Editorial Feature

The Darker Side of Invention

10 inventions that have had a negative impact on the world

It’s not illogical to think that every invention is made for the good of the world. Inventions help people, better society, and advance technology, right? Many inventions do probably start out with good intentions, even if it’s in the vein of just seeing what happens. However, as you’ll see in the list of inventions below, the reality can be very different and not everything in this man-made world has had a positive impact on the world. In fact the damage has been catastrophic in some cases. But of course, it’s only possible to call out these inventions through the magic of hindsight. Who knows what other modern creations will have a darker side to them in decades to come?

Cigarettes

It seems obvious now that smoking is bad for you, yet for a while smoking was seen as a harmless habit, heavily marketed to millions of people. The first commercially available cigarette was launched in 1865 by Washington Duke made on his 300-acre farm in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. His hand-rolled cigarettes were sold to soldiers at the end of the Civil War.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s and 50s that studies began to take place linking smoking to lung cancer. For instance, in Britain in 1949, Richard Doll, a researcher working for the Medical Research Council, and Bradford Hill, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene, began looking at lung cancer patients in London hospitals. The patients were asked about family history, diet, and previous diseases. In 649 cases of lung cancer, two were non-smokers. Doll immediately gave up his own five cigarettes a day habit.

By 1956, the link was incontrovertible and soon restrictions were placed on advertising, followed by higher taxation, restrictions on sales to children, and on smoking in public places, with information on tar and nicotine content being given to the public cigarette sales fell for the first time in a decade. Many smokers at the time blamed the tobacco companies, who aggressively promoted their products to consumers without any health warnings. Today, there are various restrictions on nicotine advertising. Still, in 2018, the World Health Organization reported that tobacco kills more than seven million people each year. More than six million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use, while around 890,000 are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

Man in sunglasses smoking by Bruce Davidson (From the collection of Carnegie Hall)
Assorted cigarette packets (From the collection of Science Museum)

Plastics

When plastics were first invented around 110 years ago, they were seen as a miracle invention for their strength, flexibility, durability and heat resistant structure. Today, they’re still heavily in use, with most food packaging arriving to consumers in plastic containers, and syringes and hygienic packaging used in hospitals to prevent diseases. Plastics are used so prevalently in part because they’re pretty much indestructible, but ultimately that’s become plastics’ best and worst trait.

In 1964, the world produced 15 million tons of it. That grew to 311 million tons in 2014, which is expected to double in the next two decades. Around 33% of all plastic is used once and thrown away, and as plastic can’t biodegrade, they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces that leak toxic chemicals and ruin ecosystems instead. While there is still a lot of work to be done to fully wage the war on plastic, changes are being made, for instance in 2018 when many companies like McDonald’s banned the use of plastic straws and introduced paper alternatives around the UK.

Pressed plastic bottles (From the collection of INDEX: Design to Improve Life)

Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is either a nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts (lighter nuclei). The fission process often produces free neutrons and gamma photons, and releases a very large amount of energy even by the energetic standards of radioactive decay. Nuclear fission of heavy elements was discovered on December 17, 1938 by Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, and explained theoretically in January 1939 by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch.

In the United States, an all-out effort for making atomic weapons began in late 1942. This work was taken over by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1943, and known as the Manhattan Engineer District. The top-secret Manhattan Project, as it was known, was responsible for creating the first nuclear weapons. In the years after World War II, many countries were involved in the further development of nuclear fission for the purposes of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. The UK opened the first commercial nuclear power plant in 1956. By 2013, there were 437 reactors in 31 countries.

So far, two nuclear weapons have been used in the course of warfare, both by the United States near the end of World War II. On August 6, 1945, a uranium gun-type device (code name "Little Boy") was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium implosion-type device (code name "Fat Man") was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. These two bombings resulted in the deaths of approximately 120,000 people. Today these areas are no-go zones with radioactive activity still prevalent. The lasting effects of these attacks highlight the destruction nuclear weapons can wreak, but countries all over the world worryingly still sit on secret stashes of them.

Centrifuge machine heat shield used in DOE project to enrich uranium with fissional U-235 for use in nuclear reactors (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Badge of the Organisation for Information on Nuclear Power (From the collection of British Museum)

Gunpowder

Gunpowder is the earliest known chemical explosive. Experimenting with life-lengthening elixirs around A.D. 850, Chinese alchemists instead discovered gunpowder. The Chinese used explosives on a wide scale in the 10th and 11th centuries. The cannons, flamethrowers, and grenades that they used in battle were quickly adopted by European forces for battles on land and at sea. However, Europeans refined the applications of gunpowder and improved the devices that used gunpowder, producing weapons that dramatically transformed the nature of warfare.

Gunpowder made warfare all over the world very different, affecting the way battles were fought and borders were drawn throughout the Middle Ages. Although gunpowder and its modern derivatives do still have some major uses today, almost all ammunition used in guns throughout the world (except for muzzleloaders and some military cannons and artillery pieces) is loaded with smokeless powder. Manufacture of smokeless powder is a complicated and expensive process.

Gunpowder container decorate with inlaid shell pieces (From the collection of Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minzu University of China)

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has gotten a bad rep over the years and has been nicknamed "the Devil's candy," a "sinister invention," and "the crack of sweeteners" among many other sweet-toothed evil things. Different forms of HFCS have been in varying levels of production since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the FDA approved HFCS as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) that it began being used heavily in American cuisine.

Used to sweeten food, enhance flavor, and add texture and volume, HFCS is a cheap and easily mass-produced ingredient that’s become a prime culprit of the US obesity epidemic. Why? Well from 1970 to 2000, there was a 25% increase in "added sugars" in the US. After being classified as GRAS, HFCS began to replace sucrose as the main sweetener of soft drinks in the United States. At the same time, rates of obesity rose. While consumption of HFCS in the US has declined since it peaked at 37.5lb (17.0kg) per person in 1999, it’s still rife in many diets. In 2012, the average American consumed approximately 27.1lb (12.3kg) of HFCS, versus 39.0lb (17.7kg) of refined cane and beet sugar. To keep up with the health concerns of consumers, food companies have begun to eliminate them from their products. McDonalds for instance in 2016 pledged it would replace HFCS with regular white sugar in its burger buns and Hershey’s, Heinz, and PepsiCo have made similar moves.

Eat Cane Syrup & Molasses poster (From the collection of Library of Virginia)

Cotton Gin

The cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 and patented in 1794. It’s a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, enabling much greater productivity than manual cotton separation. The fibers can then be processed into various cotton goods such as linens, while any undamaged cotton is used largely for textiles like clothing.

It revolutionized the cotton industry in the United States, but unintentionally caused the growth of slavery in the American South as the demand for cotton workers rapidly increased. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the “need” for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states, in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.

As a result of this, the cotton gin has been identified as an inadvertent contributing factor to the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–1865). The war was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, a collection of 11 southern states that left the Union in 1860 and 1861 and formed their own country in order to protect the institution of slavery. After the war was over, the Constitution was amended to free the slaves, to assure “equal protection under the law” for American citizens, and to grant black men the right to vote. More specifically, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteed that citizens would receive “equal protection under the law,” and the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote. While the constitution was eventually amended, it doesn’t eliminate that heinous period of history or reduce the impact that can still be felt among American citizens, centuries later.

Cotton Gin at Dahomy, Mississippi, 1899 (From the collection of The Henry Ford)
Helicopter view of men working on cotton farm by Margare Bourke-White (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Cars

Cars allowed people to travel faster and further than ever and provided a sense of adventure and independence for many. Today though, the automobile is thought to be one of the worst inventions of the 20th century. But why? When Karl Benz developed a petrol-powered automobile it was dismissed by critics, with many feeling as though nothing would overtake horse-drawn carts, trains, and bicycles. With hindsight, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nevertheless, with their ubiquitous use around the world, cars have made their mark on the world in various negative ways.

The modern negative consequences of heavy car use include the use of non-renewable fuels, air and noise pollution, urban sprawl, and automobile accidents. To get a sense of this particular effect, in 2015 for instance, there were around 6.3 million car accidents in the US alone.

To combat these issues, big car companies are working to create more environmentally friendly cars and vehicles laced with enough tech that they can perform a parallel park better than the driver. But however safe the cars are in comparison to when they were first produced (seatbelts have reduced the risk of death by 45%), it’s the drivers that carry a responsibility as well.

Thomson Uniflow Steam Automobile, General Electrical Company (From the collection of Museum of Innovation & Science)
Dr James Lafferty with the GE 100 Electric Car, General Electric Company (From the collection of Museum of Innovation & Science)

Internet

The internet is arguably one of the most successful inventions in recent decades. It’s provided a fast way for people to connect with each other, receive news, learn things, and be entertained among other things. It’s also created new career paths in a range of different and exciting industries. But it’s also hindered the way we previously did those same things.
As much as it’s brought people together, the internet has also: segregated us from daily interactions; Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is a diagosable thing;, bullying in schools can now reach students at home because of social media; it’s easier to share illegal materials like child pornography; and identity theft and cybercrime is huge with 30% of US consumers notified of a data breach in 2017, with the amount stolen peaking at $16.8 billion.
Just this quick overview highlights the numerous areas of life the internet has seeped into in a fairly short time. However despite the problems, dangers, and concerns, the role the internet plays in the day to day doesn’t feel like it’s slowing down anytime soon.

Computer Software: Internet Tutorial (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

Mobile phones

Mobile phones or cell phones are as much a part of people’s lives as the internet, and the two have become heavily intertwined. The world's first mobile phone call was made on April 3, 1973, when Martin Cooper, a senior engineer at Motorola, called a rival telecommunications company and informed them he was speaking via a mobile phone. The phone Cooper used, if you could call it that, weighed a staggering 1.1kg and measured in at 228.6x127x44.4mm. With this prototype device, you got 30 minutes of talk-time and it took around 10 hours to charge.

We are now in the age of the smartphone. People didn't start using the term "smartphone" until 1995, but the first true smartphone actually made its debut three years earlier in 1992. It was called the Simon Personal Communicator, and it was created by IBM more than 15 years before Apple released the iPhone.

The heavy use of smartphones has started to negatively impact people’s mental health and wellbeing, for instance it’s thought it can contribute towards sleep issues and replace in-person communication. There’s also the expectation to be online and connected all the time, self-worth is equated to likes on social media, and reading on smartphones can be worse for learning and comprehension. In today’s world, phone addiction is a very real thing, and it’s because phones are not just a means to call someone but also a device to store images, watch things, pay for goods, manage your finances, exercise with and so much more. So what’s next for these handheld computers?

The Bi-Bop mobile phone, 1993 (From the collection of Musée des arts et métiers)
iPhone 3G mobile phone, Apple (From the collection from the Science Museum)

DDT

DDT was supposed to be the magic solution that would rid the world of insect-borne diseases like malaria. Discovered in 1873, DDT (short for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) wasn't used widely until 1939, when Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller noted its effectiveness as a pesticide during World War II, a discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize in 1948. After the war, its use exploded and from 1942 to 1972, around 1.35 billion pounds of DDT were used in the US.

The environmental effects of using millions of pounds of potent pesticides each year was, for a while, completely ignored. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was the first to call attention to the fact that DDT might not be as magical as people thought it was.

The book cataloged the environmental impact that coincided with the widespread use of DDT in agriculture in the United States, and questioned the logic of using potentially dangerous chemicals in the environment with little prior investigation of their effects. Carson claimed that DDT and other pesticides had been shown to cause cancer and fertility issues, and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Its publication was a seminal event for the environmental movement and resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led, in 1972, to a ban on DDT's agricultural use in the United States. A worldwide ban on agricultural use was formalized under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, but its limited and still-controversial use in disease vector control continues because of its effectiveness in reducing malarial infections, balanced by environmental and other health concerns.

Man spraying Elm Trees in Wisconsin with DDT to prevent Dutch Elm Disease by Lee Balterman (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
DDT affected birds by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
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