10 of the biggest inventions of the 21st century

Who invented fire? Nobody knows. We don’t even know if it was invented once (and spread like a fire) or multiple times. It’s even questionable if homo sapiens or some other human species invented fire. We can only say it was invented between 1.7 to 0.2 million years ago. Roughly.

Later inventions we can attribute to empires, like the Romans or the Chinese. From around the renaissance we started to name inventors and the year of invention. Think of inventors like Edison or Tesla. However, often it is more a series of events that leads to things we know today than we can attribute it to one person.

Think of the microscope. One of the first pioneers were Hans and Zacharias Janssen at the late 16th hundred. Galileo’s device the Occhiolino was an improved version. Other scientists like Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made great advancements as well. The concept to see small objects is the same but this device consists of many parts and those parts improved continually. So who invented the microscope?

Piece of the puzzle

That there is no specific inventor, is even truer for modern inventions of the 20th and 21st century. Were computers and the internet one invention or a series of inventions? We speak in these cases more of advancements than of inventions. Often it’s not the lonely inventor, but groups of scientists and companies who all contribute to a piece of the puzzle.

The 20th century inventors brought us the airplane, nuclear power, rockets, antibiotics, radio and television. What brought the 21st us so far?

Smartphone: iPhone

Is a mobile phone with a calculator smart? Should it have an app store? Smartphone is a broad term. Most agree that the iPhone made the biggest leap. Some key ingredients were a touchscreen, a phone, a camera and apps. Apple brought them all together. Since its introduction in 2007 Apple sold more than 2 billion iPhones. Together with Android phone they dominate the market today. Nowadays we’re used to sitting together while all staring at a screen.

Social networking: Facebook

The internet and smartphones made something else possible: creating social networks online. Sharing our ideas and the things we are doing in text, photos and videos. The platform that have been most influential is Facebook. Started in 2004 as student directory with a main goal to distinguish between hot en less hot people at the college. Now it has more than 2 billion active users each month.

Media streaming: YouTube

Back in the old days we rented a movie in the video store. Who wants to bring it back the next day? In the not so distant past everyone was downloading music and films. This could take days until you finally had the file on your computer to watch it.

It was only a matter of time when the internet became fast enough to stream media live. Nowadays more and more content is provided by Spotify and Netflix, but most used world-wide is probably YouTube. First video was created by one of its founders Jawed Karim: Me at the Zoo. A lame video? Average number of views today on YouTube is around 1 billion.

Online encyclopedia: Wikipedia

Sometimes it’s easier to look it up on Wikipedia than to get it back from memory. Started in 2001 as an encyclopedia anyone can edit. It seems that almost everyone really did do that (For good or worse).

Today the English version has around 6 million articles. All the Wikipedia’s combined is even bigger. It has more than 27 billions words, 40 million articles in almost 300 languages. Indeed, a lot to remember.

Car Navigator (TomTom)

Some inventions make our lives easier. Sometimes so easy that we almost blindly trust them. A good example: our car navigation. It makes us feel at home in a city we’ve never been. Detailed digital maps together with GPS (Global Positioning System) which knows where we are anywhere on earth, made car navigation possible. Almost all cars have one build in today. The most iconic was a device by TomTom. Its first device for personal use was introduced in 2004. Yes, the one where you lick and stick it to the windshield of the car.

Gene editing: CRISPR

In the eighties' scientists made great progress with sequencing. With the method Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) they made it possible to copy specific DNA segments. This was above all a laboratory technique. The way DNA could be copied and modified disrupted with the invention of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Better known as CRISPR.

In 2012 the technique was introduced by Bruce Conklin and his team. Gene editing became suddenly possible for an average molecular biology student, instead of having a big laboratory. Application is for example changing DNA by hereditary disorder and repairing other DNA malfunctions.

Particle accelerator: LHC

Particle accelerators are machines that accelerate “charged” particles to high speeds to study physical phenomena. The one which enter a whole new ballgame was the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) where the accelerator lay under the mountains in a 27 km long tunnel. A gigantic project where more than 10.000 scientist worked on!

Most important discovery is that of the Higgs-Boson particle which plays an important role in the standard model (how the universe works). A very important, but somewhat expensive particle (the total cost of finding the Higgs boson ran about $13.25 billion).

VR: Oculus Rift

Virtual reality was invented already in the 20th century. However, the hardware and software at the time didn’t make a very convincing reality. Besides, nobody could afford it.

Everything changed when Lucky Palmer introduced the Oculus Rift on the crowd funding website Kickstarter. Basic ingredients were ski glasses, a screen from a mobile phone, lenses and tracking sensors. A new recipe to build a cheap and good VR experience. Though some were disappointed that its popularity didn’t reach the numbers of an iPhone, there are already 6 million devices sold.

Artificial organs

Life was simple back then. When one of yours organs like heart or liver weren’t functioning you died. In the 21st century a revolution goes on to change this.

Advancements in electronics and stem cell research make this possible. This leads to artificial hearts, liver, pancreas, kidneys and lungs. The first artificial heart was already implemented in 1982. The difference with 21st approaches is that it is made from the patients own stem cells, and they are grown in the lab to be a perfect fit for a specific person.

Cloud: Amazon AWS

The road from servers at the office to cloud computing is also a story of many small steps. First, rooms were created especially for hosting servers. Because of networking advancements these servers didn’t need to be located at the office anymore. Later the servers were moved to third-party companies who hosted the server in a data center.

Because of virtualization and containerization it became less and less important where software was running. It was running somewhere in the ‘cloud’. This is also sometimes sarcastically called “on somebody else’s computer”.

Nowadays big vendors like Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure offer off-the-shelve applications where companies are paying for usage. Not everyone is aware that most of the things like Netflix and Spotify run in the cloud. A journalist blocked Amazon AWS and couldn’t use a lot of those services anymore. Her mobile device tried to make 98000 connections to Amazon in a week.

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