When humans first chiseled the wheel or learned to make fire, they probably didn't know the depth of their accomplishment. Through the goggles of time, we can see how these achievements have changed the face of humankind. Now we keep an eye on these things, predicting the outcomes of current astounding technological feats.
Integrated Circuit and Quantum Computer
In one of the original "Star Trek" episodes, Bones leaves a piece of equipment on a very impressionable planet. He is chastised by Kirk and Spock because this culture will take apart the device and learn about the one piece of technology that changed the Star Trek world and led to space travel. Our one piece of world-changing technology is the integrated circuit. The integrated circuit is a series of transistors, resistors and capacitors in a circuit to perform some operation. Specifically, it is the transistor, which replaced the vacuum tube, that is the most astounding.
Essentially, a transistor is a switch that goes from on to off. This simple switch is the basis for the central processing unit of a computer. Processor speed is distinguished by the rapidity that the transistors can toggle from the zero position to the one position. Since the beginning of the transistor, scientists have tried to make the toggle speed faster. Now the quantum switch seems to be a possibility. Since quantum leaps happen instantaneously, a computer using a quantum processor would be several orders of magnitude faster than our fastest computers.
Internal Combustion and Hydrogen Engine
The internal combustion engine is touted by The Atlantic as one of the 50 greatest engineering achievements of the modern age. Like the Internet years later, the combustion engine placed into automobiles transformed our culture, making the world smaller. The auto allowed us to sprawl without worrying for our jobs or our families. We are always a car ride away.
Automobiles have taken a special place in our society. No longer simply functional, the auto is our safety and our luxury. Now, we're in a position to move away from fossil-fueled cars toward renewable energy cars. On the horizon is the hydrogen engine. Still an internal combustion engine, the hydrogen engine uses canisters of hydrogen gas that react with oxygen to produce energy (and the byproduct water).
O-ring and Nano-Everything
Who would think that a ring of rubber would change the world? Yet that is what the o-ring did when it was invented in 1936 by Niels Christensen. Primarily an elastomer seal, o-rings are used in everything from the space shuttle to heart valves. Almost anything that needs to direct the flow of fluids has uses an o-ring.
Nanotechnology is the next big step in the o-ring's future. Because it sits at the perimeter of a moving fluid, the o-ring is the perfect substrate for microscopic devices that can measure blood flow, change the shape of the ring or ionize the fluid. If nanotechnology is the way of the future, the o-ring is where is will live.