Whilst the old adage suggests that necessity is the mother of invention, a selection of history’s great minds have gone above and beyond what was required at the time they walked the Earth. Envisioning a future no-one else could, these inventors invested their time in innovating technologies and concepts which their contemporaries could not comprehend, and would often deride.
Thankfully with the benefit of hindsight, we are able to identify the inventors who were steaming ahead of their peers, as technology slowly caught up with their imagination and insight. Whilst they may have been largely underappreciated in their lifetime, we are able to celebrate their work and their achievements.
These are the 10 inventors who were way ahead of their time.
The western world’s grandfather of higher learning, Plato helped lay the very foundations of philosophy, science and mathematics in the west. Since his passing 2,400 years ago, Plato has enduringly remained one of the most important names in modern philosophy, demonstrating his far-reaching foresight.
With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that Plato is credited with detailing more than 70 inventions harnessing steam power during his life. With steam power sparking the British industrial revolution almost 2,000 years after Plato’s death, the ancient Greek philosopher was way, way ahead of his time.
One of history’s few agreed-upon polymaths (a person whose expertise spans a large number of different subject areas), Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions are amongst his most famous works. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper artworks, da Vinci is credited with inventing flying machines, parachutes and even the tank.
Many of his inventions and conceptual plans never saw the light of day with technology unable to keep up with a man considered to have been perhaps the most diversely talented individual to have ever lived. And sometimes, his concepts were put on hold as he engaged in one of his other specialties: painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, botany, history, cartography and writing.
Just a couple of hundred years after Plato walked the Earth, Hero of Alexandria started putting a few of his concepts into practice – creating, amongst others, the steam engine. The Aeolipile was a steam-powered jet engine which spun when heated – sadly his invention never went into mass-production.
Amongst his other inventions were the world’s first ever vending machine. In exchange for a coin, his patrons could buy themselves a handful of holy water – a precursor to the machines flogging us cans of Dr Pepper and £2 bags of McCoys to this day.
Many of the inventors way ahead of their time came up with ideas and concepts without practical use at the time the inventions were committed to paper. Not Zhang Heng however, the Chinese inventor created an effective earthquake detector in the year 132AD.
The earthquake detector built by mathematician/scientist/inventor, Zhang Heng, was capable of identifying seismic activity hundreds of miles away and could be used to determine exactly where the earthquake actually came from.
This was whilst most of the Chinese were trying to journey to Tibet, having heard the nation’s waters offered immortality and power over the weather to whomever takes a sip. So Zhang Heng was definitely operating at a higher level than his peers.
Listening to music through headphones in the 1970s most commonly necessitated hooking yourself up to massive, heavy stereos in the living room or the local library. Portable cassette players only entered the American and European markets in the 80s, so enjoying Zeppelin and Pink Floyd on the go was something of a pipe dream.
Enter Kane Kramer, a British furniture salesman who invented the personal digital music player – a pocket-sized electronic device capable of holding up to a half an hour of stereo. Sadly, Kramer could not continue to fund the patent costs and retain the rights to the technology. His impact was massive though, with Apple pioneering their MP3 players a couple of decades later, and even crediting Kramer for his contribution.
Whilst 1886 is widely regarded as the birth year of the automobile when German inventor Karl Benz built the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, the first powered car was devised more than a century earlier. In 1769, military engineer, Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot built the steam cart, a large-scale tricycle capable of transporting heavy pieces of artillery.
Although the steam cart was eventually dropped by the French military due to some outstanding flaws (it struggled to top two miles/hour and could only operate on level ground), Cugnot’s automobile was the first to move on its own power. The inventor was rewarded for his work with King Louis XV granting Cugnot a pension of 600 livres a year.
More than 100 years before the first computer was built, English mathematician, Charles Babbage, designed the programmable general-purpose computer in 1837. Known as the analytical engine, the computer was complete with arithmetical unit, control flow loops and memory.
Although Babbage ran out of money and could not complete his computer, his designs and concepts were tested in 1991 and the results indicated the analytical engine would have been successful. The incomplete mechanisms of Babbage’s machine can be found today in the London Science Museum.
1930s Hollywood A-lister, Hedy Lamarr, was not your traditional silver screen starlet. As well as appearing in a number of hugely popular blockbusters during the golden age of cinema, Lamarr also developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes as World War II broke out. With the help of composer, George Antheil, this unlikely duo used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of radio jams caused by opposing forces.
The technology pioneered by Lamarr has gone on to form the foundation of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, hugely influential in modern life. Hedy Lamarr is most certainly the only person in history to be inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and also inspire Catwoman.
The history of the typewriter is surprisingly contentious, with a number of machines and inventions claiming the title of the world’s first. However, the earliest documented device of such type was the scrittura tattile, created by Italian printmaker Francesco Rampazzetto in 1575. Even 300 years after Rampazzetto’s invention, print houses were still creating typewriter prototypes.
It wasn’t until 1910 that the typewriter reached a standardised design, finally completing the good work started by Rampazzetto in the 16th century.
Although primarily recognised as a philosopher, Rene Descartes did like to dabble in the physical sciences as well from time to time. Having taken inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex of the eye, Manual D in 1508; Descartes proposed a seeing aid made up of a glass tube filled with liquid placed directly on the cornea.
The protruding end of the contact lens was then shaped to correct a person’s sight, granting them 20:20 vision. Sadly, Descartes’ lenses also made it impossible to blink, so they never really took off. But this idea was not too dissimilar from Adolf Fick’s contact lens, the first version of the invention to successfully fit in a person’s eye – created more than 250 years after Descartes’ attempt.
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