The Most Inventive Decade

It would be easy to conclude that we live in a time of unparalleled invention and innovation, especially given the rapid pace of discovery and commercial application of ideas formulated during the last few decades.

Looking back into history, though, it would be hard not to agree that the 1880s was one of the most inventive decades in human history.

Vaclav Smil, in Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World, traces numerous daily experiences to artifacts and actions that stem from the 1880s, perhaps the most inventive decade in human history.

Electricity, whose fundamental design (using thermal- and hydropower-generation systems): commercialized in 1882.

Maxwell House coffee: launched in 1886.

Quaker Oats: available since 1884.

The electric iron: patented in 1882.

Antiperspirant: available since 1888.

Light rail systems, descended directly from electric streetcars: serving U.S. cities in the 1880s.

Bicycles: created in the 1880s.

Revolving doors: introduced in a Philadelphia building in 1888.

The Wall Street Journal: published since 1889.

Cash registers: patented in 1883.

Elevators: first installed in a New York City building in 1889.

Vending machines: introduced, in their modern form, in 1883.

Coca-Cola: formulated in 1886.

Ballpoint pens: patented in 1888.

While most would acknowledge that the present times we live in are profoundly inventive, we also owe a huge debt to the 1880s for all of the above, not to mention steam turbines, the internal combustion engine and the first electromagnetic waves produced in the laboratory.