Volume 12, No. 2
April 2000

Mercurial Matters


Letters to the Editor

2000 in Munich

Pamphlet Series

Videotex, the Internet, and Innovation in France and the United States

Book Review:
Global Communications since 1844

Communication Technologies and the Public Historian

News of the Field:

Off the Record

Global Communication Networks at OAM/NCPH

E-Mail Alert

A Century of Engineering Achievements

First Media Ecology Association Conference


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A Century of Engineering Achievements

What is an "engineering achievement"? What were the "top" such achievements of the 20th century? Which do you use most frequently? A collaborative effort of professional engineering societies has answered those questions in order to demonstrate "how engineering shaped a century and changed the world" and to "celebrate a remarkable century of technological achievement."

The National Academy of Engineering, the American Association of Engineering Societies, National Engineers Week, and two dozen other engineering organizations have nominated a list of top achievements. Their chief criterion was the "significance that each engineering achievement had in terms of its impact on the quality of life during the 20th century." A selection committee began with 105 nominations, reduced that to 48, then combined related specific innovations to arrive at a list of twenty categories. As you can see below, they conceived "innovation" broadly, rather than trying to fix on any particular devices, or components thereof. While this process raises some conceptual and political questions, such as those Dag Spicer discusses on pages 2-3 of this issue, the clustering makes for a most inclusive list-a good diplomatic strategy in avoiding contentious debates between specialists and partisans.

The website announcing the process and its conclusions is well worth a visit: <http://www.greatachievements.org/>. In addition to brief introductory essays, each category of innovation includes both a time line and a brief history. One could construct an outline for the history of 20th-century technologies with the list. Mercurians will note, without surprise, the importance of several categories of communication technologies. Also worth noting is the frequency and degree to which the categories overlap, demonstrating yet again the importance of interactions and contextualization in explaining innovation: today's airplanes could not operate without radio and imaging technologies, not to mention without computers.


1. Electrification
2. Automobile
3. Airplane
4. Water Supply and Distribution
5. Electronics
6. Radio and Television
7. Agricultural Mechanization
8. Computers
9. Telephone
10. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
11. Highways
12. Spacecraft
13. Internet
14. Imaging
15. Household Appliances
16. Health Technologies
17. Petroleum and Petrochemical Technologies
18. Laser and Fiber Optics
19. Nuclear Technologies
20. High-performance Materials