Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World

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Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World
Course Trailer
Great Inventions in Everyday Life
1: Great Inventions in Everyday Life

We're surrounded by great inventions that have transformed our daily lives, from the steam engine to the Internet. Begin your exploration of great inventions by considering just how pervasive inventions truly are. Do we notice them in the world around us? Do we know how they work? Who invented them, and why?

31 min
The Potter's Wheel and Metallurgy
2: The Potter's Wheel and Metallurgy

Step back to the Stone Age and look at the craft of pottery and the development of metals. Although we might think of ancient people as "primitive," early humans were remarkably observant about the world around them, which led to several complex inventions.

33 min
Beer, Wine, and Distilled Spirits
3: Beer, Wine, and Distilled Spirits

One of the recurring themes in the history of invention is the way technology leads to material abundance. See how the Agricultural Revolution changed life for early humans. Then trace the development of alcoholic beverages from the earliest days of civilization through the Middle Ages and consider the cultural insights alcohol can offer.

32 min
The Galley, Coins, and the Alphabet
4: The Galley, Coins, and the Alphabet

In addition to creating material abundance, technology, whether it's an oxcart or a telecommunications network, facilitates interaction between people. Explore the role of trade in early societies and how ships, coins, and the alphabet shaped the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean.

27 min
Crossbows East and West
5: Crossbows East and West

To study the way people have used technology to secure and maintain political power, journey east to China and examine the role of the crossbow in the Warring States Era. As the world's first machine with interchangeable parts, the crossbow is a marvel of engineering that shaped the political history of China for centuries.

26 min
Roman Arches-Aqueducts and the Colosseum
6: Roman Arches-Aqueducts and the Colosseum

We're all familiar with the glory of Roman engineering, from the Romans' system of roads to their impressive monuments. How did these structures work from a technical standpoint? And why build them? Delve into Roman history and explore the way in which technology served state ends.

28 min
Waterwheels and Clocks
7: Waterwheels and Clocks

Turn now to two inventions that moved humanity from the ancient to the modern world. The waterwheel was the first major energy source beyond human muscle and animal labor, which freed people to perform more sophisticated tasks. Meanwhile, the development of the mechanical clock redefined our sense of time.

30 min
Pagodas and Cathedrals
8: Pagodas and Cathedrals

Inventions are more than merely practical things. This lecture shows you the evolution of the pagoda and the cathedral, which grew out of the spiritual practices of East Asia and Europe, respectively, and how religious beliefs can inspire remarkable developments in engineering and architecture.

31 min
Paper and Printing
9: Paper and Printing

Survey the development of writing from the days of clay tablets and parchment through the development of the printing press. You'll learn about the surprising history of movable type, which originated in Asia hundreds of years before the Gutenberg press in Europe. You'll also see how different cultural circumstances shaped the impact of different inventions.

27 min
Gunpowder, Cannons, and Guns
10: Gunpowder, Cannons, and Guns

The story of invention is often the story of cultural contact. Witness the origins of gunpowder in ancient China and trace its movement into Europe. Then, shift your attention to the development of gunpowder weapons and consider how cannons, rifles, and handguns changed the face of warfare as well as the world's political and social structures.

26 min
Telescopes and Microscopes
11: Telescopes and Microscopes

You might assume that all inventions arise from science, but this is not always so. As the history of telescopes and microscopes demonstrates, the invention of new technology facilitates scientific advances. In this case, optical technology drove the Scientific Revolution, allowing Galileo and others to establish the scientific method of observation.

35 min
The Caravel and Celestial Navigation
12: The Caravel and Celestial Navigation

Discover the story of Prince Henry the Navigator. His promotion of ship design and navigation during the 15th century arguably marked the start of our modern way of deliberately using technology to shape society. Better ships, information about wind and currents, and new navigation techniques brought about remarkable political and economic change in Europe.

37 min
Unblocking the Power of Coal and Iron
13: Unblocking the Power of Coal and Iron

Turn now to the Industrial Revolution, which was marked by economies of speed, scale, and coordination, as well as improvements in transportation. To begin this story, you'll consider how the high thermal output of coal allowed for new uses of iron, which led to bigger, stronger machines that drove the new economy.

28 min
Steam Engines and Pin Making
14: Steam Engines and Pin Making

Continue your investigation of the Industrial Revolution with a look at how the invention of the steam engine allowed us to produce more goods more efficiently. Then examine the division of labor and Adam Smith's story of pin making to see how the integration of social and technical innovations caused dramatic improvements in production.

28 min
Canals and Railroads
15: Canals and Railroads

How do you stimulate the economy and create more wealth? In the 18th and 19th centuries, canals and railroads provided the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. Investigate the engineering challenges of creating nationwide transportation systems, and explore the connection between infrastructure and the economy.

30 min
Food Preservation
16: Food Preservation

The modern food industry appeared during the Industrial Revolution as advancements in canning and refrigeration allowed for the long-term storage of fruits and vegetables and the preservation of meat. These advancements transformed the American marketplace, redefined the cultural meaning of "home," and laid the groundwork for the range of year-round products in today's grocery stores.

29 min
Water and Sewer Systems
17: Water and Sewer Systems

Chart the history of both water and sewer systems and see how they changed the world in the 19th century. From the Roman aqueducts to the London sewer system to indoor plumbing, a clean water supply has saved more lives than any other technology, a prime example of how inventions truly serve the public good.

30 min
Batteries and Electric Generators
18: Batteries and Electric Generators

How do you produce electricity? And once it's produced, how do batteries and generators deliver it? Take a fascinating look at where these fundamental inventions came from and how they work. You'll study the relationship between electricity and magnetism, the difference between direct and alternating currents, and the role of science and experimentation.

27 min
Cameras, Telephones, and Phonographs
19: Cameras, Telephones, and Phonographs

The mid-19th century saw the rise of analog communications, where film and electric currents were used as substitutes for an object or message. Meet the inventors of the first information age-among them, Louis Daguerre, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison-and learn how they made information and knowledge widely available to millions.

30 min
Electric Light and Power
20: Electric Light and Power

Electricity profoundly reshaped American culture and set the stage for the major inventions of the 20th century. This lecture introduces you to the history and science of electricity-arc lighting, the incandescent lamp, motors, and direct versus alternating currents. Learn about the inventions of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and the rivalry between their electric companies.

32 min
Department Stores and Modern Retailing
21: Department Stores and Modern Retailing

Shift your attention away from technology and production to the consumption side of the story. The 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to three new ways to shop: the department store, the mail-order catalog, and chain stores. Examine how these new ways of selling goods shaped American life-and gave rise to some of our most iconic brands.

30 min
Motion Pictures
22: Motion Pictures

The 20th century can be seen as the "mass" century-mass production, mass market, and mass destruction. Add to the list mass entertainment, exemplified by the rise of Hollywood and the film industry. Track the development of motion pictures-and the inventions that made them possible.

28 min
Surgery and the Operating Room
23: Surgery and the Operating Room

Pain. Bleeding. Infection. Medicine before the 19th century was not a pleasant affair, especially when it came to surgery. Explore innovations in medicine-the operating room, sterilization procedures, and antibiotics-and discover some of the social challenges to introducing these innovations-including obstruction from the doctors themselves.

27 min
Steel, Glass, and Plastics
24: Steel, Glass, and Plastics

The engineering trends of the 20th century-economy of scale, mechanization, and scientific experimentation-were based on new materials. Dive into the world of steel, glass, and plastics and find out how these materials transformed our daily lives and our expectation of what the world should look like.

34 min
The Model T
25: The Model T

Other than the personal computer, the Model T may be the single most important technology artifact of the 20th century. After surveying the history of automobiles, this lecture introduces you to Henry Ford and tells the story of the Model T-the car that changed the way Americans thought about travel and launched a consumer revolution.

25 min
Aviation-The "Wright" Time for Flight
26: Aviation-The "Wright" Time for Flight

The story of aviation has one of the most important lessons in understanding great inventions-that social or political circumstances are as important for an invention's success as the technology itself. Trace the development of aviation from the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk through the jet age.

26 min
Radio and Television
27: Radio and Television

The sudden emergence of broadcasting in the 1920s upended existing business arrangements and led to the competition between the broadcast networks that are still with us today. Learn about the technology of radio and television, the challenges broadcasters faced, the origin of radio commercials, and the cultural effects of these new communications technologies.

30 min
Nuclear Power
28: Nuclear Power

Study two of the major inventions of the 20th century, nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Nuclear technology has inspired the utopian dream of cheap, abundant electricity as well as the apocalyptic fear of annihilation. This captivating lecture gives you a look at the inner workings-and risks-of nuclear bombs and reactors.

31 min
Household Appliances
29: Household Appliances

Drawing on themes of previous lectures-the widespread availability of electric power, the mass production of goods, and consumer distribution channels-this lecture shows you how appliances such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines were invented, how they changed life in American homes, and how they act as symbols for the middle class.

26 min
Electronics and the Chip
30: Electronics and the Chip

See how the combination of several essential functions-the detection of radio waves, the amplification of weak signals, and the operation of switches-led to all of our electronic gadgets, from radios to computers. Professor Carlson takes you into the fascinating world of vacuum tubes, transistors, and integrated circuits.

27 min
Satellites and Cell Phones
31: Satellites and Cell Phones

We all have cell phones, but how many of us know how they actually work? Visit the world of communications satellites, radio towers, and mobile networks. You'll take an in-depth look at how bandwidth, infrastructure, and competition between companies like Motorola and AT&T have allowed for truly global communications.

27 min
Personal Computing
32: Personal Computing

Embark on a tour of personal computing, beginning with its roots in IBM's business machines in the 1920s and the massive electronic calculators of World War II. Then compare the mainframes of the 1960s with today's PCs and consider the key roles of software programming and graphical user interfaces.

28 min
Genetic Engineering
33: Genetic Engineering

This lecture tracks the story of genetics from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick. Then turn to genetic engineering-the direct manipulation of an organism's hereditary information by introducing foreign DNA or synthetic genes. This technology-PCR-has important applications for today's agriculture, medicine, forensics, and more.

26 min
The Internet
34: The Internet

Where did the World Wide Web come from? How does it work? This story begins with the conversion from analog to digital, from communication to information. Go inside the world of file sharing, packet switching, the Defense Department's inter-network, email, and finally, web browsers, search engines, and Internet advertising.

26 min
Social Media and Democracy
35: Social Media and Democracy

Inventions are not necessarily "finished" until they are put into the hands of consumers, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of social media, where a Tunisian blogger can be as much an "inventor" of Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg. This lecture looks at the evolution of social media and its role in recent political events around the world.

33 min
Inventions and History
36: Inventions and History

What lessons can we learn about technological creativity from history? How does studying inventions change our understanding of history? As you wrap up your course, reflect on what you've learned about the material dimension of history, consider the nature of progress, and take away some key messages about how we can "use yesterday's technology to solve tomorrow's problems today."

32 min
W. Bernard Carlson

Through this course ... you will come to appreciate how technology undergirds history, defining and shaping daily life, social structure, and how humans find meaning in the world.


University of Pennsylvania


University of Virginia

About W. Bernard Carlson

Dr. W. Bernard Carlson is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Engineering Business Program. He earned his A.B. from College of the Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. He then studied business history as the Harvard-Newcomen Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Business School. Professor Carlson has received numerous awards, including the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology for his seven-volume work, Technology in World History. He is the author of Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900 and, most recently, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. Professor Carlson serves on the board of directors of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and as the executive secretary for the Society for the History of Technology.

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