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Greatest Energy Inventions


Top Energy Inventions

Forms of energy: nuclear, solar, thermal (radiant energy); electric, hydroelectric, wind (current energy)

Greatest energy inventions ranked by importance.

1) Control of fire.

Why is control of fire the Greatest Energy Invention?

First, the controlled use of fire dates to the beginnings of Homo sapiens. It is estimated that 110 billion humans have ever lived, including an estimated 30 billion before the beginning of written history in 3500 BCE. Every person since the beginning of humankind has been influenced by fire. The internet by comparison has seen only one generation of less than 10 billion people. Billions still have no access to the internet.

Second, there are 35 prehistoric uses of fire which are all listed on the InventTable under control of fire. Heat, light, cooking, protection, sterilizing water, signaling, hunting, creation of charcoal, clearing land, burning waste, repelling insects, cauterize wounds, drying objects, food preservation, waterproofing, drive off bees for honey, warfare, religious ceremonies, toothpaste, and soap are the main prehistoric fire uses.

Third, in the Top 100 Inventions of All Time, 1/3 directly require fire or thermal treatments to produce the invention. Another 1/3 indirectly use heat or fire to produce the invention. Combined, 2/3 of the Top 100 directly or indirectly use fire in the production of the inventions. Control of fire seems even more important since the beginning of history (3500 BCE) as prehistory. The choice of control of fire as the most important and influential invention of all time to me seems obvious and indisputable. I have ranked control of fire as the #1 Greatest Invention of All Time.

2) Sailboat.

Harnessing wind energy, sailing is an inherently green activity. The sailboat has undergone a tremendous evolution through human existence. The first sailboat likely was a reed boat with cloth sails in Mesopotamia in 5500 BCE. An Egyptian vase recorded the first sailboat dated from 3500 BCE. The first Egyptian sailboats were made of reeds using a rectangular sail.

By 3000 BCE bronze tools made boats with hulls made from wooden planks propelled with oars, and sails. Oars were first invented in China around 5500 BCE. By 3000 BCE use of oars with sails was widespread in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Water covers 3/4 of the world. . The Age of Discovery began with the Portuguese invention of the caravel, an ocean going ship in the 1400s. The caravel was smaller than other sailing ships and highly maneuverable, able to tack into the wind using triangular sails. Christopher Columbus used 2 caravels to discover the Americas in 1492. I have ranked the sailboat as the #9 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 3) Blast furnace/smelting.

Smelting bronze requires high temperatures, even higher temperatures smelt iron.  The blast furnace dates to 150 BCE in China. The blast furnaces created much larger volumes of iron for casting. Weapons and finer steel tools such as plows were then wrought (hand worked) to improve cast iron quality. Hot blast furnaces greatly improved fuel efficiency when invented in 1828 by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland. Hot blast furnaces inject heated air into the blast furnace increasing the temperature, improving smelting. Fuel consumption reduced by one third with the hot blast technique using coke. Coke develops by heating coal in the absence of air to remove sulfur and make fuel. Coke burns hotter than charcoal and is more readily available than wood in many parts of the world. I have ranked smelting bronze and later iron as the #11 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 4) The Electric Grid.

War of the Currents was between the competing technologies of Thomas Edison’s direct current Edison Electric Company versus the alternating current technology of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. The battle initially favored direct currrent in the 1870s to the 1880s. In 1886, George Westinghouse began using transformers to step down AC current so that household use was possible. In 1892, Edison Electric merged with AC competitor Thomson-Houston forming General Electric. Westinghouse won the contract for the Chicago World Fair and then the contract for hydroelectricity from Niagara Falls, New York.

The War of the Currents was over by 1891 with the Frankfurt demonstration of the 3 phase AC power generator system. The Frankfurt demonstration proved the 3 phase AC system was the best for a power grid. The Niagara Falls AC power plant of 1895 ran AC power over 25 miles. By 1900, AC power plants were appearing all over the USA.

Despite AC winning the current war, DC is still the least expensive, most efficient and effective for long distance, HIGH VOLTAGE power line grid networks. DC power prevails in most electronics and computers which require a circuit board. Transformers attached to computers converting AC to DC power.

By 1946, France was the first country to produce a nationalized power grid. Wide area synchronous grids serve continental Europe and North America. Smart Grid is 21st century use of computers and monitors to regulate electricity networks. Electricity ranks as the #12 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 5) Incandescent light bulb.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb in 1879, but his Menlo Park lab did perfect the filament necessary for the light bulb to be commercially successful. Up to 22 inventors may have preceded Edison with the light bulb. Edison’s light bulb, however, was better for 3 reasons (Friedel and Israel): better filament, higher vacuum using Sprengel pump, and higher resistance to current making centralized power to the light viable.

Edison tested over 6000 materials prior to finding that carbonized bamboo can last 1600 hours as a filament in the incandescent light bulb. Within just 3 years of the improved light bulb invention, lower Manhattan of New York City gained electricity in 1882. In 1904, tungsten proved a superior filament compared to carbonized bamboo. Due to greater efficiency and longevity, LED lights are replacing incandescent lights. Electricity and the incandescent light bulb ranks as the #12 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 6) Steam Engine (external combustion).

In the 1st century AD Hero of Alexandria described the Aeropile a steam driven toylike device. Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma’ruf described a steam turbine-like device in 1551. Later, in 1663, Edward Sommerset of Worchester England invented the steam pump. In 1680, Christiaan Huygens described the piston driven engine. In 1712 James Newcomen invented the steam engine, the first commercial steam engine. James Watt modified and greatly improved the steam engine in 1763. Later, in 1804, Richard Trevithick built the locomotive. In 1807, Robert Fulton invented the passenger steamboat. Richard Treithick invented the passenger locomotive in 1808. In 1838, first trans-atlantic steamship launched. The internal combustion engine superseded the external combustion steam engine due to its smaller size, greater power, and safer operation. I have ranked the steam engine as the #16 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 7) Internal combustion engine.

In 1877, Nicolaus Otto invented the 4 stroke internal combustion engine. Later, Otto’s engine would come to be the primary engine of the automobile. Prior to the internal combustion gasoline engine, the steam (external combustion) engine was the engine of the industrial revolution. In 1801, Richard Trevithick invented the steam carriage. The steam engine, while good for trains and larger boats, was too heavy and impractical for an automobile. In 1863, August Lenoir from Belgium invented the horseless carriage using an internal combustion engine. The vehicle reached a peak speed of 3 mph. In 1885, Karl Benz from Germany built the first true automobile with a 2 stroke gas engine and bearing 3 wheels. In 1913, Henry Ford produced the inexpensive Model T.

8) Black gunpowder and smokeless powder

The invention of black gunpowder belongs with Wei Boyang in 142 AD in China. By 904 AD, the first use of gunpowder in war with fire arrows occurred in China. Then, the first bombs appear in China in the 1000s. In 1240, the Middle East obtained the technology of gunpowder. In 1258, India began use of gunpowder. Roger Bacon gave a recipe for gunpowder in 1267, with Opus Majus. The recipe consisted of: 75% saltpeter, 10% sulfur, 15% charcoal. In 1280, the gunpowder formula was widespread in Europe. The Mongols use bombs in 1281 with the invasion of Japan. In 1293, cannons deployed in the Mongol invasion of Java. By 1326, first European cannon use began.

In 1330, the first European firearm, the Loshult gun began use.

Invented in 1400, the Matchlock with a wick dipped in saltpeter burned by a match to ignite gunpowder began use. Then, in 1428, rifling, the creation of grooves in the gun barrel to create spin on the bullet, greatly improved accuracy. Later in 1478, a longer barreled musket improved accuracy. In 1488, the serpentine mechanism of gunfire with a trigger which pulled lit gunpowder down to the main gunpowder charge began use. Specialized rifles for hunting appeared in Europe in 1498.

In 1543, the wheellock improved firing by which a wheel of flint when spun would contact steel creating a spark to ignite the gunpowder. The wheelock created a much faster rate of fire. In 1561, first breech loading gun deployed in China. By 1580, the first revolvers appeared. By 1598, the bayonet originated. In 1615, the flintlock rifle improved firing by a hammer of flint which made contact with steel creating a spark further improving firing efficiency.

The speed of reloading and firing. improved greatly with the invention of the cartridge in 1689. In 1815, caps for firing began use which replaced flintlocks. By 1849, Minie ball appeared in France. In 1860, the Henry rifle was the first reliable repeating rifle. In 1861, the Gatling gun introduced firing at 200 rounds a minute. 1873, the Winchester rifle “the gun that won the west” began use. In 1877, the first battle occurred using metallic cased bullets and repeating rifles. Black gunpowder ranks as the #20 Greateste invention of All Time.

In 1880, smokeless powder began use,

3X more powerful than black gunpowder. smokeless powder produced less smoke with the propellant than black gunpowder and far less carbonaceous hygroscopic debris (which attracts water creating rust). “Ballistite” and “Cordite” were initial names but propellant is now the accepted generic term. The combustion products are primarily gaseous with propellant. This compared to 55% solid products with black gunpowder which obstructed gun barrels and created need for frequent cleaning to prevent jams or seizing.

Smokeless powder favorably compared to black gunpowder. An explosion of machine gun inventions then occurred. In 1884,the Maxim invented the single barreled machine .

By 1902, smokeless gunpowder was adopted almost everywhere, ending the “Gunpowder Age.”

The primary formula for the smokeless powder, propellant, is nitrocellulose. Nitroglycerine and gun cottton preceded nitrocellulose but proved far too unstable and explosive for effective firearm use.

In 1884, Paus Vieille invented a white powder (poudre blanche) of 68% insoluble nitrocellulose and 30% soluble nitrocellulose gelatinized with ether and 2% parafin. It would not detonate unless compressed and was safe under usual operating conditions. Gunfire revolutionized with the new invention. Muzzle velocity increased with 3x more power creating straighter shots at a longer range. Because almost no smoke occurred with firing, the visibility of the shooter improved and the visibility to the enemy dramatically decreased. The decrease in debris from smokeless powder allowed the successful implementation of machine guns which could now tolerate repeated firing without jamming.

9) Battery, especially the lithium Ion battery.

Alexandro Volta invented the battery in Italy in 1800. Gaston Plante invented the rechargeeable lead acid battery in 1859. The lead acid battery still works effectively today in motor vehicles. German, Carl Gassner invented the dry cell battery in 1886. Waldermar Jungner of Sweden in 1899 invented the nickel-cadmium alkaline battery. In 1955, alkaline batteries (manganese dioxide and powdered zinc) saw further improvements compared to zinc-carbon.

The idea of a lithium ion battery originated in the 1970’s with M. Stanley Whittingham. Less toxic than lead or cadmium batteries. The battle in personal electronics batteries was between nickel metal hydride and lithium ion in the 1990’s. Lithium ion is winning the battle and is dominant and the fastest growing battery type. The energy density of lithium ion is twice that of nickel cadmium. No memory is present with lithium ion batteries, that is, full discharge is unnecessary for recharge. The batteries can be recycled but mining is cheaper. Lithium ion batteries often fail after 2-5 years. Relatively low self discharge rates compared to nickel cadmium is a major advantage. Lithium ion batteries are about 40% more expensive to manufacture than nickel cadmium batteries. They are also sensitive to high temperatures and rarely can explode into fire. The battery ranks as the #27 Greatest Invention of All Time.

10) Fission.

In 1789 by German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered uranium.  Ernest Rutherford then in 1911 discovered the atomic nucleus. In 1932, Ernest Walton created fission using protons bombarded onto lithium to create alpha particles. Fission was first achieved in 1934 by Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist. Then, in 1939, German physicist Werner Heisenberg postulated a nuclear chain reaction. Enrichment of uranium-238 with a higher percentage of U-235 aided in a nuclear chain reaction. The University of Chicago built the first nuclear reactor in 1942. . Further, a nuclear chain reaction occurred there in 1942.

On August 6, 1945 the first deployed atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, Japan. In Idaho in 1946 , the US built the first breeder reactor , The same reactor generated the first electricity in 1951. In 1954 USS Nautilus, began operating as the first nuclear powered submarine . By 1959, the ballistic missile firing submarine, USS George Washington deployed. Finally, in 1960, the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear powered air craft carrier launched. Fission ranks as the #30 Greatest Invention of All Time. 

Greatest energy inventions

 11) LASER.

Laser is an acronym for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation. The first LASER, built in 1960 by Theodore H Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratory, began with work by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow. LASERs produce coherent light which contains the same waveform, same frequency and a constant phase difference. Coherence allows laser light focusing on a tight spot, with increased power for cutting and etching. Above all, coherence allows the light to maintain it’s power over great distances. In addition, uses of lasers include: optical disc drives, laser printers, barcode scanners, DNA sequencing instruments, fiberoptic applications, semiconductor chip manufacturing (photolithography), optical communication, laser surgery, cutting and welding applications, car headlamps, military and law enforcement applications, and in entertainment displays. Laser ranks as #39 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 12) Steam turbine.

Charles Parsons in 1884 invented the modern steam turbine. As of 2014, steam turbines generate 85% of all the United States electricity and 80% of the world’s electricity. Hero of Alexandria in Roman Egypt around 50 AD designed a toy like steam turbine. Taqi al-Din in Ottoman Egypt in 1551 AD designed a steam jack. The reaction type steam turbine invented by Charles Parsons in 1884 revolutionized electricity generation and naval transport. George Westinghouse produced a steam turbine scaled up about 10,000x. Since the 1980’s, gas turbines replaced steam turbines in fast ships and diesel engines of other ships. Nuclear powered submarines, ice breakers, and aircraft carriers generate steam for turbines with atomic energy. Steam propulsion efficiency is less than 50% which limits use in modern naval vessels. The steam turbine ranks as the #44 Greatest Invention of All Time.

13) Light Emitting Diode (LED).

LED is a semiconductor light source which emits light when a current runs through it. The band gap of the semiconductor determines the color of the light. White light emits with multiple semiconductors or by a layer of light emitting phosphor on the semiconductor device. The first practical LED originated in 1962 with low intensity infrared light. Nick Holonyak, Jr. invented the light emitting diode (LED) at GE labs in 1962.

Advantages of LED lights over incandescent light bulbs: lower energy consumption (higher efficiency 45% efficient compared to 15% efficient for incandescent.), longer lifespan, greater toughness (shock resistance of solid state electronics), greater ease to focus, smaller size, less warm up time, better dimming, cooler operating temperature, and faster switching. Unlike the laser, the LED light is not coherent or monochromatic. Haitz’s law (Roland Haitz) states the exponential relationship between the LED light output per LED over time (flux/package) and decreasing cost/lumen over time from 1970 until 2010.  The LED ranks as the #45 Greatest Invention of All Time.

14) Air conditioner.

In 1834, Jacob Perkins created the first ice making machine. Then, in 1902, Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner. Carrier built the first air conditioner to cool and control humidity at a printing plant. The term, air conditioning, originated in 1906 with Stuart W. Cramer to describe the cooling and dehumidifying properties created by the machine. In 1930, the White House began the era of public building air conditioning. In 1953, sales of air conditioners exceed one million units.

Invented in 1957, the rotary compressor improved the efficiency of air conditioners. In 1977, combined heating and cooling systems developed. Laws to restrict chlorofluorocarbons began in 1987. In 1998, 6 million units sold of combined heating and cooling. Discovery of freon in 1928 by Thomas Midgley, Jr was a far safer refrigerant than the toxic, flammable ammonia, propane, and methyl chloride. Cooling and dehumidifying are necessary for optimal function of electronics. Above all, air conditioning has made human occupation of hot climate and tropical areas of the world more inviting, opening new regions of the world for population centers. Perhaps even as important as heating, air conditioning has without a doubt greatly changed world demographics. Air conditioning ranks as #50 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 15) Tesla’s AC induction motor 1887

Today 90% of industrial motors are AC induction motors. AC motors are widespread because no friction brushes for contacts, no permanent magnets, and no rare earth materials exist with an AC induction motor. An AC induction motor works by alternating current through a wire in a magnetic field. The current causes a magnetic field which repels the wire causing it to flip over.

When the current reverses (alternates) the wire flips back from the change in direction of the new, realigned magnetic field. Because of a device called a commutator, the wire can only flip in one direction causing the wire to spin with each change in the alternating current, but again, in only one direction. Basically, an inner rotating temporary magnet (rotor) spins around an outer permanent magnet (stator) AC current alternates direction about 50 times a second. In a DC motor the current runs to the inner (rotor). In an AC motor the current runs through the outer (stator) “squirrel cage” which rotates with the current changes. The rotation is only in one direction due to the commutator.

The beauty of the AC induction motor lies in its simplicity, low cost, quietness, and efficiency (85% efficient in converting electrical energy to work). Significant heat generation requires a fan built into the motor to dissipate. Tesla’s AC induction motor led to widespread interest in alternating current. The Tesla AC induction motor ranks as the #60 Greatest Invention of All Time.

16) Photovoltaic cell.

Invented in 1954, the photovoltaic cell originated at Bell labs. In 1839, French physicist Henri Bequerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. The cell produces electricity when exposed to light. 1883, first solar cell created made of selenium with 1-2% efficiency. In 1887, Heinrich Hertz described the photoelectric effect observing a greater effect with UV than visible light. In 1905, Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect winning him the Nobel prize. The silicon solar cell began use in 1953 but it was only 6% efficient. As of 1999, gallium indium phosphide and gallium arsenide cells exceed 30% efficiency. This low level of efficiency prevents more widespread use. The photovoltaic cell ranks as the #66 Greatest Invention of All Time.

17) Waterwheel and water tubine.

Controversy surrounds the origin of the waterwheel. Near simultaneous appearance in history occurred in Egypt, Persia, India, Greece within a few decades of each other. Earliest dates are 350 BCE in Persia. The initial designs showed a large wheel with numerous blades in contact with a moving stream or river. The moving water drives the wheel rotation. Gears connect to a millstone typically used to grind wheat into flour. Used extensively in mining projects of the Roman Empire, waterwheels were popular. Limited use of a waterwheel for propulsion also occurred with the ancients.

Water turbine. 1849 British-American engineer James Francis developed the Francis water turbine, the most widely used water turbine in the world today. 90% efficiency exists with the Francis inward flow reaction turbine, also known as the radial flow turbine. Swirl turbines replaced less efficient water wheels in the 1800s. In 1913, the Kaplan turbine invented by Viktor Kaplan improved low head hydro-sites. Ecological issues related to fish migrations have required the construction of fish ladders in the United States with the construction of hydroelectric dams. The water turbine ranks as the #69 Greatest Invention of All Time.

18) Fusion.

Fusion is what naturally occurs on our sun and other stars. Because extremely high temperatures and pressures are necessary to achieve nuclear fusion, logistics limits its use. Fusion does not create radioactive waste, nor is there risk of meltdowns which have occurred with fission nuclear reactions making fusion seem to be an attractive energy source. In 1920 , Albert Einstein created the now famous equation: E=mc2. At first, in 1934, fusion occurred with Mark Oliphant using heavy water (tritium).

Then in 1952, Ivy Mike with Operation Ivy detonates world’s first thermonuclear weapon with 10.4 megatons of TNT power out of a fusion fuel of liquid deuterium (heavy water). The first thermonuclear plasma originated in 1957. Later, in 1961, Soviets detonate Tsar Bomba (50 megatons) the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever. Fusion bombs require a fission nuclear bomb to create sufficient heat and pressure to ignite the fusion of deuterium and tritium, the two heavy isotopes of hydrogen. In requiring a fission bomb, a large bomb is necessary due to the critical mass necessary to start a fission chain reaction. No pure fusion bomb exists. If one could be invented, then smaller sized fusion weapons could be produced.  Fusion power technology ranks as the #72 Greatest Invention of All Time.

 19) Microwave oven.

Microwave ovens work when electromagnetic waves create thermal energy. Cooking occurs when atoms of food absorb microwave energy which causes atomic motion thereby generating heat by friction and producing cooking. Percy Spencer invented the microwave oven (Radarange) from radar technology of World War II in 1946. Sharp created the first portable microwave oven that was affordable in 1970s. Microwave ovens primarily reheat previously cooked foods or cook when not browning. Professional cooking generally requires frying, browning or baking not possible with microwave ovens. Further, now 90% of homes have a microwave oven.  The microwave oven ranks as the #89 Greatest Invention of All Time.

20) Windmill.

At first, the earliest windmills were horizontal with the axis of rotation in the vertical plane. Used either to grind grain or pump water, the horizontal windmills were in Persia, modern eastern Iran, and western Afghanistan. . They date to 650 AD in Persia and were rotational grinders of wheat into flour. From 500-900 AD horizontal windmills were active in Persia. Then by the 1000’s the horizontal axis, vertically rotating windmills were in southern Europe in the Balkans and Iberian peninsula. Later in China from about 1200 AD, water pumping horizontal axis windmills were present. The earliest vertical axis windmills ground grains. In 1200s, tower mills of masonry whose top rotated to face the variable direction of wind originated in Europe. Fixed cap windmills were built around the southern Mediterranean where the wind was less variable in direction. 

In 1941 in Vermont, the world’s first megawatt wind turbine operates. In 1971, Denmark operates the first offshore wind farm. Finally, by the 1980s, California wind farms power 250,000 homes.