The Atlantic asked a dozen scientists, historians, and technologists to rank the top innovations since the wheel. Here are the results. . . . . . . .
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
The physical foundation of the virtual world
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.
“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)
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
Powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution
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).
A major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880 (see “Die Another Day”)
“Discovering how to make cold would change the way we eat—and live—almost as profoundly as discovering how to cook.” —George Dyson
Outsourced killing to a machine
Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 40)
Like the lever (No. 48) and the abacus (No. 43), it augmented human capabilities.
Oriented us, even at sea
Transformed daily life, our culture, and our landscape
Mass-produced steel, made possible by a method known as the Bessemer process, became the basis of modern industry.
Launched a social revolution
Gave humans new power for destruction, and creation
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.
It made maps out of stars.
Allowed our voices to travel
Made knowledge accessible and searchable—and may have contributed to the rise of societies that used phonetic letters over those that used ideographic ones
Before it, Joel Mokyr says, “information could move no faster than a man on horseback.”
It quantified time.
The first demonstration of electronic mass media’s power to spread ideas and homogenize culture
Changed journalism, art, culture, and how we see ourselves
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.
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.
Institutionalized the cotton industry—and slavery—in the American South
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.
Debugged the Julian calendar, jumping ahead 10 days to synchronize the world with the seasons
Without it, oil drilling (No. 39) would be pointless.
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.
The foundation of civilization. Literally.
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.
Fueled the modern economy, established its geopolitics, and changed the climate
Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 15)
“Our only way off the planet—so far.” — George Dyson
The abstraction at the core of the modern economy
One of the first devices to augment human intelligence
Would you start a business in Houston or Bangalore without it?
Brought the world into people’s homes
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.”
The Egyptians had not yet discovered the wheel when they built their pyramids; they are thought to have relied heavily on levers.
Turned a craft-based economy into a mass-market one
Mechanized the farm, freeing people to do new types of work