7 German Inventions That Changed The World

German inventors are responsible for the Diesel engine, Bunsen burner, electron microscope, printing press, tape recorder, MP3 audio format and the contact lens.
Marcia Wendorf
Gutenberg printing press and MagnetophonWikimedia Commons

Germany has long been a fertile ground for inventors, and the largest industrial nation in Europe has excelled in the areas of medicine, aerospace and automobiles.

Here are just a few of Germany's key inventions.

The Diesel Engine

Rudolf Diesel was born in 1868 in Paris, France to Bavarian German parents. He spent his youth in France, England and Bavaria. After getting his degree in engineering in 1880, Diesel returned to Paris where he designed and built a modern refrigeration and ice plant.


At that time, ice was produced by large steam engines that created refrigeration. While powerful, steam engines are quite inefficient, with up to 90 percent of their energy being wasted, and Diesel began researching thermal and fuel efficiencies.

Diesel's goal was to create a high compression, self igniting engine based on the thermodynamic cycle. Experimenting with steam and ammonia vapor, Diesel eventually settled on an oil-based fuel that was injected at the end of compression, and ignited by the high temperature resulting from compression.

In 1896, Diesel demonstrated an engine with an unheard of 75 percent efficiency, and although refined many times over the years, the diesel engine that we use today is essentially Diesel's 1896 design.

Diesel envisioned his engine being used by individuals and small companies to compete with larger companies in areas such as farming and construction. Today, the diesel engine is indispensable in the transport and construction industries.

On the evening of September 29, 1913, Diesel boarded a ship in Antwerp on his way to England to discuss his engine with the British for their submarines. He never made it.

Instead, his body was found floating in the North Sea, and whether his death was from suicide or murder has never been determined.

The Bunsen Burner

The Bunsen burner was invented out of need and opportunity. In 1852, the University of Heidelberg wanted to hire noted chemist Robert Bunsen to head their chemistry department. To lure him, they promised to build a new chemistry laboratory.

Bunsen burner
Bunsen burner Source: Pixabay

Like many European cities at that time, Heidelberg was installing coal-gas lines for street and house lighting. The designers of the new laboratory took advantage of the new gas lines, and planned to install gas not only for illumination, but for laboratory experiments as well.

As the laboratory was being constructed, Bunsen, along with German instrument maker Peter Desaga, began designing and building prototypes of a new gas powered laboratory burner. By mixing gas with air in a controlled ratio before combustion, they created a burner that had a hot, soot free flame.

The new laboratory opened in 1855 with 50 Bunsen burners ready for students and researchers to use.

In 1857, Bunsen published a paper describing his burner design, and laboratories around the world began to adopt his superior burner design.

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The Electron Microscope

One of the key inventions of the 20th century is the electron microscope. It allows objects to be magnified up to 10,000,000 times, and it has literally changed how we see the world.

In 1931, the German physicist Ernst Ruska and the electrical engineer Max Knoll created the first working electron microscope. Their early prototypes weren't able to magnify as much as an optical microscope, but by the late 1930s, Ruska and Knoll had significantly improved the devices.

An electron microscope uses electrostatic and electromagnetic lenses to form an image by controlling an electron beam that is focused on a target object. It allows objects as small as a single atom to be viewed.

Work on the electron microscope halted during WWII. After the war, scientists from around the world began working on improving and refining Ruska and Knoll's design. They created the scanning electron microscope, which detects electron emissions from a target, allowing scientists to see more objects than is possible with Ruska and Knoll's design.

They also created the reflection electron microscope, which detects elastically scattered electrons. This allows scientists to see how particles interact with other matter.

The Contact Lens

Designs for lenses that would be placed directly over the eye to correct vision deficiencies go back a long way.

In his "Codex of The Eye, Manual D" written in 1508, the great Leonardo da Vinci theorized that corneal power could be altered if a subject were to wear a water-filled glass hemisphere over his or her eye.

In 1636, the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes proposed placing directly onto the cornea a glass filled tube shaped to correct vision. Unfortunately, Descartes' concept didn't allow for the wearer to blink.

Drawing upon Descartes' research, in 1801, the British physician Thomas Young produced a glass tube lens that was filled with water and placed in direct contact with the wearer's cornea.  However, the contact lens as we know it wasn't invented until 1888.

Contact lens
Contact lens Source: Bryan Tong Minh/Wikimedia Commons

The German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick, used blown glass to create a lens that rested not on the cornea, but on the less sensitive tissues surrounding it. He began testing his new lenses by fitting and placing them on rabbits.

He then moved to human subjects, making a pair of lenses for himself and for a group of volunteer test subjects.

While Fick's lenses were impossible to wear for more that a few hours at a time, they did correct the vision of the wearer. By 2018, the global contact lenses market was valued at US8.35 billion.

The Printing Press

The method of printing from movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg sometime around 1456. The scope of the invention included the creation of a metal alloy that melted easily and cooled quickly which was used to form durable, reusable type, an oil-based ink that was thick enough to adhere to the metal type then transfer to paper or vellum, and a press.

The press needed to apply firm, even pressure to the printing surface, and it was likely adapted from existing wine, oil, or paper presses.

Gutenberg was born in the German town of Mainz and became skilled in metalworking. By 1450, Gutenberg received a loan from a financier named Johann Fust to continue his printing experiments. 

When Gutenberg was slow to repay the loan, Fust sued and won control of the type and press. It was under Fust's name that the first printed works - the forty-two-line Bible and a Psalter - were released. The Psalter in particular was magnificently decorated.

Gutenberg's contribution was recognized however, because by 1465, he was receiving a pension from the archbishop of Mainz that included grain, wine and clothing.

The Tape Recorder

The next time you listen to music on the go, remember to thank a couple of German inventors.

Magnetic tape recording was developed during the 1930s at Germany's BASF, which was part of the chemical giant IG Farben. It was based on German/American inventor Fritz Pfleumer's 1928 invention of paper tape with oxide powder lacquered to it.

The first practical tape recorder, the Magnetophon K1, was demonstrated in 1935. During World War II, the Allies became aware of simultaneous radio broadcasts with unusually high quality. They were aware of the existence of the Magnetophon recorders, but they didn't know about the existence of high-frequency bias and PVC-backed tape. During the war, the Allies captured a number of German Magnetophon recorders from Radio Luxembourg.

Tape recorder
Tape recorder Source: Joe Haupt/Wikimedia Commons

It was an American audio engineer, John Mullin, along with the famous "crooner" Bing Crosby who really put magnetic tape on the map. During the closing days of the war, Mullin was tasked with learning about German radio and electronics. At a studio in Bad Nauheim, he picked up Magnetophon high-fidelity recorders and fifty reels of recording tape.

Bringing them home, Mullin hoped to interest Hollywood studios in using magnetic tape for movie soundtrack recording. During a demonstration at the MGM studio, Crosby immediately caught on to the tape's potential and began using it for his radio broadcasts. Crosby eventually invested $50,000 in the California electronics company Ampex, which became the world leader in tape recording.

The MP3 Music Format

MP3 stands for MPEG Audio Layer III, and it is a standard for audio compression; whereby music files are made smaller by a factor of 12 with little or no loss of quality.

MPEG is an acronym for Motion Pictures Expert Group, and is a group of standards for audio and video that are set by the Industry Standards Organization (ISO). The first standard, MPEG-1 appeared in 1992, and it was for low bandwidth. Later on, the high bandwidth compression standard MPEG-2 was introduced, which was good enough for use with DVD technology. MPEG Layer III or MP3 involves only audio compression.

In April 1989, Germany's Fraunhofer Institute received a German patent for MP3, and in 1992, it was integrated into MPEG-1. In November 1996, MP3 received a patent in the U.S., and in 1998, Fraunhofer began enforcing its patent rights, making developers of MP3 encoders and decoders pay a licensing fee.

In the early 1990s, Frauenhofer tried to create an MP3 player, but it wasn't until the late 1990s, when MP3 was integrated into the Windows operating system with Winamp, that playing MP3s really caught on.