Innovation with start-up difficulties

First they were hardly noticed, then they drove the change with full force: Today we could hardly do without these seven innovations of the last 150 years.

cardiac pacemaker

The first fully implanted pacemaker used by the Swedish surgeon Åke Senning for a patient in 1958 worked for full three hours. The second attempt also broke after two days. Only two years later did the US American Wilson Greatbatch give new hope to the idea of the artificial heart muscle. Unlike other inventors, Greatbatch used mercury-zinc batteries to power his pacemaker. For the first time, the device no longer had to be charged from the outside, but could supply itself with electricity for two years. The basis for all other pacemakers was laid. To this day, the functionality of the devices has not changed fundamentally: put simply, pacemakers work like implanted electronic clocks that send light current through a wire to stimulate the heartbeat. However, the lifespan of the devices has increased: today they last an average of five to ten years before they have to be replaced. Surgery has long since become routine. In the meantime, doctors worldwide implant a good one million pacemakers per year.


At the very most, nostalgics pack a map for their next trip today. Navigation devices or smartphones with Google Maps have long replaced leaflets in everyday life. But all these devices would not be possible without a satellite system that is now over 45 years old. In 1978, the US military launched the first Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite into space. At the time, however, most motorists only noticed it on the sidelines. Because the system served exclusively the military: The satellites, which flew since 1980 into space, should recognize among other things atomic explosions. From 1995, GPS was also made fully operational for civilians - but only to an accuracy of around 100 meters. In the beginning, the USA even provided its 24 GPS satellites with an error signal that did not allow more accurate positioning. It was only after this artificial signal deterioration was lifted on 2 May 2000 that the triumphal march of GPS navigation systems in vehicles began. Today, modern smartphones use several satellite systems at the same time, including the satellites of the European Galileo project.

Haber process

At the beginning of the 20th century, the two German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch succeeded in producing a process for the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. With the aid of an iron-containing catalyst, a pressure of about 150 to 300 bar, and temperatures of about 500 degrees Celsius, they managed to produce this important substance relatively easily from the two elements. However, it took another five years from the first patent that Fritz Haber filed with the Imperial Patent Office in 1908 to the slow start of industrial production. Today, the Haber process is the most important method for the worldwide production of ammonia. The substance is an absolute basic product and the modern chemical industry can no longer be imagined without it: it is used for the production of plastics, but is above all indispensable for the production of fertilizers. Without the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, it would hardly be possible today to meet the steadily growing demand for food. Half of the world's population would probably not be able to survive without the process, writes the journal Nature Geoscience. While the capacity of the first plant to carry out the process was only 30 tons per day, today more than a hundred megatons of nitrogen are produced annually, and the trend is rising.


Whether laptop, smartphone, cordless screwdriver or electric car: without the invention of the lithium-ion battery, all these devices would probably not exist in their current form. We owe the invention of rechargeable batteries to the physicist John B. Goodenough and the Japanese researcher Akira Yoshino. When Goodenough and his team discovered in 1980 that lithium-cobalt(III) oxide could be used to produce rechargeable batteries, they had no idea of the triumph of energy sources. After all, it took eleven more years and important further developments by the researcher Akira Yoshino until the Japanese technology group Sony, the first company to use the invention, installed an accumulator with an output of 1200 mAh in the CCD TR1 video camera. Today, lithium-ion batteries of the same size provide almost six times as much power. Almost every portable electrical device is now powered by lithium-ion batteries, and cars, scooters and e-bikes also draw their power from them. In 2017, at the age of 94, Goodenough developed his famous battery even further: his new "super battery" no longer uses liquid electrolytes to separate the cathode and anode, but instead uses a glass partition wall. This makes the battery lighter and more powerful. Electric cars could soon cover much longer distances.


Despite all modern technology, the mechanical stopwatch is still one of the most important companions on countless sports fields. The first mechanical stopwatch as we know it today was invented as early as 1862. Frenchman Adolphe Nicole presented the world's first pocket watch with a second hand that could be stopped and reset to zero at the push of a button. However, it took a while for it to break through. It was not until the 1936 Olympic Games that the times of skiers were measured with two stopwatches at the start and finish lines, so that the driving time could be calculated from the results. Today it is impossible to imagine everyday life without stopwatches, not only for athletes. The most accurate stopwatches in the world are used in physics. These watches have long been able to measure much more precisely than in seconds. Those who take it very precisely can measure the decay of atoms in picoseconds (one millionth of a millionth of a second). The price for such a watch: around 80,000 euros.


The electronic calculator is already over 50 years old. We owe the invention to the physicist Jack Kilby, who took ten years to assemble the world's first pocket calculator. In the summer of 1958, Kilby had actually developed something completely different: the very first microchip. Nobody knew what such a device was needed for. Kilby did not design the pocket calculator until ten years later - just to create a concrete application for his microchip. The black aluminum case was almost as thick as a dictionary and weighed two and a half pounds. It could subtract, add, multiply and divide. The triumph of pocket calculators took its course. In 1999 alone, 4.4 million pocket calculators were sold in Germany. Today, calculators can do much more than just basic arithmetic operations: Modern pocket calculators can, for example, graphically display mathematical formulas, form derivatives or determine variables.


The power strip (or multiple socket) is probably one of the most underestimated simplifications of everyday life. Just imagine, for every single cable in the office you would need a wall socket. The first person to come up with the idea of laying several sockets one behind the other has not been handed down. However, the pioneer of this little miracle of technology is the American Harvey Hubbel II. More than 100 years ago, he invented the first socket, registered it as a patent in 1904 and thus made it possible to supply private households throughout the country. The basic technology is still the same today: the socket is still a connection between the lines of the power grid and the device that is connected to it. Today we are trying to hide all the tangled cables, to place plug connectors where not everyone can see them. There was a time when this looked quite different. When electrification began in Germany in the 1880s, not everyone could afford electricity. And anyone who could pay for it wanted to show that too. Sockets or light switches were placed clearly visible in the middle of the wall. How times have changed.