The Century's Top 12
Discoveries & Inventions

PARIS (AFP) - Here are a dozen of the most significant inventions and discoveries of this century:
FLIGHT - A pair of bicycle manufacturers, the Wright brothers, made the first motorised flight in 1903. British engineer Frank Whittle filed the first patent for a jet engine in 1930, although parallel development in Germany made that country the first to fly a jet-powered plane, the Heinkel He 178, in 1939.
The first jet airliner, Britain's Comet I, flew in 1949, the precursor of the Boeing 747 Jumbo jet that, two decades later, made international air travel fast, comfortable and affordable. Future projects include mega-airliners capable of carrying up to 700 passengers; a successor to the supersonic Concorde; and (more fancifully) "skycars" -- cars that can also fly.
TELEVISION - Scottish engineer John Logie Baird is the name most associated with the advent of television. He filed his first patent in 1923 for a device that yielded an eight-line image, which was followed in 1930 years later by the sale of the first television set, a device that he baptised a "televisor".
In 1932, the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) launched the world's first regular TV broadcasts. Today, television reaches every part of the globe, through relay stations of air-to-air transmissions, cable and satellite. But the jury is still out on whether it has been an educational benefit or a cultural curse.
PENICILLIN - The wonder drug of the century was discovered in 1928 by a Scottish researcher, Alexander Fleming, who spotted that a mould was killing germs that he was growing on a culture plate.
But a decade passed before his discovery found a wider audience, notably at Oxford University, where a trio of researchers developed a way to purify the mould and make it medically usable. Industrial production of penicillin began in 1943, propelled by World War II. Penicillin has saved countless lives and led to the creation of a whole family of antibiotics.
ATOMIC FISSION - Steeped in controversy, the atomic age began in 1942, when a nuclear pile went critical under a sports facility at the University of Chicago, as part of the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon.
The first atomic bomb was detonated at Los Alamos, New Mexico, on July 16 1945. Two bombs, one uranium and other other plutonium, were detonated above Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month. After the war, rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union plunged the world into a dangerous arms race. Nuclear energy is widely in use in developed countries.
COMPUTER - The first operational electro-mechanical computer was "Colossus," a code-cracking behemoth invented by the British mathematician Alan Turing in 1943 to help break secret Nazi codes.
Successive innovations have miniaturised the computer and increased its power many thousands of times over: the transistor (1947), the integrated circuit (1959) and the microprocessor (1970), increased the speed to process data, while the hard disk (1956), modem (1980), mouse (1983) boosted its power to make data accessible. The future: "intelligent" gadgets, such as wristwatch communicators and refrigerators that remind you when you are out of milk.
THE PILL - Pioneered in 1954 by the US doctor Gregory Pincus, the pill -- a mixture of two hormones that suppress ovulation -- unleashed a sexual and social revolution. For the first time, women gained effective control over their fertility, a change that enabled them to choose when or whether to have children. In the process, this smashed constraints on women's sexual freedom and right to work, eventually giving them unprecedented political and economic clout.
DNA - On February 28 1953, the British scientist Francis Crick announced to patrons of the Eagle pub in Cambridge: "We have discovered the secret of life." Crick and the American researcher James Watson had identified deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), the double-helix molecule in the cell nucleus that determines heredity.
Unravelling the genetic code, in humans, plants and animals, has thrown up dazzling potential in fighting disease and improving food production. Within the next quarter-century, there could be gene therapy for cancer, heart disease, haemophilia, diabetes and many other fatal disorders. But genetic research has throws up moral dilemmas, such as cloning.
LASER - The concept of the laser is rooted a concept about the stimulation of light waves, drawn up by Albert Einstein in 1917. But it took 40 years to gain reality, when Gordon Gould, a doctoral student at New York's Columbia University, suddenly of a powerful process -- Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (LASER) -- and of using the resulting beam to cut and heat substances and measure distance
It took Gould a nearly 30-year battle to establish his claim for a patent, by which time his technology was already being used in countless practical applications, from welding, scanning and surgery to computing, CDs, videodiscs and retailing.
ORGAN TRANSPLANTS - The landmark date is 1967, when the South African surgeon Christian Barnard carried out the world's first human heart transplant. Helped by advances in medicines that discourage rejection of transplanted organs, surgeons have gone on to graft hands, liver, skin, retinas and even testicles. The next frontiers are brain-cell transplants, which could reverse diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, and xenotransplantation -- implanting animal organs in the human body.
TEST-TUBE BABY - Louise Brown feted her 21st birthday this year. The young British woman was the world's first in-vitro baby -- conceived by an egg taken from her mother, which was then fertilised by sperm from her father. The technique of embryo freezing was first used in 1984, and embryo transplants began in 1990. In vitro techniques have given hope and joy to childless couples, but have also thrown up moral questions, such as whether women in their fifties or even sixties should have the right to give birth to an infant whose parents would die while he was still a child.
SPACE - The space age began on October 4 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1, a tiny satellite that orbited the world emitting a "beep beep" signal. The first man in space was the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12 1961. The Americans won the race to the Moon, when Neil Armstrong set foot there on July 20 1969. The other space powers are Western Europe (the European Space Agency), China and Japan.
Satellites have shrunk the globe by providing cheap and instant voice, TV, radio and data links, as well as navigation, weather forecasts and scientific information. Probes have been sent to all of the solar system's major planets. And manned missions are scheduled to enter a new era with the building of an international space station in the next millenniuim.
INTERNET - This is the tool that is breaking the citadels of information, holding out the possibility of knowledge that is cheap and accessible to all.
The Internet developed from a secret Pentagon project for a communications network that, like a spider's web, would remain intact even if several of its strands were broken. The first communication, involving the switching of packets of data, took place in 1969 between two computers in laboratories in southern California.
The Net only gained a wide civilian use after a British computer wizard, Tim Berners-Lee, in 1989 thought up an easy-to-use method of links and addresses for sending data, unhampered by central authority and proprietary software. Around 183 million people use the Net today, and by one estimate the figure could reach half a billion by 2003.


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