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20th Century Major Innovations

20th Century Major Innovations

By Pauline Weston Thomas


20th Century Major Innovations


A Century of New Ideas

The 20th century was the most exciting and innovative era of accomplishments in the history of society. Those achievements were global and benefited all of mankind filling fellow humans with awe, wonder, surprise, amazement, pride and hope for a better future.

Historically, the early 20th century was a great time for theorists. Sigmund Freud wrote of his psycho analytical theories which explored the mind and dreams and the unconscious. Albert Einstein proposed his theory of relativity concluding that everything was relative and that e=mc2. Quantum Physics became the foundation science for many twentieth century achievements. Hubble illustrated that the universe is constantly expanding.

Artists like Braque, Picasso, Salvador Dali and Dufy challenged conventional views of art as did theatrical performers like Isadora Duncan. Birth control advocates like Marie Stopes expounded theories on married sexual relations. Fashion designers like Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Vionnet pronounced on style, comfort and women's right to choose to tan, to behave like men and to become emancipated.

One the major changes of the 20th century has been within food production. Food production changed so dramatically in the twentieth century that it brought better nutrition to many. So plentiful was the food supply for some, that obesity has become the scourge of western society.  Even so much of the third world still remains undernourished.  The header image shows how Sugar beet harvesting has changed dramatically in the last fifty years. Today, self propelled harvesting machines remove the leaves and lift the roots in a continuous operation. The latest machines lift 12 rows in a single pass and have almost totally removed men from the field. Image courtesy Associated British Food Ltd.

Advances in science, medicine and creative inventions came at such a rapid pace that society now complains of information and gadget overload. Innovative advances that seem mysterious a hundred years ago, soon became commonplace. Society in history absorbed them all, and everything subtly affected the lives we lead today.

Medical Discoveries


At the start of the century in 1900 the Austrian, Felix Hoffman discovered that the bark of the willow tree yielded Salicylic Acid. When prepared this is called Aspirin. The pain relief tablet first produced by Bayer was revolutionary at the time. Despite many discoveries of other pain relief tablets it is still one of the most widely used drugs on earth. More recently it has been used in the treatment of arthritis using aspirin injections at the site of pain. Scientists continue to seek new uses for it. It was recently realised that its potential had been underestimated and it was a very important drug of the 20th century. 

Blood Groups And Transfusions

At last in 1901 an understanding of blood group analysis and improved methods of storage led to the start of blood transfusions. Many, many lives have been saved with blood transfusions either after accident, during operations, after illness or through blood disorders.


The Scottish Scientist Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin accidentally in 1928. He was culturing bacteria and he went on holiday. In his haste to go away he left the Petri dish lid ajar and when he returned a mould had killed the bacteria in the same dish. It took 10 years for scientists to extract the penicillin from the mould. The wonder drug was still rare at the start of World War II, but where it was administered (to forces personnel) it saved lives. Despite problems now with over administration of antibiotics to people and animals, it is still one of the finest medical drug discoveries of the 20th century, even though a small minority are allergic to it.  

Cancer Research

Intense research in the 1940s led to a greater understanding of cancer and its aggressive nature. Experts began to realise that there was a body of evidence such as smoking and metal ingestion suggesting causes for the disease. Now early detection and an understanding of familial susceptibility, combined with radical surgery, radium treatment and, or chemotherapy can give remission in many cases.


The Genetic Code - DNA

James Watson and Francis Crick unravelled the mystery of the human genetic coding called DNA in 1953. They discovered how the genes for recreating life were arranged in a double helix and the sequence which creates the proteins which give us our genetic traits.

In the 40 year span since the DNA sequence was recognised scientists working on the genome have at last unravelled the human gene sequence. 

Mass Immunisation

After 1952 mass immunisation programmes using the Salk vaccine for poliomyelitis, the BCG vaccine for Tuberculosis and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine were used throughout the western world to reduce deaths from disease aiming to eradicate such problems. Whilst there was huge success, nature still has ways of creating mutations such as the new forms of tuberculosis that are prevalent in inner cities today. When these statistics are reported alarm and shock filters through a society used to being disease free.

Birth Pill

In the 1950s the birth control pill was developed and gave women the control necessary to decide on controlled families or the option to remain childless. 'The pill' is the only drug called simply by that name without qualifying it with the word birth or its particular brand name. The pill gave women liberation and greater freedom of choice enabling them to wear more liberal fashions and live their lives like men.  


Lasers give out concentrated beams of energy. When they were first discovered in 1960 they had limited uses, but today they are used extensively in the medical world. They are used too for laser pop entertainment spectacular shows and media devices such as CD's. Two interesting uses are the correction of eye defects and the burning away of malignant cells.

Organ Transplant

In 1967 the world stood transfixed at the news that in South Africa Dr. Christian Barnard had successfully transplanted the first human heart into another human being. Many types of organ transplants are now done worldwide. Kidney transplants have been particularly successful.  


The way the brain worked was easier to understand when scientists in 1972 first gained access to imaging through CAT scans, MRIs and later PET scans. Many lives have been saved using this technology which picks up brain disorders through images shown on computer screens. 

HIV Aids Virus

In 1983 the world became aware of a new disease called Auto Immune Disease or AIDS caused by HIV, a retrovirus, passed on by unprotected contact with the virus through body fluids such as might occur between drug users of shared needles, sexual relations or accidental medical situations. Twenty years on it is clearly understood that both sexes of any race anywhere in society can contract the disease. Medical research work continues to find a vaccine in the near future.

Improvements In Communication

Marconi's Wireless

On 12th December 1901 Marconi sent his first ever message via radio air waves creating wireless communication. The wireless was the single biggest 20th century means of communication to herald change in a changing world.

Motion Pictures

Audiences were thrilled in 1903 to see moving picture at cinemas. The music hall slowly died. Initially motion pictures were in black and white and were jerky because fewer frames were used per second than today. After moving pictures came talking pictures, finally followed by coloured movies in the late 40s.


Radio educated millions and brought communication to far flung places. It made listeners actively participate as news and events as they happened. Thousands of radio stations now exist across the world. One famous radio service is The BBC World Service a standard for information in oppressed countries. It has been used by individuals to learn to speak the English language.


Television was invented by John Logie Baird in 1923. It was only in the 1950s in the UK that televisions were bought by the masses after people marvelled at seeing Queen Elizabeth II and her coronation. Such spectacles still entertain people around the world whether they are royal ceremonies, film Oscar nights, Olympic games or live news.

Initially televisions had black and white pictures, but many people replaced their TVs in the 1970s and embraced colour pictures. Later developments included satellite television with hundreds of channels, interactive TV and wide flat screen digital TVs. Now in the 21st century a similar trade up is occurring as people upgrade TVs to wider 32'' screens or models called home cinemas.

Television has educated and entertained masses of people and improved global communications. People saw other people's lands and wanted to travel to them because television gave the first glimpse of a country. 

We have watched wars as they happened and seen man's inhumanity to men and women whilst trying to understand the politics of other nations. We have watched history good and bad being made when news footage of the Berlin Wall showed it first going up and many years later the wall being torn down. People have watched presidents and politicians assassinated. People have been traumatised by events such as the catastrophe of September 11th 2001 unfolding before their eyes. They have also been thrilled by momentous occasion such as seeing the first black President Barack Obama sworn in.

TV enabled the world to witness man land on the moon and globally feel a surge of great privilege, insignificance, awe and pride at man's achievement all at the same time.

We have shared great sports events. We have been mesmerised by the beauty of nature and wildlife and seen spectacular eclipses that rain prevented us from watching in our home towns. We have laughed at great entertainment and been spellbound by the folk heroes of our time. We have enjoyed quality costume drama productions and films of every era from ancient Egyptian and Roman spectacles to fantasy space worlds.  All this through the medium of television in the comfort of our own homes.

Television is so important to our lives that in first world countries it is classified by governments as an essential household item. Most homes in the UK own a minimum of two television sets. Often there is a set for every individual in the household. 

The inventors out there might enjoy this patent link.


Updated Feb 2009.

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