In London, in the 17th-century, science development had nothing to do with laboratory experiments. If anything, it implied using the methods of ancient Greeks, such as Plato and Aristotle, and coming to scientific truth through debate and arguments. However, Francis Bacon, an English politician, and philosopher, didn’t buy this. Instead, he continued to believe that scientific thinkers needed evidence to learn about the real world.
He published “Novum Organum” in 1620, explaining what is now called the scientific method. The scientific method which involves making predictions and hypotheses, running tests, watching what happens, and coming to a conclusion— has led to modern scientific discoveries.
However, Bacon wasn’t the first to understand that science needs evidence, and like all the science firsts, the research from earlier thinkers helped Bacon draw his conclusions. But even if the ancients have not always committed to a strict scientific method, people have made observations, tested hypotheses, and drawn conclusions regarding their circumstances throughout history.
Historians have found evidence as early as 1600 B.C. indicating that Egyptians studied certain elements of science, perfected surgical techniques, and learned about the mechanics of the human body. Such discoveries and scientific milestones, like Bacon’s, were neither discrete nor simply original “firsts.”
Generally, years of research, if not decades or centuries, lead to a breakthrough or a specific “first,” such as 30 years of testing and more years of theorizing that led to the discovery of a fundamental particle in physics, the Higgs boson. Taking that into consideration, Stacker compiled a list of 50 popular science firsts throughout history, using scientific reports, historical documents, and news articles.
These findings and breakthroughs, in the order of their occurrence, influenced the work of future scientists and the lives of future generations. While these first 50 are all achievements, it should be mentioned that science history has paid far more attention to Western achievements, leaving others — especially the accomplishments of non-Western science leaders, women, and minorities— unrecognized.
1600 B.C.: First description of surgical techniques
The Edwin Smith Papyrus, named after the antiquities dealer who bought it, is a medical text from ancient Egypt written around 1600 B.C. It includes the oldest description of surgical techniques and scientific writing. Translations indicate that the authors had a good knowledge of anatomy and physiology.
1500 B.C.: First mention of a heliocentric model of the solar system
The first confirmed mention of the concept that Earth orbits the sun originates from ancient India. Written around 1500 B.C., Vedic hymns refer to the heliocentric model of the solar system. About a thousand years later, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos brought this theory to the West, but it did not take hold of it. And about a thousand years later, in the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory of the heliocentric model, and this discovery is also attributed to him.
610 B.C. to 546 B.C.: The first person to propose the idea of evolution
Anaximander, a Greek philosopher who lived about 610 B.C. 546 B.C., was the first to introduce the idea of evolution. He argued that human infants need too much nursing and support from mothers and that they would never have managed to survive on their own on the early earth. Instead, he suggested that other, self-sustaining animals should have come first and that humans should have come from those ancestors.
129 A.D. to 200 A.D.: First person to acknowledge the brain’s role in thinking
The Greek physician, Galen, was one of the first to imply that the brain was the seat of human thought. Before that, people assumed that the heart controlled thought.
1021: First correct model of vision
Ibn al-Haytham lived in what is now southern Iraq and was one of the first scientists to learn about the world through observations and experiments. He wrote the “Book of Optics” in which he explained the laws of refraction and the right vision model, explaining that the eyes see because the objects reflect light rays. Earlier, in the second century, Ptolemy, an Egyptian astronomer, and mathematician stated that the eyes radiate light rays.
1088: Discovery of true north
In 1088, the Chinese astronomer and government official, Shen Kuo, published a collection of essays describing his discovery of the true North. The magnetized needle of the compass does not point directly to the north. Rather, due to the magnetic field produced by the spinning metal core of the Earth, it points either slightly east or west of the north, depending on the position of the field at that time. Kuo was the first to evaluate this declination, or the variation between the magnetic north and the true north, which laid the foundation for the study of geomagnetism.
1268: First recorded mention of optical lenses
The first known reference to optical lenses came from the English philosopher Roger Bacon. Although this is the first recorded reference, historians know that by then people in both Europe and China had already used reading glasses.
1609: The first person to see the moon’s surface
In 1609, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first to see the moon for what it was: an imperfect, unevenly pitted rock. Most people thought that the moon was a perfect sphere, and Galileo ‘s observation questioned the idea that God had created the heavens to be perfect. This was just one of the astronomical observations of Galileo that offended the Catholic Church.
1628: First person to describe the circulatory system
Before the discovery of circulation, people believed Galen’s 1,400-year-old theory: the liver continuously generated blood, which then traveled to the body tissues before the body absorbed it all. William Harvey, an English scientist, was suspicious, and after conducting experiments— including gathering blood data and animal and human dissection— he proved that Galen ‘s ideas were impossible.
Harvey observed beating hearts in animals and measured the amount of blood that moves through the body every hour, showing that the body could not regularly regenerate this amount of blood, as Galen suggested.
1661: First person to define chemical elements
Robert Boyle, a chemist at Oxford University, was the first to identify the chemical elements and their properties. He noted that while most substances can break down into simpler components, the chemical element, such as hydrogen, can’t be broken down further. Today, this concept is still taught in chemistry classrooms.
1666: First person to describe universal gravitation
After reviewing centuries of astronomical results, in 1666 the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton invented the law of universal gravitation, the force of attraction between points of mass. Gravity is the reason that the Earth attracts people to its surface, and it is the power that holds the Earth in orbit around the sun. Since then, Newton’s law has allowed engineers to build spacecraft that transcend Earth’s gravitational pull and explore the solar system.
1783: First human flight
The Montgolfier brothers are responsible for the first human flight. The brothers created the first hot air balloon and sent a manned flight from Annonay, France, in 1783.
1796: The first vaccine created
In the years before vaccines, in order to stop the spread of smallpox, in a process called variolation, individuals would scratch material from the smallpox sores of the affected patients into the arms of those who had never had the infection; occasionally, they would inhale the infected matter.
In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English doctor, found that milkmaids who showed cowpox had no signs of smallpox following variolation. Later, he tried this theory by inoculating a cowpox boy and exposing him to smallpox, and the boy never showed any symptoms.
1809: First electric telegraph
The first electrical telegraph was invented by German scientist Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring in 1809 and could transmit a message only 2,000 feet away. Technically, it was an electrochemical telegraph. Electrodes in the water at the end of the transmitter produced a signal at the receiving end via electrolysis, a process that uses electrical current to separate a substance like water into its components.
The quantity of gas produced at the receiving end encoded the message. Von Sömmerring ‘s invention follows more advanced telegraphs such as Samuel Morse’s 1843 device that transmitted a letter from Washington D.C. to Baltimore with the help of a telegraph line.
1811 and 1823: First ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossil discoveries
In 1811, 12-year-old Mary Anning made one of her most famous inventions while exploring the coast of her hometown, Lyme Regis, in southwest England: the first fossil ichthyosaur. In 1823, another major finding was recorded, the first complete skeleton of another extinct marine reptile, the plesiosaur. Such fossil finds provided evidence for the theory of extinction at a time when people assumed that life on Earth has continued as it had been since the creation of the planet.
1831: First electrical generator
The first electrical generator was developed by Michael Faraday in 1831. An English chemist, Faraday has shown that by moving a magnet back and forth through a wire coil, he can induce electrons on a wire with a shifting magnetic field and produce an electrical current.
1849: The first female to earn a medical degree in the U.S.
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York, becoming the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Instead of breaking down barriers for women in medicine, more obstacles were put in place immediately after her success.
Geneva Medical College refused to admit other females, and Blackwell ‘s sister was prohibited from joining the field because of Blackwell ‘s popularity. During her career, Blackwell advocated preventive medicine and physical hygiene and, in 1874, founded the London School of Women’s Medicine.
1856: Discovery of the greenhouse effect
At the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (a meeting that is still taking place today) in Albany, New York, Eunice Foote presented her paper, “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays.” Foote carried out several experiments in which she filled evacuated glass jars with water vapor, carbon dioxide, or air and then observed how they were heated in the sun.
She could see that the carbon dioxide container was the most heated and further predicted that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect the temperatures of the earth. The male scientist and inventor, John Tyndall, is frequently credited with this discovery, but he did not describe the greenhouse effect until a few years later.
1858: First publication of the theory of evolution by natural selection
American naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin both co-discovered the theory of evolution. When Darwin was studying and gathering species on the islands of Galapagos, Wallace was doing the same thing in modern Indonesia. Wallace noticed that animals had to adjust to their environment in order to survive— and Darwin did so— and the two co-authored a paper in 1858 arguing that animals had evolved through natural selection.
1865: First presentation of scientific plant breeding
1865 marks the first introduction of scientific plant breeding by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Humans have been breeding plants and animals selectively for centuries. But Mendel was the first one to methodically test trait inheritance patterns and to use a mathematical method to forecast inheritance patterns. Mendel ‘s work has also established the foundation for the study of genetics.
1869: Discovery of DNA
In 1869, the Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher studied human white blood cells when he discovered the “nuclein” that would come to be known as DNA inside the cells. Nevertheless, the importance of this new substance was not completely understood until 1952, when scientists performed experiments with viruses and bacteria to prove that DNA was the genetic material of the organism.
1885: First radio wave transmission and reception
A feat made possible by the invention of the electrical telegraph, the German scientist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves and transmitted and intercepted the first messages by electromagnetic or radio waves in 1885. This process eventually led to the development of radio, television, and Wi-Fi.
1903: First woman to win a Nobel Prize
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903. In fact, she won two Nobel Prizes: one in Physics (1903) and one in Chemistry (1911). Throughout her career at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris, Curie studied radiation, discovered new chemical elements, and worked on developing medical applications for radioactive substances.
1909: Development of synthetic nitrogen fixation
Plants need nitrogen for photosynthesis, and farmers frequently treat crops with nitrogen-containing fertilizers. By the beginning of the 20th century, farmers around the world were using natural ingredients of nitrogen to fertilize their crops, such as livestock manure. But without synthetic nitrogen, agricultural production would never have been able to climb to the extent that it supports humanity today. In 1909, German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised a Haber-Bosch process that allowed large-scale production of synthetic fertilizers.
1912: Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery of a way to estimate the distance of stars
At the Harvard Observatory, Henrietta Leavitt spent most of her time examining the brightness of the stars on photographic plates, but she was not allowed to engage in the thoughtful, theoretical astronomy that she wanted to do because of her sex. Her studies, however, led her to change the direction of astronomy.
She analyzed the relationship between the period that a cepheid variable star it took to go from bright to dim in appearance and its actual brightness. Her observation made it possible for astronomers to measure the distance of stars from Earth more accurately and allowed Edwin Hubble (after whom NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is named) to establish that other galaxies existed.
1909: First antibiotics
Paul Ehrlich worked as a doctor in Germany in 1904, when he discovered that some dyes could stain different bacteria, and wanted to search for a product that acted in the same way, selectively destroying bacteria. Ehrlich focused on the bacteria that cause syphilis and implemented and evaluated hundreds of drugs for syphilis-infected rabbits. He had discovered the first antibiotic by 1909. His experiments have shown that chemical arsphenamine can be used to treat syphilis.
1915: First theory of continental drift
German scientist Alfred Wegener was one of the first people to suggest that the Earth’s surface was not set in place. He published his theory of continental drift in 1915. Most have rejected this assumption, and some of the components of Wegener ‘s theory have been incorrect, but over the next few decades, geological discoveries have convinced scientists that the Earth’s crust is made of large, slow-moving plates, a theory called plate tectonics.
1932: First scientists to split the atom
British physicists John D. Cockcroft and Ernest T.S. Walton were the first to separate the atom. They used a particle accelerator to bomb a proton lithium atom, splitting it into two. This is supported by Einstein ‘s famous equation, E= mc2, which states that the energy of a particle equals the mass of a still object multiplied by the speed of light, squared. The research project also had more harmful effects and contributed to the development of nuclear weapons.
1936: The first person to propose the Earth has a solid inner core
A lot of science develops near or above the Earth’s surface, but scientists also want to learn what’s going on below. By the end of the 19th century, most of the scientists assumed below level, Earth was solid all the way through. But after the seismograph was introduced in 1880, scientists were able to observe movements on Earth’s surface caused by disturbances below the ground. In 1936, the Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann suggested that the Planet had a solid inner core and a liquid outer layer.
1938: First nuclear fission
In 1938, nuclear fission, the method of splitting the atom into lighter atoms, was first accomplished by the German physicists Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassmann. They started bombing uranium with neutrons, neutral particles in the center of the atoms, and demonstrated that uranium had decomposed into different elements. Although their discovery would be used to build nuclear weapons, this team did not encourage people to do so. If anything, they promoted the peaceful application of their science.
1945: First computer
John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert started building the first digital computer for the U.S. Military in 1942 at the University of Pennsylvania. Three years later, ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was completed. Although it was a huge machine with 6,000 manual switches and could run only one program at a time, ENIAC signaled the birth of the modern digital age.
1947: First animal in space
The first in a line of animals that paved the way for human space travel, fruit flies aboard a U.S. rocket were the first animals in space in 1947. Researchers wanted to see how radiation at high altitudes would affect the flies. Fruit flies completed their flight at an altitude of 68 miles.
1952: First fiber optic cable
The first fiber optic cable was invented by U.K. physicist Narinder Singh Kapany in 1952. In 1870, Kapany focused his invention on the Irish inventor John Tyndall’s experiments in transmitting light through mirrored pipes. Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables are accountable for fast internet speeds and long distance calls.
1953: First lab-created amino acids
Graduate student Stanley Miller and University of Chicago professor Harold Urey wanted to discover how life came on Earth billions of years ago. In 1953, they simulated the early atmosphere in a glass flask— pomping it full of methane, ammonium, and hydrogen— and attached it to another flask filled with water as a stand-in for the ocean.
Electrodes then lit the “atmosphere” flask as the lightning might have. After a week, Miller and Urey found amino acids in their apparatus, suggesting that the ingredients required for life might have originated in these conditions on a much younger Planet.
1953: Discovery of DNA structure
In that same year, researchers revealed the structure of DNA using X-ray crystallography. Although Francis Crick and James Watson, who worked together at Cambridge University, have traditionally been credited for this discovery, they only identified the structure because they used Rosalind Franklin’s unpublished work without consulting her. Franklin, who was at King’s College, took X-ray diffraction images and resolved the DNA structure on her own, but her colleague showed Watson and Crick these vital pictures — which Franklin had submitted for publication.
1958: The start of the longest-running daily measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide
In 1958, scientists Charles David Keeling began the longest-running daily measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide above Mauna Loa in Hawaii. When studying seasonal variations in carbon dioxide levels, it became clear after a few years that these concentrations were increasing. The graph generated by these measurements is now recognized as the Keeling Curve and shows proof that carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere.
1963: First woman in space
In the heat of the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.R., the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkov became the first woman in space in 1963. She was chosen to pilot her spacecraft, Vostok 6, and spent more than 70 hours in space, flying around Earth 48 times throughout her career.
1969: First version of the internet
The first edition of the Internet is more than 40 years old. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) set up a computer network called ARPANET, the first, but much more limited, Internet prototype. ARPANET only connected mainframes in universities, government buildings, and defense contractors, motivating the development of a faster, more comprehensive mobile network, such as the modern Internet.
1971: Discovery of antimalarial compound
Tu Youyou conducted Project 523, a Chinese government-funded campaign to cure malaria caused by parasites that are immune to standard treatment. Tu turned to ancient Chinese medical texts and noticed that about 400 A.D., people used sweet wormwood to cure intermittent fever, a symptom of malaria; these texts also instructed her to isolate the active compound in wormwood without destroying it.
In 1971, Tu Youyou and her team found a new antimalarial compound, which became a medication that saved millions of lives. In 2015, Tu Youyou won a Nobel prize Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her research. She did not have a research or medical doctoral degree.
1974: First australopithecus fossil
In 1974, a team led by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson searched for fossils in Hadar, Ethiopia, when they found the first Australopithecus fossils made up of a partially complete skeleton. It was the oldest hominin species at the time — approximately 3.18 million years old— and it revealed that more than 3 million years ago, human ancestors walked upright on two legs.
Mid-1970s: First precise model of the Earth
Gladys West was a mathematician at the Dahlgren Naval Support Facility, Virginia, from 1956 to 1958. There, starting in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, it used satellite information to create a precise Earth model and develop GPS technology.
1987: Discovery of CRISPR
Today, the term clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats— CRISPR for short — is synonymous with the gene-editing process, but refers to a portion of the bacterial immune system that scientists are now harnessing to modify DNA.
In 1987, scientists at Osaka University in Japan noticed that the genome of E. coli had these strange sequences, the CRISPR arrays (though the name CRISPR did not come on the scene until 2002). The scientists did not know the intent of the sequences at the time, but future researchers found that the arrays allowed bacteria to identify and avoid invasive viruses.
1988: First brain-machine interface
Neurological conditions and amputations can deprive people of abilities that they used to rely on, such as movement control or hearing. Brain-machine interfaces (or brain-computer interfaces) are designed to restore some of these functions by connecting brains and computing devices.
Jonathan Wolpaw and his colleagues experimented with the first brain machine interface in 1988. Researchers developed a system that interpreted brain signals from a person wearing an electroencephalogram cap (an electrode cap that picks up local brain signals). Participants sat in front of the screen and used their thoughts to move the cursor up or down to different targets on the screen.
1992: First exoplanets discovered
In 1992, Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail identified the first exoplanets, planets outside the solar system. Using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, they discovered two rocky planets orbiting a star in the Virgo constellation. Since this initial observation, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets.
2003: First near-complete sequencing of the human genome completed
The Human Genome Project, a U.S. government-funded effort involving scientists around the world, has not ended up sequencing the entire human genome but has been sequencing as much as possible with available technology. The “first draft” of the human genome was published in 2000 and the final findings, covering 99 percent of the genome, were published in 2003.
2010: First full-body color rendering of a dinosaur
In 2010, scientists released the first full-body dinosaur color rendering. The dinosaur in question, Anchiornis, was about the size of a chicken and looked like a woodpecker covered in black and gray feathers, with black and white striped wings and a rust-colored crown. This picture was produced by scientists using a powerful microscope to analyze pigments from fossilized Anchiornis feathers.
2012: First observation of the Higgs boson
The concept of the Higgs boson came from Peter Higgs in the 1960s, to help understand where mass comes from: Higgs suggested that matter exists immersed in what is now called the Higgs field, which is associated with particles called Higgs bosons, and as other particles pass through this field, they can gain mass.
The invention of the Higgs boson in 2012 came from the cooperation of thousands of physicists and confirmed the Standard Model of Physics. Sau Lan Wu was one of the researchers most interested in the discovery, which was the third time that she helped to prove the existence of a fundamental particle.
2013: First-time atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations top 400 parts per million
May 9, 2013, was the first time that global carbon dioxide concentrations have exceeded 400 parts per million ( ppm) in human history and the first time on Earth since more than 3 million years ago. The last time averages were consistently above 400 ppm was around 16 million years ago.
As Keeling started measurements at the top of Mauna Loa, concentrations hovered around 317 ppm. Although hitting 400 ppm is a symbolic threshold and does not represent an actual tipping point for climate change, it does mark an uncharted ground for humanity and climate.
2015: First detection of gravitational waves
About a billion years ago, two black holes collided in an unprecedented blast, signs of which did not hit Earth until 2015. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) instruments, one in Louisiana and one in Washington, reported the signs of the collision in the form of gravitational waves on 14 September 2015.
As part of his theory of general relativity, Albert Einstein anticipated the presence of gravitational waves in 1916, stating that such waves are ripples in space-time; the 2015 LIGO detection presented evidence of this.
2019: First image of a black hole
Our nation saw the first image of a black hole on April 10, 2019. An international network of hundreds of researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope Team collected the data needed to see a black hole in the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light-years away.
Computer scientist Katie Bouman and her group analyzed the data to produce an image that shows a halo of dust and gas swirling at the speed of light around the black hole.