The 20th century was perhaps the century with the biggest breaks from historical engineering techniques, with some globally significant breakthroughs that are still relevant to the field today.

Looking back, we can see that engineers in the previous century were innovative and imaginative - even if we consider their ideas and creations quite basic today. We have collated a few examples of the biggest engineering developments in the 20th century and examined the impact they had on jobs.

1903 - airplane

The Wright brothers - Orville and Wilbur - can claim to have made it possible for humans to fly after creating the first successful airplane. Although developments towards flight had come before the brothers ventured out in Kitty Hawk, theirs were the first sustained, powered flights.

What came next were sustained attempts at making it better.

In 1930, Frank Whittle submitted his first patent for a jet engine. It was granted in 1932 but he created his first liquid-fuelled running engine in 1937. His invention did not go as well as hoped, however, and the British government would not invest.

Meanwhile, in 1935, Hans von Ohain had begun work on his version of a jet engine in Germany, initially unaware of Mr Whittle’s work. It was an experimental creation but he could demonstrate his concept. Working with aircraft industrialist Ernst Heinkel, Mr von Ohain was able to develop the HeS 3, which was fitted into the He 178 airframe. The world’s first jet plane was flown in 1939.

It spoke to how improvements in the field of aircraft engineering require teamwork and input from all departments, something that is still adhered to today.

1908 - automobile

Although it is thought that automobiles were invented in the 19th century, their potential was fully realised in the 20th century.

It is widely agreed that Karl Benz invented the vehicle in around 1886. However, it was Henry Ford who really revolutionised the concept of the car in 1908. The Model T provided inexpensive transport for people on a huge scale. It allowed middle-class Americans to drive as a result of its production line manufacturing.

Cars are one of society’s most relied on inventions and it is certainly one that has continued to be improved upon. We are currently seeing a wave of developments in the autonomous vehicle arena, which are due to be delivered to consumers in the very near future. Vehicle engineering is now a vast field with many different specialisms. Engines, fuel efficiency and aerodynamics are all areas that have to be focused on to produce a great vehicle. With so many world-renowned companies entering the field of self-driving cars, the opportunities for automobile engineers are endless.

1936 - electronic computer

Without the computer, where would our world be? It is an invention that many of us take for granted today but is completely essential to the way we live.

The first mechanical computer was invented by Charles Babbage in 1821 but it was not until the 20th century that the first device resembling what we now know as a computer was created.

Between 1936 and 1938, Germany’s Konrad Zuse developed the first programmable computer, which is widely considered to be the first electromechanical binary programmable, which makes it the first truly modern computer in many analysts’ eyes. At the same time, Alan Turing proposed his Turing machine, which printed symbols on paper, emulating a person following a series of logical instructions. It provided the foundation for all computers used today.

War led to the next big development in computers, with Tommy Flowers behind the first electronic programmable computer - the Colossus. It was created to help British code breakers decipher German messages.

In 1964, the world’s first desktop computer was debuted, invented by Pier Giorgio Perotto and manufactured by Olivetti. It sold for $3,200. Four years later, Hewlett Packard launched its HP 9100A, now thought to be the first mass-marketed desktop computer.

Computer engineers today use the basic principles developed by these inventions to create technology never seen before. The 20th century computers have allowed today’s developers to embrace creativity and push the boundaries.

1957 - spacecraft

Engineers have been behind some of the most important global events. Few things reflect this as well as spacecraft.

In 1957, Sputnik 1 launched. The first artificial Earth satellite, it was sent into a low orbit. This led to it being visible around the world.

Again, war led to even greater developments, with the US and Russia entering a Space Race, tied to the Cold War between the countries. It was this race that led to the the first spacecraft taking off from Earth and sending a man into space in 1961 - the Vostok 1.

Then in 1969, Apollo 11 sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon, where they became the first humans to walk on its surface.

In a recent report, the Royal Academy of Engineering said: “In just two generations, space has moved from being the stuff of dreams through the phase of pioneering excitement to be an essential and regular part of the infrastructure.”

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, the founder and executive chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, said that space technology now has many more applications. It is necessary to respond to current global challenges, including “food production and water supply, security and the fight against terrorism, the monitoring of environmental change and the use of natural resources,” he said. His comments reflect the fact that jobs in space technology engineering is a hugely different field today, with a much wider focus.

looking for a career opportunity in engineering? check out the engineering jobs in Hong Kong SAR that are available right.

Randstad has been the official partner of the Williams Martini Racing Team since 2006. Ours is a relationship based on shared values and a determination to produce real results - both of which are underpinned by the calibre of people we employ. This partnership fuels our expertise in engineering recruitment as well as helps professional engineering job seekers land the best possible positions. 

looking for job opportunities?

view all engineering jobs