A Brief History
On August 27, 1859 Colonel Edwin Drake of the Seneca Oil Company drilled a successful oil well just outside Titusville, Pennsylvania, the discovery of the first commercially viable oil well. An oil rush developed in Pennsylvania, and uses for natural petroleum products were invented left and right, with kerosene distilled from crude oil becoming the replacement for increasingly expensive whale oil for lamps. Throughout history discoveries have been made that changed the course of human events either locally or across the globe. Some of these discoveries captured the imagination of the public rather than changing lifestyles or society. (Note: there is no significance to the order listed.)
1. Oil, Edwin Drake, Titusville, Pennsylvania, 1859.
Oil is so important to modern life that it is hard to imagine the world today without it. Once discovered, its importance ballooned quickly, as evidenced by the 8 refineries located in Titusville by 1868. Being a naturally occurring resource that takes millions of years for the Earth to produce, quantities are not unlimited, and someday readily accessible oil will run out. Hopefully before that happens we will have discovered new energy forms and systems that reduce our dependence on natural petroleum. Otherwise…
2. DNA, Friedrich Miescher, 1869.
Did you think Crick and Watson discovered DNA in the 1950’s? I did! This much earlier work by a Swiss physician and physiological chemist first isolated DNA when studying pus (yuck!), or more specifically, lymphocytes and neutrophils under the tutelage of Felix Hoppe-Seyler. Miescher experimented on identifying the contents of the nucleus of such cells and invented extraction methods to isolate “nuclein,” the stuff we now know as DNA. Hoppe-Seyler repeated Miescher’s work to verify the findings, and published the results. Of course, it was not apparent at that time the importance of the discovery and the role DNA played in inherited traits, and follow on work by Albrecht Kossell earned that German biochemist and geneticist a Nobel Prize for working out the chemical composition of nucleic acids (including DNA). It was not until the 1950’s when Crick and Watson discovered the true nature of DNA and allowed the development of the science of DNA providing us with powerful tools to study and even alter human, animal, and plant genetics. None of this modern work would have been possible without the initial discovery by Miescher.
3. America, Christopher Columbus, 1492.
Even if Vikings had been to Canada long before Columbus got to the Caribbean, the Norse discovery did not amount to any long-term significance. When Columbus returned to Spain and told of the New World he had discovered to the West, the European migration to North and South America began and forever changed the course of human events. Of course, by “discovery,” we mean discovery by Europeans, as the Native Americans already living in the Western Hemisphere had already “discovered” America themselves! Not only providing new places to colonize, the plants and animals found in the New World made an enormous impact on European life for centuries to follow. Can you imagine European cuisine without the potato or the tomato? Without Chocolate or Vanilla? Europeans might not eat much corn, but the rest of the Old World uses corn for animal feed and a myriad of synthetic products and oil. (We hate to mention tobacco!) Obviously, the “discovery” of America by Columbus had a massive impact on Native Americans, mostly not so good. Although the impact of the European discovery of America on Black Africans was the horrors of slavery (especially in South America and Brazil where mortality was incredibly high), the result as evidenced today is the spread of African people across the globe that may not have taken place without Columbus and his voyages.
4. Electricity, Ancient Greeks, 600 BC.
The discovery that rubbing fur on amber would make the amber attract the fur is an example of static electricity, but not particularly useful. An ancient battery discovered in Baghdad dates from as long ago as 150 BC or as recently as 650 AD, but what purpose it was used for is unknown. In the 1930’s scientists discovered the Ancient Romans also had what seems to be batteries, but again, for an unknown purpose. Benjamin Franklin and other showed that lightning is electricity, but it was not until Volta invented his battery (1800) and Michael Faraday invented the electric dynamo (1831), a form of generator, that electricity could be reliable produced in usable form. The remainder of the 19th Century brought many uses for electricity, such as the telegraph, the telephone, electric light, electric motor, and of course, the electric chair. Life today would be unrecognizable without electricity and electronics.
5. Gold, James Marshall, Coloma, California, 1848.
Of course, we do not imply this entry was the first time people knew of Gold, but this particular discovery at Sutter’s Mill resulted in the California Gold Rush of 1849-1855, the largest Gold Rush in history and resulting in 300,000 people pouring into California, the most massive Westward migration in US history. California became a state without ever having been a territory, and has developed into our most important food producing state (the most important food producing area in the world) and our most populous state. The discovery and Gold Rush that followed has had an indelible mark on the development of the United States. After all, would we have had Valley Girls without the Gold Rush?
6. Radioactivity, Becquerel, the Curies, Rutherford, Villard, 1896.
Becquerel (pictured above) first observed the effects of radioactive Uranium on photographic plates, but the Curies, Marie (nee Sklodowska, a Polish woman) and Pierre (a Frenchman), did the most pioneering work with understanding the process of radioactive decay. Their work led to the sciences that gave us radiological medicine, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power. Willhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895, something he artificially produced with vacuum tubes and electricity that later were developed into the critically important medical scanner we use so often today.
7. The Rosetta Stone, Pierre-Francois Bouchard, 1799.
When Napoleon Bonaparte took his French army into Egypt in 1798, he was not merely trying to conquer the place, but also had an eye toward scientific discovery. When one of his officers, Lieutenant Bouchard, found a stone slab with markings on it, he passed the find up the chain of command for investigation. When the slab reached a General at Rosetta, Egypt, the slab got its familiar name. Containing markings in hieroglyphics and in Greek, it was logical to assume the markings meant the same thing in 2 different languages. The Rosetta Stone became the key to translating Egyptian Hieroglyphics, something that had previously eluded anthropologists. The term, Rosetta Stone, has become synonymous with a key to understanding something. Obviously, this discovery has greatly enhanced our understanding of Ancient Egyptian history.
8. Heliocentrism, Nicolas Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik), 1543.
Copernicus, a Polish cleric and scientist, discovered that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun, contrary to the accepted view that all other heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth (Geocentrism). As this discovery directly conflicted with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Copernicus did not publish his work until right before he died. Other scientists and astronomers read Copernicus’ work and confirmed the premise of Heliocentrism, with Galileo Galilei being a prime example of what happened to people that dared to disagree with the Catholic Church. When Galileo published his confirmation of Copernicus in 1615, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and found to be a heretic. Forced to recant, Galileo lived the rest of his life under house arrest. Without the initial understanding of Heliocentrism, the rest of astronomical discoveries and calculations would not make sense, and thus this discovery is fundamental to everything we know about our solar system and the movement of heavenly bodies.
9. Vitamins, Umetaro Suzuki/Casimir Funk, 1910–1912.
Although it was apparent to doctors for many years that certain foods prevented certain illnesses, it was not known why, and what compound in the food was responsible for which illness prevented. Suzuki, a Japanese doctor identified a vitamin complex he called Aberic Acid, which later became Vitamin B1, or Thiamine. His work was translated into German, but got little attention. Casimir Funk (pictured above), a Polish scientist working in England, did similar work and came up with the name “vitamine” for his discovery, later called Vitamin B3 or Niacin. Funk led the theory that other such vitamins existed that were vital to various bodily functions, and other scientists over the years isolated several such vitamins. Our understanding of vitamins help guide our nutritional direction and the synthesis of vitamins makes it far easier for people to avoid vitamin deficiency related diseases, especially anywhere the diet is limited in nutritional value or variety.
10. Neanderthals did not disappear, Svante Pääbo, 2010.
Pääbo, a Swedish ancient geneticist, led a team of researchers to discover that Neanderthal DNA is found in Modern Humans from Europe and Asia, but not from Sub-Saharan Africa. The irrefutable proof that Neanderthal Man, once thought to have become totally extinct due to competition from Modern Humans, actually interbred with Modern Humans and was absorbed into the Modern Human genome. It is now believed European and Asian people have between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA in their genetic make up, while Sub-Saharan (Black) Africans do not, but instead have other ancient hominid DNA not found in Eurasians. This exciting discovery changes our understanding of the evolution of Humans and may well explain some of my Cave Man tendencies!
Question for students (and subscribers): What discoveries would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Weber, David L. Around Titusville (PA) (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing, 2004.
The featured image in this article, photography of en:Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880), is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.