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Understanding the Inventions that Changed the World

Understanding the Inventions that Changed the World

Professor W. Bernard Carlson Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Course No.  1110
Course No.  1110
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

We’re surrounded by inventions. Consider the clocks, appliances, and transportation that coordinate our days. Or the televisions, cell phones, and social media that connect us to each other. And the shopping malls, department stores, and catalogs that define the modern retailing experience.

Where did all these inventions come from? How do they work? And how do they reflect—even define—the values of our culture? From prehistoric times to the 21st century, inventions have changed the world, enabling humans to produce more food and energy and to establish social order and cultural meaning. In fact, great inventions have marked a number of key turning points in human history, transforming society and our daily lives. For instance:

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We’re surrounded by inventions. Consider the clocks, appliances, and transportation that coordinate our days. Or the televisions, cell phones, and social media that connect us to each other. And the shopping malls, department stores, and catalogs that define the modern retailing experience.

Where did all these inventions come from? How do they work? And how do they reflect—even define—the values of our culture? From prehistoric times to the 21st century, inventions have changed the world, enabling humans to produce more food and energy and to establish social order and cultural meaning. In fact, great inventions have marked a number of key turning points in human history, transforming society and our daily lives. For instance:

  • The invention of clocks redefined our sense of time, life, and labor.
  • Telescopes and microscopes led to the scientific method of observation.
  • Access to clean water has perhaps saved more lives than any other technology in the history of the world.
  • Coal power gave rise to iron and steel, the basic materials of the Industrial Revolution.
  • The integrated circuit opened the floodgates for our world of modern electronics.

Now, you can learn the remarkable stories surrounding such monumental inventions—and how consequential these inventions were to history—in Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World. Taught by Professor W. Bernard Carlson of the University of Virginia, who is an expert on the role of innovation in history, these 36 enlightening lectures give you a broad survey of material history, from the ancient pottery wheel to the Internet and social media. Along with recounting the famous inventions you might expect, such as the steam engine, the airplane, and the atomic bomb, this course explores a number of surprising innovations, including beer, pagodas, and the operating room.

You’ll see how each invention is not only a product of engineering know-how, but a result of social and cultural conditions as well. You’ll meet some of the inventors and companies responsible for these innovations, and you’ll investigate what inspired these ideas. You’ll also get an inside look at the sometimes spirited competition between innovators to see who could develop—and market—the best, most cost-effective product.

From ancient China to 21st-century America, from the English coal mines to the high-tech companies of Silicon Valley, this course takes you around the world and across the ages to show you some of the most innovative moments in human civilization. This unique approach to history will boost your technology literacy and give you a completely new appreciation for the everyday objects around you.

Discover the Mechanics of Great Inventions

Material form has shaped the course of human history. In many ways, ours is a story of producing more—more calories, more work, more goods—with the same finite resources. Remarkably, while the materials and production techniques have changed over the centuries, from bronze to semiconductors and from the waterwheel to the assembly line, the process of invention remains largely the same. You’ll discover some key methods that have informed innovation for thousands of years:

Close observation: The great inventors pay attention to details. Close observation allowed ancient metallurgists to develop copper tools and bronze weapons. This same technique allowed 20th-century scientists to develop semiconductors, which are responsible for all of today’s electronics.

Invention by analogy: Inventors often borrow an existing idea and adapt it to another purpose. For instance, ancient potters created coiled pots modeled on the woven baskets already in existence. Similarly, Thomas Edison dreamed up motion pictures as a visual equivalent of the sound recordings played on a phonograph.

Thinking in terms of systems: Inventions don’t exist in a vacuum. Edison’s incandescent light bulb required a network of wires and generators. Likewise, cable television and cellular telephones require networks of computers, cables, satellites, and devices in order to work. Many inventors you study succeeded because they didn't design one machine but an entire system of coordinated devices.

Cultural contact: The story of inventions is the story of cultural contact, from the way merchants developed currencies and alphabets to facilitate trade between different societies, to the 21st-century political revolutions spurred on by social media and the introduction of new ideas into closed societies. You’ll compare and contrast how different cultures approach technical problems, and you’ll see how ideas spread around the globe.

Some of the great innovations you’ll explore are “vernacular inventions,” meaning they are the product of a group or community rather than a single individual. But with modern inventions in particular, we often know the individual responsible. In addition to studying how invention happens, you’ll enjoy learning about the personalities of notable figures such as

  • Leonardo da Vinci,
  • Prince Henry the Navigator,
  • Thomas Edison,
  • Nikola Tesla,
  • Alexander Graham Bell,
  • Henry Ford, and
  • Grace Hopper.

Explore the Turning Points in Human History

We often think of history in terms of great events—the invasions and battles and rulers of the world. But history is also a result of the interplay between individuals and technology. From bronze armor to the crossbow, and from gunpowder to nuclear weapons, the materials of war have shaped the nature of battle and, often, determined the victor. Professor Carlson gives you an intriguing look at some of the key points in our historical narrative from a wholly unique vantage point:

Early civilizations: Ancient humans are often classified as “primitive,” but in fact their inventions show they were capable of devising and controlling remarkably complex technical processes, such as the smelting of copper from ore and the brewing of beer from grains.

The shift into the modern era: From the waterwheel, our first major energy source beyond the muscle power of humans, to Prince Henry’s navigation techniques to get ships around the Horn of Africa, you’ll look at the inventions that moved humans out of the ancient world and into the modern.

The Industrial Revolution: Coal, steel, steam engines, and railroads—see how inventors and entrepreneurs used these technologies to increase speed, scale, and coordination, all of which led to dramatic improvements in productivity in the 19th century.

The “Mass” Century: The 20th century brought an unprecedented volume of goods, services—and threats—to the masses. Examine the inventions that allowed for mass production, mass consumption, mass media, and mass destruction.

The Information Age: It’s a brave new world, where messages are translated into binary code and transmitted instantly around the globe. Learn about personal computing, the Internet, search engines, and programming that make it possible.

In studying these turning points, you’ll also explore the icons of industry and discover the origins of some of our most recognizable brands, including

  • Ford Motor Company;
  • General Electric;
  • Sears, Roebuck & Co.;
  • Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P);
  • Hoover, Maytag, and Whirlpool;
  • NBC, CBS, and ABC;
  • Proctor & Gamble;
  • Texas Instruments;
  • Intel;
  • Apple; and
  • Google.

You’ll Never Look at the World the Same Way Again

These lectures feature an array of charts, diagrams, and demonstrations that will help you understand the science that underpins the world’s great inventions. Scientists, engineers, and laypeople alike will delight in finding out how all the wheels, gears, engines, and circuits operate, and you’ll come away with a solid understanding of what it took to create these inventions—both from an engineering stance and from a sociocultural perspective.

Professor Carlson clearly explains the key concepts, from the chemistry of distillation to the physics of electric currents to the principles behind computer programming. A witty storyteller, he packs the course with fascinating nuggets of information you can’t get anywhere else. You’ll find out where U.S. time zones came from, why Clarence Birdseye’s name fills your grocery store’s frozen foods aisle, and how 4G cellular signals actually work.

A dazzling introduction to the history of technology and innovation, Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World will change the way you see the world—and it will transform the way you think about business, economics, science, technology, and the course of human history.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Great Inventions in Everyday Life
    We’re surrounded by great inventions that have transformed our daily lives, from the steam engine to the Internet. Begin your exploration of great inventions by considering just how pervasive inventions truly are. Do we notice them in the world around us? Do we know how they work? Who invented them, and why? x
  • 2
    The Potter’s Wheel and Metallurgy
    Step back to the Stone Age and look at the craft of pottery and the development of metals. Although we might think of ancient people as “primitive,” early humans were remarkably observant about the world around them, which led to several complex inventions. x
  • 3
    Beer, Wine, and Distilled Spirits
    One of the recurring themes in the history of invention is the way technology leads to material abundance. See how the Agricultural Revolution changed life for early humans. Then trace the development of alcoholic beverages from the earliest days of civilization through the Middle Ages and consider the cultural insights alcohol can offer. x
  • 4
    The Galley, Coins, and the Alphabet
    In addition to creating material abundance, technology, whether it’s an oxcart or a telecommunications network, facilitates interaction between people. Explore the role of trade in early societies and how ships, coins, and the alphabet shaped the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean. x
  • 5
    Crossbows East and West
    To study the way people have used technology to secure and maintain political power, journey east to China and examine the role of the crossbow in the Warring States Era. As the world’s first machine with interchangeable parts, the crossbow is a marvel of engineering that shaped the political history of China for centuries. x
  • 6
    Roman Arches—Aqueducts and the Colosseum
    We’re all familiar with the glory of Roman engineering, from the Romans’ system of roads to their impressive monuments. How did these structures work from a technical standpoint? And why build them? Delve into Roman history and explore the way in which technology served state ends. x
  • 7
    Waterwheels and Clocks
    Turn now to two inventions that moved humanity from the ancient to the modern world. The waterwheel was the first major energy source beyond human muscle and animal labor, which freed people to perform more sophisticated tasks. Meanwhile, the development of the mechanical clock redefined our sense of time. x
  • 8
    Pagodas and Cathedrals
    Inventions are more than merely practical things. This lecture shows you the evolution of the pagoda and the cathedral, which grew out of the spiritual practices of East Asia and Europe, respectively, and how religious beliefs can inspire remarkable developments in engineering and architecture. x
  • 9
    Paper and Printing
    Survey the development of writing from the days of clay tablets and parchment through the development of the printing press. You’ll learn about the surprising history of movable type, which originated in Asia hundreds of years before the Gutenberg press in Europe. You’ll also see how different cultural circumstances shaped the impact of different inventions. x
  • 10
    Gunpowder, Cannons, and Guns
    The story of invention is often the story of cultural contact. Witness the origins of gunpowder in ancient China and trace its movement into Europe. Then, shift your attention to the development of gunpowder weapons and consider how cannons, rifles, and handguns changed the face of warfare as well as the world’s political and social structures. x
  • 11
    Telescopes and Microscopes
    You might assume that all inventions arise from science, but this is not always so. As the history of telescopes and microscopes demonstrates, the invention of new technology facilitates scientific advances. In this case, optical technology drove the Scientific Revolution, allowing Galileo and others to establish the scientific method of observation. x
  • 12
    The Caravel and Celestial Navigation
    Discover the story of Prince Henry the Navigator. His promotion of ship design and navigation during the 15th century arguably marked the start of our modern way of deliberately using technology to shape society. Better ships, information about wind and currents, and new navigation techniques brought about remarkable political and economic change in Europe. x
  • 13
    Unblocking the Power of Coal and Iron
    Turn now to the Industrial Revolution, which was marked by economies of speed, scale, and coordination, as well as improvements in transportation. To begin this story, you'll consider how the high thermal output of coal allowed for new uses of iron, which led to bigger, stronger machines that drove the new economy. x
  • 14
    Steam Engines and Pin Making
    Continue your investigation of the Industrial Revolution with a look at how the invention of the steam engine allowed us to produce more goods more efficiently. Then examine the division of labor and Adam Smith’s story of pin making to see how the integration of social and technical innovations caused dramatic improvements in production. x
  • 15
    Canals and Railroads
    How do you stimulate the economy and create more wealth? In the 18th and 19th centuries, canals and railroads provided the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. Investigate the engineering challenges of creating nationwide transportation systems, and explore the connection between infrastructure and the economy. x
  • 16
    Food Preservation
    The modern food industry appeared during the Industrial Revolution as advancements in canning and refrigeration allowed for the long-term storage of fruits and vegetables and the preservation of meat. These advancements transformed the American marketplace, redefined the cultural meaning of “home,” and laid the groundwork for the range of year-round products in today’s grocery stores. x
  • 17
    Water and Sewer Systems
    Chart the history of both water and sewer systems and see how they changed the world in the 19th century. From the Roman aqueducts to the London sewer system to indoor plumbing, a clean water supply has saved more lives than any other technology, a prime example of how inventions truly serve the public good. x
  • 18
    Batteries and Electric Generators
    How do you produce electricity? And once it’s produced, how do batteries and generators deliver it? Take a fascinating look at where these fundamental inventions came from and how they work. You’ll study the relationship between electricity and magnetism, the difference between direct and alternating currents, and the role of science and experimentation. x
  • 19
    Cameras, Telephones, and Phonographs
    The mid-19th century saw the rise of analog communications, where film and electric currents were used as substitutes for an object or message. Meet the inventors of the first information age—among them, Louis Daguerre, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison—and learn how they made information and knowledge widely available to millions. x
  • 20
    Electric Light and Power
    Electricity profoundly reshaped American culture and set the stage for the major inventions of the 20th century. This lecture introduces you to the history and science of electricity—arc lighting, the incandescent lamp, motors, and direct versus alternating currents. Learn about the inventions of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and the rivalry between their electric companies. x
  • 21
    Department Stores and Modern Retailing
    Shift your attention away from technology and production to the consumption side of the story. The 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to three new ways to shop: the department store, the mail-order catalog, and chain stores. Examine how these new ways of selling goods shaped American life—and gave rise to some of our most iconic brands. x
  • 22
    Motion Pictures
    The 20th century can be seen as the “mass” century—mass production, mass market, and mass destruction. Add to the list mass entertainment, exemplified by the rise of Hollywood and the film industry. Track the development of motion pictures—and the inventions that made them possible. x
  • 23
    Surgery and the Operating Room
    Pain. Bleeding. Infection. Medicine before the 19th century was not a pleasant affair, especially when it came to surgery. Explore innovations in medicine—the operating room, sterilization procedures, and antibiotics—and discover some of the social challenges to introducing these innovations—including obstruction from the doctors themselves. x
  • 24
    Steel, Glass, and Plastics
    The engineering trends of the 20th century—economy of scale, mechanization, and scientific experimentation—were based on new materials. Dive into the world of steel, glass, and plastics and find out how these materials transformed our daily lives and our expectation of what the world should look like. x
  • 25
    The Model T
    Other than the personal computer, the Model T may be the single most important technology artifact of the 20th century. After surveying the history of automobiles, this lecture introduces you to Henry Ford and tells the story of the Model T—the car that changed the way Americans thought about travel and launched a consumer revolution. x
  • 26
    Aviation—The “Wright” Time for Flight
    The story of aviation has one of the most important lessons in understanding great inventions—that social or political circumstances are as important for an invention’s success as the technology itself. Trace the development of aviation from the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk through the jet age. x
  • 27
    Radio and Television
    The sudden emergence of broadcasting in the 1920s upended existing business arrangements and led to the competition between the broadcast networks that are still with us today. Learn about the technology of radio and television, the challenges broadcasters faced, the origin of radio commercials, and the cultural effects of these new communications technologies. x
  • 28
    Nuclear Power
    Study two of the major inventions of the 20th century, nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Nuclear technology has inspired the utopian dream of cheap, abundant electricity as well as the apocalyptic fear of annihilation. This captivating lecture gives you a look at the inner workings—and risks—of nuclear bombs and reactors. x
  • 29
    Household Appliances
    Drawing on themes of previous lectures—the widespread availability of electric power, the mass production of goods, and consumer distribution channels—this lecture shows you how appliances such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines were invented, how they changed life in American homes, and how they act as symbols for the middle class. x
  • 30
    Electronics and the Chip
    See how the combination of several essential functions—the detection of radio waves, the amplification of weak signals, and the operation of switches—led to all of our electronic gadgets, from radios to computers. Professor Carlson takes you into the fascinating world of vacuum tubes, transistors, and integrated circuits. x
  • 31
    Satellites and Cell Phones
    We all have cell phones, but how many of us know how they actually work? Visit the world of communications satellites, radio towers, and mobile networks. You’ll take an in-depth look at how bandwidth, infrastructure, and competition between companies like Motorola and AT&T have allowed for truly global communications. x
  • 32
    Personal Computing
    Embark on a tour of personal computing, beginning with its roots in IBM’s business machines in the 1920s and the massive electronic calculators of World War II. Then compare the mainframes of the 1960s with today’s PCs and consider the key roles of software programming and graphical user interfaces. x
  • 33
    Genetic Engineering
    This lecture tracks the story of genetics from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick. Then turn to genetic engineering—the direct manipulation of an organism’s hereditary information by introducing foreign DNA or synthetic genes. This technology—PCR—has important applications for today’s agriculture, medicine, forensics, and more. x
  • 34
    The Internet
    Where did the World Wide Web come from? How does it work? This story begins with the conversion from analog to digital, from communication to information. Go inside the world of file sharing, packet switching, the Defense Department’s inter-network, email, and finally, web browsers, search engines, and Internet advertising. x
  • 35
    Social Media and Democracy
    Inventions are not necessarily “finished” until they are put into the hands of consumers, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of social media, where a Tunisian blogger can be as much an “inventor” of Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg. This lecture looks at the evolution of social media and its role in recent political events around the world. x
  • 36
    Inventions and History
    What lessons can we learn about technological creativity from history? How does studying inventions change our understanding of history? As you wrap up your course, reflect on what you’ve learned about the material dimension of history, consider the nature of progress, and take away some key messages about how we can “use yesterday’s technology to solve tomorrow’s problems today.” x

Lecture Titles

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W. Bernard Carlson
Ph.D. W. Bernard Carlson
University of Virginia

Dr. W. Bernard Carlson is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Engineering Business Program. He earned his A.B. from College of the Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. He then studied business history as the Harvard-Newcomen Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Business School. Professor Carlson has received numerous awards, including the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology for his seven-volume work, Technology in World History. He is the author of Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900 and, most recently, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. Professor Carlson serves on the board of directors of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and as the executive secretary for the Society for the History of Technology.

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by 21 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Superb -- one of my favourites! Easy to recommend this excellent series of lectures. Dr Carlson does a champion job selecting and presenting topics in a natural, logical sequence. Clearly, not all inventions can be covered, not even all the major inventions: the Professor's choices were spot-on within the limitations of 36 lectures. His style is easy, friendly, with no tics or oddities. I warmed to him very quickly, partially because it is so evident he is enchanted by his area of expertise. I didn't find his moving around in the studio or his frequent hand gestures to be distracting. The production of this very recent course is superb, with fine, smooth camera work and an abundance of graphics including movie clips. The professor also uses some of the props in studio to demonstrate inventions. All this makes the lectures highly compelling, lively and interesting. Well done indeed. I learned to type when very young, before home computers, and I was hoping for a lecture on the typewriter but it never came. A bit strange because there was a lovely old manual typewriter (a Remington?) sitting there on the set during every talk, and the typewriter was one of the most important inventions of recent times, particularly for business, and we still use the impractical QWERTY format. Other reviewers have noted that this is more a history course than an engineering course, and I think this is as it should be, for not all inventions can be considered engineering. Further, it is necessary to consider the economic and cultural aspects when seeking to understand inventions, to learn how inventions affected society. This is a marvellous course, whether you're dead serious about the topic, or just want some very fine entertainment! July 23, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by ? Understanding The whole question is what is meant by 'understanding'. I saw the professor's credentials that were very impressive- they were in the department of engineering. The problem with this course was that you are lucky if you get 1-2 minutes of the mechanics of the inventions. Diagrams are only briefly provided and are so short that it is hard to understand the mechanism-even by rewinding several times. What you do get under the rubric of understanding is 'world history'-while interesting is for me redundant with some of the other clearly labeled history courses. This man clearly loves his subject but he is not a dynamic speaker. My low rating is based on my degree of disappointment. This course should be called the 'History of the inventions that changed the world'. July 24, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Interesting, However...... This particular course is difficult for me to review. It has many, many good points, and I did come away with some knowledge that I had not had prior to this course. Here are my key observations: 1) Remember that this course is being marketed as a HISTORY course. The course title, "Understanding the Inventions that Changed the World," is a bit misleading. If you are looking for material that covers how inventions work, from a scientific viewpoint, this is NOT it. This course is not comparable to either one of Dr. Ressler's courses on structures, or Ancient Technology, for example. If that is what you are looking for, look elsewhere. 2) Within the parameters of a history course, there is much to be gleaned here. Dr. Carlson explains, how socioeconomic conditions were before the invention being considered, and, how things were different afterwards. There is a heavy economic slant in the presentations, with many terms freely used, such as: economies of scale, and diminishing returns. 3) Although there are explanations of how inventions work, this material is very elementary and basic. Although this great course is marketed as a visual course, to me, at least, I think it should be offered as a audio only version. There are many times, in which the video offered very little in the overall comprehension of the material. For example. in discussing household appliances, and, in particular the washing machine, one did not really need to see the pictures of a modern washer. However, if one has not seen earlier forms of washing clothes, such as the washboard, and the ringer washer, this could be revealing. 4) As others have mentioned, although the professor is interesting, he is not the real dynamic professor, that one often has come to expect from the Great Courses. His style is very different from Dr. Greenberg, Dr. Paxton, and Dr. Harl, for example. In conclusion, if you are looking how the invention changed the daily way-of-life, this is the place. However, it is not the place to see the intricate inner workings of these inventions. I do feel, that since the category is so broad, it would have been better to divide the inventions into Ancient/Pre-Industrial Revolution, and more 'modern' ones. Perhaps TTC will consider this if any revisions are done. July 22, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by too vast a subject When I saw the first description of this course, I ordered it immediately. It is a subject of great interest, but I found the course was not quite what I expected. It is stronger on the cultural and social implications of inventions, but generally weaker on the scientific explanations. In some cases, the descriptions are so vague and sketchy as to be of little use. Part of this is just due to having topics that need more than merely 30 minutes to discuss and evaluate. More time would have made a big difference. Other reviewers have commented on delivery and style, so I needn't go over those again. I think Carlson did a very good job of selecting his inventions and grouping them in a meaningful way so that the progress and inter-relationships of many major fields was quite clear. May 19, 2014
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