13 Jan 2024

Roma Agrawal: Seven inventions that built the modern world

From The Weekend , 10:07 am on 13 January 2024

Seven small but significant inventions form the building blocks of our modern age, structural engineer Roma Agrawal says.

Her latest book is Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed The World (In A Big Way).

The seven are the nail, the wheel, the lens, the pump, string, the magnet and the spring, she tells Susana Lei'ataua on The Weekend.

Roma Agrawal

Roma Agrawal Photo: Steve Ullathorne

The nail was revolutionary because it allowed us to join two different things together and make things more complex, she says.

 “It completely changed the complexity of the engineering and the technology that we could produce.

The wheel unquestionably has had a huge impact on our world, she says, while the spring is one of the most versatile pieces of engineering.

“In terms of the forms that springs take, the materials that are used to make them and the different applications of springs, the sizes of the springs are incredibly versatile.”

The lens gave us the “superpower to see things that the human eye cannot”.

"And what that reveals to us about the microscopic world, but also space in our galaxies in the universe. And it's absolutely incredible.

“I start that chapter with a very personal story of how my daughter wouldn't have existed without the lens because she's an IVF baby. So, the science needed to create her required a lens.”

Magnets are “magical,” she says.

“The fact that it acts over distances, there's just air in between it or vacuum in between it, there's nothing there. But there's a force and it allows you, therefore, to do communication over long distances.”

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Photo: W Norton

String might seem prosaic, but it has significant engineering importance she says.

“It is incredibly strong when you pull at it, but then it's soft if you try and squish it, it's flexible.”

Its engineering impacts range from clothes music and even the world’s biggest suspension bridges, she says.

The pump has changed where we can comfortably live, she says

“That one, for me, was all about our lives and where we can live and how we can live and for me pumps have allowed us to live in places and go to places that would not have been possible just organically.”

Her theory is that combinations of these seven underpin most modern technology.

“You could probably get to most inventions in the world, human made inventions, having one or more of these seven objects in some kind of combination.”

Her book also explores inventors and scientists through history overlooked because of where they were from or their gender.

The scientific narrative has “for too long” been western-centric she says.

“The UK, Europe and the US, we've thought that engineering innovation, science, discovery has been largely carried on in that part of the world. But that's just simply not true.

“Science and engineering have always been a global endeavour.”

Kenjiro Takayanagi is a good example, she says.

“A Japanese engineer who was the father of television in Japan. And he in fact, was the first person to invent the all-electric television, despite the fact that in the UK, in the US, we learned different names. He never applied for a patent. And his work was destroyed in World War II.

“So, this is an example of somebody's contribution being lost, not in Japan, but in other parts of the world.”

The so-called Dark Ages were in fact a golden age of discovery in the Islamic world, Agarwal says,

"I talk about a scientist called Ibn al-Haytham, and he did really pioneering work in the field of optics.

“So, the study of light, he was the first person to draw a section through the eye and think that there's a lens in there, he thought about how light interacts with lenses and glass. He understood that light bends through it.

"He, was really ahead of his time. And his work was studied 700 years later by Isaac Newton, who most of us have heard of, if not all of us have heard of.”

Women have also been overlooked, she says.

“Eliza Tinsley was known for taking over her husband's business when he died and left her with this with this business. And she ran it in the 19th century, in the Midlands in the UK.

“So, this is a time when women weren't really allowed to study or get qualifications. And she was running this incredible nail-making and chain-making business.

“And what I loved when I read the research about her was that she was known as a humane employer. It's not just about the technical skills, it's also about how you treat the people who are producing the goods that you're producing.“

Josephine Cochrane invented the automatic dishwasher and US chemist, Stephanie Kwolek, Kevlar, she says.

Science and engineering hold many of the answers to our thorniest global problems, but political will lags the science she says.

“On the podcast that I co-host called Create the Future, I spoke to one of the Australian laureates of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for engineering who researches solar cells. And I remember him saying that the UK, for example, has everything it needs to be 100 percent renewable energy producing country today - but we're not.

“Science and engineering technology is really progressing at an amazing rate. And what we need to see is governments keeping up with that.”