The Firsts of Things: A Sneak-Peek into the History of some Inventions

Oct 17, 2016 | History, Science

In early 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci, the great artist, inventor and engineer created a design for a flying machine that could take a vertical flight. Known as an “aerial screw”, it was possibly the first design of a helicopter. With limited scientific knowledge and machines at his disposal, it is quite fascinating that he could conceive such a machine at the time, considering that the first practical helicopter took flight almost 450 years later in 1939!

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Science and technology is constantly evolving and inventions that are commonplace or even junk for a generation were once major breakthroughs for an earlier generation. The first mobile phone invented a little over 40 years ago was 23 cm long, weighed 1.1 kg, took 10 hours to recharge and offered a talk time of just 30 minutes! Hard to imagine using such a mobile phone today, isn’t it? But although the looks, functioning and technology might change over time, the first inventions lay down the platform on which the succeeding generations can improvise. In this article, we look at some of the first inventions and how they looked and functioned.

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First Car (1770)

The first car, fardier à vapeur, was built by French Army Captain Cugnot way back in 1770. The vehicle, which weighed 2.5 tonnes, had 2 wheels in the rear and 1 in the front. It was a steam-powered vehicle with the front wheel supporting the steam boiler and the driving mechanism. It could seat 4 people and moved at a measly speed of 3.6 km/hr!

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First Washing Machine (1791)

The first English patent under the category of washing machines was issued in 1791. Following the invention of rotating drum washer, the “washing mill” was a large wooden mill with a drum that could accommodate several clothes and a lever that had to be rotated manually. While crude in design, it was a significant milestone as it introduced the idea of “powered” washing drums.

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First bicycle (1817)

The first practical bicycle was invented in 1817 by a German civil servant named Baron Karl von Drais. Called Laufmaschine (German for “running machine”), it was a two-wheeled, steerable vehicle with no pedals and had to be propelled by the riders. After reading about the first car above, you’d notice that cars were indeed invented before bicycles!

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First animated cartoon film (1908)

Fantasmagorie is a 1908 French animated film by Emile Cohl and is considered by film historians to be the first animated cartoon. The film was created by drawing each frame on paper and then shooting each frame onto negative film. He had to draw 700 pictures to make the film, which is about 1 minute 20 seconds long. You can watch the film on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swh448fLd1g

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First TV Demonstration (1925)

On March 25, 1925 a Scottish inventor named John Logie Baird gave the first demo of televised images in motion. Since human faces had low contrast to be televised by his primitive device, he used a ventriloquist’s dummies- “James” and “Stooky Bill”, which had higher contrast and televised them talking and moving. A few months later, he demonstrated the transmission of an image of a face in motion.

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First electronic general-purpose computer (1946)

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), built in 1946, was the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer. It was built at the University of Pennsylvania and costed about $487,000 (that’s about $6.8 million today!). It weighed about 27 tonnes and contained about 7,200 diodes, 10,000 capacitors, 17,468 vacuum tubes and 70,000 resistors! It required a large room and several people to operate the computer.

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First mobile phone

The first handheld mobile phone was demonstrated by a team led by Martin Cooper at Motorola in 1973.  The phone (named DynaTAC) weighed about 1.1 kg (majority of which was the weight of the battery), had a talk time of barely 20-30 minutes and took 10 hours to recharge! It was dubbed as “the brick or “the shoe” phone and was instrumental in sparking subsequent development to give us the smartphones we have today.