When most people think of engineering, they think of lofty towers, graceful bridges, and sturdy, reliable vehicles. While all of these are bona fide engineering applications, they are by no means the be-all, end-all of engineering. The fact is nearly all of the products we use today, from staplers to cutting-edge medical technology, had at least some engineering expertise and know-how behind them. Here are seven engineering technology breakthroughs that changed our world and the way we interact with it forever!
Light Amplification by Stimulation of Emitted Radiation first came on the scene in 1960 and immediately fired the imagination of generations. These ubiquitous light rays have featured prominently in Star Wars, children’s cartoons such as GI Joe, and in musical concerts and stage shows across the globe. While controversy swirls around who actually deserves credit for the first “proprietary” laser, its applications and implications for us today are felt in everything from children’s toys to boardroom light pointers to sensitive analytic instruments for determining the level of a building. The Star Wars version may be years or even decades away, but it is still thrilling to hold a bit of the Death Star in the palm of one’s hand!
The idea of human-shaped artificial machines has been around almost as long as people. From the automata of ancient Greek lore to the golem of Jewish mystical legend to the clockwork men of Victorian-era speculative fiction, mankind has always wondered about the idea of creating human-like mechanical servants. Today most robots do not look anything like humans, but they assist us in countless ways such as working on car factory assembly lines, assisting doctors with precise surgeries in the operating room, and even going into unsafe environments such as forward combat areas to conduct reconnaissance and disarm improvised bombs.
Asphalt is far from a new invention. The first recorded use of this paving material was in Babylon in 625 BCE. Since then, people have experimented with ways to make this substance cheaper to manufacture and produce smoother roads. The first proprietary asphalt mix design was patented in 1900. Today all manner of traffic-bearing lanes, from roadways to airport runways, use some form of tar mixed with crushed and fractured rock as a light, inexpensive roadway that is easy to repair and simple, if not necessarily enjoyable, to place.
The first radio broadcast occurred in 1899 at the America’s Cup Yacht Race. Since then, radio technology has improved to such an impressive degree that doctors now use radio waves in the form of sonograms to diagnose patients. Additionally, the discovery that naturally occurring radio waves permeate the ether beyond our world prompted a new wave of space exploration and attempted communication with conjectured extraterrestrial life forms. Radio waves are also used to pierce the ground and locate mineral deposits and human bodies with far greater accuracy than ever before.
5) Nuclear and Atomic Radiation
When people think of nuclear radiation, images such as the mushroom cloud billowing up over Alamogordo, New Mexico or the Wall of Shadows in Hiroshima, Japan may come to mind. However, nuclear technology has paved the way for everything from Scanning Electron Tomography, a diagnostic tool doctors and researchers use to study extremely small objects such as microbes and molecules, to harnessing the radioactive decay of cesium, beryllium, and americium to give accurate readings on the compaction of a building foundation or roadway. These technologies are controversial, but when used properly and with due care, they hold little to no danger for the user or the general public.
In 1939 the first “modern” computer was created at Iowa State College. This behemoth construction took up an entire room and ran on printed cards. As is popular in evolutionary engineering, computers quickly became smaller, faster, and capable of holding more data. To put this into perspective, there is more computing power in the average cellular telephone than it took to make the first manned lunar landing. Today, people complain if computers weigh more than five pounds or cannot be easily taken with them wherever they go, and computer memory and processing speed is far superior to that it once took an entire roomful of equipment to achieve!
7) Advanced Materials
In 1901, Andrew Carnegie wrote “All hail King Steel!” This alloy of iron and carbon had been known for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the technology existed to create steel in large quantities. In the intervening century, titanium, polymer plastics, carbon fibers, and semiconductors have changed the way we do everything from talking on the telephone to piloting aircraft. At the forefront of incorporating these materials into existing technology or building new technology around the capabilities of these materials are engineers.
If you like the house you live in, the car you drive, the computer you are reading this on, or the cell phone you use to keep in contact with the outside world, be sure to thank an engineer. Without them, none of these would be possible!