SPOTLIGHT STORY

11 Objects that Changed the World

From arrowheads to the jet plane

When you think about objects that changed the world, there’s a pretty good chance that you think about the wheel. Sure, the wheel facilitated transportation and agriculture, forever changing the landscape. But what are the other inventions that get a little less attention, but that have changed our lives just as radically? We dare you to try to think about your life today without any of these 11 essential, world-altering objects…

1. Arrowhead

65,000 years ago, our Stone Age ancestors first sharpened metal into points. These arrowheads, attached to sticks or launched from bows, were used to hunt a broad range of animals. The kind of hunting and gathering that came from the use of arrowheads required multi-stage planning, material collection, and tool preparation. The social and communal skills required to make these simple weapons evolved into the complex thinking processes and skill sets that we use today. Arrowheads also indicate the ability of humans to make objects that allowed them to adapt to a multitude of environments as they spread across the globe.

Chinese arrowhead, Bronze (Collection: Freer and Sackler Galleries)

2. Masks

This mask, and others like it, point to a momentous change in lifestyle: as hunter--gatherers settled down in one place, we see the first stirring of cults and rituals. Once our ancestors began putting down roots, they began making masks in order to define and defend their territory. The masks, whose features were perhaps modeled on ancestors or relatives, were likely worn during ritual ceremonies.

The Oldest Mask in the World, Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, 9000 years ago (Collection: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

3. Cuneiform Tablets

Clay tablets are our oldest form of literature and historical recording. This tablet, part of a series, describes the accession of Nabonidus in 556 until the 530s BCE. It tells the story of how king Nabonidus was away in Arabia for much of his reign, meaning that he couldn’t make it to the annual spring festival in Babylon where his presence was essential (bad king!).

Cuneiform tablets demonstrate the writing systems used by the earliest civilizations and their evolution from pictograms to script. Without these tablets, we would know very little about ancient civilizations. We also would not have known about the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh - the first great epic of world literature - in which the hero (Gilgamesh) battles monsters and his own demons in a quest for mortality!

Cuneiform tablet with part of the Nabonidus Chronicle (556-530s BC) (Collection: The British Museum)

4. Nail

Think about building anything today without a nail… It’s almost impossible to think that there was a time when this small but useful object didn’t exist. How did they do it?! Before the Ancient Romans invented nails, builders used intricate interlocking “puzzle" systems to fit pieces of wood together. But by casting and shaping metal into the small, sharp points that we know as nails, the Romans were able to finally construct more solid structures. Skyscrapers weren’t far behind…

Bi-faceted or caret-headed nail (Collection: National Park Service, Centennial One Object Exhibit)

5. Astrolabe

The navigation and discovery of the world would not have been possible without the astrolabe, an instrument used to measure the position of the sun and stars in the sky. More advanced than a compass, the astrolabe was perfected in the Islamic world around 800 CE and introduced to Spain in the 12th century. The astrolabe remained the most important astronomical and navigational instrument until at least 1650.

Brass Planispheric Astrolabe, Hamid ibn al-Khidr al-Khujandi, Iran or Iraq, 10th century (Collection: The Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar)

6. Gutenberg Bible

In 1455 Johann Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, goldsmith, and printer, began mass printing copies of the bible (“mass” printing is relative - he printed almost 180 copies over three years, a tiny number today, but astounding for his time!). His printing press used moveable type, thereby allowing him to print multiple copies of the same page--a huge revolution and step up from manual transcription.

Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press is regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium, marking the beginning of the modern era: it began the Printing Revolution and influenced the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Age of Enlightenment. It helped spread knowledge and information to the masses and revolutionized the thought economy. Not bad for one man’s life work!

Biblia Latina, Johann Gutenberg, 1454/1455 (Collection: The Morgan Library and Museum)

7. Jacquard Loom

The jacquard loom, first introduced in 1801, not only mechanized the weaving process, but was also essentially the first computer. The loom worked by feeding “punch cards” (cards with holes in them, like 0s and 1s of computer code) into the system in order to move the levers. In addition, the ability to change the pattern of the textile being woven by changing the punch cards on the loom helped later programmers think about conceptual problems relating to computation. Some of earliest computers, like the 1944 IBM, even received program instructions from paper tape punched with holes!

A man weaving at a loom with a jacquard mechanism above, Nishijin-orNishijin Textile Center (Collection: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University)

8. The Cinematograph

What would life be like without The Godfather or Ghostbusters? Not nearly as exciting, in any case. We have the Lumiere brothers and their 1894 “cinematograph” to thank for our modern entertainment. Their first “movie,” made the same year, was just a few minutes of footage showing workers leaving the Lumiere factory in Lyon. The rest, as they say, is history…

The Lumière cinematograph, Auguste et Louis Lumière, Jules Carpentier, 1894 (Collection: Musée des arts et métiers)

9. Light bulb

On October 21, 1879 (just in time for Halloween), Thomas Edison invented the first commercially viable electric light. Electric lights already existed on a larger scale, but Edison’s lightbulb was the first easily manufactured and affordable electric light source. The hardest part for Edison and his team was finding a filament that would be durable and inexpensive. After trying more than 6,000 combinations, Edison finally hit on the winning ticket: carbonized bamboo!

Commercial light bulb manufactured by the Edison company in 1881/82 (Collection: Deutsches Museum)

10. Jet plane

Although the car was manufactured before the plane, the jetliner forever changed the way that people travelled and thought about the world. The airplane made possible a whole new kind of movement and led to a change in the way we understand the Earth. For the first time, it wasn’t so much about the journey as the destination. Whereas trains afforded travelers the luxury of looking out of the window as the countryside rolled by, the Boeing 314 PanAm plane that ran across North Atlantic, South Atlantic and the Pacific (the route was inaugurated in 1939) was about the travel experience and the destination. In 1959, PanAm introduced the Boeing 707 and the jet age was born.

Joe Scherschel, Boeing 707, 1958-10 (Collection: Life Photo Collection)

11. IBM Personal Computer (PC)

IBM came up with its personal computers 10 years after its competitors, but its model quickly became the standard. People were still dubious about the computer’s potential, but IBM was a well-known, and reassuring name. If they said that the computer could be useful, then companies were willing to try it. A time before computers is still in living memory, but there is no doubt that the computer has expanded--and will continue to expand--the human intellect in ways that we are only starting to comprehend. If we’ve come this far with computers in the last thirty years, just think of what is yet to come…

IBM Personal Computer, 1981 (Computer History Museum)

It’s hard to imagine a world without any of the eleven objects listed here. Think about your daily life: what would you do without a knife? How about not being able to write or navigate, read the newspaper, watch movies, turn on the light, travel long distances, or power on your computer? While the arrowhead has been a part of human life for almost 65,000 years, the computer only entered our lives a few decades ago. Looking towards the future, what are the objects of tomorrow that will reveal our capacity to imagine the world and evolve within it?

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