Top 10 Discoveries That Changed Everything



Top 10 Discoveries That Changed Everything

VOICE OVER: Kirsten Ria Squibb
These historical discoveries changed the world! For this list, we're ranking concepts, theories, objects and anything that altered life as we know it after being discovered. Our countdown includes Quantum Theory, Electricity, Evolution, and more!

Top 10 Discoveries That Changed History

Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 discoveries that changed history.

For this list, we’re ranking concepts, theories, objects and anything that altered life as we know it after being discovered. We won't be tackling inventions because they deserve a list of their own.

Let us know in the comments which other influential discoveries you stan!

#10: Quantum Theory

In the twentieth century, quantum theory came along and blew up everything we thought we knew about matter – that is, everything that physically exists in the universe. A century after the true discovery of atoms, we finally started to decipher them. Atoms are made of subatomic particles – protons, neutrons, and electrons – while light itself is made of photons. Quantum mechanics explains how all matter at the smallest level interacts with itself and with light. Without quantum theory, we wouldn’t understand electromagnetism, radiation, or atomic structure, meaning that neither modern physics nor chemistry could exist. It was pioneered by major physicists like Max Planck and Niels Bohr, and is one of science’s most important disciplines.

#9: X-Rays

Abundant in the universe, x-rays are a form of ionizing, high-frequency radiation totally invisible to the human eye. They were first discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen, whose name is still used as a unit of radiation. X-rays rapidly became an indispensable part of modern medicine. The calcium in bones absorbs the x-rays and allows images to be taken of the inside of the body. This allows us to study all kinds of afflictions we previously had to guess about. At the same time, radiation and radioactivity were being studied by scientists from Henri Becquerel to Marie and Pierre Curie. Marie Curie ultimately received a Nobel Prize for her work in the field of X-rays.

#8: Dinosaurs

For a long time, what existed on Earth before us was a mystery. Then, in the 1800s, paleontology was invented as a discipline after the first almost-complete fossil of an Archaeopteryx was discovered. It wasn’t the first dinosaur bone ever found. However, this discovery of a fossil meant people had the most substantial link to the widespread existence of dinosaurs. Humanity had uncovered the remains of an entire ecosystem that died out millions of years ago. Now, dinosaurs are a fixture in every natural history museum in the world. They’ve also been the subject of a few popular movies you may have heard of. And who doesn’t have a favorite dinosaur?

#7: The Big Bang Theory

In the 1920s, it was observed by influential physicists Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble that the universe was expanding. They also realized that this expansion was getting faster. So, if you go back in time, the universe would theoretically get smaller at a slower rate. And by that logic, our massive universe started as a small and dense singularity ready to get bigger. Scientists theorized that it exploded at some time and gave birth to the universe in an astonishing explosion now nicknamed “The Big Bang”. It took most of the twentieth century for the Big Bang to become the most widely accepted cosmological model of the universe. But it’s now one of the most important discoveries in science. Right, Sheldon?

#6: Electricity

Proof that electricity existed appeared in the magnetic fields across the universe, and lightning in the sky, for millennia. But it took a long time for humans to work out how to harness the natural power of electricity. When we did, it created a technological revolution like no other. While Founding Father Benjamin Franklin conducted many experiments to study lightning, the true father of electricity is Michael Faraday. This scientist built on centuries of research to invent the electric motor. Faraday’s work, in turn, led to revolutions like the lightbulb. Decades later, Nikola Tesla would even invent a way to wirelessly transmit electricity. While that discovery was virtually ignored for another hundred years, it was another huge stepping stone in this crucial field.

#5: Penicillin

You might not think that mold would be the basis for modern antibiotics, but that’s exactly where penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, originated. The compound and its medicinal properties were discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. He also named it and pioneered the production process. Penicillin is used to fight off a wide range of infections, most often those caused by strep bacteria, like strep throat and strep meningitis. Fleming built upon similar developments that were achieved in the previous century by Louis Pasteur. He pioneered “germ theory” and realized that microbes and bacteria were responsible for causing illness. Thanks to Pasteur, people learned the importance of disinfection to prevent disease.

#4: Theory of Relativity

In the early 1900s, a young scientist named Albert Einstein realized that Isaac Newton’s ideas about gravity were largely wrong. He expressed this discovery through his Theories of General and Special Relativity, which have formed the backbone of modern physics for many decades. Einstein’s ground-breaking equations described how gravity is created by massive objects bending space-time around them. He also predicted phenomena like black holes and gravitational waves which, decades later, were proven conclusively to exist. It was a revelation on par with the Copernican system that put the sun at the center of the solar system, instead of the Earth. Relativity was yet another theory that changed our entire perspective of the universe.

#3: DNA

Humans, just like every other organism on Earth, have DNA. But we didn’t always know what that was. The team behind the discovery of the double-helix was James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and the often-forgotten Rosalind Franklin. While they weren’t the first to think about DNA like this, all of them did invaluable work in the 1950s. Their research eventually led to the human genome being completely sequenced in 2003. Brilliant minds used this invaluable resource to better understand genes, traits, and diseases caused by DNA. And genetics is still advancing at an unprecedented rate. Most recently, the development of CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, could cure genetic conditions and possibly eradicate cancer.

#2: Vaccines

The development of vaccines, particularly modern ones like the polio vaccine, might be considered more of an invention than a discovery. But the very first one made to combat smallpox is a different story. British doctor Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had been exposed to the cowpox virus didn’t develop smallpox later on in life. Using that knowledge, he used the pus from the cowpox virus itself, with no modifications, to successfully inoculate people against smallpox. This wasn’t the first time a similar process had been attempted. However, Jenner’s method was one of the most effective, and paved the way for the virtual eradication of smallpox in the late twentieth century.

#1: Evolution

After some long voyages on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin was finally ready to publish his magnum opus: 1859’s “On the Origin of Species”. In this book, he laid out his theory of evolution. It basically states that animals were all related if you go far enough back, and species gain adaptations over time –including humans. Evolution shook the world to its core and was interpreted by many religions as an indictment of their beliefs. Around 150 years later, evolution is regarded as fact by scientists and a large majority of the public. The theory helped us figure out how humans and animals adapted to even the harshest environments over time. By understanding how living creatures changed in the past, scientists can theorize how they’ll evolve in the future.