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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Technological Butterfly Effect: How the Smallest Inventions Have Lead to the Biggest Ideas

Picture a world without the airplane or the automobile. Try to imagine life where water was still hauled from community fountains and rugs were cleaned by beating them with a stick. Many of us can barely remember when long-distance correspondence took days, if not weeks. The complex and intricate technologies that made these things obsolete are often made up of very simple inventions that revolutionized how we carry out the simplest daily tasks.

The Transistor and Integrated Circuit

The development of the transistor in 1947 is considered one of the greatest innovations of the 20th century, and its invention was named an IEEE Milestone. It quickly replaced the bulky vacuum tubes that required considerably more space and energy, and it eventually aided in the development of miniaturization. The small semiconductor device is used to efficiently switch and/or amplify electronic signals. Essentially, the transistor has the ability to either act as an amplifier, using a small input signal to control a large output signal, or a switch, turning current on or off.

Photo by GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

While individual transistors can still be found and purchased, most are mass produced in what are called integrated circuits—which, along with other electronic components, form the electronic circuit that is found in nearly all technological components today.

The Gear

The basic gear has been around for thousands of years, and its applications then were as diverse as they are in present times. In centuries past it was adapted for devices as simple as the windmill and as complex as the Antikythera Mechanism, the first known computer attributed to the Greeks of the 1st Century B.C. Today, gears vary drastically in size and function, ranging from the fragile miniature components of the standard analog wristwatch to the giant and complex gears used in enormous construction vehicles all over the world.

Photo by Kausjik.chug via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, gear design and application has become more complex. Examples include the herringbone gear used in heavy machinery (because of its greater production of torque) and the harmonic drive, which is used in many robotic applications.

The O-Ring

The concept of using a small ring, usually made of rubber or plastic, to create a seal between two objects is extraordinarily simple, but its application has enabled the development of countless everyday technologies. According to Apple Rubber, a leading manufacturer of o-rings, the ability to return to its original shape time and time again is what makes the o-ring such an excellent seal.

Photo by GFDL. via Wikimedia Commons

The o-ring is used in everything from the standard vacuum to the Apollo shuttle, from the oxygen pump keeping newborn babies alive in the NICU to the faucet in the everybody's kitchen sink. Even Thomas Edison’s patent for the light bulb shows a round rubber ring designed to keep the air out of the bulb.

It has often been said to not sweat the small stuff, but time has shown that the small stuff is necessary for the big stuff to happen. Keep an eye on the small inventions and innovations that go unnoticed by most—someday, some pretty grand changes may be attributed to their creation.

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