Skip to Content

Greatest Machine Inventions


Top Machine Inventions

1) Wheel and axle with horse domestication

Surprisingly, no wheels exist in nature. Spheres exist in the forms of planets, stars, tumble weeds, fruits, and dung shaped by dung beetles but no wheels in nature. Horse domestication and the invention of the wheel are co-inventions, occurring simultaneously at around 3500 BCE. At first, the wheel began as the potter’s wheel around 3700 BCE in Sumer, Mesopotamia. The potter’s wheel spun moist clay in a circle allowing molding for the creation of perfectly circular vessels. The potter’s wheel created ceramics in a quick, reproducible fashion allowing for mass production. Then, Sumer, Mesopotamia became a commercial center for ceramic vessel production.

At first, horse domestication developed around 3500 BCE in the Eurasian Steppes. Because the horse domestication immediately preceded the wheel and axle invention, many historians believe the wheel and axle originates only where a suitable beast of burden (horse) existed to power the mobile cart or chariot. Areas like North and South America did not originally have horses or a similar equivalent, so the Native Americans did not develop the wheel until after the European conquest. The wheel and axle did more than transform land transportation.

The wheel and axle are one of the six simple machines which also comprise all complex machines.

Also, wheels function as a single (wheelbarrow), double (chariot/bicycle), three, four (cart of wagon), six or more (train). The potter’s wheel later led to the solid wood wheel, the spoked wheel, the iron ringed wheel, the rubber ringed wheel, the pneumatic tire wheel, and the metal spoked, rimmed vulcanized rubber pneumatic tire wheel. In addition, wheeled devices move materials far better on roads. Therefore, the extensive Roman empire road system, 55,000 miles, dramatically increased the utility of the wheel.

Variations of the wheel, the pulley and gears were also important inventions. The steamboat of Robert Fulton used the water wheel for power. Modern wheels are primarily land transportation devices. Wheelbarrows, bicycles, cars, trucks, and trains all depend on wheels for transport. Non transportation uses of the wheel include: potter’s wheel, water wheel for power, ferris wheel for entertainment, pizza cutter, and daisy wheel can opener. The wheel and axle with horse domestication ranks as the #8 Greatest Invention of All Time.

2) Caravel wood hulled sailboat.

The sailboat was originally constructed of reeds, not wood, around 6000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Later, oars appeared around 5000 BCE in China. The wood hulled sailboat with both a square cloth sail and oars originated around 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Advances in metallurgy, particularly copper and bronze smelting allowed the production of metal saws, nails, hammers and axes necessary to create the wooden planks required for hulled sea worthy vessels of transport. The combination of sails and oars allowed these boats to sail up current and up wind.

Three quarters of the world surface is water.

The sailboat allows access to and transport through the largest portion of our planet. The Phoenicians used the oared sailboat to set up trade routes throughout the Mediterranean and oceanic sailing around the coast of Africa. All major civilizations exist on large bodies of fresh water. The river cultures of Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates), Egypt (Nile), India (Indus), and China (Yellow) used sailboats for transport and commerce. The Age of Discovery occurred because of the compass, the sextant, and the caravel sailing ship. Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas using 2 caravels, the Pinta, and Nina which he preferred to the Santa Maria, his third vessel. Only the Nina and Pinta survived the discovery voyage to the New World. The sailboat ranks as the #9 Greatest Invention of All Time.

3) Hydraulic engineering

Hydraulic engineering is the construction of devices which control water. Dams, aqueducts, levees, wells, canals, harbors, dykes, irrigation systems all represents forms of hydraulic engineering. A stable water supply is one of the essential elements for the development of a civilization. Hydraulic engineering developed near simultaneously in several civilizations at once: Sumer, Mesopotamia on the Tigres and Euphrates rivers, Egypt on the Nile river, and with the Indus river civilization in India all beginning around 3200 BCE. Sanitary systems built in the Indus river civilization were particularly well developed. Hydraulic engineering allowed the construction of cities with harbors for trade, canals for irrigation and transport, and dams with levees to regulate the volume of river water flow. Irrigation is fundamental to agricultural success in the arid Middle East. Hydraulic engineering ranks as the #14 Greatest Invention of All Time.

4) Automobile.

Nicklaus Otto invented the 4 stroke internal combustion engine in 1876 in Germany. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T. Personal mechanical transportation was available to most people with the low cost of the Model T. The horse had dominated land transportation for 5500 years. Power today still measures in horsepower. Just as the Roman road system of 55,000 miles increased and improved land transport for the ancients, the American interstate highway system had a similar effect with automobile transportation. Rapid, efficient, independent car and truck transportation would help define the 20th century. The 4 stroke engine and automobile rank as the #17 Greatest Invention of All Time.

5) Cannon/musket/rifle/pistol.

More powerful than the catapult, 485 India/Greece, or trebuchet, 350 China, the cannon made city walls obsolete. In 142 AD, the alchemist Wei Boyang of China defined the recipe for black gunpowder: 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur. Gunpowder weapons first appeared in China in the 900s. Cannon appeared in southern Italy in the early 1300s.

The first military cannon use was in 1304 in Egypt with the Mongols. In 1324, a castle in England fell to cannon fire. In 1350, Petratch stated cannon were in common use. By 1453, wheels added mobility to cannon to improving utility. In 1486, the first ships with cannons appeared. By 1488, British ships used cannon in battle. In 1578, smaller versions of cannon and cannon balls created greater success in battle. In 1576, the shrapnel cannon began use on infantry. By the 1600s, city walls rendered obsolete by cannon cease to be built. Constantinople was the last great fortified city, falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD after a 6 week siege.

The firelance was the first personal firearm in 1364.

In 1400, the matchlock was in use with a wick dipped in saltpeter burned by a match to ignite the firearm. By 1478, a longer barreled musket developed to improve accuracy. In 1509, the wheel lock mechanism of gunfire improved the musket. By 1540, rifling grooves appeared in firearms to improve accuracy. Later, in 1598, the bayonet began use.

In 1630, the flintlock mechanism further improved firing. By 1689, the cartridge developed improving the speed of reloading. In 1815, percussion caps further increased the speed of firing. In 1849, the Minie ball improved range and power with firing in France. By 1860, the Henry rifle was in use, the first reliable repeating rifle. In 1861, the Gatling gun introduced rapid firing of 200 rounds a minute. By 1873, the Winchester rifle called the “gun that won the West”.appeared. In 1884, Hiram Maxim invented the single barrel machine gun . In 1880, smokeless gunpowder appeared which greatly accelerated the development of machine guns. Smokeless powder fired with more power and with less gumming debris. Rapid firing weapons now worked with much less jamming. Gunpowder fired weapons rank as #20 Greatest Invention of All Time.

6) Airplane.

The kite originated in China about 1000 BCE. Leonardo da Vinci designed a flying machine and parachute in 1490. In 1785, Jean-Pierre Banchard and John Jeffries used a balloon to cross the English Channel. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, in 1903 invented the motorized, steered airplane. The self propelled, heavier than air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina changed human flight. Unlike planes before that time, this airplane could be steered in 3 dimensions. Within 25 years, Charles Lindbergh accomplished the first transatlantic flight in 1927. In 1930, British Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. A current Boeing 767 has 3.1 million parts from 800 suppliers. The airplane lists as the #26 Greatest Invention of All Time.

7) Refrigerator.

A refrigerator is a thermally insulsated container with a heat pump which transfers heat outside of the container, keeping the contents of the container cold. Refrigeration dramatically slows bacteria growth. A temperature of 40 F (4C) is ideal. Outdoors, cold streams provided the earliest refrigeration. In the 1750s ice provided refrigeration. In 1834, the first vapor compression refrigerator began operation . The first commercial ice making machine originated in 1854. James Harrison in Australia in 1856 made the first practical vapor compression refrigeration system. In 1913, refrigerators for home use were in operation. In 1923, Frigidaird created the first self-contained refrigerator. The discovery of freon in the 1920s led to expansion of refrigeration in the 1930s. Home freezers with a separate compartment were in use in 1940.  The refrigerator rank as the #38 Greatest Invention of All Time.

8) Saddle and stirrups.

The saddle and co-invention the stirrups originated in China. A co-invention is 2 or more inventions that are interdependent. The stirrup requires a fixed anchor to attach such as the saddle. Obviously the saddle had to precede the stirrup. The saddle appeared in China around 200 BCE. The Roman saddle originated around 50 BCE. The metal stirrup appeared in China in 322 AD. Leather toe stirrups existed in India around 200 AD. By 477 AD use of stirrups were widespread in China. Avars were the first Europeans with metal stirrups in the 500s AD. The saddle and stirrup influence peaked with the Mongol horse culture. The Mongol empire and horse cultures in general declined with the development of firearms. The saddle and stirrups rank as the #62 Greatest Invention of All All Time.

9) Compass/ global positioning system.

The wet navigation compass appeared in China in 1040 AD. The compass origins date to China with the use of lodestone, a naturally magnetized iron ore (magnetite). Magnetism is first described by Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece in 500’s BCE. The Olmecs of Mesoamerica may have identified lodestone’s magnetism 1000 years earlier. In 206 BCE, lodestone provided divination but not navigation in China. By 150 BCE in China, the discovery of the north-south directionality of lodestone occurred. By 1000 AD, the lodestone provided aid to navigation in China. The Chinese navy used the compass for navigation in 1040 AD. The first European mention of a compass dates to 1190 AD with Alexander Neckam. Isaac Newton wore a signet ring containing an lodestone reportedly capable of lifting metal 200X it’s weight. The dry mariner’s compass originated in 1300 AD. In 1900, the modern liquid filled magnetic compass developed.

The global positioning system uses a network of over 30 satellites to triangulate a position using 3 or 4 satellites. In 1960, military use of GPS began. In 1983, civilian use of GPS began. Navigation is now principally by global positioning system and not the compass. The GPS on your phone is accurate to about 5 meters. Commercial hand held GPS is accurate to 3 meters. Self driving vehicles require extremely accurate GPS measurements. The compass ranks as the #71 Greatest Invention of All Time. GPS ranks as the #52 Greatest Invention of All Time.

9) Microscope/telescope.

Within 20 years, both the microscope (1590) and telescope (1608) originated in the Netherlands. Both the microscope and the telescope require stacked magnifying lenses. Similar technology creates both inventions: a clear glass magnifying lenses stacked in a contained in a tube which allows focusing. Zacharias Jansen (and perhaps HansJansen) invented the microscope. Hans Lippershey invented the telescope. Within one year, 1609, Galileo improved on the telescope invention, discovering the 4 large moons of Jupiter and the surface features of our own moon. By 1619, the compound microscope was invented .

Then in 1672, Isaac Newton used mirrors to invent the reflecting telescope. In 1674, Antonie van Leuwenhoek described microorganisms for the first time. First in 1877, Louis Pasteur and, later in 1884, Robert Koch advanced the germ theory of disease. In 1931, Ernst Ruska invented the transmission electron microscope. By 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling electron microscope. In 1990, the Hubble telescope launched into orbit. The microscope/telescope ranks as the #22 Greatest Invention of All Time.

10) Propellar ship/container ship.

In 1839, the Archimedes steam powered propeller driven ship launched. By 1951, the first container ship converted from a freighter. In 1955, the first dedicated container ship launched. Containerization has taken over shipping. Shipping now measures in 20 foot equivalents (teu). Containerization has decreased shipping times by 84%, decreased shipping costs by 35%. 90% of non-bulk international shipping is by container ships. Container shipping is faster, cheaper, safer, has less breakage, is more automated, and sees less shifting during transport than conventional shipping.

An entire container ship loads or unloads in 2 hours. Timing is accurate to 15 minutes on leaving and arrival of goods for a typical 2 week journey creating less inventory for suppliers and manufacturers. The largest ships can carry 18,000 – 20 foot containers or about 17x the pre-World War II freighter capacity. There is now a worldwide container ship trading network. The container shipping system ranks #94 Greatest Invention of All Time.

Greatest machine inventions

11) Steam locomotive.

In 1774, James Watt dramatically improved the steam engine. Later, in 1798, a horse drawn railway transported coal in England. By 1803, a horse drawn railway transported passengers in London. Then in 1812, the first commercial locomotive transported passengers in England. In 1829, George Stephenson built the “rocket” train which traveled at 30 mph. By 1869, the USA transcontinental railroad connected east and west coast rail networks. Specialized rail cars developed for seated passengers, Pullman sleeping cars, freight, livestock, and refrigerated cars revolutionizing commerce. In 1890, an electric subway ran in London. In 1913, diesel locomotives appeared in Europe. By1979, French TGV achieved 300 km/hour which then increased in 1990 to 515 km/hr. The steam engine ranks as the #16 Greatest Invention of All Time.

12) V-2 rocket.

The first true rockets developed in China as weapons of war in 1232 AD against Mongol invaders. Then, in 1591, Johann Schmidlap from Germany invented the 2 stage rocket for improved range. By 1844, spin improved the accuracy of rockets. Later, in 1926, American Robert Goddard fires the first liquid propellant rocket, powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline.

Modern rocket warfare began in 1942 with the German V-2 rocket designed by Wernher Von Braun . The V-2 saw use in World War II against Great Britain. Burning both oxygen and alcohol, this is the first rocket capable of reaching outer space. Shortly thereafter in the 1950s, intercontinental ballistic missiles faced off in the USA and USSR. In 1957, Sputnik I was the first orbiting satellite. In 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The NASA space shuttle in 1981 propelled with reusable rockets. In 2020, Space X launched a crew of 2 to the international space station, a first for private space exploration. The rocket ranks as the #32 Greatest Invention of All Time.

13) Bow and arrow.

Bone and stone arrowheads date to 65,000 BCE in South Africa. In Europe, definite remains of bow and arrow date to 16,000 BCE at Mannheim-Vogelstang in Germany. Bow and arrow exists for hunting in most hunter gatherer cultures except Australia (boomerang instead) and most of Oceania. Invented in China in 700 BCE, the crossbow changed archery.

The Mongols in the 1300s used a composite recurve bow as their primary weapon. The English longbow cites as the deciding cause of victories against the French in Hundred Years War (1340-1430). The bow and arrow was a widespread weapon of warfare until supplanted by gunpowder and muskets in the 1500’s. Use of the bow and arrow in warfare ended completely in the mid-1700’s in Europe and early 1800’s in eastern Asia cultures. Use of bow and arrow, particularly compound bows, remain a popular means of silent hunting into modern times. The bow and arrow list as the #83 Greatest Invention of All Time.

14) Robot.

In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci designed but never completed a robot. By 1645, Blaise Pascal designed and completed a calculating machine. In 1822, Charles Babbage invented the digital programmable computer, however, it was not completed in his lifetime. George C. Devol in the US. invented the successful Unimate robot in 1961. Later, in 1964, labs opened in artificial intelligence at MIT, Stanford and University of Edinburgh. Then, the Stanford arm, built in 1971, was the first commercially successful electrically powered computer controlled robotic arm.

Finally, in 1989, a computer defeated champion chess player David Levy. Then, in 1997, Deep Blue defeated world champion Gary Kasparov in chess. Sony AIBO robot dog ($2000) learned in 1999 with artificial intelligence. Later in 2000, Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO responds to voice commands and moves slowly. Invented shortly thereafter in 2002, the Roomba vacuum made history as the first successful robotic appliance. In 2004, Spirit Rover together with Opportunity Rover land on Mars to function autonomously. Later, in 2010, IBM Watson defeats Jeopardy champions. Further, Siri (2010) and Alexa (2014) personal assistants debut with Apple devices and Amazon. However, in 2015, Bill Gates joined Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking in expressing fear of artificial intelligence. Finally, in 2018, Boston Dynamics Atlas humanoid robot demonstrates ability to run, climb, jump, and perform a back flip. The robot ranks as the #86 Greatest Invention of All Time.

15) Submarine.

Cornelius Drebbel from the Netherlands invented in 1620 the first submarine which surprisingly moved by oars. The first navy attack submarine, the Turtle, launched in 1776. The craft was created by David Bushnell of the US. Further, in 1943, German u-boat U-264 was the first diesel submarine. Later, in 1954, USS Nautilus was the first nuclear submarine. Above all, nuclear powered submarines have technology to remain quietly submerged throughout the length of their deployment. Then in 1959, the USS George Washington became the first ballistic missile firing submarine. The submarine ranks as the #99 Greatest Invention of All Time.

Greatest machine inventions

16) Oar.

Invented in China around 5500 BCE, the oar is another type of co-invention. Obviously a canoe or dugout has little transportation value without a paddle for propulsion. Likewise, a small boat has little mobility without oars or a sail for propulsion.

Athough they look like paddles, oars are much more powerful for propulsion than paddles. Oars use a fulcrum to change the direction of force allowing greater speed, power, and endurance with propulsion compared to paddles which have no such fulcrum. Oars allow the use of much larger and more powerful leg and trunk muscles to propel the boat compared to paddles. Also the lever arm is longer for an oar than a paddle. Less fatiguing occurs with rowing which allows travel over longer distances than paddling. Oars are typically longer than paddles which allows use of up to 2 oarsmen per oar on both sides of a ship increasing the speed and power of propulsion.

By 3200 BCE oar use was widespread both in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Shortly thereafter, the first wooden hulled ships appeared on the Nile river in Egypt and on the Tigres and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. Copper tools developed around 5000 BCE, then, Bronze tools developed around 3200 BCE which allowed the shaping of wood into planks used to make the hulls of boats. Unlike ships today which are propelled either with sails or oars, ships in 3200 BCE were propelled with both a sail and oarsmen allowing travel upwind or up current of a river.

17) Drone – UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

Nikola Tesla developed the early theory on radio control technology. In 1898, Tesla demonstrated to amazed onlookers remote control of a small unmanned boat. Radio controlled aerial vehicle development began in the 1930s. Drones function as: decoy, reconnaissance, combat, research, civil, or commercial purposes. 15,000 drones saw use in WWII. In 1973, Israel at first developed the Mastiff drone for surveillance. Then, in 1996, the US Predator MQ-1 began deployment in the Middle East at a cost of $40 million per craft requiring a remote crew of 3 to operate. More recently, Parrot AR drones controlled by a tablet or smartphone in 2010 function as tech toys or photography aids. Then in 2014, Amazon made first drone delivery. Also in 2014, FAA allowed use of drones for film and TV. First passenger drone occurred in 2017.

18) Pulley/gear.

Invented in 1500 BCE Mesopotamia, the pulley is one of Renaissance scientists’ six simple machines: lever, wedge, incline plane, wheel and axle, pulley, and screw. Like a lever, the pulley changes the direction of a force. Gears and the pulley, often in pairs, are forms of wheels which change the direction and magnitude of a force.

When used in combination (block and tackle), the pulley with rope greatly decreases the necessary force required of work by increasing the distance of pulled rope. The greater the distance of pulled rope, the less force needed to do the work. Work = force x distance. Examples of machines that incorporate pulleys to work: elevator, cargo lifts, cranes, well lifts, exercise equipment, blinds of windows, curtains at theaters, flags on flagpoles, clothes lines, sailing rigs, washing buildings, rock climbing equipment, fishing rod, engines, oil derricks, garage doors lifting mechanism, escalators.

19) Lever.

Archimedes from ancient Greece famously said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand on and I will move the Earth.” Archimedes described three simple machines: lever, pulley, screw. Levers are straight devices which change the direction and power of a force. Use of levers and wedges date to 200,000 BCE. Shortly thereafter, hafting with glue for axes to wooden handles are the first uses of simple machines (wedge and lever) by hominids in Africa. Without a doubt, the construction of monumental architecture of Stonehenge (3000 BCE Druids)and the Egyptian pyramids (2700 BCE) required use of levers. In 3000 BCE, the shaduf originated as a long pole (lever) with a counterweight to move irrigation water. The first crane dates to 1000 BCE. Catapults (400 BCE Greece) and trebuchets (350 BCE China) use levers to power the weapons.

20) Saw.

Carpentry earliest forms date to 5000 BCE with the smelting of copper. Then the smelting of bronze began around 3500 BCE. Bronze tools appeared shortly thereafter. The bronze saw dates to 3100 BCE. Later, steel saws appeared around 1200 BCE. In 1813, Shaker Tabitha Babbitt invented the first circular saw. Surprisingly, she was one of the first female inventors. Then, William Newberry invented the band saw in 1808 in the UK. German Bernhard Heine invented the chain saw in 1830 for sawing bones. Robert McCulloch invented the industrial chainsaw in the US in 1946. This first industrial chainsaw required 2 men to operate. In 1949, McCulloch invented the modern version of a one person chain saw.