Ancestors: Four Antique Inventions That Inspired Modern Products

Great product design has always had its genesis on the worktable of an engineer working privately and feverishly to solve a unique problem.  Where today we have the luxuries of CAD design, powerful global communication and collaboration solutions, and a vast body of engineering and scientific knowledge, the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution had only persistence, insight, and hard work.

Each of today's most relied upon products were once novel leaps forward for technology and the human race.  Here are four pre-industrial inventions that went on to inspire our modern world.

The Flying Shuttle.  Prior to John Kay’s invention in 1733, textiles were still made primarily by hand on looms, and it was a slow and laborious process.  The flying shuttle was a loom assembly that allowed operators to consolidate several critical weaving actions into a single smooth gesture.  This in turn dramatically sped textile production, increased volume and reduced physical stress on loom operators.  Revolutionizing the textile industry, this single innovation remained a core feature in commercial weaving until the mid-20th century, when it was eventually supplanted with more efficient systems.

Flying Shutle

Image: Flying shuttles, Bradford Industrial Museum, Bradford, West Yorkshire, Englandby Linda Spashett Storye_book (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The Leyden Jar.  By 1745, early experiments in static electricity had already revealed the enormous potential of the newly appreciated phenomenon, but many major gaps in electrical scientific knowledge remained – including, for example, the hypothesis that electricity was in fact a liquid.  The Leyden Jar, invented simultaneously by German and Dutch scientists, was a glass jar lined with metal foil on the inside and outfitted with external metal electrodes.  It was the first device created capable of storing an electrical charge: the world’s first capacitor.

Image: Leyden jar cutaway, by Walter Larden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Arc Lamp.  While Thomas Edison is commonly credited with inventing the light bulb in 1879, the true credit for inventing the practical electric lamp goes to Humphry Davy.  Davy’s arc lamp, invented around 1809, worked by firing a bright electric arc across two electrodes, contained in a gas-filled glass cylinder.  Descendants of the Davy arc lamp are today often used in high intensity searchlights and movie projectors, most notably in the modern IMAX projection system.

Image:  People observing change of electrodes at a street lamp, by Christian Wilhelm Allers - Buch "Spreeathener", Public Domain

The Seed Drill.  Much as with the Flying Shuttle, the seed drill was invented to replace a crucial but extremely tedious and difficult job: planting crop seeds by hand.  Invented by Jethro Tull in 1701, the horse-drawn seed drill helped to bring about the British Agricultural Revolution.  Interestingly enough, the Tull seed drill was only a new iteration in an old lineage of seed drill concepts, a family of agricultural inventions dating back to ancient Sumeria.  

Image by Jethro Tull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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