Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World

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

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
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 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 Metallurg
    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

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Your professor

W. Bernard Carlson

About Your Professor

W. Bernard Carlson, Ph.D.
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...
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Understanding the Inventions That Changed the World is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 79.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is one of the best courses I've purchased! I am happy to recommend this course. I bought it on DVD and found myself excited to come home from work each night to watch another segment each evening. Professor Carlson has a passion for his subject, and it shows. The thing I enjoyed most about Professor Carlson that sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries is that he uses more illustrative and engaging stories to make his points instead of rattling off lecture content and theory. As a professional presenter myself, I was impressed to see that he used a good ratio of 80% stories and 20% content which is the public standard for professional presentation. He held my attention from start to finish. I came away with a full understanding of how things came about, what inventors did, gained a treasure of historical information, and there was some touches of humor that really livened up the course. Bravo and FIVE stars for this one--I'm looking forward to watching this one again and again. Love it!
Date published: 2015-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Prof can't present The content of "Understanding Inventions that Changed the World" is very good, though the assertion that beer, wine and spirits are a way to store food is absurd. They aren't food, they are intoxicants. But Professor Carlson's presentation is terrible. He has no taste in clothes whatsoever. His hand gestures are overdone and very distracting. Maybe worst of all is his reading of the teleprompter. He stumbles over and over and over again. I cringe listening to him. I could do better, and I'm no public speaker.
Date published: 2015-03-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not Engaging Lectures are sometimes rambling, and not engaging. Information is presented in a boring fashion. Lecturer has a droning voice, that is easy to tune out. Much of this material could easily be presented in an exciting story like fashion. Instead, the facts are given, but without the proper historical significance, relevance, or context. Maybe I have just read too much history, but this course rarely engaged my attention. Poor use of potential visual aids.
Date published: 2015-02-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from the invention of the Violin is missing The course is good but I was surprised because there are no mentions to the inventions of musical instruments at all. Music is such an important subject in the cultural life of humankind that the inventions of music instruments really had an enormous impact in civilization and our daily life... specially classic music. The invention of the Baroque Violin, around the 16th century, lead to other inventions of other musical instruments and a completely new musical expression from from the Classic composers such as Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven that are at the top list for the most genius expression of human beings It was the Baroque violin the reason for the great evolution of classic music and the opportunity for such music genius to appear and develop The violin is the most successful invention of humankind, as even after 500 years of its creation, nobody have found a better way to make it sound better... the form is still almost untouched from the very beginning That is an amazing fact of artisan success, a product made entirely by human hands, since the beginning of the 16th century until the 21st century , the violin had basically the same form ever since... that all modern artisans simply enjoy to copy... that ´s amazing... today, we still can listen a violin made by Stradivarius following the same original shape 1500 years with small improvements, playing with the most marvelous sound produced in the universe... and all the modern artisans simply reproduce copies of Stradivarius, or the Amati that´s an incredible product success that no other product created by man ever achieved it is a pity that in such important course, there is no mention to the invention of the violin...
Date published: 2015-02-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from College Flashback There have been times in college where I took a class because I was really interested in the content, but my enjoyment of the class was hindered somewhat by the presentation of the lecturer. That was my challenge with this course. When the presenter was interested in the topic, he was more animated, and the session moves right along. The content interested me, but there were times when the presentation paused, stuttered, or dragged. The videos would have benefitted from some editing or retakes. The only content gripes I had were with items I felt were left out: use of fossil fuels and the development of space travel. Space is covered only incidentally in talking about satellites, but it enabled historical technological achievements (moon landing, exploration of the solar system, and observations of the universe as a whole). Fossil fuels have had technological, political, economic, and environmental impacts. Despite these gripes, the course provides a broad-sweep look at the technologies that make our civilization possible. The presenter also provides multiple contexts for technologies are developed. The course is worth watching, but requires a little patience.
Date published: 2015-02-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Misnamed Course There is a lot of really interesting material in this course. However, most of the material focuses on understanding how the inventions affected history rather than on understanding how the inventions worked. That was really disappointing as I was much more interested in the how than in the affect. I was also a bit frustrated due to the objects on the set, like the typewriter, that he never talks about. With all the inventions which were discussed, did he really need props he wasn't going to discuss? (Ok, this is rather a little nit, but I was looking forward to hearing about these things and never did.) Another nit to pick was how he pronounced some words. His uncommon pronunciations were distracting. For example, a hard 'g' in longitude. Finally, his presentation was not engaging. Many of the lectures are short of 30 minutes and the average is only 29. Of the 90+ courses I've watched, this is the only course where I felt cheated when the lecture finished shy of 30 minutes. He couldn't take another few minutes to explain how the thing worked in more detail? Also, more demonstrations in the studio would have been nice. Some reviewers have noted that there are important inventions that were not discussed. While some of the choices Carlson made seem questionable to me, I don't know how all the important inventions could have been discussed in a mere 36 lectures. In fact, I might have preferred him discussing fewer inventions in more depth! So, after the above complaints, how can I still give 3 stars and recommend the course? Although frustrating, there is still a lot of good information in the course. And, as long as you realize it's more about the inventions' affect on history than about how they work, it's an ok course. (I purchased the DVD version of this course.)
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This is an interesting history course, starting at early prehistoric times to the present. I was amazed that some of things in life we take for granted were discovered long ago, and generally refined for todays time. A lot of material is covered, but in some cases more detail would have been more informative. I would recommend this course to anyone interesting in early Engineering, good material for someone working in Engineering to see what in involved in new product development. Also how much time elapsed from conception to actual usable product.
Date published: 2015-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Things we should know Of course much of this information is known to anyone with a good education and a reasonable amount of curiosity. But a good review draws our attention to the interconnectedness.of so much progress, and many facts and details are presented here which give some depth to the overview. One can never know too much.
Date published: 2015-01-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Just a so-so presentation I've rated this course only average in comparison with the other 7 Great Courses I have enjoyed all of which were essentially historical in content. My main disappointment with this one is not in its content but in the prof's presentation. He is uninspiring. His delivery is as though he is reading from a teleprompter and in a hurry to finish his sentences. His speech inflection is very repetitive in most sentences and his hand gestures are annoying. The graphic presentations of some of the inventions, e.g. the cross-bow, are so simple that they do not adequately represent how the device operates. I have to wonder if a first-time viewer of the Great Courses would be deterred from ordering future courses based on this one alone. So, I'm learning from this Course and will complete all of it but its presentation is mediocre.
Date published: 2015-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Curious I have always been driven with a curiousity about how the physical world works My observations of the world around us are enhanced by the explinations i get from, "The Great Courses"
Date published: 2015-01-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Understanding Inventions... While the content is interesting, I feel it is more sociology than engineering - not necessarily a bad thing, but not what I was expecting. The presenter doesn't seem as relaxed or engaging as I would prefer.
Date published: 2014-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masterful! W. Bernard Carlson's review of inventions - and of inventors - across time weaves technology with history, sociology, and political science in a stunning synthesis, the scope of which is truly impressive. The lectures are polished, well organized, very well delivered, and aided with graphics, photographs, and occasional demonstrations. It will not be lost on the viewer that Carlson's own work in this course bears all the intellectual marks of the greatest inventions it covers.
Date published: 2014-11-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Serious omission In a course that purports to itemize the most significant inventions in human history, how can the invention of the loom and weaving be omitted? It was the weaving of cloth by pre-historic stone age man that permitted him to survive the ice ages. The same invention is still used today on a massive scale. How shortsighted must the professor be?
Date published: 2014-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Inventions That Changed My Thinking The difference between invention and discovery, between science and technology, between engineering and scientific thought are clearly explained with examples and sound reasoning to help us understand those differences. I especially like the Final Thoughts section at the end of each lecture, neatly summarizing the importance each topic has to the theme of the course. Though a little dry at times if you aren't paying close attention, you don't want to miss key points which are carefully texted at the bottom of the screen. This is a course that perhaps necessitates a readjustment or expansion of your thinking. Very satisfying and worth a repeat watch.
Date published: 2014-11-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from ? 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'.
Date published: 2014-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2014-07-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-07-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-05-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Torn between watching and just listening This course is offered only on video as there is much to see that could not be portrayed by audio alone. However, I found watching the video, at times, boring. Professor Carlson is very knowledgeable in this field but lacks the screen presence of so many of TTC's other professors. He starts out very stiff and monotonic and does improve in later lectures, but never reaches the charisma of so many other lecturers. He appears to be reading the prompter and this same sentence is frequently shown on the screen for us to read simultaneously. He also walks around so much that I was getting seasick watching him. And who decided that we needed to see the pictures of the inventors twice on the screen, one a mirror image of the other. That all being said, I learned a lot from the course, although not necessarily the mechanics of the invention but rather the social implications of the invention. I enjoyed the earlier lectures more than the latter -- maybe because I knew so much about the later inventions (I've worked with computers since 1963#. Some of these seemed to skip significant periods in the development of the item. For example, he skips from Admiral Hopper #World War II# to the IBM 360 #1964) and misses a very important period of development in the main frame computer industry. He never even mentions the mini-computer as what went between the main frames and the personal computers. The use of graphics was very good but Professor Carlson seems to fumble with many of the actual models that were used. After watching Professor Ressler work with his models Professor Carlson seems all thumbs. As already mentioned I really missed a timeline in the Course Guidebook. While I know this review sounds quite negative, I still recommend it -- we learn a lot about the mechanics of each invention but more about the impact that invention had on us humans.
Date published: 2014-03-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Very interesting but The course is carefully thought out, well researched, and often presents innovations in a new light. But I have a few complaints: The professor is not an outstanding presenter. This would not be so serious in itself but it seems that as he reads the prompts, he is somewhat nervous and as a result occasionally makes rather serious mistakes that make one wonder how many unnoticed mistakes there are in the rest of the material. As an example, I have just listened to his lecture on Nuclear Energy. In it, he states, for example, that the chain reaction 'is not a geometric process but an arithmetic one'. I do not think that he means it, but believe that he misread his text and was perhaps embarrassed to correct himself. Which raises the question of quality control. In the same lecture he states that the Soviet Union 'invaded' Eastern Europe at the end of WWII. He can't mean this seriously either - would he say that the remaining allies invaded Western Europe? All of them considered USSR to be a liberator at that time, notwithstanding its ultimate intentions. These are just two examples but more can be found throughout the course. I also have a problem with the professor's pronunciation of foreign words - be they Latin words or names of scientists and engineers. Listening to him horribly mistreating the names of people that he undoubtedly and deservedly admires is deeply embarrassing. Couldn't he or somebody from Teaching Company go to the trouble and find how to pronounce them at least reasonably well? Unfortunately, this is not unique to this course and is found across the many courses that I have listened to so far. Again, proper preparation and quality control should guarantee that this does not happen in otherwise mostly excellent presentations.
Date published: 2014-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential Knowledge Prof Carlson puts an important topic in an approachable, yet sophisticated format. This topic should be required learning, even as early as high school.
Date published: 2014-02-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hstri Like my spelling of history in the title. This course is condensed and modified from an actually history of technology course into a series of brief overviews and opinion. Each invention is given a 'complete' history in 25 minutes or less. Railroads whizzed by 13 minutes while the entire history of network radio was broadcast in 3 minutes. Even topics like the automobile and the airplane that received a full lecture suffered from intro/outro syndrome where the professor told a cute story for two minutes at the beginning and pontificated for three on weighty matters leaving about 23 minutes for actual content in the 28 minute lectures. Combine this with a somewhat slower speaking style and the occasional restarting of sentences and you have a content lite history of an entire invention that your could often spend a legitimate college course studying. In fact I have done or plan on doing just that with roman architecture, cathedrals and motion pictures. In a sense I would compare it to teaching Western Civ by giving 25 minute lectures on the history of each country. Greece in 25 minutes, Rome in 25 minutes, the United States in 25 minutes. It could be done this way, but it hardly seems the most effective approach. To add a few positives to my grumpiness. The lecturer clearly knew his material and had some excellent insights into the effects inventions have had on history. I definitely did learn things I never knew before especially in areas that fell outside of my own specialty interests or things covered as part of other Great Courses history. This was actually a surprise as I don't think of professors like Bucholz, Harl or Aldrete teaching technology in their history courses, but I would suddenly remember them talking about a subject I was learning about in this course. If you have no knowledge of technology or simply skip topics you have a passing knowledge of, this course will give you a satellite picture view of the subject. Sadly it is an opportunity wasted by trying to compress too much into too little time. If the Great Courses ever offers say a 48 lecture course by this professor on the Industrial Revolution or the Transportation Revolution, I would be clicking buy so fast I would sprain my clicking finger. With a large platform to spread his knowledge on a specific theme this professor would be excellent.
Date published: 2014-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Endlessly interesting As other reviewers have correctly pointed out, this is a history course and not an engineering one. You have to bear this in mind because there is far more information on the impact of the inventions than on the technical workings of the inventions themselves. I wouldn't mind seeing a supplement with more of the engineering information!! Professor Carlson's lecturing was, perhaps, less "smooth" than many I have seen. I got the feeling that he was a bit overcoached about lecturing to a camera and I suspect he would be happier in front of a live audience. It is important to note, though, that he had no habits that were irritating or that distracted me from listening and enjoying the lectures. Once his personality started shining through, my primary impression was that he is truly delighted with and passionate about the subject and that he would be a really fun person to have to dinner just to set him talking and be able to ask him questions. His concluding remarks in lecture 36 were the best summary and expression of personal philosophy I have heard from presenters of The Great Courses. They did a brilliant job of summing up the importance of the subject in general and gave me questions and ideas that I am still thinking about. There were a lot of inventions not covered, I would like to learn more about. I don't say this as a fault of the course. There is only so much you can do in 36 lectures and I thought he did a great job picking general categories and good examples. BUT there was one oddity: every lecture features a camera shot of an old typewriter. This is appropriate because the typewriter revolutionized office and business practices, had an enormous impact on women entering the workplace, and has an arrangement of letters that we still follow today on various keyboards. So . . . where was the lecture?
Date published: 2014-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the most informative I usually don't order DVDs because I have little free time and value Great Courses CDs I can listen to while driving. I'm glad I got this one--clearly explains the science behind great inventions and how they changed the world, absolutely fascinating.
Date published: 2013-12-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Material Haltingly Presented I'm a student of invention and the creative process in history... and have been lobbying the Teaching Company for over 5 years for a course with this content. So, I was very excited when this course was finally offered. The material is quite good -- far ranging with interesting factoids. (Who knew that beer was used by the Egyptians to preserve grain -- and that workers had a daily ration of it.) The range of subjects covered is also wonderful. For instance, including the creativity and "systems" approach to sailing inventions of Prince Henry the Navigator was unexpected and welcomed.I'm only giving a course a four however because the lecturer, while obviously knowledgable, is not particualrly comfortable delivering the material. As such, I found myself getting impatient, and at times wishing a lecture would end sooner that it actually did. The last lecture, where he sums up the thinking approaches and inventive methodologies exhibited throughout history, is exceptional.
Date published: 2013-12-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Different Perspective on Modern History First and foremost this is a History course. Perhaps a more appropriate course title would have been "Understanding HOW Inventions Changed the World" vs simply "Understanding THE Inventions..." This course is more about the impact each invention had on history than providing a detailed understanding of the inventions themselves. Even though I spent 35+ years engineering integrated circuits, my goal for this course was understanding the societal, political, and economic impact of various inventions in their respective historical time periods, not learning the full details of the technology or engineering of each invention.. The course certainly meets this goal. It also provides several enlightening observations; a few examples: 1)Beer and wine were developed as much for caloric food preservation purposes as for alcohol affects, 2)Wooden Japanese Pagodas have survived centuries of earthquakes because of specific technology built into them to absorb the shock waves, and 3)Romans built aqueducts and roads to last centuries because they not only believed in the permanence of their empire, but they also believed that technology would not change very much over time. In the various lectures Dr. Carlson explains cases where inventions were created to solve a societal problem (like water borne disease) and where the invention itself created a societal change that was not anticipated nor perceived to be needed (e.g.motion pictures). He also shows that not all inventions were motivated by economic or public welfare factors, some were for religious or other societal custom purposes. The course is organized largely along chronological lines with a good structure. I agree with some earlier reviews, the lecture on genetic engineering did seem a bit out of place being wedged between the lecture on Personal Computers and the one on the internet; two lectures which form a logical sequence. My guess is that Dr. Carlson wanted to end with the fashionable topic of Social Media with its perception of being the newest technology of the new millennium. However, he could have just as easily ended with Genetic Engineering given that the Human Genome was first fully sequenced in 2003 and the costs of genetic sequencing have fallen faster than Moore's Law in the past decade. Dr. Carlson's presentation style is scholarly and informative. In the first lecture, he appears very formal and somewhat stilted , but loosens up a bit by Lecture 3 on Beer, Wine and Distilled Spirits. (Hmm?). He is obviously using a teleprompter and in some lectures seems to be simply reading the text using hand gestures more to keep the "beat" than to add emphasis to his points. His accompanying demos are quite good, though in a few cases, the features he is trying to point out are too small to be seen well on the video (e.g. the magnets in the electric generator). The range of his voice intonation and volume is narrow, but it is sufficient to keep things interesting. Personally, I was so interested in this topic that I didn't need Dr. Carlson to be the most dynamic of the TGC speakers in order to get a lot out of the course. His knowledge of the historical context and impact of the inventions is impressive and is exactly what I was seeking from this course. Most of the lectures had an appropriate and informative level of content but a few could be improved. For his lectures on inventions from the 20th Century, Dr. Carlson typically tracked their proliferation up to current times. But in the 25 min long Lecture 25 on the automobile, the progeny of the Model T was only tracked until the rise of GM in 1948.. Surely with another 5 mins. the construction of interstate highways, the rise of the Japanese auto industry and small cars, and the advent of hybrid and electric cars could have at least been mentioned. Similarly, in the lecture on the internet, e-commerce is barely mentioned. And in the Social Media lecture, Arab Spring and restrictions in China dominate the entire lecture without much mention of the underlying technology .The production quality of this course is among the best I've seen in nearly 20 Great Courses. The individual lecture introduction graphical interlude is very creative. The segues within the lectures were quite useful and typically timed well with the professor's speech. The photos, videos, illustrations and "cartoons" used within the lecture were generally excellent. The props on the tables were different for each lecture and added to the course whether or not the professor actually used them. The course guide could be better. The individual lecture summaries are outstanding as is the bibliography. However, the guide could really benefit from a historical timeline with the inventions on one side and various coincident world events on the other. Given the number of inventor personalities mentioned in this course a section on biographical sketches also seems in order. A glossary may not be essential, but would also be a nice to have. I heartily recommend this course to anyone who is interested in understanding how inventions changed the mankind's role in the world. I thoroughly enjoyed this course, though I believe some improvements would make it a truly outstanding course.
Date published: 2013-11-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Exploration of Inventions The many categories of inventions explored in this course are very interesting, along with the context for such inventions. Having worked at Bell Labs for many years, I certainly related to the lectures on technology. I particularly enjoyed the lecture on retailing. The star in the Macy's logo was only one of the amazing things I learned about. I only wish that more female inventors were included in this course. The strength of this course lies in the professor's practical explanation of how the inventions work and how the knowledge of many people resulted in breakthroughs in technology.
Date published: 2013-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Context of Innovation Another reviewer complained that Carlson's lectures wander too far into the fields of economics and sociality (he forgot intellectuality). I see that integrative approach as their strength: they investigate various examples of innovation in their proper context. Furthermore, not only do they tell a story about what shapes creative innovation, but they also use technology as a way of "reverse engineering" social, economic, and intellectual history. I don't believe you can really understand technological history without this broad based approach. I strongly recommend the lectures.
Date published: 2013-10-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good but a bit lightweight Video download review. ©2013. Guidebook 273 pages. First I should say that I liked the course (just not as much as other courses I’ve seen). Worth noting is that the graphics are excellent—there are a boatload of still pictures and some really neat animations. In fact, I’d rank this course as having some of the best graphics of any course in the catalog. The stage setup was pretty good, too. There are lots of items on display and a few hands-on show-n-tell presentations on offer. It covers a lot of material over a huge period of time. So, in short, it was pretty good—always interesting and never dull. Some of the lectures are top notch: I loved a few of them, especially the one on pagodas, and oddly, the one on household appliances. You’re probably wondering what went wrong, right? Although I haven’t finished the Guidebook yet, I noticed a few mistakes, i.e. a couple of typos here and there and a misprinting of the Suggested Readings in Lectures 6 & 7. I wanted to follow up on Roman Arches (Lecture 6), but the readings are for Lecture 7. I thought that perhaps the Guidebook was hastily put together and would have profited from an additional proofreading. As far as the content goes, a bit of the content is covered in other TGC courses in much greater detail, for example telescopes and surgery, and oftentimes I found myself thinking, hey, I already learned about that in another course. Some lectures focused more on principles of operation, others history, and sometimes the effects of technology on society. As many of the lectures (not all of course) were only about 26-27 minutes, I wondered why a couple extra minutes weren’t used to beef up the lectures. The end result is that you feel that overall the course was interesting, but a little lightweight and delivered at an introductory level to a general audience. Lecture 33 seemed out of place. It was sandwiched between several lectures on computers and the Internet, and afterwards I felt sidetracked by the disrupted continuity. The professor’s delivery if usually pretty good; he’s expressive, gestures appropriately, walks around in just the right amounts, etc. But he often gets tongue-tied while reading the teleprompter. All in all, it’s good course. It covers a huge range of material, but not in too much detail. If you haven’t seen too many history and science courses, then sure, I recommend the course. But if you’ve already seen a good number of related courses, then maybe not so much.
Date published: 2013-10-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A wealth of interesting material I highly recommend this course for its breadth of information, meticulous research, and outstanding graphics. I particularly recommend the last lecture for its summary of how the creativity of inventors, history, and economics intersect. The graphics are impressive, with key points on banners ground out by a little machine, and important words popping up in midair. Having said that, I have given it four stars rather than five because I found its structure uneven, and the instructor is a bit less dynamic performer than some other Great Course presenters. I felt there was somewhat too much emphasis on some topics of obvious interest to Prof. Carlson, such as cross bows, the work of Nicola Tesla, and the accomplishments of Henry the Navigator. This is an invention-centric view of history, but strays off into philosophy, economics, and sociality more that I would have preferred. The key premises of the course, attributes of the process of inventing, are scattered throughout the course, but could use more consistent emphasis (as they get in #36, and a bit in #1). But these objections are minor when taken in the scope of a panorama of ten thousand years of human acomplishment. The bottom line is that this course is excellent material, well presented.
Date published: 2013-10-04
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