As society progresses into the twenty-first century, it is a good time to reflect on what we have achieved technologically. Numerous inventions flood our world, simplifying complex tasks and making our lives generally easier.
Of these inventions, a select few have had a more significant impact on our society than the rest. These inventions are pervasive in our daily lives, yet obscure enough that we don’t realize that they are there until we need them. I selected three inventions that fit these criteria and I’m sure that my choices will surprise you, if not leave you wondering why you had never thought about them too.
My first — and oldest — choice is paper. I’m not referring to just plain white paper, but all paper-based products, like boxes, labels, even cinema ticket stubs. Paper is not a modern invention. I don’t know if there is an exact moment when paper was invented, but this remarkable material has been in use since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. Today, not a day goes by where we don’t encounter a smooth sliver of paper.
College students are familiar with it, of course. We use it to write notes and print handouts. We read from textbooks made of paper. Our campus newspapers are printed on paper. We also use paper in envelopes, brochures, receipts and the like. Even the napkins we use to clean our lips and fingers are made from paper.
But paper’s impact on society is both positive and negative. While we can’t imagine a world without paper, we also can’t imagine the resources needed to generate that material. As you probably know, paper is made from trees and trees play a vital role in maintaining the balance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So the more paper we use, the more trees we cut down, and the more carbon dioxide accumulates. This is an extreme simplification of the process, but it highlights its environmental impact, something that many of us neglect to understand.
My second choice also has a great impact on the environment: the automobile. I’m not referring to just cars, but the family of automobiles, which includes vans, trucks and motorcycles. These “gas guzzlers” spew out tons of harmful gases like carbon monoxide and the like every time they’re used. I can hardly imagine all of the waste gases produced by the millions of vehicles all across the United States, let alone the entire world.
Yet, we continue to use automobiles without really thinking about it. This extensive use has led to radical changes in modern society. Take roads, for example, those dark surfaces that automobiles travel on. As much as half of a city’s surface can be developed just for roads. Buildings rise up and pedestrians walk next to them. In addition, highways criss-cross the landscape and even the government funds their development and maintenance. If not for the automobile, there would be no roads, then there would be no easy way for us to travel anywhere. Imagine that!
While automobiles have enabled physical communication, microchips, my third — and newest — choice, have enabled digital communication. To a layman, the word ‘microchip’ probably brings up the imagery of a computer or some fancy and exotic electronic equipment. That certainly is true; every electronic item, from refrigerators to radios, from telephones to television sets, has microchips embedded deep into its system. Without the microchip, your fancy PalmPilot would be nothing more than an ornament to be displayed on a shelf.
Many people, especially engineers, would probably say that microchips are not as important as the even smaller devices that make them work, the transistors. However, I disagree with that view. While transistors are wonderful little things, they are useful only when they are put together into an integrated circuit, and then these circuits put together to build microchips. Microchips, in my opinion, do all the real work that powers electronic items. As we head into the twenty-first century, microchips will continue to play an important role in making us become more technologically advanced.
The future certainly seems promising in terms of new inventions we will come up with to make our lives better than they are now. But we must not forget the old inventions, from the ordinary to the fantastic, that have helped us get there. To that end, I salute these three wondrous inventions that have become a part of our everyday lives: paper, automobiles and microchips. Of course, there are other brilliant inventions, like plastic, but I think these three are the ones deserving of a place in the history books.