Milestones in Food Technology

18000 B.C.

Pottery vessels

Invention of pottery vessels. The earliest vessels were probably used just for cooking before the development of impermeable ceramics made them suitable for long-term storage. (“Dishwasher safe” is, however, still a work in progress.)

7500 B.C.

Agricultural revolution

The beginning of the agricultural revolution. Raising crops allowed people to shift away from a migratory existence. And with our feet up after a good meal, all sorts of other ideas started to occur to us, setting the stage for civilizations to develop.

6000 B.C.

Irrigation

The regular flooding of the Nile begat the earliest form of artificial irrigation: basin irrigation, in which water channels were allowed to flood but prevented from draining.

2500 B.C.

Pesticides

The Sumerians create the first pesticide, in the form of sulfur, which was dusted on crops. (No historical evidence is available on whether this was followed by a demand for appropriate cuneiform-tablet labeling.)

1500 B.C.

Aquaculture

The development of aquaculture in China focused on carp, leading to the accidental creation of the goldfish and the later emergence of the concomitant toilet-side funeral service.

475

The horse collar

After its invention in China, the introduction of the horse collar to Europe about 400 years later led to the horse becoming the go-to source of animal labor, replacing oxen as plow animals and leading to higher food production levels.

900 — 1300

Crop rotation

Sustainable agriculture took a huge leap forward with the introduction of three-field crop rotation, resulting in the one fact about medieval farming that modern schoolchildren are likely to retain into adulthood.

1799

Steam-powered farm machines

The slow industrialization of agriculture started with the introduction of fixed steam-powered machinery for threshing wheat. Making this machinery more and more portable would lead to the first farm tractors.

1810

Canning

Glass bottles were initially used for canning, but it is Philippe de Girard’s invention of the tin can that really put this food technology on the map. (The invention is often attributed to de Girard’s French friend Peter Durand, who secured the English patent on de Girard’s behalf, as France and England were inconveniently at war at the time.)

1836

Gas stoves

The first gas stove factory opens. The stoves give chefs a much greater degree of temperature control in cooking but would ultimately lead to the deep charcoal-versus-propane barbeque schism.

1849

Artificial flavors

The advent of organic chemistry opened the door to artificial flavors, although not without some misfires, such as the promotion of nitrobenzene, once considered usable as a replacement for bitter almonds in confectionary with “perfect safety.” Alas, it’s now known to be a toxin capable of causing kidney, liver, and brain damage.

1851

Refrigeration

Artificial refrigeration made it possible to warehouse food for long periods of time and transport it over previously impossible distances, such as with the SS Dunedin, the first refrigerated cargo ship to be commercially successful. In 1882 it carried meat from New Zealand to London.

1855

Can opener

Forty-five years after the invention of the tin can, the other shoe drops with the invention of the can opener.

1864

Pasteurization

The introduction of pasteurization was a huge leap forward for food safety, if something of a sad moment for cheese gourmets.

1879

Artificial sweeteners

Saccharin, the world’s first artificial sweetener, is discovered by accident when chemist Constantin Fahlberg forgets his parents’ advice and doesn’t wash his hands properly before eating.

1889

Instant coffee

Recent research shows that instant coffee, the bane and blessing of modern office life, was first created by David Strang in New Zealand—not, as previously believed, in 1901 by Satori Kato in Chicago.

18000 B.C.

Pottery vessels

Invention of pottery vessels. The earliest vessels were probably used just for cooking before the development of impermeable ceramics made them suitable for long-term storage. (“Dishwasher safe” is, however, still a work in progress.)

7500 B.C.

Agricultural revolution

The beginning of the agricultural revolution. Raising crops allowed people to shift away from a migratory existence. And with our feet up after a good meal, all sorts of other ideas started to occur to us, setting the stage for civilizations to develop.

6000 B.C.

Irrigation

The regular flooding of the Nile begat the earliest form of artificial irrigation: basin irrigation, in which water channels were allowed to flood but prevented from draining.

2500 B.C.

Pesticides

The Sumerians create the first pesticide, in the form of sulfur, which was dusted on crops. (No historical evidence is available on whether this was followed by a demand for appropriate cuneiform-tablet labeling.)

1500 B.C.

Aquaculture

The development of aquaculture in China focused on carp, leading to the accidental creation of the goldfish and the later emergence of the concomitant toilet-side funeral service.

475

The horse collar

After its invention in China, the introduction of the horse collar to Europe about 400 years later led to the horse becoming the go-to source of animal labor, replacing oxen as plow animals and leading to higher food production levels.

900 — 1300

Crop rotation

Sustainable agriculture took a huge leap forward with the introduction of three-field crop rotation, resulting in the one fact about medieval farming that modern schoolchildren are likely to retain into adulthood.

1799

Steam-powered farm machines

The slow industrialization of agriculture started with the introduction of fixed steam-powered machinery for threshing wheat. Making this machinery more and more portable would lead to the first farm tractors.

1810

Canning

Glass bottles were initially used for canning, but it is Philippe de Girard’s invention of the tin can that really put this food technology on the map. (The invention is often attributed to de Girard’s French friend Peter Durand, who secured the English patent on de Girard’s behalf, as France and England were inconveniently at war at the time.)

1836

Gas stoves

The first gas stove factory opens. The stoves give chefs a much greater degree of temperature control in cooking but would ultimately lead to the deep charcoal-versus-propane barbeque schism.

1849

Artificial flavors

The advent of organic chemistry opened the door to artificial flavors, although not without some misfires, such as the promotion of nitrobenzene, once considered usable as a replacement for bitter almonds in confectionary with “perfect safety.” Alas, it’s now known to be a toxin capable of causing kidney, liver, and brain damage.

1851

Refrigeration

Artificial refrigeration made it possible to warehouse food for long periods of time and transport it over previously impossible distances, such as with the SS Dunedin, the first refrigerated cargo ship to be commercially successful. In 1882 it carried meat from New Zealand to London.

1855

Can opener

Forty-five years after the invention of the tin can, the other shoe drops with the invention of the can opener.

1864

Pasteurization

The introduction of pasteurization was a huge leap forward for food safety, if something of a sad moment for cheese gourmets.

1879

Artificial sweeteners

Saccharin, the world’s first artificial sweetener, is discovered by accident when chemist Constantin Fahlberg forgets his parents’ advice and doesn’t wash his hands properly before eating.

1889

Instant coffee

Recent research shows that instant coffee, the bane and blessing of modern office life, was first created by David Strang in New Zealand—not, as previously believed, in 1901 by Satori Kato in Chicago.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

1893

Electric toasters

Although beginning a breakfast revolution, early electric toasters had a habit of melting their heating elements.

1893

Electric toasters

Although beginning a breakfast revolution, early electric toasters had a habit of melting their heating elements.

1893

Electric stove

The electric stove was a breakout hit of the Chicago World’s Fair, as part of the Electric Kitchen Exhibit. “Kitchen of the Future!” exhibits have remained a fixture of such fairs ever since.

1913

Haber-Bosch process

The Haber-Bosch process for producing ammonia allowed nitrogen-based fertilizer to be synthesized on an industrial scale. The result was incredible growth of the food supply—globally, 40 percent of the protein in our diets is due to the Haber-Bosch process—which in turn fueled human population growth.

1927

Sliced bread

Setting a new benchmark for bright ideas, Otto Frederick Rohwedder invents a machine for slicing loaves.

1930

Frozen food

The fruits of refrigeration are brought home with the first retail sales of prefrozen food, laying the groundwork for its apotheosis 53 years later, in the form of the Hot Pocket.

1930 — 1940

Battery cages

Originally intended to improve the welfare of chickens, the introduction of tightly confining battery cages in the 1930s led to abuses that has resulted in many countries banning them in recent years.

1939

DDT

DDT’s effectiveness as a pesticide is discovered. Following World War II, it is applied worldwide. Later, its use is severely restricted after its environmental toxicity becomes evident.

1947 — 1949

Food extruders

By cooking and shaping food simultaneously, extruders made the mass production of many modern snacks, cereals, and processed cheeses possible. This forever transforms the eating habits of children left to fend for themselves on Saturday mornings while their parents try to get a bit of a lie-in.

1947

Microwave ovens

Two years after radar engineer Percy Spencer discovers a melted chocolate bar in his pocket after working on an active antenna, the first microwave ovens go on sale, another seminal step toward the creation of Hot Pockets.

1951

Animal antibiotics

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the use of antibiotics in animals, including prophylactic use in feed. This looks to have been another bad idea, with current concerns about drug resistance prompting FDA attempts to reduce the use of animal antibiotics.

1954

Teflon

Teflon was discovered in 1938, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was used to coat frying pans. Shortly thereafter, “Use the plastic spatula!” would become a universal cri de coeur in kitchens around the world.

1957

Irradiated food

The first commercially irradiated foods are sausage spices produced by a plant in Germany. The process was banned by the German government in 1959. However, the technology was taken up elsewhere, ultimately allowing irradiated apples to provide the best joke in the 2002 zombie-apocalypse classic 28 Days Later.

1958

Instant noodles

With Japan still suffering from postwar food shortages, Momofuku Ando invents instant noodles as an alternative to bread, feeding generations of college students, editorial assistants, and open-source programmers.

1961

Asceptic packaging

Tetra Pak launches its aseptic packaging. Combined with the later introduction of the Tetra Brik, it had a huge effect on how liquid foodstuffs were stored and distributed, despite occasionally drenching consumers struggling to tear open the packaging correctly.

1966

Green Revolution

The International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, breeds the IR8 strain. This “miracle rice” helps kick off the agricultural green revolution in developing countries, which involves modern farming techniques, including the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides.

1968

Freeze-dried ice cream

Apollo 7 is the first—and last—NASA mission to take freeze-dried ice cream into outer space, creating a staple of science museum shops everywhere.

1969

The kitchen computer

The recipe-storing Honeywell 316 Kitchen Computer is the first computer ever offered to consumers. Nobody buys one, but marketeers continue to tout the virtues of recipe retrieval throughout the home-computer revolution of the 1980s.

1972

Remote sensing

The first Landsat satellite is launched to perform remote sensing of agricultural and other resources from orbit.

1983

Hot Pockets

Hot Pockets are introduced. Sadly, it will be another 15 years before your humble timeline compiler moves to the United States and discovers the joys contained within the microwave crisping sleeve.

1991

Lean, finely textured beef

Beef Products Inc. gets the okay to sell lean, finely textured beef, later known derisively as “pink slime.”

1992

Molecular Gastronomy

The molecular gastronomy movement kicks off at a scientific workshop in Sicily, Italy. Agar, once just the gunk used to grow bacteria in petri dishes, now gets a starring role in TV cooking shows.

1994

Genetically modified food

The Flavr Savr tomato is the first genetically modified food to be licensed for human consumption. It is too costly to produce profitably.

1996

Roundup Ready

Genetically modified to be herbicide resistant, Roundup Ready soybean plants are introduced by Monsanto, provoking protest and controversy, especially in Europe.

2000

In vitro edible meat

The first in vitro edible meat (goldfish muscle) is grown as a possible food supply for astronauts on long missions. Astronauts are silent on whether they would have preferred the freeze-dried ice cream research to have continued instead.

2002

Rice genome

The genome of rice is sequenced, revealing that rice plants have more genes than human beings.

2007

Printed food

3-D printers are used to make the first printed food, hopefully marking the first step toward Star Trek–style food replicators.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

1892

Petroleum-powered tractor

The invention of the petroleum-powered tractor would sweep away the centuries-long association of horses and farming in a just a few decades, and so inspire several poignant James Herriot stories.

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