Top 10 Inventions Of All Time
Top 10 Inventions Explained
Revelations From the Study of Technology History
- Technology can be quantified by viewing inventions as the smallest indivisible unit of technology. 2000 inventions can be viewed as the sum of all technology. With the quantification of technology, numerical analysis of technology history can proceed which led to the first Tech Truth: Inventions=population X (time)².
- Primacy of DATA. Data is the most important technology class. The 9 eras of technology are defined by major inventions in data.
- The 5 Generations of DATA. Data has had 5 generations: oral or spoken language, hand written language, mechanical or printed language, electronic language, and hypertext language.
- Technology is uneven over time and geography. Long periods of time passed in early human existence with little or no inventions. The big bang of 3500 BCE and the big surge of 1450 were associated with marked acceleration of inventions. The United States and Western Europe have produced the vast majority of inventions in human existence.
Top 10 Greatest Inventions
#1) THE CONTROL OF FIRE
The selection of control of fire as the number one most important invention of all time was a relatively easy selection. If one asks Google: What is the greatest invention of all time? Common answers are: wheel, printing press, electric light. Ask a young person and the internet or computer are common answers. Why, then, is control of fire the most influential invention? The reasons are several. First, fire control was arguably the first great invention dating back to 1.7 million BCE and Homo habilis. More conclusive evidence of controlled fire use dates to Homo erectus at about 1.0 million BCE. Homo sapiens separated from other hominids around 250,000 BCE. So the controlled use of fire dates to the beginnings of Homo sapiens. It is estimated that 110 billion humans have ever lived, including an estimated 30 billion before the beginning of written history in 3500 BCE. So basically, every human since the beginning of humankind has been influenced by fire. The internet by comparison has seen only one generation of less than 10 billion people. Billions still have no access to the internet. Second, there are 35 prehistoric uses of fire which are all listed on the InventTable under control of fire. Heat, light, cooking, protection, sterilizing water, signaling, hunting, creation of charcoal, clearing land, burning waste, repelling insects, cauterize wounds, drying objects, food preservation, waterproofing, drive off bees for honey, warfare, religious ceremonies, toothpaste, and soap are the main uses. Third, in the Top 100 Inventions of All Time, 1/3 directly require fire or thermal treatments to produce the invention. Another 1/3 indirectly use heat or fire to produce the invention. Combined, 2/3 of the Top 100 directly or indirectly use fire in the production of the inventions. Control of fire seems even more important since the beginning of history (3500 BCE) as prehistory. The choice of control of fire as the most important and influential invention of all time to me seems obvious and indisputable.
#2) WRITTEN LANGUAGE (WRITING BY HAND)
Data inventions represent one class or one fifth of all inventions. Data inventions are the most important class of technology, as important as the four other technology classes (energy, machines, materials, and biotechnology) combined. Data inventions are most important because of the other inventions triggered by innovations in data. The big bang was an explosion of inventions which occurred in 3500 BCE with the invention of written language on clay tablets in Sumer, Mesopotamia. The big bang resulted in major inventions across all technology classes. The clay tablets were often fired to create a permanent ceramic record of the contents of the written material. So why is written language so important? What proof do we have of this importance?
In Sumer, Mesopotamia in 3500 BCE, the big bang of technology occurred when written language was invented. Within a couple hundred years, 4 of the top 11 inventions of all time were created. From 250,000 BCE to 3500 BCE, 3 top 11 inventions were created over a span of 247, 500 years or one invention for each 80,000 years. In 3500 BCE this stagnation of technology and invention abruptly stopped, resulting in perhaps the single most important technology explosion in human history. Written language in cuneiform on clay tablets (#2 of Top 10) began around 3500 BCE in Sumer, Mesopotamia. The plow (#10) and domestication of oxen which powered the plow occurred in 3500 BCE. The invention of the wheel and axle (#8) with the domestication of horses which powered the cart and chariot was about 3500 BCE. The wood hulled sailboat (#9) with oars which allowed water travel even upstream and up wind was invented around 3500 BCE. Finally, copper, tin and later, iron smelting (#11) began from 5000 BCE to 1800 BCE with bronze smelting beginning around 3500 BCE. Written language spawned technology for several reasons. First, history began with the written language. Likewise, cities and civilization began with written language. The first civilization to develop was Sumer, Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in about 3500 BCE. Within three hundred years, independent civilizations developed in the Indus river 3300 BCE, in Egypt on the Nile river 3200 BCE, Newgrange Ireland 3200 BCE, Greece 3200 BCE, Peru 3200 BCE, Iran 3200 BCE. Later by 2600 BCE, civilizations in China and Mesoamerica would appear. The Big Bang of Technology was not just an explosion of inventions, it was also an explosion of civilizations.
With history, data could be transferred reliably across generations with no loss of information. Written language allowed access of unaltered data to future generations. Oral data could only be transmitted in the present and was limited by personal mobility. Written data allowed access to future populations far greater in number than the present population. Oral traditions preceded written language but predictably lost information between generations. Second, written language allowed transfer of data across great distance with no loss of information. Oral messengers which preceded written language created loss of data. Third, written languages allowed the creation of centers of learning where written material could be collected, stored, and shared. Concentrated data allowed the creation of an educated class, specialized in data. Increased literacy results in increased inventions predictably throughout human history.
#3) PRINTING PRESS WITH MOVABLE TYPE ON PAPER (MACHINE WRITING)
Written language created an explosion of inventions, the big bang of technology. The printing press triggered the big surge of technology. The printing press is essentially machine writing. The invention of the printing press created the second big expansion of technology and inventions. Although somewhat slow to take hold, the printing press led to the expansion of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. The big surge began in 1450 with the invention of the printing press and has continued to the present day. The printing press with metal movable type was invented first in China but was popularized by Johann Gutenberg in 1440 in Mainz, Germany. The printing press with movable type lost interest in China due to the extremely large number of characters present in the Chinese language. Whereas only a few pages could be hand written per day by manuscript, in comparison, 3600 copies could be printed per day by a Renaissance printer. By 1500, there were over 1000 active printing presses in Western Europe and over 20 million printed texts . By 1600, over 200 million texts were printed. Christopher Columbus carried The Travels of Marco Polo on his voyage to the New World. The Gutenberg Bible was one of the first printed texts. Access by the public to the Bible made inexpensive by printing led to the Reformation. Martin Luther is quoted, “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.” The Reformation led to dramatic increases in literacy which led to further demand for printed reading material. The Renaissance and the printing press led to the publication of classical writings from Greece and Rome. The printing press ushered in the first era of mass communication. The printing press helped educate the common person and helped create the middle class. By the 1800s, steam rotary presses had replaced the Gutenberg hand operated presses.
#4) DOMESTICATION OF PLANTS
Around 10,000 BCE agriculture began. Before then, wild grains were harvested by hunter gatherer groups beginning around 100,000 BCE. True domestication of plants occurred in Mesopotamia with the founding 8 paleolithic crops: eikorn wheat, emmer wheat, peas, chick peas, flax, barley, lentils, and bitter vetch. These three cereals, flax, and four pulses were the first domesticated crops. Rye may also have been in this group of 8 but remains controversial. Rice was domesticated around 6200 BCE in China. Corn was domesticated in Mesoamerica around 4000 BCE. Domestication of plants and animals caused a transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agricultural lifestyle. Permanent homes and farms led to the development of villages and much later, cities.. Food production excesses allowed for trade and commerce. In 2020, 15 plants provide 90% of the world’s plant energy. Rice, corn, and wheat provide 51% of the world’s calories. About 55% of crops are used to feed people, 36% is used to feed livestock. As important the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture was in human existence, why is domestication of plants and animals not ranked higher, even #1? The answer for me is that domestication of plants and animals did not immediately lead to the development of civilizations, cities, or other important inventions. Domestication of plants and animals occurred around 9000-10,000 BCE. However, it was not until 3500 BCE, 6000 years later, that civilizations began. 6000 years is more time than occurred from the first civilization to now. During the 6000 years between 9500 BCE and 3500 BCE, no great inventions occurred after the domestication of plants or grazing animals. The domestication of horses in 3500 BCE was associated with the wheel and domestication of oxen was associated with the invention of the plow also around 3500 BCE. Clearly, domestication of plants changed human lifestyle forever, but did not spawn much technology.
#5) DOMESTICATION OF GRAZING, HERDING ANIMALS
Domestication of animals occurred before the domestication of plants. Dogs were the first domesticated animal beginning around 32,000 BCE in Belgium (Europe). Dog domestication however did not lead to a transition from hunter gatherer lifestyle. Domestication of pigs occurred around 11,000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Domestication of sheep occurred around 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Domestication of goats occurred around 9000 BCE. With domestication of cattle occurring around 8500 BCE in Turkey and Pakistan. Herding animal domestication allowed transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a pastoral lifestyle. Domesticated animals provided meat, milk, leather, sinew, oils, horn, bones, and clothing/shoes. The land requirements change dramatically with the lifestyle transitions. The land needs for hunter-gatherer societies are estimated between 7-500 square miles/person or 150-1000 ha/person depending on the land productivity. The nomadic lifestyle and high land requirements of a hunter-gatherer culture made settlements and villages impractical or impossible. With domestication of plants and animals which occurred relatively simultaneously, the land requirements decreased to less than 1/100th of that with hunter gatherers (100 m2 /person for agriculture). With excess food production, populations increased and population density markedly increased. Villages and commerce were now possible. Domestication of plants was essential for the full domestication of animals. As mentioned above, over a third of crops are used to feed livestock.
# 6) RADIO WAVE TECHNOLOGY
Perhaps the most controversial selection of the Top 10 is radio technology at number 6. After all, radio technology has not been around very long. Few lists of greatest inventions include radio technology. James Clerk Maxwell predicted radio waves in 1867. In 1887, Heinrich Hertz first generated radio waves in Germany. In 1894-5, Guglielmo Marconi developed the first practical radio transmitters. Is not television more important than radio? Television is transmitted by radio waves. Radio waves are the primary basis for wireless communication. Wired communication occurred first with the telegraph, than with the telephone. Wires create many obvious limitations. Radio waves are how machines talk to other machines without wires. Radio communication takes several forms: 1) domestic and car radio for news, weather, and music as a form of mass communication 2) television is transmitted via radio waves 3) communication with and control of orbiting satellites is by radio waves 4) cellular phones use radio waves to transmit data 5) RADAR obviously uses radio waves 6) microwave ovens use a form of radio wave which is absorbed by molecules creating heat energy 7) Bluetooth uses radio waves to transmit data between machines. The WIRELESS ERA of technology is largely created with radio wave technology. The next technology era, predicted by many to be the internet of things (IoT) will only be possible with radio wave technology.
#7) COMPUTER (DATA MACHINES, ELECTRONIC WRITING)
In 1100 BCE the abacus was the first device invented to aid calculations. In 1642, French Blaise Pascal created the first mechanical calculator using cogs and wheels. Gottfried Leibniz designed a calculating machine called the Step Reckoner in 1671. Leibniz advocated use of the binary number system for calculating machines. In 1822, Charles Babbage invented the difference engine, a hand cranked analytical engine. The Babbage difference engine had the same 4 components as a modern computer: the reader (input), the mill (central processing unit) the store (memory) and printer (output). Punch cards provided the initial data input. The creation of electricity in the late 1800s provided the needed computer power source. The transistor was invented in 1947 replacing the bulky vacuum tubes. The integrated circuit was invented in 1958. In 1970, Intel creates the first dynamic access memory (DRAM) chip. In 1970s, Alto was the first computer with a mouse and graphic user interface. In 1979, word processing begins with WordStar. In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee creates hypertext markup language and the World Wide Web. Computers are data machines: word processors, calculators, portals to the internet, inputs and outputs for email, libraries of books, video instruction. Computers and smart devices, are the Bluetooth connection hubs to home and office electronic devices, machines, and appliances.
#8) WHEEL AND AXLE WITH HORSE DOMESTICATION
Interestingly, no wheels exist in nature. Horse domestication and the invention of the wheel are co-inventions, occurring simultaneously at around 3500 BCE. The wheel began as the potter’s wheel around 3700 BCE in Sumer, Mesopotamia. The potter’s wheel spun moist clay in a circle allowing creation of perfectly circular vessells in a quick, reproducible fashion allowing for mass production. The horse was domesticated around 3500 BCE in the Eurasian Steppes of the Ukraine in west central Asia. Many historians believe the wheel and axle could only be invented where a suitable beast of burden (horse) existed to power the mobile cart or chariot. Areas like North and South America did not originally have horses, so the Native Americans did not develop the wheel until after the European conquest. The wheel and axle did more than transform land transportation. The wheel and axle are one of the six simple machines used to construct all complex machines. Wheels can be used as single (wheelbarrow), double (chariot), three, four (cart of wagon), six or more (train).The potter’s wheel later led to the solid wood wheel, the spoked wheel, the iron ringed wheel, the rubber wheel, the pneumatic tire wheel, and the metal spoked, rimmed vulconized rubber pneumatic tire wheel. Wheeled devices move materials far better on roads. The extensive Roman empire road system dramatically increased the utility of the wheel. Not surprisingly, with the collapse of the Roman empire and rise of the horse cultures of the Huns and Mongols during the Dark Ages, use of the wheel declined. Modern wheels are primarily land transportation devices. Wheelbarrows, bicycles, cars, trucks, and trains all depend on wheels for transport. Non transportation uses of the wheel include: potter’s wheel, water wheel for power, ferris wheel for entertainment, pizza cutter, daisy wheel can opener.
#9) SAILBOAT WITH WOOD HULL AND OARS
Whereas the sailboat was originally constructed of reeds, not wood, around 6000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Later, oars were invented around 5000 BCE in China. The wood hulled sailboat with both a square cloth sail and oars was invented around 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Advances in metallurgy, particularly bronze smelting allowed the production of metal saws, nails, hammers and axes necessary to create the wooden planks required for hulled sea worthy vessels of transport. The combination of sails and oars allowed these boats to sail up current and up wind. Three quarters of the world is covered with water. The sailboat allows access to and transport through the largest portion of our planet. The Phoenicians used the oared sailboat to set up trade routes throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. All major civilizations exist on large bodies of fresh water. The river cultures of Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates), Egypt (Nile), India (Indus), and China (Yellow) used sailboats for transport and commerce. The Age of Discovery occurred because of the compass, the sextant, and the caravel sailing ship. Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas using 2 caravels, the Pinta, and Nina which he preferred to the Santa Maria, his third vessel.
#10) PLOW WITH DOMESTICATION OF OXEN
Just like the wheel and axle being closely related to the domestication of the horse, the plow and domestication of oxen are also closely linked. The physical burden of pulling a plow is only possible when beasts of burden are used to power the plow. Many historians believe that the wheel and axle existed in cultures with horses to drive the wheeled vehicles. Similarly, the heavy resistance of the plow requires an appropriate beast of burden to power the machine. The original plow was called an ard or scratch plow. The ard is called a scratch plow because the mechanism of this plow is merely scratching a furrow breaking the surface of the land to be planted. The moldboard plow, a later invention, not just cuts the surface but turns the land over. Unlike with the domesticaton of plants and animals, the invention of the plow in 3500 BCE was part of the big bang of technology leading to the first civilizations in Sumer, Mesopotamia, in the Nile valley of Egypt and the Indus river valley. The plow allowed a huge expansion of agriculture creating the birth of civilizations.