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

Resume for Dick Vernon, PHD (Possess Highschool Diploma) I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. I am a strong conservative politically. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I make women swoon with my sensuous steel guitar playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, I repair computerized aircraft panels free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. Ihave been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat .400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On week- ends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I have given Rachel Ray and Emirile cooking lessons. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performe open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis many times when I taught him how to play guitar.. But I have not yet gone to college. ——————————————————- Resume for: Danna Vernon I put up with Dick Vernon. Doesn’t that say it all?
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