The greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century

International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research

ISSN: 1355-2554

Article publication date: 1 February 2000



Raitt, D. (2000), "The greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century", International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, Vol. 6 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

The greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century

The greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century

Initiated by the National Academy of Engineering in the United States, the Greatest Achievements project was a collaboration with the American Association of Engineering Societies, National Engineers Week, and 27 other professional engineering societies. The goal of the project was to celebrate a remarkable century of technological achievement and I thought that it might be interesting to review the reasons for the project, the top twenty achievements, and those of specific interest to the library and information community.

In August 1999, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) invited 60 professional engineering societies to solicit nominations from their members for the greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century. From the assembled nominations, the societies then submitted their top five to the NAE in October. A total of 27 societies submitted nominations.

The chief criterion for nominations was the significance that each engineering achievement had in terms of its impact on the quality of life during the twentieth century. The NAE formed a selection committee made up of leading engineering experts from academia, industry, and a wide range of engineering disciplines. From the initial 105 nominations, the committee selected 48 nominations for final consideration. These 48 were grouped into larger categories, which reduced the number of nominations to 28, and the committee met in December 1999 to select and rank the top 20.

Speaking on behalf of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) during National Engineers Week in February this year, astronaut Neil Armstrong announced the 20 engineering achievements that have had the greatest impact on quality of life in the twentieth century. Although the primary criterion used was that those advancements had made the greatest contribution to the quality of life in the past 100 years, even though some of the achievements, such as the telephone and the automobile, were invented in the 1800s, they were still included because their impact on society was actually felt mainly in the twentieth century.

The complete list of achievements is as follows:

  1. 1.

    Electrification - the vast networks of electricity that power the developed world.

  2. 2.

    Automobile - revolutionary manufacturing practices made the automobile the world's major mode of transportation by making cars more reliable and affordable to the masses.

  3. 3.

    Aeroplane - flying made the world accessible, spurring globalization on a grand scale.

  4. 4.

    Water supply and distribution - preventing the spread of disease, increasing life expectancy.

  5. 5.

    Electronics - vacuum tubes and, later, transistors that underlie nearly all modern life.

  6. 6.

    Radio and television - dramatically changed the way the world received information and entertainment.

  7. 7.

    Agricultural mechanization - leading to a vastly larger, safer, less costly food supply.

  8. 8.

    Computers - the heart of the numerous operations and systems that impact our lives.

  9. 9.

    Telephone - changing the way the world communicates personally and in business.

  10. 10.

    Air conditioning and refrigeration - beyond convenience, it extends the shelf life of food and medicines, protects electronics, and plays an important role in health-care delivery.

  11. 11.

    Highways - 44,000 miles of US highway allowing goods distribution and personal access.

  12. 12.

    Spacecraft - going to outer space vastly expanded humanity's horizons and introduced 60,000 new products on Earth.

  13. 13.

    Internet - a global communications and information system of unparalleled access.

  14. 14.

    Imaging - revolutionized medical diagnostics.

  15. 15.

    Household appliances - eliminated strenuous, laborious tasks, especially for women.

  16. 16.

    Health technologies - mass production of antibiotics and artificial implants led to vast health improvements.

  17. 17.

    Petroleum and petrochemical technologies - the fuels that energized the twentieth century.

  18. 18.

    Laser and fibre optics - applications are wide and varied, including almost simultaneous worldwide communications, non-invasive surgery, and point-of-sale scanners.

  19. 19.

    Nuclear technologies - from splitting the atom, a new source of electric power was gained.

  20. 20.

    High performance materials - higher quality, lighter, stronger, and more adaptable.

Many of these are, of course, not specifically relevant to the library and information community, but it is interesting to read the complete citations for two or three which are.

8. Computers

Perhaps no other engineered device has captured the attention of the average citizen as much as the computer. Within two decades, the computer went from large, cumbersome machines used to crunch numbers to portable, user-friendly tools that have become an integral part of every major industry - communications, manufacturing, research, medicine, education, government, entertainment, and a myriad of others. The rapid progress of computers came about because of innovations in stored data, the competitive race for superior materials that would make computers faster and more reliable, and engineers who saw that the computer was more than a calculator. Graphically-driven software makes computers easy to use and has begun to open new worlds through the Internet. The average American now has access to unprecedented amounts of knowledge, and can communicate freely in a world forum. In this respect, the real computer revolution is not one of numbers and bytes, but one in which people, regardless of geography and politics, can share information and learn from each other. The computer, more than any other force in modern history, has advanced a global community.

9. Telephone

In the twentieth century the telephone evolved from a fledgling tool with limited use to a host of advanced technologies that form a cornerstone of the modern lifestyle. Near instantaneous connections - between friends, families, businesses, and nations - enable the communications that enhance our lives, industries, and economies. Through a remarkable series of innovations, engineers transformed a system of copper wire, wooden poles, and primitive transmitters into a network of radio and microwave towers, fibre optics, and digital technology, bringing us from switchboards and party lines to cell phones and satellite-based systems that reach the most remote outposts of the planet. Along the way, several key developments have made this possible - high-quality wire and cabling, computer and electronics technologies, lasers, fibre optics, satellites, and others. From voice calls to the Internet, the telephone has brought the human family together.

13. Internet

The Internet was conceived in the 1960s as a tool to link university and government research centres via a nationwide network that would allow a wide variety of computers to exchange information and share resources. The engineering challenges were manifold and complex, beginning with the design of a packet switching network - a system that could make computers communicate with each other without the need for a traditional central system. Other challenges included the design of the machines, data exchange protocols, and software to run it. What eventually grew out of this endeavour is a miraculous low-cost technology that is swiftly and dramatically changing the world. It is available to ordinary people at home, in grade and high schools, universities, public libraries, and ''cyber'' cafes. It is not owned or controlled by any corporation or nation. Today, the Internet has over 150 million users and 800 million Web pages (and growing daily), and it connects people in 65 countries instantaneously through computers, fibre optics, satellites, and phone lines. It is changing cultural patterns, business practices, the consumer industry, and research and educational pursuits. The possibilities for its future use are only just beginning to be imagined.

In addition, we are also beginning to see some of the other technologies being applied these days in an information context. Refrigerators, for instance, are being hooked up to computers and the Internet to not only indicate when stocks are running low, but also to re-order goods.

Naturally, all the developments listed above have had an impact in countries other than the United States and readers can certainly give examples of how these technologies are being used in their own libraries and work. In fact, I invite readers to write a paper for The Electronic Library which shows how any of the 20 achievements and technologies above are being put to use in a library and information context in their own country or region.

Further details of the project and partners as well as complete descriptions of all the achievements selected can be found at

David Raitt

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