Stepping Switch

Stepping switches change the direction of a magnetic flow to one of multiple channels, stepping through them incrementally. Which sounds incredibly boring until we realize they enabled the modern phone system and powered the decryption machines which morphed into the modern computer. Stepping switches were literally a step from the industrial revolution to the modern world.


Let’s step back. When you dial a phone number each digit zero’s in on the intended recipient. Take the theoretical number +1 212 345-6789. +1 indicated the US. The next set of numbers, 212, routes to the Washington, DC area. The next three numbers, 345, route your call to an exchange somewhere that used to be nearby your house. Finally, the last four digits find you.

Before stepping switches humans had to do manually. The +1 was implied (unless it wasn’t, in which case an overseas operator would reach the US). Dialing 212 is optional but, before stepping switches, if you wanted to dial long-distance an operator would have to plug your call into a long-distance line.

Finally, for the last part, an operator would always have to find you and plug the call in.

In case you’re wondering how this worked you would pick up the phone and tell the operator the number you wished to call. She (it was always a she) would then work with operators to get to the telephone you wished to reach.

If this sounds slow, clunky, annoying and expensive you’re right, it was. Therefore, Almon Stowger invented a device to do the work automatically. Rather than an operator routing the line, a series of stepping switches does the same work faster, cheaper, and more accurately.

Stepping switches were integral to the war effort. In Bletchley Park, the English code-breaking facility, they allowed the Allies to break Nazi encryption. Alan Turing, inventor of the modern computer, worked as a lead scientist.

Milking Machine

Milking machine safely and effectively milk cows. They vastly reduce the cost of milking a cow.


Nobody likes milking cows by hand. It’s time consuming, laborious, and they poop.

Early attempts at something better involved inserting catheters that would let the milk slide out. However, if not used perfectly these hurt the animal. Catheters often infected cow udders. This caused the co-mingling of infected and good milk leading to sickness in people. American Agriculturist magazine, the trade journal way back when refused advertisements for milking catheters.

Eventually, suction-based machines, that work more like hands, came along. American Anna Baldwin patented an early suction-based milker that, while sub-optimal, was a substantive step on the way towards the modern milking machine. S.W. Lowe built on Baldwin’s machine, sucking from four teats at once.

Finally, L.O. Colvin, cited as “America’s most famous inventor of early milking machines” created a hand-cranked machine that mimicked hands, the modern milking machines.

Women Inventors

A brief digression: we study countless historic innovations, the ones we write about and many more we do not believe are eligible for inclusion. We have never seen so many innovation histories where the inventors use initials for their first name. Way back when milking cows was often a women’s job, milkmaids. We know that Anna Baldwin created and patented one early machine. However, we believe many of these other initials-only inventors were also women. Using initials hid the fact from patent applications, news articles, and men who purchase farm equipment. With this in mind, we refer to these inventors using feminine pronouns.

Colvin’s milk machine received favorable press and sold widely. She sold the English patent rights for $5,000. This was an enormous amount of money in 1860 when the average wage for a skilled laborer was $8/week.

Using iterative development, the modern milking machine came into being. Hand-cranks operated earlier one’s whereas later versions relied on electricity. However, they all operated with a similar mechanism.

At least one publication raises a good question about why it took 50 years from the earliest patents to a fully-functional machine when the grain harvester moved much faster. The answer, they speculate, is that cows are not wheat: they are living animals farmers refused to experiment upon.


We, the editors of innowiki, have reviewed thousands of inventions. We’ve read through countless idea, rejecting the vast majority not because they lacked merit but because they didn’t rock the world.


Of the innovations we accept there are very few who have more than one invention. Granted, the raw number of innovations does not balance to their impact. Doriot, the inventor of venture capital, created just one but the impact is more nuclear blast than a nudge in moving the world forward.

Still, very few people make more than one thing that genuinely matters, and many of those are hyped-up in hindsight.

Which is a long-winded way of saying Thomas Alva Edison is the real deal. We’re not ready to say he’s the greatest inventor in history because we’re still parsing. But we sure wouldn’t pick a fight with anybody who made that assertion.

Edison’s Phonograph

The phonograph, that changed the world of music and communications, is one of Edison’s lesser contributions. That’s not to say it is unimportant: it certainly belongs on the list of great inventions. It revolutionized music.

But because Edison invented it, and he invented so many other things (ex: the electricity plant and power grid), it tends to lay in the background. He moves the curve, so to speak.

Getting to the point, Edison’s phonograph records and plays back music. Which is a vast understatement. It’s like saying the power plant Edison later invented generates an electric current, which it does without explaining the value it creates.

The ability to record and playback music was, like many Edison inventions, a once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough that changed the world. Except that, for Edison, it wasn’t a one-time thing; it was one of the early, and lest significant, of his countless inventions. We’re tagging the phonograph as automation technology because that’s how musicians treated it. Despite our feelings Edison said “… of all my inventions I like the phonograph the best.” We assume that’s because it allowed him to listen to music while inventing all the rest of the stuff.

Moldboard Plow

Traditional plows would become gunked-up with soil, forcing farmers to repeatedly stop and clear away soil. Moldboard plows repel soil, lowering the cost of farming.

John Deere was an ordinary blacksmith, creating pitchforks and other common farm instruments. Farmers complained about the time wasted stopping and clearing their plows. Deere thought there must be a better solution. He reasoned that a differently shaped plow, with a polished steel end, would naturally repel soil.

Iron was more common than steel, so Deere melted down an old sawblade. He iteratively worked with different shapes until finding one that slid through the soil. By polishing it, soil slid off rather than building up.

“Deere must have given a great deal of thought to the shape, to the special curve of his moldboard, for its exact contours would determine just how well the soil would be turned over after the share had made the cut.”

Smithsonian curator Edward Kendall after testing an 1838 Deere plow.

Deere sold his plows first locally then further away. Within a decade, he was selling 2,000 plows per year. Twenty years later, sales continued booming and Deere offered nine different models depending upon a farmer’s needs.

Fourdrinier Paper Making Machine

Fourdrinier machines transform wood pulp into enormous rolls of paper. They vastly reduced the manufacturing cost and, subsequently, the price of paper.

Even the smallest Fourdrinier machine is massive and requires an enormous amount of water. Frenchman Louis Roberts invented the papermaking machine. His friend and confidant, Sealy Fourdrinier, patented and commercialized the technology in England. Roberts was afraid to commercialize the technology in France due to civil unrest during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.

Making paper requires evenly distributing wood pulp across a large area. Too much in one place creates bumps in the paper but too little creates holes.

Fourdrinier realized that combining shredded wood pulp in a massive amount of water, then driving the water out via presses, creates consistent paper. The first step is a mix of, at most, 5 percent pulp to 95% water. Future steps eliminate water via presses between rollers and dehydration from heated rollers.

The machine enables economies of scale based on size and creating rolls of paper, rather than sheets. It also utilizes felt rollers to drain the remaining water towards the end of the process, creating a uniformly consistent sheet. Each set of rollers is slightly thinner than the prior set, squeezing the paper pulp together while draining the remaining water.

The final product is an enormous roll of paper that can be cut into smaller rolls for use on a web press or into individual sheets.

Spinning Mule

Few inventions on innowiki have inspired as much social unrest at the spinning mule. The mule is a minor innovation compared to most others on the list. However, it caused a massive freak-out. The Luddite movement, that still exists to this day, if often wrongly credited to the printing press but actually began with the mule.


The spinning mule transformed raw wool into fabric. It was a vastly more efficient spinning wheel. Like many jobs threatened by automation, spinning was dull, repetitive, and time-consuming. It created jobs but they were terrible jobs.

Rather than one at a time, the mule wove together dozens. Following a pattern that both pre and postdated the mule, children were often employed to operate the machine.

Whereas spinning wheels had 2-5 spindles, mules typically had 1,320. They were vastly less expensive to operate while producing a more consistent yarn.

Before the mule, weaving was usually a family business. Mom and the children would break up and clean the raw fibers then spin them into thread. Dad wove their thread into fabric. The mule reduced the cost of thread, sending dad to factories and leaving mom and the kids unemployed with no marketable skills.


The whole family reacted predictably, violently breaking up mules. They named their movement, the Luddites, after Ned Ludd who most historians agree is a fictional character invented to create labor unrest. Luddites still exist to this day, opposing countless types of automation all the while enjoying the lower costs the machines provide. For example, modern Luddites talk to one another over mobile phones. They don’t realize technology powering their phones eliminated countless jobs, especially switchboard operators, and vastly lowered costs.

The mule itself was a combination of Arkwright’s water frame and Hargreaves’ spinning jenny. Basically, it did both functions. The offspring of a horse and a donkey is a mule, the origin of the name for Crompton’s invention.

Like countless inventors, Crompton could not afford to patent and commercialize the rights to his work. Finances forced him to sell the rights to industrialist David Dale for a pittance. That man went on to make a fortune from Crompton’s work.

Breach Loaded Firearms

Flintlock guns required the user to pour gunpowder into the barrel of the weapon, stamp it down, add a bullet, then carefully pick the whole thing up and fire it. By the time all that finished, soldiers could be chased down and stabbed with a knife.

Breach-loading firearms opened the rifle near the back. They allow soldiers to insert the gunpowder and bullet at the end, a much faster process. However, early rifles were oftentimes too weak to support the subsequent explosion and would blow up in the shooters face.

Despite that, Scotsman Patrick Ferguson invented the first breach-loaded weapon used in the Civil War in service to the King of England. Ferguson’s guns worked reasonably well but, after the war, Americans captured and killed him due to reports of his incivility to US rebel soldiers.

Breach loading rifles were complex and controversial at first. Neither soldiers nor hunters favored weapons that might blow up in their face.

Over time, as manufacturing methods improved, cartridges became technologically possible. With cartridges, the gunpowder and bullet are in one piece, manufactured together. This makes them far less likely to blow up in the shooters face. The American Manufacturing Method, using standardized parts, enabled tighter standards.

Today, virtually all guns are breach loading. Some enormous weapons, including mortars, are loaded from the front but these are a small corner case where cartridges would be too big.

Slide Rule

Slide rules are the original mechanical calculators. They could quickly multiply and divide large numbers.

Slide rules are based on logarithms. These are tables of the number another number is raised to produce a third number. Scales of roots do the opposite.

John Napier realized sets of log scales placed next to one another easily and accurately multiply and divide.

William Oughtred, a minister, took this to the next step placing scales on a piece of wood with a slider to align the numbers. By sliding the device to the right two numbers the user could quickly and accurate multiply and divide large numbers.

For hundreds of years, mathematicians and engineers relied on slide rules.

Newton used them to develop his rules of physics. James Watt, after joining with Boulton, used them to refine and build his condensing steam engine that kicked off the first Industrial Revolution. Centuries later, during the computer era, NASA engineers still used them while planning the Apollo missions.

Virtually every entry before 1970 on innowiki relied, to some extent, on slide rules.

Many “computer museums” feature the slide rule as the second computing device ever invented, after the ancient abacus which was more focused on addition.

After hundreds of years, computers superseded slide rules. However, the impact of slide rules cannot be overstated. These primitive yet vital calculating machines built the modern world.

Wind-Driven Sawmill

Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest invented a sawmill driven by a windmill. It cut wood about 30 times faster than sawing by hand.

Corneliszoon received a patent for his wind-driven sawmill. Workers found the mill during a 2004 excavation.

The windmill used a crankshaft to convert the steady wind into the up-and-down motion necessary to saw wood.

Besides being profitable, Corneliszoon’s mill also gave the Netherlands in shipbuilding by vastly lowering the cost of milled wood. Shipbuilding in England, Portugal, and Spain was bottlenecked by a lack of milled wood. However, thanks to the automated mill, the Netherlands thrived.

Despite that, the automation technology no doubt cost jobs these jobs were, hand-sawing logs all day, were extremely hard work. There is no mention that workers objected to automation rendering hand-sawing obsolete. Most likely, the workers went on to build ships rather than saw wood, a more interesting, lucrative, and cerebral activity.

eLearning / Computer Based Training, PLATO

In 1960, Prof. Donald Bitzer introduced an educational computer system, the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, PLATO.

In hindsight, PLATO is arguably one of the least known but most important technological advances ever. Countless elements of the world wide web were first introduced via PLATO.


Bitzer was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. His inspiration to create PLATO was about half of US high school graduates, in the 1940s, were functionally illiterate. Bitzer theorized that a computer would have the patience that some human teachers lacked, especially for challenging students.

PLATO was an early timesharing system, a new concept at the time. Users and programmers shared the computer using terminals, not punch cards. Programs were interactive, where users would do something, and the computer would respond immediately. In contrast, most computers at the time ran a program, read data for the program, then printed results.

As the system developed and Bitzer found faster computers, PLATO eventually supported up to 1,000 simultaneous users. PLATO featured an early modem, enabling geographic diversity. Terminals were small plasma panels, a new invention, and supported touch, also a new invention. TUTOR, the programming language, was reasonably approachable. Children could and did learn to program the system.

Today’s Computers, Yesterday

PLATO invented the notion of online community, enabling people to send text messages to one another. These messages could be read in real-time or later. Messages could be sent to a virtual “room” of users or to an individual user, a precursor of today’s short message text service. Asynchronous notes, called PLATO notes, also worked. PLATO notes evolved into Lotus Notes.

PLATO featured the first massive multi-player online game (MMOG), Empire. It was massively popular. However, many users couldn’t play Empire because PLATO also featured the first parental control system, The Enforcer. It ensured users were learning or programming, not gaming. For incorrigibles who snuck into games not listed in The Enforcer, senior users (oh, yeah, PLATO also was the first system with interchangeable roles) could zap into the first screen-sharing program.

Maybe the WWW would evolve but for PLATO, and easy interfaces, touch-screens, variable roles, online community, group chat, forums, SMS, and who knows what else. That’d be conjecture. What we do know, with certainty, is PLATO was first with all these features that make up the modern world. It also featured some teaching programs, the original purpose.


PLATO was soley a teaching computer. Inventing the modern computer world, in hindsight, was an accident. In this spirit, Bitzer and colleagues created a special lab, the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL), at UI Champaign-Urbana.