Top 20 Greatest Engineering Achievements of the XX Century

Top 20 Greatest Engineering Achievements of the XX Century

Time to take stock! We have compiled a list of the best engineering achievements of the 20th century.


Dozens of times a day, each of us uses reserves of energy sources – coal deposits, oil reservoirs, wind and water energy, atoms and the Sun. All this turns into electricity – the workhorse of our time.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a battle between two systems – direct current Thomas Edison and alternating current Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. As we recall, Edison’s ideas became more popular. Today, electrification has no less complex networks than, for example, the Internet.

The world is connected by flexible networks, new distribution systems that supply electricity for thousands of kilometers. These networks and the computer control of routing and switching are designed to reduce the number of causes of power outages that previously threatened densely populated areas of different countries, for example, the northeastern United States.

Improvements in this area are managed by the American Research Institute of Electricity (EPRI), created by the efforts of the state and investors to overcome the energy crisis in 1965. EPRI explores ways to increase production capacities and contributes to the implementation of energy distribution and to improving the reliability of energy efficiency of devices. Reliability has gained more weight than ever. In the context of the digitalization of the world and the development of telecommunication networks, a power outage even for a short moment of 1/60 second can lead to the destruction of a variety of microprocessor devices – from computer Internet servers to life support equipment. The future goal of EPRI is to improve the current level of reliability of power supply from 99.99% (which is equivalent to an average of 1 hour of power supply per year) to the standard known as “nine nines” – 99.9999999% reliability.


In 1895, Thomas Edison made a prophetic prediction: “I believe that horseless transport is a miracle coming. It is only a matter of time. Soon all goods and luggage will be transported using motors. True, it is not yet clear what these engines will be like.”

It is not surprising that the automotive industry is an industry of constant engineering and technical development, a large part of which is caused by state regulation and social pressure. The pursuit of maximum safety has led to a rapid evolution – from seat belts and airbags to the computerization of brake systems and the development of advanced technologies for night vision and collision avoidance devices. In addition, high technology has penetrated the fuel system – for example, onboard microprocessors are designed to reduce emissions of pollutants and increase fuel efficiency by controlling the air-fuel mixture. And new high-tech materials – improved steel, aluminum, plastics, composites – increase strength and at the same time leave the car light.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, people could not even imagine how it was to fly on an airplane. But by the end of the century, it had become the norm for millions of people. Moreover, some have already managed to go into space. The first flight on an airplane lasted 12 seconds and a pilot weighing 55 kg participated in it. Now, the flight duration reaches 15 hours, and the number of passengers is several hundred.

Today, computers have firmly entered the field of flight control. The so-called wireless control systems have replaced the cumbersome hydraulic mechanisms and drives on electric motors. Compact and lightweight electronic components have completely transformed safety systems. Special collision avoidance systems based on on-board computers, as well as a Doppler radar, alert pilots about all changes – the strength and change of direction of the wind, and also inform about the operation of all the most important nodes and compartments at the most crucial moments – during takeoff and landing.

Water supply system

At the beginning of the twentieth century, water was one of the most sought-after products in the USA and other large countries. The population was growing very fast, and the water supply systems were in terrible condition and posed a direct threat to the health of citizens.

Today, engineers continue to solve problems of more advanced water treatment, sometimes with the help of simple technologies. The Indian scientist Ashok Gakdil invented a similar one after the terrible epidemic of cholera in his native country in 1992-1993. The device is a small box with ultraviolet light, suspended above a basin of water. Water enters the pelvis, is irradiated with ultraviolet light, and then overflows already cleaned into another container at a speed of approximately 15 liters per minute. At the same time, the irradiation lamp consumes no more than a conventional incandescent lamp of 40 watts. Today, thousands of such devices are used around the world in countries where water requires enhanced purification (Mexico, Philippines, India, South Africa and many others).


In 1948, an innovation in the field of electronics was met with barely restrained yawns from boredom. The public did not believe that something revolutionary could happen. “This is a device called a transistor. It is used in some devices on the radio, where vacuum tubes were previously used. It was demonstrated yesterday at the Bell Laboratory,” the New York Times reacted to the invention.

Later, vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors in most electronic devices, revolutionizing the development of integrated circuits and computers. Since the 50s of the twentieth century, transistors began to decrease in size and fall in price. Then an eraser-sized device cost several dollars, and by the mid-70s, its size approached mosquito volumes and the price dropped to hundredths of a cent. In the 90s – even less.
Transistors today are functional units of various electronic designs and microcircuits of various degrees of complexity. Some chips provide the functioning of electronic memory in the processes of storage and extraction of binary data. Others are designed to perform specific tasks with maximum efficiency for managing audio signals or graphic images. Still, others are in the class of microprocessors.

Radio and television

In the fall of 1899, a revolutionary way of communicating the results of various competitions appeared on the sports news arena. Somewhere outside the Big Apple Harbor, two sailing ships fought fiercely for America’s Cup – Columbia, a New York yacht club, and Shamrock from Ulster, Ireland. Before this race, the fans did not suspect what was happening on the water and only knew the result after the end. However, this time they heard everything with the help of a “lightning-fast sound signal,” as sports radio journalists enthusiastically called.

This was the beginning of the media, which today continues to grow. Internet television, mobile television, podcasts, HDTV, and now 3D television… What will appear in the future is harder to predict, but one thing is clear – the 20th century was significant for the inventions.

Agricultural mechanization

Driving past large fields near villages, you can sometimes notice various patterns of droplets in the air above them – huge circles and chess cells of different colors. This means that they use automatic irrigation systems in the fields – revolutionary at one time.

Mechanization has affected many processes in agriculture – from milking cows to harvesting, feeding animals and more. Therefore, the percentage of the population employed in this sphere of production constantly decreased in the 20th century, which led to a global change of civilizations.


The device proudly flaunting on the cover of the Popular Electronics for 1975 was called “The First Microcomputer in the World Competing with Commercial Models.” The Altair 8800 computer was sold assembled for $621 or as a set of parts for assembly for $439. The developers assumed that they would sell only a few hundred such machines to enthusiasts, and were surprised when it turned out that they had sold several thousand in the first month.

The computer industry made evolutionary leaps faster than any other, moving quite quickly from a command-line interface to a graphic one, and from autonomous bulky PCs to laptops and networks. Today’s generation is already involved in the so-called digital era when absolutely all areas of life are computerized.

In fact, all the previously predicted PC capabilities have already been implemented – speech recognition, creating realistic animations, communication of people from all over the globe… But new opportunities are not long in coming, and an average person can hardly guess what will happen next, beyond the horizon of digital technologies.


Alexander Graham Bell wrote that the telephone can be briefly described as an electric device for reproducing a person’s voice with all its intonations over long distances. To connect one such device to another, he proposed utopian tools at that time: “It can be assumed that telephone wire cables can be laid underground or stretched upstairs, combining private houses, firms, shops, and institutions with separate branches.”

By the way, the basics of cellular telephony were developed at Bell Labs back in 1940, but it could not be built, because the necessary integrated circuits and other electronic components were simply not produced. Many companies already saw enormous prospects for business in this growth, but government bodies slowed down this process for a long time without allocating the necessary frequencies.

The first cell phones were installed in cars, they were huge by modern standards, sizes, and prices – more than a thousand dollars. Batteries worked just a few minutes. Only in the 90s, thanks to microchips, mobiles began to decline rapidly in size and became cheaper.

Air conditioners and refrigerators

What technology is the most important at home? Most often, the answer to this question is a refrigerator. During the twentieth century, it was also a luxury (after all, mass production began only in 1950), but then it became simply indispensable and necessary in any kitchen.

By the way, the first refrigerator was introduced on July 14, 1850, by the American doctor John Gory – he demonstrated the process of producing artificial ice in the apparatus he created.

In his invention, he used compression cycle technology, which is used in modern refrigerators, and the device itself could serve as both a freezer and air conditioning.


Here are the predictions William Durant, the founder of General Motors, made in an interview in 1992: “Most of us will live to see our country in the future, covered in a huge network of roads that are straight from point to point. The hills will be leveled and bridges built – man and equipment will do their job.”

Given the love of Americans for cars, his predictions were not unfounded. And the development of road transport, which began at the end of the 19th century, required the creation of convenient paths for the movement of cars. While their speeds were small, they were limited to horse-drawn roads, using precautionary measures against dust and protecting the road surface from rapid destruction. With an increase in traffic intensity, an increase in speeds and loads, more thorough reconstructions of horse-drawn roads began to be carried out, expanding carriageways, eliminating steep ascents and descents, increasing curvature radii, using dust-free and durable road surfaces, etc. After the First World War, in most countries, they began to build only roads specially designed and designed for car traffic. In France they are called autoroute, in England – motorway, in Italy – autostrada, in the USA – highway.


This historical event was so obscured that then no pictures were taken. But none of those present will probably ever forget this moment – when on October 4, 1957, Sputnik started on the plain of Kazakhstan. The rocket rose from the take-off field and quickly rushed into the sky, leaving behind only tiny luminous specks of dust…

Today, space missions are becoming more and more complicated, and instead of people, specially designed and controlled robots are sent to them. NASA’s maximum mission today is a study of neighboring galaxies. And half a century ago, a huge achievement was just to fly to the moon.

The Internet

After the Soviet Union launched the artificial Earth satellite in 1957, the US Department of Defense decided that America needed a reliable information transfer system in case of war. The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has proposed the development of a computer network for this.
The construction of such a network was entrusted to the University of California at Los Angeles, the Stanford Research Center, the University of Utah and the University of California at Santa Barbara. The computer network was named ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), and in 1969, within the framework of the project, the network united four of these scientific institutions. All work was funded by the US Department of Defense. Then the ARPANET network began to actively grow and develop; scientists from different fields of science began to use it.

And today, you can connect to the Internet through many channels: communication satellites, radio channels, cable television, telephone, cellular communication, special fiber-optic lines or electric wires. The World Wide Web has become an integral part of life in developed and developing countries.
Over the course of five years, the Internet has reached an audience of over 50 million users. Other media took much longer to achieve such popularity.


To surpass the capabilities of the human eye – this dream did not leave many after the inventions of Levenguk and Galileo. In all ages, people wanted to see better and very distant objects, both very close and small. But in the twentieth century, this was supplemented by the desire to see some phenomena from the category of “magic” – to penetrate the deep essence of things, to see the spectra of color and light invisible to humans.

Today, thanks to technological advances, man nevertheless has become closer to the title of the crown of civilization than ever. It can store and view millions of images captured in images taken with micro- and telescopes using various vision devices, etc. Photography has become a breakthrough that allows you to save the world around you in a way that is convenient for people.

Healthcare technology

In 1900, the average human life span was 47 years. In 2000, it was 77 years old. The already mentioned water purification technologies contributed to the increase in this figure. But, to a greater extent, this is the merit of new diagnostic technologies, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and improvement of treatment methods.

Today’s medicine and the medicine of the future are essentially bio- and genetic engineering, nanotechnology and radiation. Microscopes are even able to make diagnoses. Research takes place at the level of microorganisms and photonic elements. Robotics is quite tightly introduced into medicine, in particular at the level of prostheses and implants of a new generation.


In 1930, the American magazine “Good Economy” asked its readers a theoretical question: “How many times would you like to press a button so that dinner is quickly and tasty prepared and served, and then the dishes are washed and laid out?” But then, in general, no magic button or switch existed – neither for cooking, nor for cleaning, nor for washing — these were the responsibilities of women.

Now, almost all the housework can be done for us by household appliances, which are also becoming more and more digitized. And the concept of a smart home created back in the 1970s is being fully implemented.

Oil and petrochemical technology

Coal was king in the 19th century; oil became the undisputed emperor of the 20th. Refined oil was literally the fuel that propelled the twentieth century – the “blood” of cars, aircraft, agricultural machinery, and industrial equipment.

Countries with significant oil reserves, respectively, are now more likely to become prosperous. But these reserves, like any deposits of natural resources, are exhaustible. And therefore, the synthesis of oil and other promising energy sources has become a priority for scientists in this industry.

Lasers and fiber optics

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the breakthrough in telecommunications as an urgent need has already experienced its heyday in the middle of the last century.

Most long-distance calls were made using copper or coaxial cable. Over the next few decades, they were completely replaced by new technologies.

The principle of light transmission used in fiber optics was first demonstrated during the time of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), but the development of modern fiber technology began in the 1950s. The invention of lasers made it possible to build fiber-optic transmission lines superior in performance to traditional wired communications.

Nuclear technology

Since the mid-twentieth century, nuclear technology has been making an increasing contribution to key areas of human life. And this is not only nuclear power. Non-energy applications of nuclear technologies are spreading more and more, the pace of their implementation is higher than in the energy sector. Doctors and technicians working in the field of nuclear medicine carry out billions of procedures per year around the world. The volume of food processed by ionizing radiation reaches a billion tons per year and continues to grow. Nuclear technologies are increasingly used in crop breeding and pest control, rational water use, mineral exploration, protection of public safety and many other areas. The most famous areas of application of nuclear technology are nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, and nuclear medicine.

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