Inventions of the Early 20th Century that Changed the World

In the age of technology, we’re often spoiled by the conveniences of life and take them for granted.

You don’t think so? Do you think about how much you appreciate inventors when you walk out of your house with your machine-made clothing on and wearing your sunglasses?

What about when you climb into your car, turn the radio on or pop in your favorite CD and turn the ignition and go? When you come to a traffic light do you think about who invented it? Of course not, but inventors have changed the course of our lives. In most cases, we believe that life is better with technology, but in some cases, technology can be a dangerous thing.

At any rate, we’ve seen countless inventions throughout history. It would be nearly impossible to cover them all, but we can look at the ones that have significantly changed our lives.

Household Items

Washing Machine

The first rotary washing machine was invented in the 19th century, but what really revolutionized the washing machine was when the first electric washing machine was invented in 1908. The “Thor” washing machine was invented by Alva Fisher and was introduced by Hurley Machine Company.

Vacuum Cleaner

Though there were mechanical carpet sweepers before the 20th century, the first vacuum cleaner was invented in 1901 by Hubert Cecil Booth. This monstrosity, which was based outside of the building while hoses were extended indoors, didn’t look anything like the vacuums of today, but it all started with Booth’s first vacuum.

Absorption Refrigerator

This type of refrigerator was a new concept in the early 20th century. It was the first refrigerator to use heat as a source of energy for the cooling system. Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters invented the first absorption refrigerator in 1922. In 1926, Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd created another design of an absorption refrigerator. This is the one that was on the market for households in the 1950s. However, without von Platen and Munters, this wouldn’t have been possible.

Microwave Oven

Did you know that the microwave wasn’t originally meant for cooking food? Originally it was designed to be installed in radar systems during World War II to spy on the Nazis. It was Percy Spencer that noticed that these radar waves melted the candy bar in his pocket. Due to his discovery in 1945, the first commercial microwave went on the market in 1954.

Food Products

Frozen Foods

Nowadays a lot of frozen foods are just for convenience like precooked meals that we can now just pop in the microwave. However, before frozen foods, fruits and vegetables would go bad. Thanks to Clarence Birdseye in 1923, that all changed.

Sliced Bread

The next time you hear the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”, think about how long ago that really was. In 1928, Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the first “loaf at a time” bread slicer. This was the first time that a loaf of bread could be not only pre-sliced, but in even pieces. This may seem like a small deal to us now, but can you imagine the inconvenience of slicing a chunk of bread off of a loaf just to make a sandwich?


The Bra

In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob invented the bra. I think many people would be in support of this invention.

The Bikini

Louis Réard, a French engineer invented a shocking piece of clothing that would revolutionize bathing suits. You’ve guessed it. Réard invented the bikini. Hooray!

The Zipper

“The hookless fastener”, as it was once called was invented in 1913 by a Swedish scientist named Gideon Sundbach. In contemporary times we take for granted how convenient a zipper is and how much time it saves us each morning.


Disposable Razor

The year of 1901 was the year that the disposable razor blade was patented by King C. Gillette. He marketed the razors through his new company and by the end of the decade, he was a millionaire.

Dry Electric Shaver

Jacob Schick invented the dry electric razor in 1928 and seven years later it was put on the market. Immediately, people loved the fact that they could shave with more convenience and safer too. It didn’t take long before Schick’s invention made him a very wealthy man.



Used especially to pack and store things, mainly food, cellophane was invented by Jacques E. Brandenberger in 1908. Think about how many uses cellophane has. It seems like a very trivial invention, but has changed our basic procedures as to how we store food.


Velcro; it works like a charm! Unlike other fasteners, Velcro can work on many different types of materials and in many different places. In 1948, George de Mestral invented Velcro an though people laughed at first, he stuck by his invention.

Automated Teller Machine

Believe it or not, the very first ATM was invented in 1939 by Luther George Simjian. Since then, his original idea has been transformed into our modern day ATM for which most of us have become so dependant.

Music and Media

Enhancements in Photography

Though cameras were around before the twentieth century, color photography wasn’t invented until 1907. Since the initial invention of color photos by Auguste and Louis Lumiere, there have been many enhancements, but it al started with these two individuals.

Vacuum Diode

When you turn your radio or television on or even flip the on switch to your computer, you don’t think of John A. Fleming; but without him none of this would be possible. In 1904, he invented a device that would used to amplify, switch, or modify and electronic signal called the vacuum diode. His little invention paved the way for so many entertaining and convenient inventions that we treasure today.


Others made use of the invention of the vacuum diode for such applications such as radio broadcasting. Two inventions were key contributors to us turning on the radio today and jamming to our favorite songs: the radio receiver (invented in 1913 by Ernst Alexanderson and Reginald Fessenden) and the radio transmitter module (invented in 1914 by Ernst Alexanderson).

Just fifteen years later, Paul Glavin invented an ingenious device, the car radio. This meant that listening to the radio outside of your home was now possible. Where would you be now without your car radio?


In 1948, Peter Goldmark invented the long playing record (or LP record). Though records have been replaced with CDs, without the invention of a long playing record, we never would have progressed.

That same year, another man by the name of Robert Hope-Jones invented the Wurlitzer jukebox. The idea of having a musical selection in a public area was a novel idea and one that gained ultimate popularity in the following decades.

Movies with Sound

Do you remember learning that movies didn’t always have sound? It’s difficult to believe, but imagine watching a silent film now. It would really limit the plot of a movie, wouldn’t it? In 1923, all of this changed as Lee DeForest invented sound film.


Of course, there are many people responsible for our modern day televisions, but some of the inventors from the early twentieth century, and even some earlier ones are responsible for a lot of the ideas that built the foundation for where we are today. The first electronic television was invented in 1923 by Philo Farnsworth. In 1940, Peter Goldmark invented the first color television set.

Lighting and Environment

Lighting Systems

Before the tungsten filament (invented by Irving Langmuir in 1915) lighting used by sources such as light bulbs were a difficult task. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century, George Claude came up with the idea of neon lighting. This was used until tungsten filament came into play, but we still see neon lighting being used today on eye-catching signs.

Air Conditioner

Would you believe that the first air conditioner that regulated both humidity and temperature was invented in 1902? Willis Haviland Carrier is the guy who did it. It was originally designed to keep a printing company cool so that the temperature didn’t alter the print and images on paper.


Automobile Related Inventions

Though the automobile was invented in the late nineteenth century, improvements on vehicles have been going on since that point. Some of the earlier inventions pertaining to the automobile are some that we still use today; one of which is the windshield wiper, invented by Mary Anderson in 1903.

Along with automobiles came the progression of the rules of the road and certain developments such as traffic lights. The earliest traffic signal with the three colors (green, yellow, and red) was invented in 1923 by Garrett A. Morgan.


The caterpillar tractor, invented in 1904 by Benjamin Holt not only helped the farming industry, but was also said to have been the inspiration for tanks later on in history. The reason is because this tractor was the first vehicle with tracked wheels.

Air Travel

Of course, we all know that the foundation of flight was first successful by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. From there, many ideas regarding flight took off (no pun intended).

In 1907, Paul Cornu developed a vertical flight machine. This was technically the first helicopter. However, in 1939, Igor Sikorsky came up with a design that helped revolutionize helicopter flight.

In the 1930’s two different people were credited with the invention of the jet engine: Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain. They both independently came up with ideas for a jet engine. Whittle was the first to apply for the patent, but Hans von Ohain was the first to be granted the patent.


Gun Silencer

It’s probably more accurate to call this first invention of a silencer a sound suppressor for guns since it just reduced the sound. Hiram Percy Maxim was the one who invented this device in 1909.

Military Tank

The tank was one of the most impacting inventions in combat in the twentieth century and it was first invented by two men: Sir William Ashbee Tritton and Major Walter Gordon Wilson in 1914. Their inspiration for the tank was the first tractor with tracked wheels built back in 1904.


If you’re interested in the history of guns, then you probably have already heard of John M. Browning. He was an inventor that had over 100 gun patents. Among them were the .30 caliber machine gun (invented in 1901) and the Browning Automatic Rifle in 1910. In 1919, John T. Thompson invented the infamous Thompson submachine gun. Not familiar with it? Of course you are. This gun is better known as the Tommy Gun.

If we fast forward a little, we can talk about the very effective bazooka rocket gun. This gun was invented by Leslie A. Skinner C. N. Hickman in 1942 during World War II.

Atomic Bomb

The first atomic bomb was also invented during World War II – in 1945. From 1939 to 1946, there was a project to construct such a weapon. You would better know this project as the Manhattan Project.


Bottle Making

Think for a moment about how many items you use that are stored in bottles or jars. This is all made possible by a man by the name of Michael J. Owens. He invented bottle making machinery in 1903.

Cotton Picker

The first practical spindle cotton picker was invented by John Rust in 1927. This cotton picker became the first mechanical harvester to pick one bale of cotton in a day. I know it doesn’t seem like much to today’s standards, but you have to start somewhere.

The O Ring

Perhaps one of the most important inventions as far as machinery goes is also the most overlooked – the modern O ring (invented by Niels Christensen in 1937). Because it creates a hydraulic seal, it can be used in all sorts of machinery, including transportation machinery. I’m sure you realize the importance of the O ring since a faulty one was the cause of the demise of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Medical Inventions

Machinery in Medicine

Many machines make our lives so much easier and this is definitely true in the medical field. Machines in many cases help to diagnose patients and even save lives. One of the earliest machines from the twentieth century is the electrocardiograph (or EKG). The EKG was invented by Willem Einthoven in 1903 and is used to monitor and analyze past and present heart activity in an individual.

Another very important diagnosis tool that is still used in doctors’ offices and hospitals everywhere is the X-ray machine. This device was invented in 1913 by William D. Coolidge. It has since been refined, of course.

The name of this inventor, Philip Drinker, would lead you to believe that he should have invented something to help patients with bad livers or a medication to help with an alcohol addiction. However, this Harvard medical student, along with his co-creator Louis Agassiz Shaw, invented the first respirator in 1927. Before the term respirator though, it was referred to as the iron lung.

In 1929, Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph (EEG), a device that records brain pulses. The main use for this machine is to help diagnose epilepsy. However, there are some other uses as well, such as measuring brain activity among comatose patients.

In 1944, Willem Kolff invented a machine that can temporarily replace kidney functions to a patient that has failing kidneys. Though this treatment doesn’t do the job permanently, it was a breakthrough in medical technology and has saved lives.

Medications and Miscellaneous Tools

In 1922, two inventors made things a lot easier and safer for diabetic patients. Sir Frederick Grant Banting invented insulin and Helen Free invented the home diabetes test. However, in 1928 someone else had invented something that would save even more lives. Alexander Fleming invented penicillin, eventually making what used to be lethal illnesses into fairly minor occurrences in the modern day. Also, in the 1920s to help prevent certain infections, Earle Dickson invented the adhesive bandage (band aid).



Can you believe that the computer was actually invented in the early twentieth century? Well, it was; but it’s a bit of a controversy as to who actually built the first computer and when. In short, the first programmable computer was invented by Konrad Zuse in 1936. In addition, the first digital computer was invented by John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry in 1937.

Other Important Scientific Inventions

Have you ever heard of a Geiger counter? No it doesn’t count Geigers. It’s actually a device that was originally built by Hans Geiger and Ernest Rutherford in 1908 that detects beta and gamma radiation. Nearly 40 years later (1947), a mechanism used to amplify or switch electronic signals, the transistor was born (invented by William Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen).

Art and Office

Think back to your childhood. Did you love to color? How would your life have been without the invention by Edward Binney and Harold Smith in 1903? What was the invention? The crayon, of course.

In 1938, Laszlo Biro invented a writing tool that would change the world and make things much neater and convenient. E invented the very first ball point pen.


In restaurants and in a lot of contemporary homes, you’ll find a lot of stainless steel. This was first invented in 1913 by Harry Brearley.

Over twenty years later in 1935, a light weight material was invented by Wallace Carothers. Nylon is used in materials from clothing to toothbrushes, so it’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without it.

So, as you go about your daily routines, make sure you stop and think about these incredible inventors and what they’ve done to make your life easier. Yea, right! If you stopped to do that with each one, your life wouldn’t be any easier and you wouldn’t save any time! Anyway, be thankful for the early inventors who created the foundation for all we have today and what we will have in the future.

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