In honor of those great minds, let’s take a look at three incredible innovators of the 1800s who changed the world.
Before the typewriter, printed works were very difficult to produce. Either the printing press or writing by hand were the only options for disseminating information in print, making books and other long works rare. W.A. (William Austin) Burt, an American inventor, started to change all that in 1829 when he created the first “typographer”, a predecessor to the typewriter. The device was ahead of its time and did not surface again until his great grandson built a model of the typographer for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Though the first mechanical typographer prototypes were time-consuming to make and rudimentary by modern standards, the invention and the patent acquired by Burt would provide the basis for mechanical typewriters of the future. Building on the work of men like Burt, Christopher Latham Sholes produced the first commercially viable typewriter in 1867, which ended up taking more than a decade to take off and become popular.
Of course, the invention of the typewriter was essential in shaping the way we distribute and consume information. The QWERTY keyboard is still used today, and typewriters were regularly used until word processors became the norm, building on the foundation of the mechanical and electric typewriters of the 20th century.
Solar energy is becoming an important part of the energy systems of the future, but as with most important inventions, its beginnings were somewhat humble. Although we think of solar power as a very modern development overall, Charles Fritts laid much of the groundwork for modern solar cells in 1883. Fritts, building on the work of European scientists, created the first photoelectric module. Using selenium spread onto a metal plate, Fritts then covered the module with thin gold leaf. Fritts’ module worked, producing constant current, even under lamplight. Even then, Fritts saw the enormous potential for solar energy. However, it took over a hundred years for solar energy to begin taking off.
Today, solar energy is moving quickly, as the world addresses the need for clean energy. Between 2014 and 2015, there was an increase in global solar power production of 33%, and the number of Americans working in the field is expected to reach 360,000 by 2021. Modern solar cells have been built on Fritts’ early successes in the field.
Not all innovators ushered in new technology—some focused on techniques and standards, like Florence Nightingale. Due to the closure of many monasteries and churches where the sick had been housed prior to the 17th, the nursing profession became threatened, and the quality of patient care dropped rapidly.
Florence Nightingale spearheaded the movement to making nursing an essential part of patient care once again. In 1854, Nightingale traveled with a group of other nurses to what is now Turkey to tend British soldiers who were wounded in the Crimean war. Nightingale found shocking conditions—dirty, overcrowded wards with raw sewage on the floor, unsanitary practices and contaminated water, and patients far too close together. By establishing standards for cleanliness in the army hospital, Nightingale and her team dropped the disease mortality rate from 42.7% to just 2.2%. Nightingale then went on to lobby for more sanitary practices across Britain and established a hospital that trained nurses using her methods. Without Nightingale, modern nursing might look quite different.
These 3 innovators show that not only do innovations require that we think differently, but that new technology and techniques must also must build on accomplishments of the past. Change is incremental, and when we see how far we’ve come in just the last few hundred years, it’s easy to forget the great minds that helped us get here—but they deserve to be remembered for what they’ve given us. We continue to build on and improve their work, continuing in the great human tradition of innovation.
By Ryan Ayers