The List – Top 50 Innovations

THE LIST . . . . . . .

The Atlantic asked a dozen scientists, historians, and technologists to rank the top innovations since the wheel. Here are the results. . . . . . . .

  1. The printing press, 1430s

The printing press was nominated by 10 of our 12 panelists, five of whom ranked it in their top three. Dyson described its invention as the turning point at which “knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own.”

  2. Electricity, late 19th century 

And then there was light—and Nos. 4, 9, 16, 24, 28, 44, 45, and most of the rest of modern life.

3. Penicillin, 1928

Accidentally discovered in 1928, though antibiotics were not widely distributed until after World War II, when they became the silver bullet for any number of formerly deadly diseases

  4. Semiconductor electronics, mid-20th century

The physical foundation of the virtual world

  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 even a passage in Seneca about the optical effects of a glass bowl of water,” says Mokyr. But it was centuries before the invention of eyeglasses dramatically raised the collective human IQ, and eventually led to the creation of the microscope and the telescope.

  6. Paper, second century

“The idea of stamping images is natural if you have paper, but until then, it’s economically unaffordable.” — Charles C. Mann

  7. The internal combustion engine, late 19th century

Turned air and fuel into power, eventually replacing the steam engine (No. 10)

  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.
  9. The Internet, 1960s

The infrastructure of the digital age

  10. The steam engine, 1712

Powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution

  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 (No. 22).

  12. Sanitation systems, mid-19th century

A major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880 (see “Die Another Day”)

  13. Refrigeration, 1850s

“Discovering how to make cold would change the way we eat—and live—almost as profoundly as discovering how to cook.” —George Dyson

  14. Gunpowder, 10th century

Outsourced killing to a machine

  15. The airplane, 1903

Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 40)

  16. The personal computer, 1970s

Like the lever (No. 48) and the abacus (No. 43), it augmented human capabilities.

  17. The compass, 12th century

Oriented us, even at sea

  18. The automobile, late 19th century

Transformed daily life, our culture, and our landscape

  19. Industrial steelmaking, 1850s

Mass-produced steel, made possible by a method known as the Bessemer process, became the basis of modern industry.

  20. The pill, 1960

Launched a social revolution

  21. Nuclear fission, 1939

Gave humans new power for destruction, and creation

  22. The green revolution, mid-20th century

Combining technologies like synthetic fertilizers (No. 11) and scientific plant breeding (No. 38) hugely increased the world’s food output. Norman Borlaug, the agricultural economist who devised this approach, has been credited with saving more than 1 billion people from starvation.

  23. The sextant, 1757

It made maps out of stars.

  24. The telephone, 1876

Allowed our voices to travel

  25. Alphabetization, first millennium b.c.

Made knowledge accessible and searchable—and may have contributed to the rise of societies that used phonetic letters over those that used ideographic ones

  26. The telegraph, 1837

Before it, Joel Mokyr says, “information could move no faster than a man on horseback.”

  27. The mechanized clock, 15th century

It quantified time.

  28. Radio, 1906

The first demonstration of electronic mass media’s power to spread ideas and homogenize culture

  29. Photography, early 19th century

Changed journalism, art, culture, and how we see ourselves

  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 Midwest.

  31. Archimedes’ screw, third century b.c.

The Greek scientist is believed to have designed one of the first water pumps, a rotating corkscrew that pushed water up a tube. It transformed irrigation and remains in use today at many sewage-treatment plants.

  32. The cotton gin, 1793

Institutionalized the cotton industry—and slavery—in the American South

  33. Pasteurization, 1863

One of the first practical applications of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, this method for using heat to sterilize wine, beer, and milk is widely considered to be one of history’s most effective public-health interventions.

  34. The Gregorian calendar, 1582

Debugged the Julian calendar, jumping ahead 10 days to synchronize the world with the seasons

  35. Oil refining, mid-19th century

Without it, oil drilling (No. 39) would be pointless.

  36. The steam turbine, 1884

A less heralded cousin of steam engines (No. 10), turbines are the backbone of today’s energy infrastructure: they generate 80 percent of the world’s power.

  37. Cement, first millennium b.c.

The foundation of civilization. Literally.

  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 early-20th-century scientists discovered a forgotten 1866 paper by the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel that we figured out how plant breeding—and, later on, human genetics—worked.

  39. Oil drilling, 1859

Fueled the modern economy, established its geopolitics, and changed the climate

  40. The sailboat, fourth millennium b.c.

Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 15)

  41. Rocketry, 1926

“Our only way off the planet—so far.” — George Dyson

  42. Paper money, 11th century

The abstraction at the core of the modern economy

  43. The abacus, third millennium b.c.

One of the first devices to augment human intelligence

  44. Air-conditioning, 1902

Would you start a business in Houston or Bangalore without it?

  45. Television, early 20th century

Brought the world into people’s homes

  46. Anesthesia, 1846

In response to the first public demonstration of ether, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote: “The fierce extremity of suffering has been steeped in the waters of forgetfulness, and the deepest furrow in the knotted brow of agony has been smoothed for ever.”

 47. The nail, second millennium b.c.“Extended lives by enabling people to have shelter.” — Leslie Berlin

  48. The lever, third millennium b.c.

The Egyptians had not yet discovered the wheel when they built their pyramids; they are thought to have relied heavily on levers.

  49. The assembly line, 1913

Turned a craft-based economy into a mass-market one

  50. The combine harvester, 1930s

Mechanized the farm, freeing people to do new types of work


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About Dick and Danna

OUR BUCKET LIST: 1950 First kid in the area with a portable radio on my bike when I was in grade school........... 1951 Built a 5 watt radio transmitter when I was in high school and went on the radio from home. Not the most legal thing to do. Built a PA system from scratch also........... 1951-1954 Learned to play Steel Guitar. Played many shows of country music on 6 different radio stations with different groups in Western Pennsylvania........... 1954 Married Danna Lewis at when she was 15 years old........... 1960 Got into Citizen Band Radio. Danna and I were two of the original founders of CB Rangers CB club in Butler. We published a call book of all of the CBers in the Tri-State area............ 1969 Danna and I were two of the original founders of the Tri-State Country Music Association. I wrote a column for their newspaper every month........... 1960 We went to Nashville. Met Ralph Emery of WSM radio and Archie Campbell, a Hee Haw TV Entertainer. Had coffee with them at Linbaugh’s Restaurant in Nashville. Archie bought the coffee........... 1965 We developed a successful network marketing business. In later years developed a few others. Greatest training on attitudes and success........... 1968 Had a Built an outdoor stage. Had a country music jam session on our lawn at home with around 500 musicians and their family from 5 different states........... 1969 Played music on the staff band of the WWVA Jamboree and backed up all of the entertainers in front of thousands of people for 4 months. WWVA was second largest country music show at that time next to WSM Grand Old Opry........... 1984 Danna started her own typesetting business in her home. Danna Vernon Graphics had customers in 3 counties. Very successful. She taught herself how to run the typesetter machine. It was a photo typesetter. She also did layout work for printers........... 1988 I taught the secretaries at Butler hospital how to use word processing and computers, but I never had any schooling or education on it. I also did some computer programming. Before this I ran the printing operation at the hospital........... 1989 I quit a good computer job and Danna and I bought a printing franchise, Minuteman Press in Butler PA. Operated it for 5 years............ 1994 We bought a motor home. went to Florida. Spent 9 years going to Florida for 6 months every year and back to Pennsylvania for 6 months............ 1995 We played music with “Spur of the Moment” band in Florida........... 2001 Never knew my dad. Met him in 2001 and Danna and I spent a wonderful 5 years together before he passed away. Went on a wonderful 2 weeks tour of Europe (5 countries) with him. He lived in Bradenton Florida........... 2002 Danna started singing and ended up running the Suncoast Jamboree in Florida, She had her own band and scheduled everything. She sang and emcee’d the show. Played many of the RV parks in the area........... 2004 Started a recording studio in Pa and FL. Danna recorded numerous CD’s........... 2007 Since I was a little kid, I have always wanted to wear the spots off a deck of cards. I finally accomplished it this year. Threw the deck away........... 2010 We started and played in various Gospel Music Groups. Country Transition, Good News Country Gospel. Played churches all over Western Pennsylvania........... 2010 We played music on television shows on WHCU-TV Kittanning........... 2010-2014 Danna and I did a 30 minute interview talk show, Danna’s Radio Diner, on WTYM & WAVL radio. Over 30,000 hits from over 100 countries on our website as of June 2017. Still get many hits every day........... 2010 Danna and I were on TV participating in Family Life TV WHKU helping their Christmas Auction on television........... 2011 Danna and I both read our first commercial to be broadcast on WTYM radio. Also I wrote a radio promo and a short radio script........... 2012 Operated a TV camera on a live TV show on WKHU-TV........... 2013 Produced an hour TV show – Armstrong Trails on WKHU-TV Kittanning, PA. Produced a monthly live country music dinner show with various bands at WTYM radio........... 2014 We went on a country music cruise and interviewed 12 top county music TV stars for our radio show........... 2014 Rode for an hour in the cab beside the engineer of a locomotive on Kiski Jct. railroad. Broadcast it on one of our radio shows........... 2014 Played Steel for Nashvile recording star Teea Goans when they came to Kittanning on WKHU-TH and WTYM Radio. Also in 2013 backed up Joann Cash (Johnny Cash sister)........... 2015 Started Danna’s Internet Café, an internet radio show. Also shows were run on WXED-FM 107.3 and WFSN-FM 96.7. for a year and a half........... 2016 I bought a Uke Bass and learned to play it. Played a jam session a week later. Sounds like a big upright bass.
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