“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” - Elbert Hubbar
Looking into the past
You won’t find many people nowadays who don’t regularly use a mobile device to work, entertain themselves and to keep in touch with friends and family. Computers define 21st century life to such an extent that a new term was coined to describe this period - the Information Age.
Technology is one of the things that defines humanity, and it’s interesting to think that once, the most advanced tools we had were made of stone. How did we get from the Stone Age to the Information Age? Let's look at some of the technological developments that shaped our history.
Prehistory to the Paleolithic
Overcoming the fear of fire
When looking at the history of human invention, fire seems a good place to start. We can see some clues as to our first relationship with fire in the modern animal kingdom.
Most animals simply run away from fire. However, chimpanzees in Senegal, where wildfires are a regular occurrence, have overcome this fear. They have been observed to watch fires, predict their course, and then move in to forage in the burned areas. This suggests that the animals are capable of conceptualizing fire and taking advantage of it.
In addition, researchers from Harvard found that chimpanzees actively prefer cooked food. When given the option, the apes chose to store raw food and wait for the opportunity to cook it.
Did fire create human beings?
Richard Wrangham, a Harvard-based biological anthropologist, argues that it is the use of fire that created human beings in the first place. He places the beginnings of this development at 2 million years ago.
The hypothesis is that more calories can be extracted from cooked meat versus raw, and the masticatation and digestion of cooked meat are less demanding on our teeth and intestines respectively. This equaled more spare energy to devote to thought, and an evolutionary emphasis on larger brains over big teeth and strong stomachs.
However, it is difficult to ascertain when exactly our ancestors began creating fire from nothing. The earliest known evidence of a deliberate fire is approximately one million years old - the remains of a cooking fire in a cave in South Africa. But this fire could have been taken from a naturally-occurring one.
The scientific consensus is that Homo sapiens were creating fire by around 400,000 years ago. This is based on a relatively high frequency of campfire remnants from this time, in conjunction with large concentrations of stone tools - including flints.
From the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age
The agricultural revolution
One of the most significant early uses of fire was to clear areas for farmland. This occurred in the Middle East approximately 10,000 years ago.
Agriculture is one of the most significant landmarks of human development. That’s why this period of time gets its own word – the Neolithic Age.
Food surplus led to a population explosion. With larger populations settled in a single place, community members began to specialize their activities. With people free to master a single craft, the rate of invention of new things accelerated greatly.
The first metals
One of these developments was the discovery of metals. We call this new period – which began in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE - the Bronze Age, although the first metal to be smelted was actually copper. A soft metal, copper only becomes useful when blended with tin, which creates bronze.
This process is not possible without a controlled source of heat, so the importance of that first prehistorical invention is still clear. In fact, the advance to the next stage of history – the Iron Age, around 1,000 BCE – was only possible when people learned to produce even more heat. Copper melts at 1,084°C, which was achievable for Neolithic peoples. Iron, however, requires around 1,500°C.
From the Ancient Era to the Modern
No longer slaves to the elements, humans were now free to focus more fully on the development of the other key component of their society - communication.
The first evidence of codified language is around 5,000 years old - cuneiform characters chiseled into clay tablets. These were the work of Sumerians, in the area of present-day Iraq, and they were used to record transactions.
chiseled into clay tablets. These were the work of Sumerians, in the area of present-day Iraq, and they were used to record transactions.
Interestingly, abstract mathematics was also found amongst these early, utilitarian texts. This early number system used 60 as a base, as opposed to the 10 we use today, but what remains to us is the division of the hour and the day into 60 minutes and 24 hours.
When we combine technical skill and abstract thought, we get machines.
The rise of machines
When we think of machines, we think of contraptions of many moving parts. But the word machine (from the Greek μῆχος mekhos) simply means "means" or "remedy".
The first machines were invented thousands of years ago. Early examples include the lever, which is used to lift heavy objects - Greek genius Archimedes, who lived 2,300 years ago, famously said: "Give a lever and a place to stand, and I'll move the world."
But in the modern era, it is no wonder that one of the first complex machines was designed to help disseminate knowledge. This was the mechanical printing press, attributed to German inventor Johannes Gutenberg, circa 1450.
Prior to this, all written material was hand-written, and thus expensive and exclusive. It is no understatement to call the printing press revolutionary. One of the results of the mass-production of written material was a rise in literacy.
Another was that scientific findings and experimental data could now be shared widely and without human error. This helped spur the scientific revolution of the 16th century.
Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, called the printing press one of the three inventions that changed the world (the other two being the nautical compass and gunpowder).
The Machine Age to the Information Age
The computer is born
The first computer was invented by a man named Charles Babbage, who was a founding member of the British Royal Astronomical Society. Because the organization's work was used for maritime navigation - where human error could have fatal consequences - Babbage immediately saw the benefits of mechanizing the process of calculation.
He designed a contraption that could reproduce vast tables of numbers through the process of addition and subtraction. Unfortunately for him, he never saw his "Difference Engine" come to fruition, because he ran out of funding. It was finally constructed in 1991, 120 years after his death, by the London Science Museum. At 2 meters high and 3.4 meters long, and powered by steam, it is a far cry from your iPhone - but it is undoubtedly its ancestor.
In tandem with the ongoing development of computers was the discovery and invention of radio waves and devices to harness them. Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist, proved the existence of electromagnetic waves in an experiment in 1886. Of his discovery, he said: "It's of no use whatsoever...we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there."
More practically-minded scientists immediately began find uses for this discovery. In 1901, Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi sent the first radio transmission - the Morse-code signal for the letter "s" - from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada.
The technology was soon adapted to shipping. In fact, the survivors of the Titanic owe their lives to this invention. Regarding hand-held radio transmitters, there is some disagreement as to who first invented them, but one contender is Frederick William Downie of Australia, who placed the devices in police cars in 1923.
The Second World War accelerated the advance of both wireless communication and computing.
Race to the first cellphone
The first true mobile phone was invented by Martin Cooper, senior engineer at a small company called Motorola.
Interestingly, the phone used a network developed by a rival company, AT&T. Engineers at this company came up with the idea of "cells" - a segmented communication network - in 1947, although it wasn't built until the 1970s. The original concept was for telephones inside automobiles.
Funnily enough, the first mobile phone call was made from Cooper to his counterpart at AT&T. He said: "Joel, I'm calling you from a “real” cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.”
Now, in the year 2020, there are adults who have never known a world without mobile technology. Has this new technology had a positive or negative effect on humanity? A large-scale survey by Pew Research has drawn some interesting conclusions as to people’s attitudes.
Although the development of technology was not linear, a path can be traced from the taming of fire to the advent of cellphones. Millions of years on from our origins as a species, our dependence on that first invention has not diminished. It just takes a different form – the tools we use today rely on electricity, which is principally generated by creating sources of heat.