Discoveries after 1850 (roughly)



First postage stamp in Britain in 1840, in the U.S. in 1847, in France in 1849 (until then postage was paid by the recipient).


First patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell and further developed by many others, the telephone was the first device in history that enabled people to talk directly with each other across large distances.

In the era of the electrical telegraph, post offices, railway stations, the more important governmental centers (ministries), stock exchanges, very few nationally distributed newspapers, the largest internationally important corporations and wealthy individuals were the principal users of such telegraphs.

A telephone exchange is a telephone system located at service centers (central offices) responsible for a small geographic area that provided the switching or interconnection of two or more individual subscriber lines for calls made between them, rather than requiring direct lines between subscriber stations. This made it possible for subscribers to call each other at homes, businesses, or public spaces. These made telephony an available and comfortable communication tool for everyday use, and it gave the impetus for the creation of a whole new industrial sector.

One of the first people to build a telephone exchange was the Hungarian Tivadar Puskás in 1877 while he was working for Thomas Edison. The first commercial telephone exchange opened in New Haven, Connecticut in January, 1878. The exchanges were manual. In 1918, the average time to complete the connection for a long-distance call was 15 minutes. Eventually they were automated, in the "early 1900's" (electromechanical).

By 1904 over three million phones in the U.S. were connected by manual switchboard exchanges. By 1914, the U.S. was the world leader in telephone density and had more than twice the teledensity of Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Norway. The relative good performance of the U.S. occurred despite competing telephone networks not interconnecting.


Wireless telegraphy (using radio waves discovered by Maxwell-1865/Hertz-1887) came into existence in 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a signal between Cornwall, England and Newfoundland,Canada. Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun were awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics for their contribution to wireless telegraphy. (An item of trivia: Marconi was offered free passage on the Titanic before it sank, but had actually taken the Lusitania three days earlier. As his daughter Degna later explained, he had paperwork to do and preferred the public stenographer aboard that vessel) There were wireless operators aboard the Titanic.

The big application of wireless was in radio broadcasting. Charles Herrold of San Jose, California sent out broadcasts as early as April 1909 from his Herrold School electronics institute in downtown San Jose, using the identification San Jose Calling, and then a variety of different call signs as the Department of Commerce began to regulate radio. His station was first called FN, then SJN (probably illegally). By 1912, the United States government began requiring radio operators to obtain licenses to send out signals. Herrold received licenses for 6XF and 6XE (a mobile transmitter) in 1916.
He was on the air daily for nearly a decade when World War I interrupted operations. After the war, the Herrold operation in San Jose received the call sign KQW in 1923. Today, the lineage of that continues as KCBS, a CBS-owned station in San Francisco.

The National Broadcasting Company began regular broadcasting in 1926, with telephone links between New York and other Eastern cities. NBC became the dominant radio network, splitting into Red and Blue networks. The Columbia Broadcasting System began in 1927 under the guidance of William S. Paley.

Radio enable political leaders to reach a large audience directly. Did it help Mussolini and Hitler? Radio also made local dialects disappear.


Röntgen (German, 1845 – 1923) discovered X-rays in 1895. Edison worked on them for a time. When McKinley was shot (1901), one of the first machines was rushed to the hospital (to locate the bullet) but was never used. McKinley died from septic shock.

The first use of X-rays under clinical conditions was by John Hall-Edwards in Birmingham, England on 11 January 1896, when he radiographed a needle stuck in the hand of an associate. On 14 February 1896 Hall-Edwards was also the first to use X-rays in a surgical operation.

In about 1906, the physicist Charles Barkla discovered that X-rays could be scattered by gases, and that each element had a characteristic X-ray. He won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.

In 1912, Max von Laue, Paul Knipping, and Walter Friedrich first observed the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. This discovery, along with the early work of Paul Peter Ewald, William Henry Bragg, and William Lawrence Bragg, gave birth to the field of X-ray crystallography.

Internal Combustion Engine

Internal combustion is advantageous since it can provide high power-to-weight ratios together with excellent fuel energy density.

In 1860 Belgian Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir (1822–1900) produced a gas-fired internal combustion engine similar in appearance to a horizontal double-acting steam engine, with cylinders, pistons, connecting rods, and flywheel in which the gas essentially took the place of the steam. This was the first internal combustion engine to be produced in numbers.

In 1876 Nikolaus Otto, working with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, started the genesis of the four-cycle engine. The German courts, however, did not hold his patent to cover all in-cylinder compression engines or even the four-stroke cycle, and after this decision, in-cylinder compression became universal.

In 1893 Rudolf Diesel received a patent for his compression ignition (diesel) engine.

The year 1886 is regarded the year of birth of the modern automobile - with the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, by German inventor Carl Benz. Motorized wagons soon replaced animal-drafted carriages, especially after automobiles became affordable for many people when the Ford Model T was introduced in 1908.

Like radio, cars became popular in the 1920s. "Cheap" private transportation had a big impact in the development of suburbs around cities.


Development of airplanes followed the invention of the internal combustion engine (packing a lot of power in small weight). First flight in 1903 Wright brothers. In extensive use during WW-I for observation and for fights. (Not so much for bombing.)

Passenger planes

The Russian Ilya Muromets was a luxurious aircraft with a separate passenger saloon, wicker chairs, bedroom, lounge and a toilet. The aircraft also had heating and electrical lighting. The Ilya Muromets first flew on December 10, 1913. On February 25, 1914, it took off for its first demonstration flight with 16 passengers aboard. From June 21 – June 23, it made a round-trip from Saint Petersburg to Kiev in 14 hours and 38 minutes with one intermediate landing. However, it was never used as a commercial airliner due to the onset of World War I.

By 1921, it was becoming apparent that aircraft capacity needed to be larger for the economics to remain favorable. The English company de Havilland, therefore built the ten-passenger DH.29 monoplane, while starting work on the design of the DH.32, an eight-seater biplane with a less powerful but more economical Rolls-Royce Eagle engine. Owing to the urgent need for more capacity, however, work on the DH.32 was stopped and the DH.34 biplane was designed, accommodating ten passengers.

Throughout the 1920s, companies in Britain and France were at the forefront of the civil airliner industry, often considerably aided by government subsidies.

In America, the Ford Trimotor was an important early airliner. With two engines mounted on the wings and one in the nose and a slabsided body, it carried eight passengers and was produced from 1925 to 1933. It was used by the predecessor to Trans World Airlines, and by other airlines long after production ceased.

The first modern-looking sleek metal airliners also came into service in the 1930s. In 1932, in the United States, the 14-passenger Douglas DC-2 flew and in 1935 the more powerful, faster, 21–32 passenger Douglas DC-3. DC-3s were produced in quantity for World War II and sold as surplus afterward. The Douglas DC-3 was a particularly important airplane, because it was the first airliner to be profitable without a government subsidy.

Impact of the Inventions

The world is getting smaller. Air travel lets you go from one continent to another in less than a day. Telephone and radio brings in contact people from far away places. Did all this lead to a better understanding amongst people?

Automobile, air travel, and radio happened during the lifetimes of our grandparents (if you were born in 1940 or earlier, most likely you have a grandparent born before 1900). That is if your grandparents were born in the Western world. In a historical context these are very recent inventions and have revolutionized our lives.

What is the cost of these inventions? Cars and planes consume a lot of fossil fules and emit greenhouse gasses. Short distance flights are the worst offenders: a plane burns a lot more fuel during takeoff than when flying at a steady altitude. Trains (esp. electric) are more efficient. And yet the 20th century has seen a reduction in train tarvel, at least in the U.S.A.

Back to the index