by Ramon Casha - vice president, Malta Humanist Association
Throughout history, there have been a number of occasions when we discovered or invented something that completely changed us. In this article I've restricted myself to the last 500 years or so. There were many other earlier examples but in recent times they've come faster than ever before. Here's a stroll through some of the big ones.
Although the Chinese printer Bi Sheng created a movable type press using iron and clay around the year 1041, Johannes Gutenberg created the first proper printing press that could churn out pages at the rate of around 3600 per day. Until a short time before, most writings had to be manually copied, which was laborious, expensive and therefore books were not something that the ordinary person would have. The printing press made knowledge accessible to the masses.
403 years ago (1610) - Eppur si muove!
On this day we realised we're not that special after all. Copernicus had already postulated that the earth orbited the sun, but on this day, Galileo Galilei turned his new telescope to Jupiter and saw three dots, which he observed over many days and realised that they were orbiting around Jupiter – they were its moons. For the very first time ever, it was shown that not everything orbits the earth. We were not the centre of the universe as everyone had assumed until then. If we were not at the centre, then it probably wasn't created for us after all. This was a major shift in thinking. We would later discover that the earth isn't even a particularly big planet, all the stars are themselves suns, and our sun is not a particularly big or important one – except to us. The Catholic Church did not take kindly to his teachings however and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest, but eventually the church came to accept that he'd been right all along, and after that embarrassment it was rather more careful not to contradict science, which is probably why the church teaches evolution and other areas of science in its schools.
326 years ago (1687) - Gravity hits Newton with an apple
Ok the bit about the apple probably never happened, but Isaac Newton published his work about gravity in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. It was perhaps the first time that a serious attempt was made to understand and explain the “mysteries of the cosmos” through physics and mathematics, and he showed that the universe could be explained in this way. No miracles or deities were needed, it was all a matter of natural processes and forces.
293 years ago (1720) - Steam power
What do you do when you want to lift and drop a heavy hammer thousands of times? Well a water wheel will do the trick, but what if you're not near a river? You could use some beast of burden, same if you want to transport people from one place to another – a horse-drawn tram or carriage. The steam engine brought a powerful alternative. Heat up water and it boils. Try to hold back that steam and it will push – and that means it performs work. The invention of pistons and other mechanical devices allowed for the creation of an engine that could provide a continuous motion – initially this powered a pump to remove water from mines, but later inventions allowed it to move in a rotating manner, which could power all sorts of machinery, and later the steam locomotive that allowed this powerful new force to transport very heavy loads of passengers or cargo over long distances. The steam engine provided a very flexible and powerful source of work. And it's still going strong today – our modern nuclear power stations are steam engines – the nuclear reactions boil water that turns steam turbines, which generate electricity.
229 years ago (1783) - Flight
On this day, man first left the ground. After lots of trials, the brothers Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Ètienne Montgolfier - paper manufacturers - demonstrated their balloon flight before a stunned crowd in Paris. It was the first time that man had flown. Until then, everything higher than the highest tree, mountain or building was out of reach and something of a mystery. We were stuck to the surface and had a 2-dimensional world view. Many still looked upon the story of the Tower of Babel and thought man shouldn't try to go up in the sky. It would not be until 1903 before the first airplane was created, and initially the range of airplanes was very limited. Balloons remained the only way to travel through the air for long distances for a long time after. The clouds no longer hid mysterious things - we could rise above them, fly through them.
217 years ago (1796) - Vaccination
On this day, Edward Jenner proved that infecting a person with the mild disease cowpox made them immune to smallpox. He did not come up with the technique himself though. It probably originated in India or China, making its way to Europe from Turkey thanks to the wife of the then English ambassador to Istanbul almost a century earlier. Since then, many diseases which used to take an annual toll of lives have become rare, as vaccines were developed against such killers as measles, mumps, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and others.
176 years ago (1837) - Telegraph
The first telegraph message was instantly transmitted between Euston and Camden in London. This relied on many other inventions during the previous years, including the voltaic pile, the galvanometer, the electromagnet, the relay etc. Prior to this, a message could only be transmitted instantaneously if there was direct line of sight, via semaphores or other methods of signalling. Messages transmitted over long distances, such as across a continent, would take ages via letters. In the United States, Samuel Morse invented his binary code that allowed all the letters to be represented over a single set of cables. The large distances of the USA made the use of an efficient, fast method of communications even more important. Before long, telegraph offices were open in most major cities for members of the public to send short messages instantaneously to people a long distance away, and even get a response within hours.
174 years ago (1839) - Photography
The first practical photo was taken on this day. Prior to this, some photos were taken but they required exposures of entire days – unpractical for most uses. The techniques developed by Thomas Wedgwood, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and others were improved upon by Louis Daguerre, who invented a “developing” process that reduced the exposure time to mere minutes. Other improvements came, eventually creating the colour photography we're familiar with today. Before photography, the recording of images was a matter of painting or sketching – which meant that you're relying on the ability of the artist to notice and record every detail accurately. The camera was a documentary recording device – it showed you what was really there, whether you had initially noticed it or not. When looking at a portrait painting one can always wonder whether the artist tried to make the subject look more regal, or slimmer, or taller, or more handsome/beautiful. With a photo what you see is what you get. The recording of sound came much later – in 1877, in the form of a phonograph cylinder.
On this day, Charles Darwin published his book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, in which he gave a coherent explanation for the many varieties of life on earth – plant and animal – and how they were all interconnected, even humans. By this time, most religious people had come to terms with the earth not being the centre of the universe, or that the universe followed physical laws, but life remained that one no-go area for science. Scientists were expected to steer clear of it, to leave this as the domain of God. The Bible had a story about the universe, and life, being created in a particular order over six days. Anyone saying otherwise would be very directly and clearly contradicting the Bible, and not merely someone's interpretation of it. Although there were always people who rejected evolution, the evidence kept mounting, and other discoveries confirmed it. Gregor Mendel's discovery of genetics, the dinosaur skeletons being unearthed, all came together into a clear picture of how all species came to be.
133 years ago (1879) - Electric light
Imagine a world in which almost everything stops at sunset. The only way to get light after the sun goes down is through some form of fire – candles, oil lamps, gas lights and so on. Not only did these not produce a great deal of light, but they had to be individually lit and extinguished, and constituted a fire hazard. People were employed to light street lamps one by one. Then came the light bulb, and things changed fast. Flick a switch and an entire chandelier lights up. All of a sudden rooms could look as brightly lit at night as they did during the day. This greatly expanded what one can do in a day. It created cities that never sleep. Even the amount of time spent sleeping was reduced.
112 years ago (1901) - Radio killed the telegraph star
Guglielmo Marconi made the first successful transatlantic radio transmission. The telegraph had until then been limited by the sea – news from across the Atlantic still had to travel the old fashioned way, and ships were entirely cut off as soon as they were out of sight. The use of radio waves led to the wireless telegraph. Now you could communicate with ships, as well as with other continents. The initial use of radio was for communicating in this way, but in the early 1920s, people started building or buying radio receivers, which could not transmit but could listen to radio transmissions, and the first commercial radio stations started broadcasting music in 1921.
100 years ago (1913) - Refrigerators
Cold beer at last! It's hard to pin a single date on the invention of the refrigerator, since the principles of refrigeration were already known and there were patents filed much earlier, and 1834 saw the first actual machine being built. This was followed by many innovations and designs mostly intended to cater for the meat and brewing industries. The year 1913 saw the first domestic refrigerator. The long-term storage of food at home changed things dramatically. You no longer had to buy food every single day – food which often had already been exposed to quite a bit of heat before reaching you. You could keep food for ages in these units – though at first they cost twice as much as a car. Refrigeration also had a major impact on the availability and effectiveness of medicines.
87 years ago (1926) - Television
Although many previous experiments led to the television, Scotsman John Logie Baird first created a practical set that could transmit moving images and demonstrated it to an audience. In 1927 he transmitted an image over 700km, as well as demonstrating the first colour TV, the first infra-red night vision transmissions and the first stereoscopic TV, as well as the first video disk, named the Phonovision. In 1928 he made the first transatlantic transmission, and In 1929 he co-established France's first commercial TV station. The BBC was born in 1936. The television has had a major impact on our lives from its earliest days.
55 years ago (1957) - Space Race
The Space Age began on this day. The Soviet Union sent Sputnik-1 into space, gathering atmospheric data. It performed around 1440 orbits over a 2 month period. It was a surprise launch that caused the US to go into a panic, since the espionage potential of spacecraft was pretty clear. Since then however there have been countless uses for satellites, both for earth observation (weather, etc), space, communications, and of course espionage.
52 years ago (1961) - We left the earth
Yuri Gagarin, in his Vostok spacecraft, became the first human to leave the earth, taking 108 minutes and completing one orbit. Nobody really knew if he'd survive, although animals had been sent up before.
For the first time ever, a human walked on the surface of another celestial body. The moon was clearly not suitable for human habitation but this opened up the possibility of one day establishing a colony on some other planet.
40 years ago (1973) - Mobile phones
Although there were a number of wireless portable communication systems from walkie-talkies to car radio telephones, a researcher at Motorola created the first portable telephone and, on this day, made the first mobile call to his competitor to tease him about it. Admittedly their idea of “portable” was rather different back then – it weighed 1kg – but size, weight, and very importantly, price dropped quickly. At first mobile phones were the domain of the rich businessman, but falling prices made them available to everyone. In a very short time they started surpassing land lines. Even kids would have a mobile phone – parents liked the idea that they could contact their children and vice versa at all times and places. As electronics got smaller and cheaper, they learned new tricks – from the calculators of early models we got today's smartphones, which are better described as pocket computers than phones. The fact that most phones nowadays come equipped with pretty good cameras created a new type of “citizen journalism”, where even completely unexpected events are recorded.
The Commodore PET was the first personal computer which you did not have to build yourself – very similar in many ways to modern computers – and it was soon followed by the Apple II. Previous computers were either expensive business machines or kits that you had to assemble yourself, so you required electronics skills. The wide availability of computers encouraged the creation of software that allowed people to do many things previously reserved only to professionals. Desktop Publishing allowed people to create professional-looking magazines. Sequencer software allowed up-and-coming composers to create music on their Apples and Ataris. Spreadsheets allowed fast calculations using long columns of figures. Word processing allowed people to type things, and then correct what they'd typed without writing everything from scratch.
21 years ago (1991) - The Web
There were a number of projects created before Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist working at CERN, put together the standards for the web, then wrote the first web server and the first web browser, and published them all for free on the internet. Keep in mind that the internet is the “plumbing” on top of which we get actual useful stuff like email, ftp, irc and so on. The creation of Berners-Lee spread like wildfire. It was flexible enough to allow all kinds of uses. People could publish their own websites, containing their views and materials, without needing anyone's permission. You didn't need a publisher, or an editor's approval. This created an unprecedented level of individual empowerment.