Atlantic Magazine assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and historians of technology, to make and rank 25 innovations that have become widespread since the invention of the wheel, perhaps 6,000 years ago. This artilce, by James Fallows, in the November Atlantic follows in summary form.
50. The Combine Harvester, 1930s. Mechanized the farm, freeing people to do new types of work.
49. The Assembly Line, 1913. Turned a craft based society into a mass-market one.
48. The Lever, third millenium, BC. When the Egyptians built their pyramids, they had not discovered the wheel yet, but are thought to have relied heavily on levers.
47. The Nail, second millenium BC. Extended lives by enabling people to have shelter.
46. Anesthesia, 1846. Allowed surgery, a big advantage in medical care.
45. Television, early 20th century. Brought the world into people’s homes.
44. Air-conditioning, 1902. Would you start a business in any hot, humid place without it? Played a major role in expansion of America across the Sun Belt, and is now having a similar role in India, China, the Gulf States and elsewhere. Allows white collar work that empowered populations living in temperate climates.
43. The Abacus, 3rd millenium BC. One of the first devices to augment human intelligence.
42. Paper money, 11th century. The abstraction at the core of the modern economy.
41. Rocketry, 1926. Only way off the planet – so far.
40. The Sailboat, fourth millenium, BC. Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world, see #15.
39. Oil drilling, 1859, Fueled the modern economy, established its geopolitics, and changed the climate.
38. Scientific plant breeding, 1920s. Humans have been manipulating plant species for nearly as long as we’ve grown them, but it wasn’t until scientists discovered the 1866 discovery of Gregor Mandel, that it was figured out how plant breeding, and later on human genetics, worked.
37. Cement, first millenium, BC. The foundation of civilization, literally. Most of the world would collapse without it.
36. The Steam Turbine, 1884. Less heralded than steam engines, #10, turbines are the backbone of today’s energy infrastructure, they generate 80% of the world’s power.
35. Oil Refining, mid-19th century. Without it, oil drilliing , #39, would be pointless.
34. The Gregorian Calendar, 1582, Debugged the Julian calendar, jumping ahead 10 days to synchronize the world with the seasons.
33. Pasteurization, 1863. One of the first applications of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, this method of heat to sterilize wine, beer, and milk is widely considered to be one of history’s most effective public-health interventions.
32. The Cotton Gin, 1793. Institutionalized the cotton industry, and slavery, in the American south.
31. Archimedes’ Screw, third century BC. The Greek scientist is believed to have designed one of the first water pumps, a tortating corkscrew that pushed water up a tube, transforming irrigation and remains in use today at many sewage-treatment plants.
30. The Moldboard Plow, 18th century. The first plow that not only dug soil up but turned it over, allowing for the cultivation of harder ground. Without it, agriculture as we know it would not exist in northern Europe or the American Miidwest.
29. Photography, early 19th century. Changed jounalism, art, culture, and how we see ourselves.
28. Radio, 1906. The first demonstration of electronic mass media’s power to spread ideas and homogenous culture.
27. The Mechaniized Clock, 15th century. It quanitified time.
26. The Telegraph, 1837. Before it, information could move no faster than a man on horseback.
25. Alphabetization, first millenium BC. Made knowledge accessible and searchable, and may have contributed to the rise of societies that use phonetic letters over those that used ideographic ones.
24. The Telephone, 1876. Allowed our voices to travel.
23. The Sextant, 1757. It made maps out of stars.
22. The Green Revolution, mid-20th century. Combining technologies like synthetic fertilizers (#11) and scientific plant breeding (#38) hugely increased the world’s food output. Norman Borlaug, the agriculural acientist who devised this approach, has been credited with saving more than 1 billion people from stravation.
21. Nuclear Fission, 1939. Gave humans new power for destruction, and creation.
20. The Birth Control Pill, 1960. Launched a social revolution.
19. Industrial Steelmaking, 1850s. Mass-produced steel, made possible by a method known as the Bessemer process, became the basis of modern industry.
18. The Automobile, late 19th century. Transformed daily life, our culture, and our landscape.
17. The Compass, 12th century. Orientated us, even at sea.
16. The Personal Computer, 1970s. Like the lever (#48) and the abacus (#43), it augmented human capabilities.
15. The Airplane, 1903. Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see #40).
14. Gunpowder, 10th century. Outsourced killing to a machine.
13. Refrigeration, 1850s. Discovering how to make cold changed the way we eat, and live, almost as profoundly as discovering how to cook.
12. Sanitation systems, mid 19th century. A major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880. Indoor plumbing, filtration systems to produce potable water, even aquaducts providing clean water is crucial to community prosperity.
11. Nitrogen Fixation, 1918. The German chemist Fritz Haber, also the father of chemical weapons, won a Nobel prize for his development of the ammonia-synthesis process which was used to create a new class of fertilizers central to the green revolution (#22). It lifted a previously unbreakable limit on crop yields. The same process led to modern explosives and the poison gas used in WWI.
10. The Steam Engine, 1712. Powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution.
9. The Internet, 1960s. The infrastructure of the digital age.
8. Vaccination, 1796. The British doctor, Edward Jenner, used the cowpox virus to protect against smallpox in 1796, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine in 1885, that medicine, and government, began to accept the idea that making someone sick could prevent further sickness.
7. The Internal Combustion Engine, late 19th century. Turned air and fuel into power, eventually replacing the steam engine (#10).
6. Paper, second century. The idea of stamping images is natural if you have paper, but until then, it’s economically unaffordable.
5. Optical Lenses, 13th century. Refracting light through glass is one of those simple ideas that took a mysteriously long time to catch on. The Romans had a glass industry, and there’s a passage in Seneca about the optical effects of a glass bowl of water. But it was centuries before the invention of eyeglasses dramatically raised the collective IQ, and eventually led to the creation of the microscope and the telescope. This illustrates the underappreciated ripple effect. Before corrective lenses, people with imperfect vision could be vulnerable to enemies or predators in early hunter-warrior societies, and later intellectually handicapped by their simple inablility to see letters and numbers as clearly as others. This allowed the largest onetime IQ boost in human history, by expanding the potential of potentially literate people.
4. Semiconductor Electronics, mid 20th century. The foundation of the virtual world.
3. Penicillin, 1928. Accidentally discovered in 1928, though antibiotics were not widely distributed until after WW II, when they became the silver bullet for any number of formerly deadly diseases.
2. Electricity, late 19th century. And then there was light – and #s 4, 9, 16, 24, 28, 44, 45, and most of the rest of modern life.
1. The Printing Press, 1430s. The printing press was nominated by 10 of the 12 panelists, five of whom rated it in their top three. The turning point at which knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own.
Innovations that expand the human intellect and its creative, expressive, and even moral possibilities: the printing press (1), paper (6), internet (9), personal computer (16), semiconductor electronics (4), and photography (29).
Innovations that are integral to the physical and operating infrastructure of the modern world: cement (37), electricity (2), sanitations systems (12), and air conditioning.
Innovations that enabled the Industrial Revolution and its successive waves of expanded material output: steam engine (10), inductrial steelmaking (19), and the refining and drilling of oil (35 and 39). A century ago, coal would have been on the list, but not now, even though it is still the most widely used fuel for electric-power plants.
Innovations extending life including the successive agricultural revolutions that now let the earth support its billions of people: nitrogen fixation (11), green revolution (22), moldboard plow (30), Archimedes’ screw (31), and scientific plant breeding (38). Advances in medical knowledge and treatment that predate our current genomics revolution: penicillin (3), vaccination (8), and the pill (20). Fifty years from now, or maybe much sooner, the revolutionary potential of genomics would probably make the list. The life extending category also includes the public-health measures that have advanced in parallel with improved medical treatment: sanitation systems (12), and refrigeration (13).
Innovations that allowed real-time communication beyond the range of a single human voice: internet (9), but the real leap beyond previous limitations occurred in the mid-1880s with the development of the telegraph (26), telephone (24), and then the radio (28). Before these information could travel no faster than man on horseback. Smoke signals, homing pigeons, and semaphore telegraph all had very little bandwidth and were unreliable. Television came in at only #45, because of its one-way information flow rather than interactivity, and dependence on heavy hardware for best display.
Innovations in the physical movement of people and goods: internal combustion engine (7) made possible the social, economic, political and environmental effects brought on by the age of the automobile (18). With variations in propulsion systems and the later emergence of jet-turbine engines, the airplane (15) was made possible. The airplane was ahead of the car as it sped up land journeys people had long made by other means, making possible an entirely new form of human movement, and, perhaps as important, an unprecedented way of seeing and understanding the earth. Until balloon flights in the late 1700s, human beings had never viewed their environment from an elevation highter than that of a treetop or a mountain, and could now see the natural contours and man-made features they had approximated on maps. Beginning in the 1700s, the steam engine (10) enabled growth of the railroad, which like the bicycle would have near the top of the list a century ago. Even now railroads carry more freight than do trucks, barges and any other form of transport. Also in this category are the sailboat (40), with the sextant (23) and the compass (17), and rocketry (41).
Organizational breakthroughs: Gregorian calendar (34), and alphabetization (25).
Innovations in killing: gunpowder (14), and nuclear fission (21). The machine gun would have dominated this category 100 years ago. Drones, chemical or biological weapons, or terrorism and guerrilla warfare matter less than the culture and temperament of human conflict.
Innovations not included: GPS, the concept of the number zero, paved roads, discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, landing on the moon, mathematics of calculus (on which space flight and so much more depend).
The culture of a technology-driven era has continually played catch-up to correct modernity’s destructive and dehumanizing effects. For our era, the major problems that technology has helped cause, and tha faster innovation may or may not correct, are environmental, demographic, and sociaoeconomic. Environmental challenges, because of the unsustainable burden being placed on the world’s oceans, skie, soils, and nonhuman life-forms; demographic, because advances in medicine and public health are rapidly pushing up the median age throughout the developed world; and socioeconomic, because a globalized, high-tech economy is widening the gap between rich and poor everywhere.
There are many innovation-enhanced perils. Wealth of the planet is raised, but technology left to its own devices widens, rather than narrows the gap between rich and poor. There is no reason to assume there will be enough ‘good’ jobs, for enough people, in the long run. Every time we solve one problem, another one pops up (look at antibiotics, insecticides, transportation). Each invention relies on subsequent inventions to clean up the mess it has made.
The central question for technologies is whether innovation in the material and productive realms can be sustained – or whether we might, on the contrary, already be entering another of the long, stagnant eras that have marked much of human history, including the ones after times of rapid advance. A slowdown of any sort might seem improbable, but possibly desirable.
Historically, some societies have closed themselves off and stopped inventing altogether: notably China after its preeminence in the Ming era, and much of the Arab Islamic world starting just before the European Renaissance. By failing to move forward, they inevitably moved backward relative to their rivals and to the rest of the environmental and economic threats they faced. If the social and intellectual cimate for innovation sours, it can happen again.
Secondly, there is a visible slowdown in the pace of solutions that technology offers to fundamental problems. Between 1850 and 1950, life expectancy nearly doubled in the United States, thanks to the combined effects of antibiotics, immunization, and public-health measures. Since then, it has only crept up. Between 1920 and 1970, improvements in cars, roads, airplanes, and even railroads made travel faster, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable. Since then, travel in the developed world has improved slowly at best. Crop yields per acre doubled within a generation of the green revolution but have not doubled again.
The third argument, is that a slowdown in, say, crop yields or travel time is part of a general pattern of what economists call diminishing marginal returns. The easy improvements are, quite naturally, the first to be made; whatever comes later is slower and harder. America’s history as a nation happens to coincide with a rare moment in technological history now nearing its end. There was virtually no economic growth before 1750, and the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well be a unique episode in human history rather a quarantee of endless future advance at the same rate. America’s ong centuries of rapid growth amounted to havesting the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of open land, cheap energy, and industrial-era breakthroughs – harvesting that could not be sustained.
The experts involved in the above list, though, all expected the pace of useful innovation to speed up, not slow down. This took three forms.
Whatever field a panelist knew most about, they considered most promising. The transformative potential of radically cheaper and more efficient batteries are a crucial element of a cleaner-energy economy. Wind turbines, solar panels, and other renewable sources don’t produce power on a schedule that matches the grid’s demands. Modern batteries cost too much, and store too little energy, to be useful in buffering undersupply.
Most U.S.-based technologists thought prospects for innovation remained brighter in the United States than anywhere else.
Second, ever cheaper, ever faster computing power could in itself promote innovation in all other fields – much as steam-powered engines did in the 19th century and electricity did in the 20th. In the past 12 years, the cost of sequencing human DNA has fallen to one one-millionth of its previous level. This reduction in cost means that the next decade should be a time of amazing advances in understanding the genetic basis of disease, with expecially powerful impications for cancer.
Third, the very concept of an end to innovation defies everything understood about human inquiry. Looking just at the 20th century, the odds against there being any improvement in living standards are enormous. Two catastrophic world wars, the Cold War, the Depression, the rise of totalitarianism have been one disaster after another, a sequence that could have been enough to sink us back into barbarism. And yet this past half century has been the fastest-ever time of technological growth. There is no reason why that should be slowing down. If the universe is viewed as a phase-space of things that are possible, eventually we are going to fill the space of everything that is possible.
Sailing ships. Even the return of sailing ships as a commercially viable transport system could be an innovation. Clipper ships could convert 60% of the raw energy of the wind into useful work. With modern materials and design, they could capture more energy than they used en route. When a fleet of ships gets to port, they could not only deliver cargo but even put energy into the grid. This is how innovators think.
Battery technology. Using advances in materials and nanoscience, you could double or triple the energy density of a battery, and reduce its real cost by 50-70%. This would be a total game changer for transportation as electric vehicles would approach the cost of gasoline-powered ones.
Digital Health. In a decade, all health-care data will be in the cloud, providers will carry tablets, and patients will wear devices that track their pulse, steps, and vital signs. The goal is to go from a system that’s focused on sick care to one that’s working on health care.