contributed to this development or made it independently at nearly the same time but who didn’t become equally famous. For example, most people have heard of Alexander Graham Bell from Edinburgh, Scotland as the “inventor of the telephone.” Fewer know about the US electrical engineer Elisha Gray, who submitted his application for a patent of a telephone just two hours later than Bell did in 1876. Still, the persons who are listed here do generally deserve much, if not necessarily all, of the credit for these inventions.
Moreover, since most scientific breakthroughs or technological innovations in the modern world were made by Europeans, those who almost made the same breakthroughs were usually also individuals of European descent. Including them would not affect the overall balance.
James Clerk Maxwell’s equations from the 1860s and 70s predicted the existence of radio waves. The German physicist Heinrich Hertz experimentally verified and demonstrated the reality of radio waves in 1887, but he died young. Marconi was an important and influential pioneer in the evolution of radio or “wireless telegraphy,” yet he wasn’t the only one.
Nikola Tesla, the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest from the Balkans, made many contributions to the development of radio and electromagnetic research. He constructed an induction motor using alternating current in 1883 and immigrated to the USA from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1884. He began working for Thomas Edison’s company but switched to that of the US entrepreneur George Westinghouse. The alternating current (AC) preferred by them eventually prevailed over Edison’s direct current (DC) system, which flows continuously in one direction. AC typically changes direction 50 or 60 times per second.
Leonardo da Vinci has received a very high ranking in the technology index although rather few of his devices were actually built and used during his lifetime. Among those ranked below the top twenty in this discipline is Johannes Gutenberg. I find this a bit odd, given that his printing press before 1450 was arguably one of the most important inventions in all of European history. Frankly, some Western historians would want to place him at the very top of the technology index for the revolutionary impact his invention had on European societies.
Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in The Coming of the Book estimate that at least “150-200 million copies were published in the 16th century.” This constituted an enormous change compared to the cumbersome process of scribes manually copying each individual book by hand. One could claim that “The invention of printing from movable type may have been the most important contribution to the advance of civilization made in the second millennium. The transition from hand-copied documents to printed documents was far more revolutionary than the transition from the typewriter to the computer.” David Crowley and Paul Heyer agree in Communication in History: Technology, Culture, and Society: “Although we hesitate to argue for historical ‘prime-movers,’ certainly the printing press comes close to what is meant by this term. It was a technology that influenced other technologies – a prototype for mass production – and one that impacted directly on the world of ideas by making knowledge widely available, thereby creating a space in which new forms of expression could flourish.”
Gutenberg created his mechanical printing press in Mainz, Germany around 1440. His most celebrated work was the Forty-two-Line Bible, completed in 1455 at the latest. Gutenberg himself did not become rich by his invention, but it spread remarkably fast throughout the urban centers of Europe and triggered a veritable explosion in the number of books available at much lower prices than before. One unresolved question is just how much he knew about the printing traditions of China. It is conceivable that European traders had heard of the very concept of printed books in East Asia. We know that paper, a necessary component of the printing trade, was introduced to Europe from China via the Middle East. The traditional material – parchment – was expensive and not well suited for mass production. With the introduction of printing in the late 1400s, “Europe was becoming covered with paper mills.”
Parchment, processed skins of certain animals – especially sheep, goats and calves – prepared for the purpose of writing on them, was itself an innovation of the Roman era, then supplanting the rolled manuscript by the bound book (codex). It was intended as a supplement to the limited supply of Egyptian papyrus, from which our modern name “paper” is derived.
Charles Murray includes Bi Sheng as inventor of the first movable type printing technology in China just after the year 1040, plus the Chinese state bureaucrat Cai Lun for standardizing the papermaking process around AD 100, yet both of these men appear only as minor figures.
In Michael H. Hart’s popular book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History from 1978, Cai Lun was ranked 7 and Gutenberg 8. Just to put things in perspective, the other figures in the top ten were Muhammad ibn Abdullah, Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Saint Paul, Christopher Columbus and Albert Einstein. Cai Lun was also listed ahead of figures like Louis Pasteur, Galileo Galilei, Aristotle, Euclid, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Moses, Qin Shi Huang (China’s First Emperor), Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar and the first pro-Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great.
Frankly, I find this a bit excessive. Even if you believe that Lun created paper or standardized its manufacture (many scholars believe that paper was invented earlier in the Han period), it looks strange to rank him above Qin Shi Huang, the brutal ruler who became the First Emperor of a unified China in 221 BC and now rests in an enormous mausoleum guarded by a life-size Terracotta army near Xi’an. After all, the latter created a vast state that has endured for more than two thousand years. Nevertheless, I don’t think Murray’s lists properly reflect the tremendous historical importance of printed paper books for the progress of science.
The Antikythera Mechanism is a surprisingly sophisticated Greek mechanical calculator from ca. 100 BC, maybe used to track dates of the Ancient Olympic Games. Other devices such as the abacus have been used to aid computation for centuries. The German polymath Wilhelm Schickard built a calculating machine in 1623, but both the machine and its designer perished in the Thirty Years War. Schickard is not mentioned by Murray. Other machines by Blaise Pascal (1642) and Gottfried Leibniz (1671) followed but were not used to the extent that was hoped, partly because they provided little advantage in speed. Leibniz in 1679 realized that two digits – 1 and 0, or on and off in an electronic language – were all that were needed for a positional number system. This binary numeral system is now used in virtually all computers.
In the 1620s the English mathematicians Edmund Gunter and especially William Oughtred invented the slide rule, inspired by the logarithms introduced by the Scottish mathematician John Napier in 1614. Before electronic calculators and computers became widely available in the late twentieth century, tables of logarithms were commonly used in science and engineering. With slide rules, engineers could multiply, divide, find square roots and more in a few seconds. As writer Cliff Stoll reminds us, “Consider the engineering achievements that owe their existence to rubbing two sticks together: the Empire State Building; the Hoover Dam; the curves of the Golden Gate Bridge; hydrodynamic automobile transmissions, transistor radios; the Boeing 707 airliner.” The Apollo astronauts as late as the early 1970s kept slide rules as backups for their electronic calculators on their journeys to the Moon.
The English engineer Charles Babbage is rightfully named in Human Accomplishment as the inventor of the mechanical computer. The Jacquard system was developed in 1804-05 by the French silk weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard from Lyon. His punched-card idea was adopted by Babbage to control his Analytical Engine. John Mauchly, Vannevar Bush, George Stibitz and John von Neumann are credited for the development of the electronic computer, but not Konrad Zuse. John Vincent Atanasoff, son of a Bulgarian immigrant to the USA, is listed under physics. Also listed is Howard Aiken, plus Herman Hollerith for inventing the first workable electromechanical calculator in the late 1800s, which was used for the US census.
The gifted English mathematician and logician George Boole in the mid-1800s began the algebra of logic called which now finds application in computer construction. The American electronics engineer Claude Shannon in 1948 was the first person to grasp how Boolean algebra could be used to great advantage in the relay circuitry found in telephone routing switches, thus “laying the groundwork for the modern computer and other electronic devices.”
The English computer theorist Alan Turing in 1950 published Computing Machinery and Intelligence, where he studied problems which still lie at the heart of artificial intelligence. He proposed the Turing Test, which is applied in attempting to answer whether a computer can be intelligent. In a landmark paper from 1936 he proved that Turing machines (abstract symbol-manipulating devices) would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical problem that is represented as an algorithm. He was involved during WW2 in breaking the codes used by Nazi Germany with their Enigma code machine, but in this he was aided by other cryptologists such as Marian Rejewski from Poland. While Turing is highlighted in the book text, he is strangely left out of the indexes for both mathematics and technology in HA.
The American physicists Walter Houser Brattain and John Bardeen together with the English-born engineer William Shockley in 1947 at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the transistor, the semiconductor underlying virtually all modern electronic devices. The transistor opened up great possibilities for the miniaturization and improvement of electronics. Though electrically similar to a vacuum tube, it was much smaller and more reliable. Many historians rank the transistor as one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. In 1958 and 1959 the engineers Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce in the USA independently developed the integrated circuit or microchip, a system of interconnected transistors where several could be made at the same time on the same piece of semiconductor.
The final decades of the twentieth century became known as the Digital Revolution or the Age of the Microchip. The introduction of small personal computers (PCs) into private homes from the 1980s onward was a revolution, and electronic computers greatly affected all the sciences by making possible calculations that were far too complex or time-consuming to be done by humans. The World Wide Web was created by the English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee together with his Belgian colleague Robert Cailliau at CERN in Western Europe in 1990. While the Internet itself dates back to the 1960s and 70s, partly due to military efforts in the USA during the Cold War, the WWW or “Web” in the 1990s turned the Internet into a true mass medium, connecting literally billions of people worldwide in less than 20 years.
Since I am Norwegian I was curious to see which individuals from my country were included in Murray’s book. Vilhelm Bjerknes is credited in the Earth sciences as a founder of modern weather forecasting. In mathematics, Niels Henrik Abel is the highest-ranking individual from the Nordic countries ahead of number two, Marius Sophus Lie. This is accurate in my view.
The painter and printmaker Edvard Munch is the highest-ranking Scandinavian person in Western art. Munch’s The Scream (“Skrik”) from 1893 is one of the most easily recognizable paintings in European art, and therefore sometimes used or misused for modern commercials.
Many European artists in the nineteenth century, especially those who did not have an independent nation state, took inspiration from the national traditions or folklore of their people. This would include Má vlast (“My Country”), the symphonic poems composed in the 1870s by the Czech composer Smetana. With the composer Edvard Grieg from Bergen, Norway, an ethnic character emerges most clearly in his songs based on Norwegian texts, especially his fine Peer Gynt Suites (1875), a successful marriage between music and text written to a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He is the highest-ranking person from the Nordic countries under Western literature, substantially ahead of such Nobel Prize winners as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset. Peer Gynt is a rich drama in rhymed couplets. It was Ibsen’s last play to employ verse, and surprisingly joyful and creative for a man who earned himself a reputation for being a very serious radical thinker.
Murray did not rank explorers, of which there are many Europeans, for example Marco Polo, John Cabot, Bartolomeu Dias, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Willem Barentsz, Pedro Páez, Henry Hudson, Abel Tasman, Vitus Bering, James Cook, Joseph Banks, Alexander MacKenzie, Alexander von Humboldt, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, John Ross, James Clark Ross, William Edward Parry, David Livingstone, Richard Burton, Ernest Shackleton and Karl Weyprecht.
If he did, a few of them might have been from Norway, such as Fridtjof Nansen and above all Roald Amundsen. Amundsen in 1911 led the first expedition in history to reach the South Pole. His team also made it back alive, in contrast to the rivaling British team led by Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen later became the first person to reach both the North and South Poles. Leiv Eiriksson, who reached North America (Vinland) around AD 1000, was born on Iceland and brought up on the Norse colony on Greenland founded by his Norwegian father.
If I could add somebody else it would have to be the physicist Kristian Birkeland, whose geomagnetic research was generations ahead of its time. In the early 1900s he gave a correct explanation for auroras (polar lights), backed by careful experiments. A popular book on his life has been published by journalist Lucy Jago. Writers Alv Egeland and William J. Burke state in a biography of him that “He introduced basic concepts that are central to modern space physics.” He even contributed to the production of fertilizers with the Birkeland-Eyde process of fixing nitrogen from the air. Sydney Chapman is briefly mentioned in Human Accomplishment among minor names in astronomy, as is Anders Celsius, whereas Hannes Alfvén receives a low ranking in physics. Kristian Birkeland might have received a similar, modest ranking in either Earth sciences or physics, or perhaps more plausibly in astronomy.
One missing name is mathematician Atle Selberg, who was inspired by the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan from Tamil Nadu in India and was awarded the Fields Medal in 1950. Selberg collaborated with the famously eccentric Hungarian-born Jew Paul Erdős, who was probably the most prolific mathematician in history measured in the number of papers; Euler is the record holder in the number of published pages. I cannot see Paul Erdős on these lists, either. He did most of his work after 1950, but he started before this and could have been mentioned.
Other potential candidates from Norway working before 1950 might be Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, a physician remembered for identifying the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae in 1873 as the causative agent of leprosy, or perhaps Lars Onsager, a physical chemist from Kristiania (Oslo) who in 1968 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of a general theory of irreversible chemical processes, but they are less important than Birkeland.
All things considered and with the possible exception of the omission of Kristian Birkeland, Charles Murray’s rankings of personalities from my own country are largely correct in my view, which is yet another indication that he did a good job when preparing these indexes.