Published on

February 14, 2023


Nick Halliday

The big breakthroughs that hinged on a smaller idea

It’s been millions of years since cavemen and women relied on stone-made tools. Humans have since created thousands of innovations that have changed our lives – and the world. But look closer, and you’ll notice something. They all owe their usefulness to much smaller, humbler tweaks. Let’s pull back the curtain to see the little adjustments that gave bigger inventions a leg up.

The fixed axel and the wheel

When Egyptians built the pyramids, they used logs under heavy objects to roll them from A to B. It was easier to move large goods, but it wasn’t exactly efficient — they had to replace the logs each time the object moved forward. The brilliance that changed everything? The axle. The first axle was discovered 6000 years ago and wasn’t attached to a wheel or cart but to a potter’s wheel. Despite its humble beginnings, you could say it was the greatest mechanical insight in history – it literally reinvented the wheel.  

Adjustments to the steam engine

In 1698 the first working steam engine was a hand-operated valve that used steam to suck water from mines. In 1764, Scottish inventor Thomas Newcomen received an engine to repair and saw how inefficient it was. He worked on the design and invented a separate condensing chamber that prevented significant steam loss. The adjustment also allowed mines to be drained to greater depths, providing more coal and metals and expanding the industry. It was his adaptation that made steam-powered machinery and transport world-changing.  

Moveable type pieces in printing

Mark Twain once said, “What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.” Johannes Gutenberg printed the world’s first book (the Bible) and opened the door to the Protestant Reformation, Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and widespread education. It makes sense to celebrate his incredible contribution – but his wasn’t the first printing press. Chinese were printing way back in 800 AD, but they chiseled entire pages of text onto a wood block backward. What Gutenberg did differently? Moveable type – pages of text could be assembled in a fraction of the time, using individual letters and numbers. Incidentally, this is where we get the terms “upper case” and “lower case” – the letters were held in boxes, or ‘cases’ on higher or lower racks.  

Lithium batteries  

Electric cars may have been around for over a century, but Tesla’s adaption to lithium-ion batteries made them truly practical — and much more desirable. When it launched the Tesla S Model in 2012, vehicles finally had long-range capability and high performance at an affordable price. Only eleven years later, Tesla is one of the most valuable companies in the world, and its CEO, Elon Musk, is the richest man on the planet. Competing companies are only just catching up to the S Model’s driving performance. Tesla’s next goal? A self-driving car.  

Small innovations with mighty results

Sometimes the most significant inventions are the small ones – generally ones that are outshone by the larger, flashier innovations. But that’s how it goes with progress. At PTL, we know how important it is to keep improving, no matter how small the adjustment. For chocolate and bar machinery, this could be our addition of a T-handle for toolless adjustments, etched instructions on the machinery, or washdown/changeover trolleys supplied with our machines. Our customers often report that our small innovations make a big impact on their production.  

Mike Berko from Tru Foods notes the difference our small adjustments have on their efficiency:

“The sanitation process for the melter is simple due to the ability to remove it to a designated wash area. The removable melt head and stirrer designs allow full access to all product contact surfaces. The short length of the piping means we can break down the circuit into easy-to-handle individual components for easy and thorough sanitizing in a fraction of the time required with a traditional setup.”

At PTL, we will always strive to improve usability, hygiene, and efficiency so our customers can avoid unnecessary risk and stay ahead of the curve. Take our V20 melter – its success came down to a series of minor adjustments based on real customer feedback.