Six technologies that made the world a better place

In the 21st century, technology is ubiquitous. It’s in our pockets, on our desks, in our hospitals and in our houses.

But not all technologies are created equal – some facilitate distraction rather than drive, or push procrastination over progress.

Here are six pieces of technology whose contribution is worth recognising.

1. Computer

We rely on computers for our day-to-day activities: they store vast amounts of information, retrieve specifics almost instantly and have advanced the human race beyond reproach. The first recorded mention of the word was in 1613, but the first general-purpose digital computer didn’t arrive until more than 300 years later – Konrad Zuse’s Z3 in 1941. Since that time, it’s had a stratospheric rise to importance, with literally billions made.

Some of the computer’s highlights to date include the sequencing of the human genome, putting man on the moon and revolutionising the way we consume entertainment.

2. Microscope

Throughout its history, the microscope has changed our view of the universe and our view of ourselves. The ability to see otherwise invisible things enriches our lives on many levels: without them we would have no idea about the existence of cells, how plants breathe or even how rocks change over time – which is more important than you’d think.

Microscopes gave us the technology and ability to prove and study germ theory in detail, which revolutionised the process of identifying, treating and preventing infectious diseases. They have furthered science immeasurably, and can even be used to get a better understanding of what happens in an earthquake, ensuring buildings are structured correctly or warnings can be given to minimise death and destruction.

3. Communication (telephone, radio, television)

While this is technically three technologies, over the span of about 120 years, developments in communications technology effectively shrank the world. Where once it might take several weeks or even months to hear news from across a country or the globe, we can now watch, read and hear about events as they happen – making us more informed than any generation that’s gone before us.

Communication technologies were a launching pad for more technologies: satellites, mobile phones and GPS locators all owe their existence to the invention of the telephone.

4. Spaceships

The stuff of childhood dreams, space exploration provides us with knowledge of our solar system, our own planet and human origins. Robotic exploration continues to deliver profound answers about our universe by visiting far off destinations and collecting scientific data.

Space exploration and advancements in technology have also facilitated many other life-changing developments for us. The cellular technology that powers our phones is dependent on satellite communications. Satellites are also used to monitor changes in the Earth’s climate and ocean circulation for weather forecasting.

Not only that, but NASA’s environmental research has helped us better understand air quality, climate change, alternative energies and near-Earth objects.

5. Internet

In 1995, less than 1% of the world had an internet connection. These day, around 40% of us log on, log in, send, receive and search, with the UN has declaring internet access a human right.

Its effects on business, communication, economy, entertainment and politics are profound. We now have more access to information than ever before, with the indexed web (what we can see on search engines) containing 4.65 billion pages as of July 2015. To put that into context, that’s more than 6.1 million copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

And it’s not just information, the internet has given us new ways for people to raise capital (through sites like Kickstarter), it’s an ongoing record of human history and it’s helping people to connect with communities that support them, or even find their soulmates.

6. Solar power

Manufactured solar energy goes back more than 130 years, when Charles Fritts created the first selenium solar cell with an efficiency of less than 1%. In December 2014, Aussie scientists set a new record by converting 40% of sunlight into electricity. The solar panels manufactured today are far more efficient with photovoltaic models delivering 92% of the original rated power after 20 years, despite degradation.

As the world’s largest power plant, the sun provides more energy to the Earth in one hour than that produced by all nations in one year. With an estimation that one in five Aussie homes were generating solar power at the end of 2014, the Clean Energy Australia Report of 2014 found that more than 15,000 businesses have now installed a solar power system, helping them save a collective $64 million on their power bills every year.

The report also saw Bundaberg in Queensland crowned Australia’s solar capital, closely followed by Mandurah in Western Australia.

Today, solar technology generates power for hospitals, music festivals and even highways, making our lives better, more sustainable and more cost-effective.