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Did Thomas Edison actually invent the lightbulb? Turns out, there's more to the story than what you thought you knew! Every great, world-changing invention is the culmination of efforts by dozens or hundreds of people, spanning decades or centuries—and sometimes the truth is a little complicated! Join Hank Green for a fun new episode of SciShow, where we'll uncover some hidden secrets behind 10 famous inventions! Let's go!
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[SciShow intro plays]

Hank: Inventors. People with messy hair sitting alone in their garages, tinkering and being brilliant. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. That is what we learn in school: that a great genius invented a thing, because it’s a sound bite that’s easy to teach and easy to remember.

But the truth is, it’s almost never that simple. Every great, world-changing invention is the culmination of efforts by dozens or hundreds of people. The last person to come along is usually the one who gets the credit, but they have all of history on their side as collaborators. So here are ten inventors who didn’t invent the things they’re known for inventing. Or rather, ten people who put the exclamation point on a decades- or centuries-long process to finally bring that thing into the light.

The late 1500s was a pretty good time to be in the glass business. Techniques for making glass and lenses were getting much better, and the telescope was practically inevitable. With all those lenses lying around, sooner or later someone was bound to pick up a pair and go, “Haha! This makes your head look bigger!” The first person we know for sure to have done this was a Dutch man named Hans Lippershey. Others may have gotten there as well.

These magnification devices were massively popular in the Netherlands, so when Galileo heard about them, he wanted one for himself. No big deal--he just built his own. Without ever having seen one in person. And he made some improvements. So, that was pretty clever of Galileo. He was a smart person - not trying to take anything away. The other thing he did was to use it as a scientific instrument, making observations of the solar system. Nobody else had thought to do this yet, that we know of. But Galileo certainly benefited from the work of Lippershey and all the recent improvements in the world of glass.

James Watt’s name is practically synonymous with the steam engine, but it predates his invention by around sixty years. English inventor Thomas Savery created the first steam engine -- which he patented in 1698 -- to solve a very specific problem: coal mines tended to fill up with water, which wasn’t great for the miners. Using steam power to haul it out was much better than buckets. A few years later, another English inventor named Thomas Newcomen tweaked the machine so it would work at close to atmospheric pressure -- earning it the name “atmospheric engine.”

The Newcomen engine stuck around for about fifty years, and while it was better than buckets, it wasn’t great. It had to be heated and cooled constantly and was hideously inefficient. James Watt’s key innovation -- which he developed in the 1760s and 70s -- was to create a separate condenser for the steam. This made the device much more energy-efficient, enough for Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton to commercialize the steam engine and revolutionize the world. Industrially speaking.

If you went to school in the United States, you can probably recite by rote the fact that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Which... is a slight exaggeration. The way cotton grows, it has a bunch of seeds stuck in the fibers that we actually want to make cloth out of. Those seeds used to have to be picked out by hand. There were cotton-separating devices made from simple rollers that worked pretty well, except when they didn’t. Sometimes they squashed the seeds and made a mess. And they really only worked for cotton with long fibers.

The cotton in most of Georgia -- which was often grown by slaves -- had short fibers, so the state of Georgia was very eager for someone to come along and invent a better fiber separator. As part of a massive state-sponsored engineering push, Whitney was commissioned to make a better roller gin. And he did, replacing the solid rollers with wire teeth. It worked great -- but also led to a much higher demand for slaves. So Whitney’s gin drew on earlier innovations, and it also changed American history -- probably not in a good way.

Human-powered lifting devices date back to antiquity. The Ancient Greeks and Romans documented using them, so Elisha Otis can hardly be credited with inventing the elevator in 1853. But the Industrial Revolution made it possible to power these elevators by steam or electricity rather than some dudes pulling on a rope. And as buildings in the United States getting taller and taller, people were getting pretty tired of taking the stairs.

There was just one problem. Early electric elevators were still held up by ropes, and ropes have an unfortunate tendency to break. Otis developed an unlikely but crucial safety innovation. He invented the safety brake, otherwise known as the thing that will grab hold of your elevator if the cable snaps and keep you from falling to your death. And I do say grab, present tense, because we still use pretty similar safety gear. Without Otis’ invention, we probably wouldn’t have skyscrapers. Lots of people contributed to the idea of elevators, but Otis made them practical.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light-giving electrical device. He didn’t even invent glass bulbs with glowy filaments in them. He did, however, start selling a practical light bulb in 1880. The first electric light, called an arc lamp, was created by Humphry Davy 78 years earlier. But it didn’t last long and was way too bright. People tried making filaments out of platinum for a while, but platinum is... you know, it's platinum, it costs a lot of money.

In 1850, Joseph Swan realized that carbonized paper was a better and more plentiful material for filaments, and started making light bulbs. But he had trouble making them efficient and long-lasting. Swan eventually landed on cellulose filaments in the early 1880s, which lasted a good long while. And around the same time, Edison found that carbonized bamboo could last for 1200 hours. In 1883, Swan’s company merged with Edison’s, and the rest was mostly marketing.

The invention of the radio in the 1890s was a bare-knuckle death match between Marconi and Nikola Tesla. Tesla received many of the early patents for radio devices and invented the crucial technology behind them. Marconi, on the other hand, had more success developing them as a commercial product and transmitting signals over long distances. But these milestones were only possible thanks to the work of another man.

A decade earlier, German scientist Heinrich Hertz was the very first person to conclusively prove that electromagnetic radiation was a thing. He was able to both transmit and receive radio waves in his lab. But when asked about practical applications of his discovery, Hertz drew a total blank. To him, it was pure science. It was up to more engineering-minded folk like Tesla and Marconi to make radio actually happen.

When it started production in 1908, the Model T Ford was not the first car ever. Far from it. But in some ways, it might as well have been. Lots of people were involved in the development of transportation devices that didn’t need horses to drag them along. The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Karl Benz, who made the first internal combustion-powered automobile in the 1880s.

What Ford did was bring cars to everyone. He revolutionized car manufacturing, transforming it from a specialized job for one highly trained person to an assembly line process. Ford’s factory could turn out a car in a fraction of the time it took anybody else. He sold large volumes for cheap. So anyone who had a few hundred bucks -- in early-twentieth-century money, anyway -- could get a car. And he paid his factory workers more than twice the industry average to boot. Ford didn’t invent the car, but he did contribute a lot to our contemporary commuting way of life.

It’s not like the idea of a flying machine had never occurred to anyone before Orville and Wilbur Wright. Da Vinci sketched them in his notebooks. We’ve been daydreaming about flying for a long, long time. And the Wright brothers drew on this legacy of daydreamers. A lot of early designs for flying machines were ornithopters -- devices with flapping wings inspired by birds. But designing something that’s light and strong enough to fly and has all those moving parts is a heck of an engineering challenge.

It was Englishman George Cayley who first focused on fixed-wing aircraft and made exhaustive studies of wing shape around the turn of the 19th century. A few decades later, Otto Lilienthal put his designs into practice, building gliders and generating data that the Wright brothers drew on directly. Not only did they have aviation pioneers to rely on, the Wright brothers also took advantage of another major invention of their time, one we’ve already talked about in this episode: the automobile.

See, people were designing lighter and faster internal combustion engines to put in cars. Other engineers had tried electric airplanes before, but they were way too heavy. The Wright brothers were at just the right time in history to have access to a lightweight power source. But their own innovation mattered too of course. Objects are pretty hard to control in three dimensional space, and many people feared a plane would be just too difficult for a human operator to fly. But bike shop owners Orville and Wilbur figured it would be just like... riding a bike. So, their crucial contribution to powered flight was building an airplane you could actually fly. Which was a pretty big deal.

Philo T. Farnsworth is usually credited as the inventor of television, but there were a whole bunch of steps involved in this. First, someone needed to invent the cathode ray tube. That someone was Ferdinand Braun. You might have a super old CRT TV or computer monitor sitting around, though they’re mostly outdated by now. But it was the innovation that allowed Farnsworth to turn radio signals into light. There was also some competition between electronic television, which scanned images using a beam of electrons, and mechanical television, which used a rotating disc. Farnsworth began to contemplate how you could use a CRT to capture moving images when he was still in high school. He then, using Braun’s technology, created the first electronic television in 1929.

The graphical user interface: it’s the thing made up of your mouse pointer and desktop icons and lots of the other elements on your screen. It allows you to interact with your computer graphically rather than by typing commands into a prompt. And we tend to associate it with Microsoft, because they released the operating system Windows, and windows are the things programs and messages appear in. But there were a few steps before that.

If the GUI can be said to be one person’s baby, that person is Doug Engelbart. He was inspired by an essay written way back in 1945 to make a computer that was more interactive. And he demonstrated an operating system with a mouse pointer in 1968. From there, the idea was picked up by Xerox -- yes, that Xerox -- which made the first commercial computers with a GUI.

Apple saw the idea and loved it. They eventually released the Macintosh computer, which had lots of familiar things like menus and icons. But some people thought the Macintosh was too slow and almost cartoony with its friendly pictures -- not suitable for business. It wasn’t until Microsoft released Windows 3.0, Windows 3.1, and eventually Windows 95 that the GUI became the universal way we interact with computers.

Invention is a process that takes years, sometimes generations, of collaboration. And while one person’s stroke of genius can play a part, that stroke of genius never happens in a vacuum. If these people invented something bigger and cooler than the people who came before them, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, because you like it and you want us to keep doing it, you can go to And don’t forget to go to and subscribe!