Human history is invention—to help understand and improve our world. And some of those leaps forward have been very big, both in size and historical importance. These are 30 mega machines that helped create our world, from the wheel and axle to the quantum computer.
Although far from a household name, the Heinkel HeS 3, designed by Hans von Ohain, was the first jet engine to power an aircraft, the Heinkel He 178. The Heinkel HeS proved a concept 13 years in the making: to replace piston engines with a more efficient and powerful alternative.
Decades later, jet engines like the Pratt & Whitney JT9D, would power the largest aircraft ever built—the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet.”
The first Model Ts were completed . And while Henry Ford's creation wasn’t the first automobile, the Model T revolutionized Americans’ relationship to cars.
Noting the efficiency of Chicago’s meat packing plants, Ford brought assembly line production to automobiles. By 1914, he had perfected this continuous, moving chain of production in his Detroit factories. This innovation decreased time and expense needed to build a car, which allowed Ford to lower the price and make the so-called “Tin Lizzie” affordable to the average American.
By 1923, . The car itself was also a game-changer. With four-cylinders and 20 horsepower, it was the quintessential and first-of-its-kind “utility” vehicle. There’s little doubt the Model T is the most important car in history.
The space race didn’t begin with 1957’s launch of Sputnik or Alan Shepard's 1961 orbit, but with the Nazis' V-2 rocket in 1942. The brainchild of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the V-2, or ,” was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Propelled by, it was the first large-scale guided missile. When launched, it could rise six miles into the air, had a range of nearly 200 miles, and could carry .
It was quite deadly, used by the Nazis to kill thousands in the latter part of World War II. However, that number doesn’t account for the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 concentration camp laborers who died being forced to construct the weapon.
At the end of the war, von Braun surrendered to American forces. For the next three decades, the put his knowhow to American use, becoming an integral part of NASA and helping to develop the Saturn V rocket, which would ultimately put a man on the Moon.
If you’re reading this, you're likely in front of a computer. Although that computer might fit in your pocket, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, was the size of an entire room.
Built to solve large numerical problems, ENIAC weighed 80 tons and took up 1,800 square feet. Recognized as the one of the world’s first modern computers—the , after all—ENIAC would become the great-great grandparent of the machines that make modern civilization possible.
It was also considered one of the first data centers ever created, another technology that's essential to almost every industry in the world.
On September 10, 2008, the largest and most powerful single machine on Earth turned on. Since then, the collider—a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets with subatomic particles smashing together at speeds approaching the speed of light—has made astonishing discoveries, like, confirming , and even potentially creating .
All , the particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland is just beginning its mission in unlocking the secrets of our universe. In 2012, the LHC helped discover the existence of the so-called “God particle,” which tells life’s basic building blocks (protons and neutrons) how much mass needs to be collected. Soon, LHC’s next revelation maybe and, perhaps, .
That weekend jaunt to Vegas wouldn't have been possible if it weren’t for the the legendary DC-3. Built by the Douglas Aircraft Company, this with a gleaming chrome exterior and retractable landing gear brought flight to the masses and made the skies not only friendlier, but safer. The DC-3 turned air travel into a reliable, quick, and comfortable form of transportation and turned the airline industry into .
It was also a war hero, modified into that became the Allies’ main transport aircraft during World War II. It was so utilitarian that it was used in military operations through the Vietnam War. Most , but this aircraft made humanity truly airborne.
High in Southern California hills, astronomer Edwin Hubble and his telescope made the shocking discovery that the universe is continually expanding. Six decades later, history’s most powerful telescope was named after him.
The length of a large school bus and containing the Hubble Telescope continues to this day orbiting Earth , all the while providing pristine views of the cosmos.
NASA claims Hubble is “the most significant advancement in astronomy since Galileo's telescope” and it’s hard to dispute that. Since being launched in April 1990, Hubble has shown us , glimpses of , and that our universe isn’t just expanding, .
Everyone knows that the invention of the wheel was a big deal, but it was really only part of the equation. You also needed to create something to attach to it, and that’s why the pair in tandem is such an instrumental machine in the story of humanity.
In fact, the dynamic pair, and all its subsequent iterations 2,400+ years later, is so fundamental to human development that it's hard to even separate the invention from the species. Simply put, if you don’t have the wheel, you don’t have us.
The first human ever to be slid into a CT scanner was its inventor. In 1971 medical care was revolutionized when biomedical engineer had and digitized into a computerized tomography image. CT scans, the compiling of multiple X-rays from various angles into a three-dimensional image, have allowed physicians to peer inside the human body without cutting open the patient. For his work, Sir Hounsfield won.
We didn't rank history's greatest machines here, but if we had, the printing press would likely claim the No. 1 spot.
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press officially began production in modern-day Mainz, Germany in 1450, a decade after its initial inception. The press revolutionized the old ways of book-making. Before, scribes and monk had to rewrite entire books by hand. But the printing press drastically reduced the cost of books, made education more attainable for millions, kickstarted the Renaissance, and facilitated the beginnings of newspapers and journals, a necessary ingredient for whole systems of governments.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Gutenberg and his press.
Before Henry Bessemer introduced his converter, iron ruled the industrial revolution. It was the material of choice for bridges and railroads—even if they were the cause of some of the 19th century’s —because steel was just too expensive.
The Bessemer Converter changed everything. The machine blew oxygen through molten pig iron to create steel, and the process dropped its price from $40 per long ton to about $6. The machine also increased the production of steel and required less people to create it. With steel now priced the same as iron, the world's infrastructure changed from the ill-equipped wrought iron origins of the Industrial Revolution, to the better, stronger, and longer-lasting steel of the modern era.
Although the process was eventually abandoned for even better processes, it was the first machine to show the world that the skeleton of human civilization could be feasibly built with steel.
George Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive wasn’t the first steam-powered train—it was just the first modern one. Built in 1929, its success , a contest designed to promote passenger rail, proved that these machines could be not only powerful but also reliable. Stephenson greatly improved engine designs by past inventors to create a machine that would be copied into newer, bigger, and better designs until the dawn of the diesel engine in the early 1900s.
But the steam locomotive remained the iron king of the 19th century, becoming instrumental in nation-shaping moments in U.S. history like westward expansion and the Civil War. The steam locomotive were the first machines to begin the divorce between Homo sapiens and horses, humanity’s prefered mode of transportation since the beginning of recorded history.
Sometimes hugely important machines are made with purpose and years and years of determination, and sometimes one random machine—with the right minds behind it—can be one of the most influential pieces of equipment ever made.
On May 20, 1964, astronomers Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias were working at the Bell Labs’ Holmdale Horn Antenna when they heard a strange hum. After eliminating all possible causes, including clearing out pigeons that had taken roost in the antenna, the two astronomers started thinking they “stumbled upon something big,” .
The Holmdale Horn Antenna wasn’t purpose-built to find , but that’s exactly what it did. It proved supporting the very origins of the universe.
Developed by the U.S. military after it was shocked two years earlier by Sputnik, TRANSIT was the first operational navigation system ever created. Although its capabilities were limited compared to systems today, the technology not only revolutionized human navigation but also changed the way we think about our own planet.
Its successor, the Global Positioning System, is a constellation of sats that permeates almost every technology that makes modern life possible, including smartphones, laptops, automobiles, and even the watches on our wrists. It’s given militaries unprecedented reconnaissance capabilities and its nearly rendered the map, a tool used by humans for millennia, obsolete.
Although a technology that emerged in several labs in early 80s, 3D printing hit a major milestone when inventor Chuck Hull introduced the first commercial 3D printer, the SLA-1. The father of the machine as well as the equally necessary .STL file format, Hull and his creation would go on to inspire an entirely new way of manufacturing.
3D printing can create big things, such as an entire house, or something as small as a prosthetic arm for a child in need. It can even print food and human bones. NASA found the tech so vital, they even sent one to space.
It’s hard to say exactly how important 3D printing will be in our lives in the next few decades or centuries, but it’s already made a pretty big impression and it’s nowhere near done yet.
After several unsuccessful attempts, it was in July of 1866 when the huge converted steamliner finally finished laying the , forever linking the globe in constant communication. At the time, the ship was the largest ever built, which made it the logical choice to carry, drag, and lay the enormously heavy telegraph cable that was made of copper, latex, hemp, and steel across the ocean.
In fact, the cable was so long and heavy that it took crews five months to simply load it on the ship. The first telegraph messages exchanged over the underwater cables were between , who both expressed hope that the cable would come to represent an unbreakable bond between the two nations.
Today, our urban landscape is littered with these towering tools of construction, often seen as a precursor to renewal and development. Well, 2,500 years ago, cranes were used in very similar fashion and helped changed the face of society, turning it from agrarian to industrial. It’s believed they around the late 6th century BCE and were also used to lift massive loads for their building of temples, government buildings, and canals.
Like the ancient Egyptians’ ramps and levers before them, cranes are “simple machines,” a reference to simple mechanisms that use leverage to . The and likely alludes to the long neck of the bird.
Scottish engineer may have been the first to build a electricity-generating wind turbine, but it was Charles Brush who made it practical when he constructed an automatic power-generating wind turbine in 1888.
Fifty feet in diameter with it generated about 1,200 watts of power—enough to power 100 incandescent lights in Brush’s house. Today, according to the , there are over 52,000 wind turbines in the U.S. that could, in theory, provide electricity to 25 million homes.
Is wind energy the future? Well, the Department of Energy hopes so, predicting that, by will come from wind.
In 1902, Willis Carrier, a 25-year-old mechanical engineer from western New York, was asked to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem: Prevent the summer humidity from wrinkling magazine pages at a Brooklyn publishing company.
He did just that with his invention of an widely considered the first modern electrical air conditioner. It worked in pretty much the same way as today’s air conditioning does, by passing air through a filter and over coils containing coolant. This seemingly specialized invention led to a massive shift in population, turning once-unbearably warm cities into mechanically-cooled meccas of industry.
But all of that cold air may actually be warming planet Earth, with certain air conditioner pollutants now regularly cited as .
It was a balmy summer night in July 1879 when lining the streets of San Francisco flickered on. First tested , the gleaming lights were provided by Charles Brush and were a product of two dynamos being powered by a coal-fired steam engine sitting on the nearby corner of Fourth and Market Streets. This was the nation’s first-ever central arc lighting station and, likely, the first-ever example of a commercial electric grid.
Three years later, Thomas Edison opened his (a model pictured) and lit up New York City. From there, lights were turned on in cities across the globe and electricity became big business.
Life isn’t possible without water. For the ancients who didn’t live close to it, this posed a major problem. Sometimes, rather than moving closer to water, they found a way to bring water to them.
In 312 BCE,, a system of stone channels, dams, and conduits that used gravity to pull water from natural sources and carry it over sometimes hundreds of miles.
Unlike some of the , Appius Claudius Caecus’s was built nearly entirely underground. While technology and machinery have greatly evolved over the last 2,300 years, aqueducts are still being used to .
While it didn't even create enough energy, the Chicago Pile-1 was the world’s first nuclear reactor. It’s construction required 40,000 graphite blocks with discs of refined uranium metal inside—all held together by a wooden frame. The lead scientist, Enrico Fermi, conducted the experiment beneath Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, producing a stable 0.5 watts of energy for only 30 minutes before the project shut down for safety reasons.
This relatively low-tech device became the forefather of some of the most complex machinery that powers our world. Of course, the offspring of these industrial-grade reactors, like Fat Man and Little Boy, would forever change global politics. But even despite its destructive progeny, nuclear power in humanity’s struggle against a warming planet.
Although the 24-hour day is something almost inconceivable to imagine living without, that's exactly what humans did before the introduction of the mechanical clock—and the first public clocks—in the late 13th century.
Although water clocks had existed for millennia, the mechanical clock was the first reliable time-keeping device that allowed Western society to transition from the fluid "canonical" hours instituted by the church to the 24-hour day. This concept became fully embraced by merchants as a reliable way to do business (which is why so many early clocks show up in Italian towns), and the mechanically monstrous clock towers soon helped synchronize human activity for the first time.
When in 1657, Dutch inventor Christiaan Huygens created the first pendulum clock, allowing for accurate time measurement even in private homes, the mechanical clock cemented its importance in the history of human civilization.
First invented in the late 1820s and officially patented in 1835, the Combine Harvester would become instrumental on farms across the world as countries tried to keep pace with a steadily growing population. Before the combine, harvesting and threshing 35 acres would have taken all day for a crew of 35 people, some with headers and threshers and some with binders. With the combine,.
It also prevented significant grain loss, and by the introduction of the self-propelled combine in 1888, a farmer , a chore that would usually take several days. Surprisingly, many of today’s tech-laden machines essentially work just like the first self-propelled combines, which changed world agriculture with their swift adoption in the early 20th century. Seventy-five years later, they remain the dominant monster machine of farms everywhere.
The idea for the RQ-1 Predator drone came in the 1980s, but its first flight test wouldn't be until 1994 in the Mojave desert. Since then, the drone has become increasingly integrated in the U.S. military and forever altering how humans fight wars. In 2002, the drone received its "MQ" designation, standing for "multi-role," to denote its armed capabilities beyond just passive reconnaissance.
This is one of the first instances of machines fighting wars in place of humans. Critics say the Predator drone causes innocent death and collateral damage through faulty intelligence and proponents say drones are much more accurate that have an average miss distance of 800 feet.
But off the battlefield, the Predator drone also provided an impressive example of what other kinds of unmanned aerial bots can do, with some experts saying it was responsible for kickstarting our current fascination with drones, whether for delivering packages or as a new favorite pastime. In many ways, the Predator's influence in our lives has yet to be fully realized.
Before Elisha Otis, there were elevators, but they weren't particularly safe elevators.
In 1854 at the New York World's Fair, Otis demonstrated a new kind of lift, built with what Otis called "a safety hoist," that would catch any plummeting elevator when a cable snapped. This transformed the elevator from a safety risk to the heart-and-soul of the modern metropolis. The idea worked seeing as the Otis Elevator Company remains the world's largest elevator maker.
And as cities continue to grow, —and that means they'll need a safe elevator.
It's one of the most famous stories in engineering history. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers launched their heavier-than-air powered aircraft and flew into the history books.
Although the Wright brothers were not the only inventors figuring out how to get humans aloft, the Wright Flyer was the inspiration needed to kickstart the pioneer era of aviation that helped develop aircraft up to World War 1.
It was the Wright Flyer that gave humans total mastery of planet Earth—by land, sea, and air.
Just a few years ago, scientists and researchers considered quantum computing one of those things on a "20 years to never" timescale, much like flying cars.
But very recently, the thoughts behind quantum computing have been changing. Now it's not only considered feasible—with some of the world's biggest companies dedicating massive resources to its creation—but it could be coming sooner than you'd think.
Richard Feynman, a hugely influential American physicist, first proposed . Using the theory of superposition—the idea that an atom can exist in two states at the same time—humans could theoretically create a computer massively more powerful than anything previously imagined. Such a computer could make calculations in minutes that would previously take millennia for a "classical" computer. Such a device would fundamentally transform every facet of society.
As recently as this week, companies and universities in quantum computing research, advancing one-step closer to a technology quite unlike any other before it.
When Malcolm McLean invented the container in 1956, a simple metal box for shipping goods instead of loose cargo, he needed a ship to beta-test his idea—and that ship was the SS Ideal X.
A converted World War II oil tanker, the Ideal X took its maiden cargo from New Jersey to Houston on April 26, 1956. That date is essentially the birth of globalization. These containers, and the increasingly monstrous ships that transported them, drastically slashed the price of shipping, from loading/unloading cost to insurance costs.
It also changed our cities as port towns became fewer but much larger. that container ships "have boosted globalization more than all trade agreements in the past 50 years put together," and the Ideal X showed the world that such an idea could be possible.
The great thing about world-changing monster machines is that the story never ends, and what could be more world changing than a machine that allows you to change worlds.
No, this doesn't exist yet—we've got decades to go—but with rockets like the new Falcon Heavy, the BFR (illustrated), and NASA's SLS spacecraft, a machine that finally makes humanity an interplanetary species looks less like "if" and more like "when."