Inventions that Changed the World
(Abacus, Hypodermic Syringe, Paperclip, Safety Glass)


Human beings often invent by learning from nature and famous inventions frequently have as much to do with chance as they do with intelligence and curiosity. Join Active Minds as we tell the fascinating stories of inventions and inventors that changed the world. This class will cover the invention of the abacus, safety glass, the paper clip, and the hypodermic syringe.

Key Lecture Points

  • The way we live today is in a large part due to the efforts of inventors from around the world.  From advancements in communication to medicine, inventors and their inventions have altered our quality and manner of living.
  • The abacus made counting easier, thereby allowing humans to keep track of their flocks and foodstores.  The hypodermic syringe contributed to the rise of modern medicine.  The paperclip has revolutionized organization and paper storage.  And, safety glass has become an inextricable part of modern manufacturing.
  • The histories of these life-altering inventions and their inventors are fascinating stories in themselves.  But, they also illustrate several important points: many times inventions are the product of longer-term incremental developments (abacus and hypodermic syringe); sometimes there is no single inventor for a given item, suggesting that ideas are never really “new” (the paperclip); and, famous inventions often have as much to do with chance as they do with intelligence and curiosity (safety glass).

Exploration Questions

  • What other sorts of medical inventions have, like the hypodermic syringe, led to both public health advances and disasters?
  • Do you think the process of innovation is a sudden “discovery”, or a gradual accumulation of knowledge?

Reflective Questions:

  • Have you ever used an abacus?  Was it difficult?  Or, perhaps, easier than a calculator?
  • Has safety glass ever saved your life, or the life of someone you know?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Van Dulken, Stephen and Phillips, Andrew. Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions that Shaped the World from the Airplane to the Zipper. New York University Press, 2002. 246 pages. From the Slinky to the copy machine, this book of invention stories is accessible to the lay person even as it relates complex ideas from engineering, chemistry, and physics.
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