In some ways, we've become a spoiled, high-tech civilization that overlooks many of its most remarkable innovations — especially those that were developed more than 30 years ago. So, to remind us just how unappreciative we really are, here are 10 powerful technologies developed last century that are still changing the world, even though we didn't expect them to.
1. The Haber-Bosch process
Back in the early part of the 20th century, the German chemist Fritz Haber was alarmed by the growing number of mouths to feed — and the inability of farmers to keep up with the demand. Subsequently, Haber became the first person to figure out that ammonia could be created from nitrogen and hydrogen. In turn, this ammonia could be used to produce fertilizer. A lot of fertilizer. It's now estimated that Haber's insight is responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth's population, and that half of the protein within human beings is made from the nitrogen that has become a regular part of this process. Though few people talk about it anymore, it is the most important industrial innovation developed in the 20th century. Any innovation that allows for billions of people to be adequately fed is world-changing.
Nationwide, 85,000 cases of vaccine-preventable diseases are reported every year. The recently debunked claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism hasn't helped. Globally, over 3 million people die each year mostly on account of insufficient access to vaccines. More to the point, though, it's easy to forget what it is, exactly, that we're being protected against on account of their profound effectiveness; vaccines stave off such blights as polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, shingles, and many other diseases. It's estimated that 3 million people are saved each year by vaccines. And just as importantly, antibiotics, which were first implemented in 1945, have likewise prevented a countless number of deaths.
3. The birth control pill
Like the use of vaccines and antibiotics, the birth control pill has become such a regular facet of modern life that we now rarely give it a second thought. But the fact of the matter is that the development of the pill in 1960 marked a major biological and sociological turning point. For the first time in our species' history, women were actually able to temporarily turn off their fertility. Moreover, its presence has irrevocably altered the social and economic landscape in those countries where it has become available. Subsequently, its impact cannot be overstated. As Claudia Goldin and others have noted, the pill is directly responsible for forging a new role for women in the economy and academia by prolonging the age at which women can choose to have children. By allowing them to invest in education and their career, it has proven to be a complete game changer.
4. Fiber Optics
The sheer ubiquity of fiber optics in our communications infrastructure, along with its presence tucked away in the background, has most certainly led to its status as an underrated technology. Though initially developed in the late 19th century, it wasn't until the 1970s that long distance attenuation could be achieved. These cables, which transmit information using bursts of light, have made them superior to conventional cables in a host of ways, including immunity to electromagnetic interference, data security, non-conductivity, no spark hazards, ease of installation, and of course, high bandwidth over long distances — including 100 terabits per second in some cases. It largely allowed the internet revolution to happen.
5. Factory farming
Also called industrial agriculture, factory farming is the technological innovation that everyone loves to hate — yet its impacts on modern society (for better or worse) are hard to dismiss. It has largely allowed human civilization to transform itself from primarily agrarian-based to city-based. As of 2007, and for the first time in our species' history, more people now live in cities than in rural areas. Because of its highly efficient, mechanized, and super-dense agricultural processes, it not longer takes legions of farmers to feed large populations. Moreover, it has resulted in more affordable food, a greater availability of labor, profitable large scale agricultural operations, and a viable export market. At the same time, however, given its toll on the environment, livestock, and human health, some consider it to be among the worst innovations of the 20th century.
6. Reflection seismology
The fact that we have technology that allows us to see what is under our feet is nothing short of remarkable. Also called seismic testing, reflection seismology is a technique that helps us determine the various characteristics and composition of underground areas by using reflected seismic waves. It essentially allows us to know what is underground before we start digging — which is a big deal to say the least. Imagine what the price of gas would be today if geologists weren't able to probe for hidden petroleum reserves. Or the precariousness of skyscrapers if contractors couldn't conduct land surveys to determine the best spot? In addition to these commercial applications, seismic testing has also proved invaluable to scientists and researchers scanning the bottom of the sea.
7. Supply chain management
Supply chain management is to the commercial sector what factory farming was to agriculture. Perfected by Wal-Mart, modern supply chain management practices have revolutionized the way companies do business — an innovation that has resulted in lower costs to consumers, and store shelves continually stocked with products. Wal-Mart was particularly effective at integrating its retail and information systems strategies to create a model that is now copied virtually everywhere. Specific strategies include the way the products are cross-docked in warehouses, and the use of sophisticated databases to record, store, and disseminate store-level information to suppliers.
8. Shipping containers
Though it might seem obvious now, the humble shipping container revolutionized the transportation industry. It's why New York and London ceased to be important ports, and why Oakland and other ports replaced them. The first batch of 58 standardized and stackable 8x8x10 boxes of corrugated metal made their way from Newark to Houston in 1956 after years of negotiations and large sums of money required to make the transition work. The idea quickly took off, resulting in the so-called containerization of the shipping industry; its introduction has since resulted in a dramatic decrease in shipping costs, an increase in efficiency, and the advent of a viable global trade market.
Though Dustin Hoffman may beg to differ, a world without plastic would be a very strange and different place, indeed. Plastics are used virtually everywhere, including aeronautics, construction, electronics, packaging, and transportation. They are cheap, strong, and very light. Plastics have dramatically decreased our reliance on wood (which is not quickly renewable) and other resources, and when recycled properly, they can be reconstituted several times over. Unfortunately, however, they often end up in landfills and they are not agreeable to quick biodegradation. Today, however, we're having to deal with plastic's intense popularity — from the gigantic plastic island floating in the Pacific (which may actually be a myth), to the toxic effects of bisphenol-A.