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The IET Crowns The 15 Most Valuable Inventions Of The Last 150 Years

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), one of the leading technology organizations in the U.K. with over 158,000 members worldwide in 153 countries, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and 150 years of technological innovation by honoring the most valuable inventions, discoveries, and advancements that have contributed significantly to humanity, the planet, society, and the economy, making their marks throughout our lives.

The humble fridge has been crowned by the IET as one of the 15 most valuable inventions, and the value of this widely available technology has been thrown into even sharper relief in recent months, as simple fridges have played a vital role in the Covid-19 vaccine program rollout across the globe. Voted for by an esteemed panel of IET members, the list highlights the incredible impact that science and technology have on everyday life; from store cupboards to travel, healthcare to communication.

The IET Power 15 includes:

  • AC power generation – it brought electricity to our homes and, ultimately, light, comfort, and all our essential gadgets;
  • Aviation – drove the globalization of the economy and made travel for business and pleasure accessible for the masses;
  • Canned food – made it possible to store and transport food safely and easily for the first time;
  • Cars – revolutionized transport for the masses, and profoundly changed how businesses could market their goods;
  • Computing – the invention without which almost all businesses would be unable to function, and which kept us connected with loved ones throughout the pandemic;
  • Electric lightbulb – bringing illumination to our lives, this invention has made our days longer, streets safer and even enabled the early development of the TV;
  • Fibreoptic communication – with enormous data carrying capacity, fibreoptic cables have revolutionized the way we are able to use the internet;
  • Measurement – a true cornerstone of all scientific endeavors, the standardization of measurement under SI units allows researchers across the globe to collaborate;
  • Microscopes – the ability to magnify the world around us has played an essential role in advancing our understanding of nature, developing medicines, and miniaturizing technology;
  • Telescope – advanced our understanding of the universe and fundamental laws of physics, without which essential technology like Satnavs would not function.
  • Radio – the original communication revolutionary, the radio played an integral role during the war and continues to be one of the most consumed forms of media in the world;
  • Refrigeration – sparking another nutrition revolution, home refrigeration made fresh food accessible to millions;
  • Telephony – these devices have become such an integral part of our day-to-day lives that they have totally engulfed the meaning of the word “mobile.”
  • Triode valve – important for the development of international wireless networks, making modern WiFi and Bluetooth technology possible;
  • X-Ray – from broken bones to cancer, this breakthrough remains one of the most important tools for medics across the globe.

As part of the celebrations, the IET has also thrown open its treasure trove archives, uncovering countless hidden gems that tell unique stories of each invention’s history. From journals dating back to the 1920s through to brilliantly “inventive” recipes for housewives to “cook” in their fridges – including American Fried Chicken and Orange Meringue Pie – the archives bring to life the colorful, and often bizarre, stories behind some of our most valued technologies: from prototype to world-changing final product. A fascinating collection of pamphlets and papers suggest the Victorians were more than a century ahead of modern car manufacturers, masterminding the development of a raft of electric vehicles including cars, vans, and taxis. The rare materials highlight the strides that were made in green travel more than 125 years ago with electric vehicles being driven on London’s roads from the late 19th century.

President of the IET, Professor Danielle George MBE, is a Professor of Radiofrequency engineering in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) and Associate Vice President for Teaching and Learning at the University of Manchester in the U.K. She describes herself as someone who was always a firm believer that we are all born scientists, regardless of whether we choose to study and develop our scientific knowledge or not.

“I was inspired by two words: ‘why’ and ‘how.’ Throughout my studies and early career, I continued to ask ‘why things work’ but realized I was always following that up with ‘how things work’ and to me this became technology – the ‘why’ is the scientist in me and the ‘how’ is the engineer,” shares George. She became the 139th President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology in October 2020, and as someone deeply passionate about innovation as well as diversity and inclusion in the technology space, is extremely proud of all the milestones this organization has achieved and its contribution to the world on innovation and technology. 

“The role that science and engineering play in society is indeed invaluable. I am immensely proud of our rich heritage of innovation, something our priceless archive brings to life in the most wonderful way. Each treasure represents a unique moment in the development of some of the most significant technological advancements in human history, many of which were made possible by IET members – difference makers, past and present.”

When asked about diversity in the world of technology and science, especially when it comes to getting more women into STEM, Professor George admits there is no easy answer or solution to it. “I think that increasing diversity in STEM is a complicated task that requires work in many areas, but studies suggest the key to doing so is by creating a more inclusive environment so that everyone has a sense of belonging. We also need to make sure there are amazing female role models for all younger people; women in STEM are inspiring for boys as well as girls.”

The IET panel’s second chair, June Angelides MBE, is best known for starting the U.K.’s first child-friendly coding school for mums, Mums in Tech, while on her second maternity leave from Silicon Valley Bank. She has always been fascinated with how things are built and has always been a huge sci-fi fan. “When I was little, I used to watch the Jetsons and imagined that as an adult I would have my own flying car,” she laughs. 

After having a terrible conveyancing process when buying a house due to a lack of transparency, she really wanted to build a solution. That is what prompted her to start learning about coding — it was that curiosity that evolved into the creation of Mums in Tech in 2015. As one of a handful of Black women in the venture capital space in the U.K, and being selected as a #DifferenceMaker by the IET, as part of its 150th-anniversary celebrations, she is someone who has always been a strong advocate for the rights of working mothers and is passionate about getting people from all backgrounds into careers in tech and helping more underrepresented founders gain access to funding. 

“As someone whose entire career is only possible thanks to the pioneers of technology, I understand better than any how utterly vital innovators, scientists, and engineers are to practically every aspect of our modern lives. The innovators on our list paved the way for so many other developments which continue to shape and enhance our lives, a fact that fuels my passion for encouraging people from all backgrounds and genders into careers in technology. Having the opportunity to see into the incredible IET archives has been truly inspiring – not least because I was able to see first-hand how many incredible women have come before me,” she concludes.

These women, same as many others before them and many that will come are proof that speaking passionately about your career can also lead to more people joining this industry and can change the world. We all need more women like Danielle and June in this industry. As Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the U.S.’s Children Defense Fund, said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

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