Technology Timeline: 1752 - 1990
1752 Lightning Rod
Benjamin Franklin's electricity experiments lead him to a valuable application
-- the lightning rod, which when placed at the apex of a barn, church steeple,
or other structure, conducts lightning bolts harmlessly into the ground.
David Bushnell's "Turtle" submerges by taking water into its tanks and
reverses the process to rise. It moves by means of a hand crank propeller. The
"Turtle" is used in an attack on Lord Howe's Flagship "Eagle," but
attempts to attach a mine to the Eagle's hull fail.
1790 First U.S. Patent
The United States issues its first patent to William Pollard of Philadelphia.
His machine roves and spins cotton.
1794 Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney patents his machine to comb and deseed bolls of cotton. His
invention makes possible a revolution in the cotton industry and the rise of
"King Cotton" as the main cash crop in the South, but will never make him rich.
Instead of buying his machine, farmers built bogus versions of their own.
1797 Interchangeable Parts
Eli Whitney contracts to manufacture 10,000 muskets for the U.S. Army. At the
time, an entire musket would be made by a single person, without standardized
measurements. Whitney divided the labor into several discrete steps and
standardized parts to make them interchangeable.
1801 Steam-Powered Pumping Station
The Fairmount Water Works harnesses steam power to provide water for the city
1803 Spray Gun
Dr. Alan de Vilbiss of Toledo, Ohio, invented this device to replace swabs as
the method of applying medication to oral and nasal passages.
1805 Amphibious Vehicle
Oliver Evans' "Orukter Amphibolos" dredges the waters near the
Philadelphia docks. Its steam-powered engine drove either wooden wheels or a
paddle wheel. Evans demonstrated his machine in Philadelphia's Center Square,
where he passed the hat for money.
1806 Coffee Pot
Coffee drinkers the world over no longer have to chew their brew. Benjamin
Thompson, Count Rumford, invents a coffee pot with a metal sieve to strain away
Robert Fulton, former miniaturist and landscape painter, opens American rivers
to two-way travel. His steamboat the "Clermont" travels 150 miles upstream
between New York and Albany at an average speed of 5 mph.
1813 Armored Warship
Steam power enhances military power. Robert Fulton's "Demolos" sails. At
140 ft. in length, it carries a thirty 32-pound cannon.
Farmers had furrowed the rocky soil of New England with wooden-tipped ploughs.
John Jethro Woods of Poplar Ridge, New York, creates a plough with a replaceable
cast-iron tip, making farming in America easier.
1817 Erie Canal
Overland travel in the 1800s is slow and arduous. Engineers propose a plan to
supplement natural water systems by digging a 363 mile canal to connect the
Hudson River with Lake Erie. The "Seneca Chief" will make the inaugural
run through the Erie Canal in 1825.
1818 Profile Lathe
Thomas Blanchard of Middlebury, Connecticut, builds a woodworking lathe that does the
work of 13 men. His invention helps to lower wood prices.
1830 Electro-magnetic Motor
Joseph Henry, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Science at the Albany
Academy, builds a motor employing the electromagnet, invented by William
Sturgeon in London just five years earlier. Henry's motor has no practical use.
1831 Reaping Machine
The McCormick Reaper, which cut grain much faster than a man with a scythe,
failed to catch on. McCormick sold the first unit around 1840; by 1844, only 50
had sold. After taking his operation to Chicago, McCormick prospered. By 1871
his company was selling 10,000 reapers per year.
1833 Sewing Machine
Walter Hunt invents the first lock-stitch sewing machine, but loses interest
and does not patent his invention. Later, Elias Howe secures patent on an
original lock-stitch machine, but fails to manufacture and sell it. Still
later, Isaac Singer infringes on Howe's patent to make his own machine, which
makes Singer rich. Hunt also invents the safety pin, which he sells outright
1834 Threshing Machine
John A. and Hiram Abial Pitts invent a machine that automatically threshes and
separates grain from chaff, freeing farmers from a slow and laborious process.
To finance the development of his "six shooter," Samuel Colt traveled the
lecture circuit, giving demonstrations of laughing gas. Colt's new weapon
failed to catch on, and he went bankrupt in 1842 at age 28. He reorganized and
sold his first major order to the War Department during the Mexican War in
1846, and went on to become rich.
1837 Power Tools
Thomas Davenport of Brandon, Vermont, is one of the first to find a practical
application for the electric motor. He uses a motor he built to power shop
machinery and also builds the first electric model railroad car.
1840 Paint Tube
John Rand invents a collapsible metal squeeze tube. The container immediately
hits markets in Europe, where it is used to hold and dispense artists'
1842 Ether Anesthesia
Crawford Williamson Long, of Jefferson, Georgia, performs the first operation using
an ether-based anesthesia, when he removes a tumor from the neck of Mr. James
Venable. Long will not reveal his discovery until 1849.
1843 Vulcanized Rubber
Rubber, so named because it could erase pencil, had long been considered a
waterproofing agent, but in its natural state, it melted in hot weather and
froze solid in the cold. After ten years of tireless work and abject poverty,
Charles Goodyear perfects his process for "vulcanizing" rubber, or combining it
with sulfur to create a soft, pliable substance unaffected by temperature.
Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrates his telegraph by sending a message to Baltimore
from the chambers of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. The message, "What
hath God wrought?," marks the beginning of a new era in communication.
1845 False Teeth
Cladius Ash helps Americans get a better grip on what they're eating. He
creates a new type of artificial dental wear featuring individual porcelain
teeth mounted with steel springs.
1846 Cylinder Printing Press
Richard M. Hoe creates a revolution in printing by rolling a cylinder over
stationary plates of inked type and using the cylinder to make an impression on
paper. This eliminated the need for making impressions directly from the type
plates themselves, which were heavy and difficult to maneuver.
1851 Crystal Palace
In a glass conservatory in London, the Great Exhibition
begins. Among the 14,000 exhibits were Colt's repeating pistol, Goodyear's
vulcanized rubber, and Gail Borden's meat biscuit. More than six million
visitors from around the world attended. The exhibition became a model for all
World Fairs to come.
1857 Passenger Elevator
Elisha Graves Otis dramatically demonstrates his passenger elevator at the
Crystal Palace Exposition in New York by cutting the elevator's cables as it
ascends a 300 foot tower. Otis' unique safety braking system prevents the
elevator from falling; his business prospects rise.
1858 Burglar Alarm
Edwin T. Holmes of Boston begins to sell electric burglar alarms. Later, his
workshop will be used by Alexander Graham Bell as the young Bell pursues his
invention of the telephone. Holmes will be the first person to have a home
1859 Oil Well
Drilling at Titusville, Pennsylvania, "Colonel" Edwin Drake strikes oil at a depth of
69.5 feet. Prior to that, oil, which had been used mostly as a lubricant and
lamp fuel, had been obtained only at places where it seeped from the ground.
Western Pennsylvania witnesses the world's first oil boom.
1860 Repeating Rifle
B. Tyler Henry, chief designer for Oliver Fisher Winchester's arms company,
adapts a breech-loading rifle invented by Walter B. Hunt and creates a new
lever action repeating rifle. First known as the Henry, the rifle will soon be
famous as simply the Winchester.
1862 Battle of the Ironclads
For the first time, two armored ships battle each other at sea. The Union
Monitor, designed from scratch by John Ericsson, features a two-cannon
revolving turret and eight-inch plate armor. The Confederate Merrimac, a wooden
hulled ship hastily outfitted with iron plates, holds it own against the
Monitor. The two battle to a draw.
1863 Roller Skates
James Plimpton of Medford, Massachusetts, gives the world the first practical four-wheeled
roller skate. This sets off a roller craze that quickly spreads across the U.S.
1864 Oil Pipeline
Built in the oil fields at Pithole, Pennsylvania, Samuel van Syckel's five-mile,
pump-operated pipeline made oil transport infinitely easier. No one appreciated
this less than the Teamsters, who saw the pipeline as a threat to their business and destroyed it. The determined van Syckel hired a crew of "pipeline protectors"
and rebuilt the pipeline.
1865 Web Offset Printing
William Bullock introduced a printing press that could feed paper on a
continuous roll and print both sides of the paper at once. Used first by the
Philadelphia Ledger, the machine would become an American standard. It would also kill its maker, who died when he accidentally fell into one of his
1867 Barbed Wire
Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, invents the product that will close down the open
cattle ranges by closing in cattle onto individual plots of privately owned
land. I.L. Ellwood and Company's Glidden Steel Barb Wire will dominate the
market; by 1890 the open range will be only a memory.
1870 Pneumatic Subway
Working in secret to hide his operation from Boss Tweed, who opposes it,
Scientific American publisher Alfred Ely Beach builds a pneumatic subway under
Broadway in New York. Beach's single subway car, which features upholstered
chairs and chandeliers is driven along the 300 foot tunnel by a 100 horsepower
Inspired by a Scientific American article featuring a British attempt at a
typing machine, Christopher Latham Sholes invents his own. In 1873 he sells an
improved prototype to Remington and Sons, gunsmiths, of Ilion, New York, who begin to
mass produce the machines. Among the first works to be produced on a
typewriter is Mark Twain's "Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
1874 Structural Steel Bridge
Captain James Buchanan Eads finishes the bridge across the Mississippi at St.
Louis. Using steel supplied by Andrew Carnegie, Eads incorporates a triple
arch design, with spans measuring 502, 520, and 502 feet. The construction
amazes the engineering world; Eads will be the first American engineer to be
awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts in London.
1875 Electric Dental Drill
George F. Green of Kalamazoo, Michigan, replaces the agony of tooth decay with the
anxiety of the dental drill when he invents an electric powered device to drill
While using paraffin in an attempt to invent and improve telegraphy tape,
Thomas Alva Edison discovers a way to make duplicate copies of documents
Alexander Graham Bell patents his telephone, built with the assistance of young
self-trained engineer Thomas A. Watson. Elisha Gray, who developed a similar
device at about the same time, will unsuccessfully challenge Bell's patent.
Working with a team of engineers at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratories, Thomas
Alva Edison perfects a system of sound recording and transmission. The first recording replayed is a
voice saying "Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow."
1879 Incandescent Light Bulb
Backed by $30,000 in research funds provided by investors including J.P. Morgan
and the Vanderbilts, Thomas Edison perfects an incandescent light bulb. The
first commercial incandescent system will be installed at the New York printing
firm of Hinds and Ketcham in January, 1881.
1880 Hearing Aid
R.G. Rhodes improves on the ear trumpet with another primitive hearing aid. The
device is a thin sheet of hard rubber or cardboard placed against teeth which
conducts vibrations to the auditory nerve.
1882 Electric Fan
The world becomes a cooler place, thanks to the work of Dr. Schuyler Skaats
Wheeler. His two-bladed desk fan is produced by the Crocker and Curtis electric
1884 Thrill Ride
L.N. Thompson, founder of Coney Island's Luna Park, invites the first
passengers to board his new thrill ride, the roller coaster. Thompson calls his
new attraction the Switchback.
After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago has become a magnet for daring
experiments in architecture. William Le Baron Jenney completes the 10-story
Home Insurance Company Building, the first to use steel-girder construction;
more than twenty skyscrapers will be built in Chicago over the next 9 years.
1887 "Platter" Record
Edison's tube recording system produces distorted sound because of
gravity's pressure on the playing stylus. Emile Berliner, a German immigrant
living in Washington, DC, invents a process for recording sound on a horizontal
disc. The "platter" record is born.
1888 Kodak Camera
In Rochester, New York, George Eastman introduces a hand-held box camera for portable
use. The camera is pre-loaded with 100 exposure film; after shooting the
photographer returns the whole camera to the manufacturer for development and a
After ten years work and numerous prototypes, Mrs. WA Cockran of Shelbyville,
Indiana, eases kitchen labor everywhere by producing a practicable dishwashing
1891 Peep Show
Thomas A. Edison and William Dickson perfect their kinetoscope, a forerunner of
the movie projector. Viewers watch through a small peephole as images pass
between a lens and an electric light bulb at a rate of 46 frames per second.
While the kinetoscope would lead directly to the development of moving pictures
and the kingdom of Hollywood, Edison considered the kinetoscope as no more than
Jesse W. Reno, introduces a new novelty ride at Coney Island. His moving
stairway elevates passengers on a conveyor belt at an angle of 25 degrees. The
device will be shown at the Paris Exposition of 1900, where it is called the
1892 Gasoline-powered Car
In a loft in Springfield, Massachusetts, brothers Frank and Charles Duryea
fabricate the first gasoline-powered automobile built in the United States. It
will make its first successful run on the streets of Springfield in September,
At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Whitcomb L. Judson introduces
his clasp locker, a hook-and-eye device opened and closed by a sliding clasp.
Improvements in the device by other inventors will continue; workers at B.F.
Goodrich will coin the name "zipper" in 1923.
1896 Automatic Hat
James Boyle, of Washington, DC, makes public courtesy much more convenient for
the modern gentleman. His new hat tips automatically.
1897 Player Piano
Edwin S. Votey, patents his self-playing piano, which he calls the pianola. The
instrument uses instructions recorded on perforated paper to drive a set of
artificial wooden fingers poised above a piano keyboard. Later versions placed
the entire mechanism inside the body of the piano, eliminating the fingers.
The J.P. Holland torpedo boat company launches the first practical submarine,
commissioned by the U.S. Navy. The test is successful. Holland gets orders for
King Camp Gillette, former traveling hardware salesman of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin,
takes the risk out of shaving with his new double-edged safety razor. By the
end of 1904, he will have sold 90,000 razors and 12,400,000 blades, but he will
die in 1932 with his dream of a utopian society organized by engineers
1902 Air Conditioning
Working as an engineer at the Buffalo Forge Company, Willis H. Carrier designs
the first system to control temperature and humidity. He will go on to found
his own company, the Carrier Corporation, to produce air-conditioning
At Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright break the powered flight
barrier with their gasoline-powered "Flyer I." The first powered,
sustained, and controlled airplane flight in history lasts 12 seconds. Wilbur
pilots the machine. On a flight later that day, Orville will remain aloft 59
seconds and travel 852 feet.
1908 Model T
Car maker Henry Ford introduces his Model T automobile. By 1927, when it is
discontinued, 15.5 million Models T's will be sold in the U.S. Ford owes much of
his success to his improved assembly line process, which by 1913 will produce a
complete Model T every 93 minutes.
1911 Self Starter
Charles F. Kettering, who developed the electric cash register while working at
National Cash Register, sells his electric automobile starters to the Cadillac
company. This device increases the popularity of the gasoline-powered car,
which no longer needs to be started with a hand crank.
1914 Panama Canal
After 36 years' labor, the bankruptcy of thousands of investors, and the deaths
of more than 25,000 men, the Panama Canal is finished. The canal cuts the
sailing distance from the East Coast to the West Coast by more than 8,000
U.S. troops arrive on the battlefields of Europe, where new technologies have
created the bloodiest conflict in history. Armored tanks, machine guns,
poisonous gas, submarines and airplanes will force military commanders to
rethink traditional strategies of war.
Alexander Grahams Bell's "Hydrodome IV" sets a world record of 70 mph for
water travel. The boat weighs over 10,000 pounds and uses underwater fins to
raise the hull of the boat and decrease drag between the hull and the water.
The first regular commercial radio broadcasts begin when AM station KDKA of
Pittsburgh delivers results of the Harding-Cox election to its listeners. Radio
experiences immediate success; by the end of 1922, 563 other licensed stations
will join KDKA.
The first electronically-transmitted photograph is sent by Western Union. The
idea for a facsimile transmission was first proposed by Scottish clockmaker
Alexander Bain in 1843.
In an effort to make capital punishment more humane, the State of Nevada
introduces death by gas chamber. Convicted murderer Gee John takes 6 minutes to
Robert H. Goddard, Professor of Physics at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts,
makes the first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket at his aunt Effie's
farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket reaches 41 ft. in altitude.
Philo Farnsworth demonstrates the first television for potential investors by
broadcasting the image of a dollar sign. Farnsworth receives backing and
applies for a patent, but ongoing patent battles with RCA will prevent
Farnsworth from earning his share of the million-dollar industry his invention
1929 Frozen Food
Clarence Birdseye offers his quick-frozen foods to the public. Birdseye got the
idea during fur-trapping expeditions to Labrador in 1912 and 1916, where he saw
the natives use freezing to preserve foods.
1931 Radio Astronomy
While trying to track down a source of electrical interference on telephone
transmissions, Karl Guthe Jansky of Bell Telephone Laboratories discovers radio
waves emanating from stars in outer space.
Working at the research facilities at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. William
Bennett Kouwenhoven develops a device for jump-starting the heart with a burst
1937 Chair Lift
Skiers no longer have to climb hills to enjoy their sport. Engineers from the
Union Pacific Railroad build a chair lift for the Dollar Mountain resort in Sun
Valley, Idaho. Dollar Mountain follows with an order for six more.
A team of researchers working under Wallace H. Carothers at E.I. du Pont de
Nemours & Company invents a plastic that can be drawn into strong,
silk-like fibers. Nylon will soon become popular as a fabric for hosiery as well as
industrial applications such as cordage.
1939 Digital Computer
John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry of Iowa State College complete the prototype
of the first digital computer. It can store data and perform addition and
subtractions using binary code. The next generation of the machine will be
abandoned before it is completed due to the onset of World War II.
Karl K. Pabst of the Bantam Car. Co., Butler, Pennsylvania, produces a four-wheel drive
vehicle that will become famous as the jeep. Given its name by its military
designation, G.P., or general purpose, the jeep will be used for numerous
transport applications throughout World War II, and will become a popular
domestic vehicle after the war.
1942 Atomic Reaction
A team working under Italian refugee Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago
produces the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. This
experiment and others will result
in the development of the atomic bomb.
1945 Atomic Bomb
A team led by J.R. Oppenheimer, Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi and Léo Szilard
detonates the first atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Lab near Santa Fé, New Mexico.
Following the tests, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan -- one at Hiroshima, one at Nagasaki -- that claimed more than
1947 Polaroid Camera
Dr. Edwin H. Land introduces a new camera that can produce a developed
photographic image in sixty seconds. Land will follow in the 1960s with a
color model and eventually receive more than 500 patents for his innovations
in light and plastics technologies.
1948 Electric Guitar
Leo Fender launches the guitars that built rock and roll when he debuts his
Broadcaster solid-bodied electric guitar. Later renamed the Telecaster, the
guitar will become a favorite with guitar slingers worldwide.
1951 UNIVAC 1
The Eckert and Mauchly Computer Co. of Philadelphia sells the first commercial
computer, the UNIVAC 1, to the U.S. Census Bureau. The memory called up data by
transmitting sonic pulses through tubes of mercury. An additional 45 UNIVAC 1
machines would eventually be sold.
1953 Heart-lung Machine
Dr. John H. Gibbon performs the first successful open heart surgery in which
the blood is artificially circulated and oxygenated by a heart-lung machine.
This new technology, which allows the surgeon to operate on a dry and
motionless heart, greatly increases surgical treatment options for heart
defects and disease.
1955 Nuclear Submarine
The Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, revolutionizes naval warfare.
Conventional submarines need two engines: a diesel engine to travel on the
surface and an electric engine to travel submerged, where oxygen for a diesel
engine is not available. The Nautilus, the first nuclear sub, can travel many
thousands of miles below the surface with a single fuel charge.
1957 Polio Vaccine
Dr. Albert Sabin develops a polio vaccine using strains of polio too weak to
cause infection but strong enough to activate the human immune system. His
invention will put an end to the polio epidemics that have crippled thousands
of children worldwide.
1958 Explorer I
Three months after the Soviet Union began the Space Age by launching Sputnik,
the U.S. responds by sending the Explorer I satellite into orbit. Explorer I's
mission is to detect radiation; it discovers one of the Van Allen radiation
Working at Hughes Research Laboratories, physicist Theodore H. Maiman creates
the first laser. The core of his laser consists of a man-made ruby -- a material
that had been judged unsuitable by other scientists, who rejected crystal cores
in favor of various gases.
1964 Operating System
IBM rolls out the OS/360, the first mass-produced computer operating system.
Using the OS/360, all computers in the IBM 360 family could run any
software program. Already IBM is a giant in the computer industry, controlling
70% of the market worldwide.
Digital Equipment introduces the PDP-8, the world's first computer to use
integrated circuit technology. Because of its relatively small size and its low
$18,000 price tag, Digital sells several hundred units.
1969 Moon Landing
Millions watch worldwide as the landing module of NASA's Apollo 11 spacecraft
touches down on the moon's surface and Neil Armstrong becomes the first human
to set foot on the moon. President John F. Kennedy, who vowed to the world that
the United States would put a human on the moon before 1970, has not lived to
witness the moment.
1970 Optical Fiber
Corning Glass announces it has created a glass fiber so clear that it can
communicate pulses of light. GTE and AT&T will soon begin experiments to
transmit sound and image data using fiber optics, which will transform the
1972 Video Game
Pong, one of the first mass-produced video games, has become the rage.
Noland Bushnell, the 28 year-old inventor of Pong, will go on to found
The first shipments of bar-coded products arrive in American stores. Scanners
at checkout stations read the codes using laser technology. The hand-punched
keyboard cash register takes one step closer to obsolescence.
Old high school friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen form a partnership known as
Microsoft to write computer software. They sell their first software to Ed
Roberts at MIT, which has produced the Altair 8800, the first
microprocessor-based computer. Gates soon drops out of Harvard.
1976 Super Computer
Cray Research, Inc. introduces its first supercomputer, the Cray-1, which can
perform operations at a rate of 240,000,000 calculations per second.
Supercomputers designed by Seymour Cray will continue to dominate the market;
the Cray 2, marketed in 1985, will be capable of 1,200,000,000 calculations per
1979 Human-Powered Flight
Cyclist Byron Allen crosses the English Channel in a pedal-powered aircraft
called the Gossamer Albatross. The flight takes 2 hours, 49 minutes, and wins a
[sterling]100,000 prize for its crew, headed by designer Dr. Paul MacCready.
Constructed of Mylar, polystyrene, and carbon-fiber rods, the Albatross has a
wingspan of 93 feet 10 inches and weighs about 70 pounds.
1981 Space Shuttle
For the first time, NASA successfully launches and lands its reusable
spacecraft, the Space Shuttle. The shuttle can be used for a number of
applications, including launch, retrieval, and repair of satellites and as a
laboratory for physical experiments. While extremely successful, the shuttle
program will suffer a disaster in 1986 when the shuttle Challenger explodes
after takeoff, killing all on board.
1982 Artificial Heart
Dr. Robert Jarvik implants a permanent artificial heart, the Jarvik 7, into Dr.
Barney Clark. The heart, powered by an external compressor, keeps Clark alive
for 112 days.
In January "Time" names its 1982 "man" of the year -- the personal
computer. PC's have taken the world by storm, dramatically changing the way
people communicate. IBM dominates the personal computer market, benefiting both
from the production of its own machines as well as "clones" produced by other
1985 Genetic Engineering
The USDA gives the go-ahead for the sale of the first genetically altered
organism. The rapidly growing biotech industry will seek numerous patents,
including one for a tomato that can be shipped when ripe.
1988 Graphic User Interface
Apple files a suit charging that Microsoft has pirated Apple's user-friendly
graphical interface. The suit will fail, and Microsoft's star will continue to
rise. By the mid 1990's, Apple will be experiencing a painful and public
1990 Hubble Telescope
The space shuttle Discovery deploys the Hubble Space telescope 350 miles above
the Earth. Although initial flaws limit its capabilities, the Hubble will be
responsible for numerous discoveries and advances in the understanding of