It’s not an overstatement to say that the last two years haven’t been the best couple of trips around the Sun in human history. So, as we say goodbye to 2021, and cross our fingers that 2022 might actually be a little bit better, let's celebrate some calendar periods that contained particularly impressive human achievements. We’ll only be looking at some of the more modern dates this time around, that is if you can technically class 500 years ago as modern. It’s just that pinpointing the exact year that fire was discovered and when the wheel was invented proved a little bit trickier than was envisioned.
The large quantities of pure graphite discovered at Borrowdale, Cumbria in 1564 were unprecedented. A year later, a Swiss naturalist named Conrad Gessner created the first depiction of graphite encased in wood, foretelling the invention of the modern pencil. It’s actually quite hard to quantify how this humble stylus revolutionised the way in which we visualise the world.
Up until this time, sketches would be made using either charcoal for crude mark-making or silverpoint for fine detailing. The problem with the former is that it was messy and unreliable, with a propensity to randomly crack and fracture, whereas the latter required a medium (parchment or paper) to be coated in a size, such as glue made from rabbit skin mixed with ground eggshell to create an abrasive surface. The pencil did away with all that.
Now artists could draw wherever they fancied at the drop of a beret. This was especially true after Napoleonic army officer, Nicolas-Jacques Conté, devised a method mixing various quantities of graphite with clay to alter its hardness and the modern pencil, as we know it, was born. Before you write in, the eraser on the end was added in 1858.
The invention of electricity is commonly attributed to Bostonian Benjamin Franklin in 1752, but it’s not a simple as that. English physicist William Gilbert, who invented the electroscope in 1600, might have something to say about this. Fellow Brit Sir Thomas Brown would also like to weigh in, as he coined the word ‘electricity’ in his book Pseudodoxia Epidemica (or ‘Vulgar Errors’ if your Latin isn’t up to scratch) in 1646.
However, Franklin’s genius lay in discovering that electricity flowed between positive and negative elements, allowing subsequent inventors, such as English chemist Humphrey Davy, to come up with the incandescent light bulb. This was 40 years before the American Thomas Edison created the modern (read that as commercially viable) electric light bulb in 1879. With the ongoing development of electric vehicles, the discovery of this physical phenomenon might even be sufficient to prevent the entire human race from boiling alive, which is nice.
Speaking of global annihilation, the humble railway is still one of the most competent ways of travelling. Even when Englishman Richard Trevithick launched the first practical steam locomotive in 1804, it was still more efficient than the internal combustion engine, even though it hadn’t been invented until eighty-two years later. The reason? A train may be a big carbon emitter, whether it be steam, electric or especially diesel powered, but it’s designed to carry a lot of passengers. Therefore, the per capita emissions in comparison to a conventional car are a lot lower. According to the International Energy Agency and International Union of Railways, worldwide, vehicles account for about 71% of transport CO2 emissions, and railways account for less than 1.8%.
Now that’s out the way we can turn briefly turn our attention to the impact railways have had on the globe, and it’s quite impressive. In addition to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gig at that disused railway station in Manchester in 1964, railways are responsible for unifying countries, forging new industries, allowing citizens and goods to travel more freely, and overall raising the standard of living. Finally, to ensure the railways' timetables worked, Greenwich Mean Time was legally adopted throughout the UK on 2nd August 1880. That’s right folks, railways invented time as we know it.
It’s almost easy to forget about the invention of the telephone. These days the concept of talking in real time to a person anywhere on the planet has been somewhat usurped by all the bells and whistles that come with that perpetual rectangle of bleeping stuff. But if many of us think back to our younger years, that lump of plastic that sat in the corner was as much a part of daily life as putting on one’s shoes.
It’s hard to credit one person with the invention of this device but, as we all know from school, Alexander Graham Bell patented the first phone in 1876. However, a telephone is wholly useless unless you can call people on it. So, the person we really have to thank for the ol’ dog ‘n’ bone is Tivadar Puskás de Ditró. Not for inventing the device per say, but for coming up with the concept of the telephone exchange. Thanks to Tivadar, it was possible for everyone to receive a call from a wrong number just as they’re about to step into a nice hot bath, for crying out loud.
Following its public demonstration by Scottish inventor John Logie Baird in 1926 (and a colour version two years later), the reaction to television was somewhat underwhelming. Early TV’s were very expensive, the screens were small and the wobbly black and white images they produced were bordering on the surreal. The BBC even turned off the television signal during World War Two, 13 years after it’d gone public, only switching it back on again on 7th June 1946, exactly one week before Logie Baird died. But in the USA, a mere five years after his death, ownership went from 60,000 to 12 million. By 1955, despite post-war austerity, half of America's homes had one.
In the UK, the growth was slower, but by the early ’70s, 91% of households had a TV, while 10% still had no indoor lavatory or bath, and 31% had no fridge. The impact the television has had on society is incalculable. It provides a window into a wider world - we take global news and international events for granted - and remains the ultimate source of entertainment for more than 1.4 billion households over the world. And throughout that entire time, no child ever came away with square eyes, Mum.