Without question, the twentieth century represents the most prolific period of human invention ever. It was also a century in which the most profound inventions of all time would have greater influence on humanity, and the rest of life on this planet, than those of any previous epoch.
There are so many 20th century inventions which meet the criterion it might be difficult to discern one or more as being the “most” influential. Some people might point to Philo Farnsworth’s invention of television, others, perhaps, the first programmable computer invented by Konrad Zuse. These are certainly inventions which have touched or at least effected the life of just about every human on the planet. Robert Godard’s invention of the liquid fueled rocket engine which would later enable the first humans to escape Earth’s gravity and visit the Moon is another which can be considered monumental. (
While the forgoing inventions and inventors were certainly notable as being substantially influential in the 20th century, there can be room for only one invention and one inventor to be proclaimed the “most” influential of the 20th century. It would have to be an invention so profound as to radically alter future human paradigms. It was an invention which brought about a generation of prosperity and built the middle class in the United States as well as other parts of the world. Ironically, its inventor, is not even mentioned in college history text books, and who’s name is unknown to the past two generations of Americans. Paradoxically, he first patented his invention in 1933, and it was one that would change the course of world history for all time.
That most influential inventor was a German/Hungarian physicists who escaped from Germany one day before the Nazi’s began arresting persons of Jewish heritage, and two weeks before the first concentration camp, “Dachau,” opened its gates to accommodate them. His name was Leo Szilard, and he invented the nuclear chain reaction and a bomb of theretofore unimaginable destruction, except, of course, of that fictionally envisioned by the writer H.G. Wells in his 1920 classic novel “The World Set Free.”
The invention of the nuclear chain reaction gave us the atom bomb and a cheap source of energy, however, its greatest influence was not the result of these direct manifestations but of a secondary effect. The existence of an American atomic bomb became the driving force of the cold war and of the military industrial complex which would develop and build newer better versions of the bomb as well as delivery systems and defensive capabilities. In his documentary “The Fog of War,” former Defense Secretary for the Kennedy administration Bob McNamara points out that the race to beat the Russians to the moon was one necessitated by a fear the Soviets would begin testing bombs on the side of the Moon always facing away from Earth. Indeed, in the Rice University speech when President Kennedy issued the challenge to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, he clearly stipulates that the reason for the excursion was to claim the high ground of space in the cold war.
As a direct result of the cold war, the United States built 65 Strategic Air Command bases around the world. These bases at one time accommodated more than 700 B-52 bombers, more than 800 air refueling tankers, hundred of missile installations and a whole lot of supporting infrastructure. Furthermore, the need to maintain cold war technological supremacy drove innovation in the private sector establishing whole new industries and creating plentiful employment opportunities for skilled workers who would enjoy better than average compensation. These skilled workers in turn bought new homes, automobiles and appliances creating secondary industries and a robust economy which eventually spread all the way around the world.
Even though that era of economic prosperity is behind us, the more stern implications of Leo Szilard’s invention will remain with mankind for generations to come. Today third world countries are acquiring the expertise and technology to build their own nuclear arsenals and there is a growing atmosphere of distrust and discontinuity among nations around the world. There can be no mistaking the fact, Leo Szilard was the most influential inventor of the 20th century and his invention is one which will continue to influence humanity for the foreseeable future.