Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Machine

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines create identical interchangeable parts. They simplify manufacturing and reduce the risk of human error producing parts.

Starting in 1949, John Parsons worked with Frank Stulen at Gordon S. Brown’s Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT to develop a system where punch cards controlled a machining tool, called Numerical Control (NC).

This evolved into Computer Numerical Control (CNC) as computers evolved. Developing CNC was extremely expensive. CNC development ran wildly over budget, so much that Parsons lost his job. Eventually, patent royalties justified rehiring him.

Parsons originally created CNC, using IBM accounting computers, to build helicopter blades for the then new Sikorsky helicopter company.

Technologists often refer to the development of CNC as the beginning of the “second industrial revolution.”

RO: Why did it take so long between licensing the patent and the widespread use of NC?

Parsons: The slow progress of computer development was part of the problem. In addition, the people who were trying to sell the idea didn’t really know manufacturing—they were computer people. The NC concept was so strange to manufacturers and so slow to catch on, that the US Army itself finally had to build 120 NC machines and lease them to various manufacturers to begin popularizing its use.

Electric Motor

More inspirational to future innovators than practical, the Faraday motor shows that electricity can do the same function as a steam engine, but without the smoke. Faraday’s DC motors, like modern DC motors, had limited functionality. But his innovation served as the first step towards electrification.

Faraday has three major innovations, the electrical motor, generator (dynamo), and transformer. Presently, each remains a vital component of a modern electrical system and each stands on their own as a major innovation.

Faraday, son of a Blacksmith, is a key early electrical innovator, bridging the gap from pure academia into usable things. Markedly, Faraday’s back-story serves as an inspiration to countless generations of future innovators. Einstein famously kept a photo of Faraday on the wall of his office.

Battery (Voltaic Pile)

This was the first reliable and predictable source of electricity, a battery that generated its own power. It led to many future innovations. Most notable is the telegraph, that relied on voltaic piles as a power source. During the Civil War, wagons filled with giant batteries deployed to the front lines and powered telegraphs. Volta’s battery laid the groundwork for the Second Industrial Revolution much like Watt’s condensing steam engine had for the first.

In 1799, Volta created the “Voltaic pile,” the first battery that would hold a continuous and steady electrical charge. Although called a battery it chemically generated its own electricity. He also discovered methane.

There are many innovations related to electrification but Volta’s work is arguably the most important. Within weeks of his Voltaic battery, Nicholson and Carlisle discovered electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

During the US Civil War, 60 years later, enormous voltaic piles powered telegraphs. 

Volta’s batteries were plates of zinc and copper with an electrolyte; he used both diluted sulfuric acid and also saltwater brine.

Volta Chaired the University of Pavia for most of his career, focused on family life rather than material gain. He lived well as a distinguished academic but did not meaningfully profit from his innovations. The volt, a measure of electrical force, is named after Volta.