Timeline of Inventions

Writer: Jacqueline Hsing
Editor: Similoluwa Ayeniyegbe
Artist: Patrick Marenda

When you think of the word ‘inventor’, a few names may instantly come to mind: Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Alexander Graham Bell. But many of the inventions we use today are created by people whose names have been lost to history and who have overcome difficult racial or gender obstacles. 

Prior to the 20th century, women in the Western world faced restrictions on the right to own property, enter contracts, earn salaries, and gain opportunities to earn the technical skills required to create successful inventions. People of colour faced and continue to face discrimination, lack of educational opportunities, and other obstacles. These restrictions have made it difficult for creative thinkers to pursue inventions or be properly credited when their inventions become successful. So here’s a look at just a few of the inventions and inventors who have shaped the modern world.

1843- Ada Lovelace: First computer programme

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer. She was raised solely by her mother, who promoted Lovelace’s interest in mathematics and science. When Charles Babbage, another mathematician and inventor, began sketching a design for what he called the ‘Analytical Engine’, Lovelace wrote an elaborate set of notes on its calculating ability. These notes constituted the first machine algorithm, written a century before the first computer was built.

1880- Margarete Steiff: Stuffed animal

Born in Germany, Steiff’s recovery from childhood polio left her legs paralysed and restricted her use of her right arm. Stieff eventually attended sewing school like many other young women of her era, though she found it difficult to complete projects because of her limited and painful use of her right hand, which caused her to doubt her abilities. However, Stieff successfully completed her training as a seamstress and began her own clothing business. In 1879, she saw a sewing pattern for a toy elephant and made it initially as a pin cushion, though it found rapid popularity as a child’s toy. In 1880, Stieff Manufacture was founded with the first big seller being the stuffed toy elephant.

1891- Phillip Downing: Mailbox

Before 1891, anyone who wanted to mail a letter would have to walk to the nearest post office. However, Phillip Downing, an African American inventor, patented a metal box on four legs which he called a street letter box, the precursor to the modern mailbox. The hinged opening prevented snow or rain from damaging the mail inside.

Downing also designed an electrical switch for railroads which allowed workers to supply or shut off power to trains at designated times. Inventors later created light switches and other electrical switches based on Downing’s design.

1936- Alan Turing: Turing machine

Turing machines, called ‘a-machines’ by their inventor Alan Turing, are simple abstract computational devices that form the foundation of modern computer science. Even to this day, Turing machines serve as great theoretical models for programmers to determine the limitations of computing. 

In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted for being gay and was subjected to chemical castration treatment as an alternative to prison. However, Turing died two years later from cyanide poisoning, an act which is believed to be suicide. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on the behalf of the British government and in 2013 Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon.

1938- Ruth Graves Wakefield: Chocolate chip cookies

Ruth Graves Wakefield, who owned the Toll House restaurant, was making a cookie when she decided she wanted to experiment. Wakefield chopped up a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar and added it into the dough, thus creating the chocolate chip cookie. The recipe for the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie quickly became popular, causing a spike in sales for Nestlé chocolate bars. As a result, Nestlé and Wakefield made a business deal: in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate and one dollar, Wakefield gave Nestlé the right to use her recipe and the Toll House name.

1951- Henrietta Lacks: HeLa cells

One of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century is the immortal cell line known as ‘HeLa’, named for the woman they came from ‒ Henrietta Lacks. Unlike the normal population of human cells which divide around 40 to 50 times before dying, HeLa cells can grow indefinitely and be frozen for decades. Thus, they are one of the most popular cell lines used in scientific research. HeLa cells were essential for developing the polio vaccine and went up in the first space missions to understand the effects of zero gravity on our cells. 

HeLa cells were taken from a tissue sample from Henrietta Lacks, an African American tobacco farmer from Virginia, during her treatment for cervical cancer, without her knowledge or consent. Common rule, which requires doctors and scientists to inform people when they are participating in research and that their participation must be voluntary, did not come into effect until 1991. HeLa cells spawned a multi-million dollar industry, however, Lacks and her family have never received financial compensation.

1980- Lynn Conway: Design rules for VLSI chip design

Before Conway’s work on chip design, designers’ efforts to create compact and cost-effective microchips were stymied by the limitations in manufacturing. Conway and Carver Mead worked to develop very-large-scale integration (VSLI) methods which allowed for the combination of tens of thousands of transistor circuits in a single microchip. This allowed engineers outside big corporations to produce cost-effective and compact chips at a faster level than ever before. 

Conway’s development of VLSI chip design rules came after her invention of dynamic instruction scheduling at IBM, a company from which she was fired in 1968 for undergoing gender transition. Upon completing her transition, Conway had to climb her way back up the career ladder, re-starting as a contract programmer at a time when women were just starting to be recognised in the programming field. Today, she strongly advocates for equal opportunities and employment protections for transgender people in the tech industry and works to support young people with gender identity dysphoria.

2020- Dr. Ugar Sahin & Dr. Özlem Tureci: COVID-19 vaccine

Muslim Turkish-German scientists Dr. Sahin and Dr. Tureci are the pair behind one of the COVID-19 vaccines, created using new mRNA technology. While traditional vaccines introduce antigens from a virus, mRNA technology uses the body’s own machinery to produce viral proteins and trigger protective antibodies. Working with Pfizer, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Tureci’s biotechnology startup BioNTech developed a coronavirus vaccine with over 90% effectiveness. 

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