How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World


What about the wheel?

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As I understand it, it is specifically about the modern - as in post-medieval - world.

I’m surprised glasses aren’t mentioned under glass - they must have had a significant effect in prolonging people’s useful lives. As someone who has relatively good eyesight, I find it interesting to think about how many people nowadays would essentially be disabled if it weren’t for lenses. As it is, their ‘disability’ is barely noticeable in many cases.


Sounds like a lot of fun, a bit like James Burke’s Connections TV show.


“Precision measurement” is the most important modern invention - time is just a subset of that.

Henry Maudslay invented the screw lathe, based on mechanical averaging. He used his first lathe to make more precise screws for his second lathe. After a few years of this, Maudslay was making screws with micrometer precision - so he invented the micrometer, the ruling engine, etc. From these screws of his, all modern measurements of space and time emerge; optics, electronics, land measurement, weights, wavelengths, accurate clocks - everything. His screws were used to rule the notches on the iridium bar that defined the meter, and transfer the measurement to secondary reference meters.

Because of standard precision measurements, interchangable parts were not only possible within factories, but for whole industries. I can buy a part from manufacturer A, and another part from manufacturer B halfway around the planet, and they fit together. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek may have made the first crude microscopes, by hand, but modern microscopes are only possible because of precision lens grinding machines and lens measurement systems.

BTW, prior to inventing the screw lathe, Maudslay built the first semiautomated manufacturing line, which made ship blocks (pulley sets for rigging) for the British Navy. With a much smaller group of less trained mechanics, he made ship blocks in far higher quantities at much lower cost. As a reward for putting all the other manufacturers out of business, he wasn’t paid.


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