Naming the top modern inventions is a largely subjective procedure, so it is important to define some criteria right off the bat. First, modern can be defined as the time from the late 19th century post-industrial revolution to today. Since countless thousands of inventions have come about during this time, it is reasonable to place at the top of the list those inventions that have had enormous and widespread impact in terms of public acceptance, scientific advancement and political and social development.
- High Performance Textiles
From Rayon created in 1910 to the modern carbon nanotubes that make up supposed invisibility cloaks, modern textiles have revolutionized the way people dress and what they can do with fabrics. One manufacturer's line of swimsuits was even alleged to have given the edge to Olympic swimming medal winners.
While human beings have been looking for ways to keep things cool for centuries, it was only during the 20th century that this technology really came into its own. The technology for refrigeration was developed throughout the 19th century, but the first commercially available refrigeration units weren't available until 1911 in the U.S. With that came the development of freezers, air conditioners and even frozen TV dinners.
It began with radio and grew into television and eventually into the wireless communications systems of today. Broadcasting has allowed society to protect people through police and Coast Guard radio systems, to maintain connections through satellites, and simply to find endless sources of entertainment.
- Electrical Grid
When Thomas Edison first flipped on a light in 1878, he couldn't have imagined the revolution that was to come. Eventually, the need for electricity led to wires being strung from pole to pole, carrying alternating current power from generating stations to electrical devices. That technology led to telephone communication and eventually to digital communication.
- Nuclear Technology
It began with nuclear explosions wiping out entire cities, then evolved into a perpetual source of relatively clean energy. What has come along with that is the power to run gigantic electrical systems such as submarines and even space shuttles. It also may lay the groundwork for the power grid of the future.
- Combustion Engine
Few inventions have changed the world as drastically as the automobile. Not only did the combustion engine result in the creation of our road and highway infrastructure, but retail commerce would be impractical and expensive without the trucks to transport products across the country. We also wouldn't have airplanes and transcontinental travel without the path laid by combustion engines.
It's difficult to describe the effect that computers have had on modern society. Certainly, we wouldn't have the mobile phones, cable television systems and microwave ovens we rely on without the basis of modern computing. Nearly everything we do has been affected in some way by the capabilities provided by computers.
- Penicillin and Antibiotics
Antibiotics and other medications that have evolved from the invention of penicillin have saved millions of lives all over the world. The side effect is that new strains of "super-bugs" are developing that are resistant to these antibiotics. But the same technologies that gave us penicillin are also giving us new, germ-fighting tools.
- Plastic and Petrochemical Products
Many modern inventions and developments wouldn't have been possible without plastics. Computers, for example, need plastics for everything from their packaging to their internal parts. Less costly plastic medical tools have revolutionized the practice of medicine and transportation has been affected through plastic car parts.
The most life-altering technology ever to come along may be the Internet. What began as a communication method for defense and education officials has transformed into a multi-trillion-dollar-a-year industrial base allowing people the world over to work within their world and connect with it in ways once unimaginable. This ever-transforming technology no doubt promises even bigger changes to come.
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- U.S. Department of Energy Federal Energy Management Program: Primer on Electric Utilities, Deregulation, and Restructuring of U.S. Electricity Markets
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