Back to Top

A History Lesson for Teachers: Inventions

Two print shop workers work with a printing pressOne of the most interesting subjects that educators can teach is history. It’s a subject that provides a chance to analyze how people dealt with the challenges of the past as well as provide context for the present. Many history students discover recurring patterns that they may not notice if they only consider current events.

One of the most illuminating topics in history involves inventions that changed the world. From the early humans who learned how to control fire a million years ago to the invention of the integrated circuit in the 1950s, discoveries and advances in technology have guided the developmental arc of civilization.

For both teachers and students, learning about history and inventions that changed the world should be both informative and fun. Fresno Pacific University’s Inventions That Changed the World course gives teachers a chance to learn best practices for making the past come alive for students. It’s part of the popular Great Courses series offered through Fresno Pacific.

Inventions That Changed the World

Politics, royalty and privileged people with the wealth to influence both tend to dominate the pages of history books. While the actions of many of these people are open to debate, certain historical events had a clear-cut impact that changed the course of entire civilizations. They include advances in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, engineering and art. They also include world-changing inventions such as the following.

Taming Fire and Stone Tools

No discussion about inventions is complete with acknowledging the early humans who tamed fire. The latest evidence now points to this happening about one million years ago, according to findings at South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave. Stone tools date back even further. The oldest examples come from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, dating back 3.3 million years. They are so old that they pre-date the emergence of the earliest humans from the Homo genus.


People today take pictures with their smartphones to text them to someone on the other side of the world. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce, who invented the daguerreotype in the 1830s, needed eight hours of exposure to make a photo (they eventually shortened it to about 30 minutes). However, their invention changed how people saw the world, and also gave millions their first look at places far from where they lived (like this 1837 photo by Daguerre and Niépce of their studio).

The Bessemer Furnace

The modern world is built with steel, and the ability to mass-produce steel is only possible due to the creation of the Bessemer Furnace. Two people invented the process in the 1840s—Sir Henry Bessemer in England and William Kelly in the United States. Modern steel plants use a more advanced process, but those innovations stand on the shoulders of the two men who invented the Bessemer furnace.

The Printing Press

Printing started in China in the first millennium A.D. A Buddhist book from Dunhuang, The Diamond Sutra, is credited as the oldest known printed book (from about 868 A.D.), However, Johannes Gutenberg, working in Germany around 1440, greatly advanced the process with his printing press. The inventions led to the mass distribution of information and made books easier to produce and more affordable.


On Dec 17, 1903, the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur, taking turns as pilots on four trial flights) demonstrated that an airplane could fly under the control of a pilot. Those test flights took place near the Big Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina, about six miles outside of the town of Kitty Hawk. Their invention revolutionized travel and freight transport, opening up trade between far-flung locations.

That’s just a sample from a long list of life-changing inventions. Others include:

  • Electric Light: In the early 19th century, Humphrey Davy invented the carbon arc lamp, which made way for inventors Warren de la Rue and Thomas Edison to invent electric lights in the 1800s.
  • Steam Engine: Early steam engines date back to 1698, when Thomas Savery developed the steam-powered water pump, later perfected in the 1700s. Steam engines powered the industrial revolution.
  • Penicillin: Discovered (by accident) in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, this antibiotic mold was purified and created to make penicillin, a drug that fights many bacterial infections.
  • Integrated Circuit: Invented in 1958 by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments in Dallas, the integrated circuit (or a microchip) now powers everything from parts of cars to computers, smartphones, laptops and much more.
  • The Internet: The internet connects the entire planet, making it one of the biggest inventions that changed the world. The U.S. Department of Defense funded the first connected computer system for the military, but British scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), web browser and web server.

The Fresno Pacific University Great Courses

The Great Courses series for educators offered through Fresno Pacific University gives educators the chance to expand their knowledge while earning professional development credits.

The video-based courses help teachers develop practices that allow them to better engage their students on various topics. In the case of Inventions That Changed the World, educators learn the story behind a wide variety of inventions, how they work and how they reflect—and in some cases define—cultural values.

The course takes a global perspective, from Ancient China to Silicon Valley. Teachers learn to differentiate between discovery and invention and develop a deeper understanding of common inventions used in everyday life.

Assignments in the course address the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) for Science inventions. Completing this course is applicable towards earning the STEM Teaching Certificate from Fresno Pacific University.

Browse Articles by Category