Whether you believe it to be a corrupt, capitalist cesspool or not, the modern world we live in is undeniably a marvel. Humans in the modern world enjoy more luxuries and futuristic technologies than even the most optimistic predictions from the past would have thought outlandish. But how did we come to live in the world we do? How many of us can explain how a circuit board works, or even how electricity works for that matter? How many of us have the expertise to build an internal combustion engine or fathom the mysteries of that great entity that we have come to know as the World Wide Web? The answer: very few. Billions of people enjoy these technologies thanks to the work of just a handful. In this list, we’re going to take a look at some of the greatest engineers of all time who built the modern world we live in.
Leonardo da Vinci:
A true renaissance man, da Vinci possessed the sort of mind that is simply too brilliant for its time. Not just an engineer and inventor, da Vinci was also a brilliant artist, architect and botanist. With an exceptional mathematical mind, da Vinci designed bridges, buildings, flying machines, siege engines and cannons. His notebooks overflow with designs for myriad contraptions; and though some are impractical, there are many that have been proven to be sound designs that work as he intended. Da Vinci’s genius can be summed up in the quote, “His genius was so rare and universal that it can be said that nature worked a miracle on his behalf.” This quote was made in the 1500’s, and it remains enduring today. Quite possibly humanity will never see the calibre of da Vinci’s mind again.
Do you use a computer? Since this article is online, I’m going to go ahead and answer that question for you. Yes, you do use a computer. So do I, and so do millions, even billions of others. Well we can all thank Alan Turing, who made it possible for we as a society to enjoy LOLcats, memes and YouTube comment sections to our heart’s content. Turing was a brilliant code breaker for the British during World War Two, and he converted these talents to the pursuit of computer science after the war. He developed binary architecture, which all computing uses today. Turing is considered the father of modern computers, so the next time you spend half your work day delving into the stranger parts of Reddit, you can thank Turing for the opportunity.
While widely regarded these days as a bit of a nasty piece of work, there’s no denying Ford’s contribution to the modern world. While he didn’t invent the motor car, what he did do was make it possible to mass produce. This might not sound like a big deal, but the assembly line he pioneered made it possible to produce huge numbers of cars at an affordable price. Suddenly, even ordinary people were able to afford the luxury of a motor car, and now there are billions of them around the world. The technology of the assembly line was almost immediately adopted by all aspects of industry and helped fuel the development of consumerist society. It meant items that had once taken a long time to produce by hand were suddenly able to be made in huge quantities overnight instead. This reduced the cost of manufacturing which in turn reduced the cost at retail.
Ever replied to a question with, “what?” and been told snarkily that “Watt invented the steam engine”? If so, you can snarkily reply that actually, Watt didn’t invent the steam engine. What he did do was improve its design to the point that it became practical, sparking the industrial revolution. So yeah, that basically makes him the reason we live in the world we do. He was the first to define the power of a machine in a unit of measurement; “horsepower”. Horsepower has since been superseded by the alternative unit “watt”, named after the man himself. James Watt is an enduring figure as without him the industrial revolution would doubtlessly have taken much longer to take off. Watt’s innovations accelerated our progression towards modern society.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel:
With a name like that, was there really any possibility that this man wouldn’t become a sensation? Much like his name, Brunel had a flair for the extraordinary. He is one of the most prolific engineers of all time with his works littering the British countryside. Many of them are still in use today, including innovative bridges and nation connecting railways. His final project The Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built at the time, and remained so for some fifty years. His techniques were bold, and he was not content with using methods that had been perfected already. As such some of his projects encountered huge financial and time constraints, but his ideas were almost always vindicated in the end.
An engineer before engineering was known as engineering, Archimedes was the first person to calculate that funny little number pi, as well as the first to develop the theory of displacement. A mind much of the calibre of da Vinci’s, Archimedes was a master of more than one discipline. His invention of the block and tackle pulley system has never been superseded, and remains in constant use today. The discovery of pi revolutionised mathematics, and mathematicians worldwide are still trying to unravel its eccentricities. Even Galileo, himself one of the greatest minds of all time, described Archimedes as “superhuman”.
The truth is we’ve only scratched the surface of the great engineers who have built our world for us in this list. There are so many great minds that have existed over the years; inventing, theorising, testing and building that to group them all into one list would be nigh impossible. What we can do is remember the people who changed the world, for better or for worse, and preserve the legacy they built.