50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel?

A lot has happened since the potter’s wheel was invented over 5,500 years ago, the chariot wheel invented about 5,200 years ago [both in Mesopotamia], the waterwheel over 2,000 years ago [Greece] , and the wheelbarrow invented almost 2,000 years ago [China].

From The Atlantic magazine, comes a panel-generated “50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel” list. The author, James Fallows, explains how the list was made:

The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) We also invited panelists to add explanations of their choices, and I followed up with several of them and with other experts in interviews. _James Fallows

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 _Atlantic

Most readers would not come up with exactly the same list as the above committee generated list. Nor would I. To be honest, I find it more profitable to speculate on potential disruptive technologies yet to be developed.

They used to talk about building “a better mousetrap” as a way of earning a fortune through ingenuity. Most people would not consider a better mousetrap as a “disruptive technology” but often it is the dullest invention or innovation that has the greatest overall impact.

Every item on the list above could be thought of as “a mousetrap” in some sense. But rather than trying to think up a better substitute for the item, consider a number of developments that might make the technology unnecessary. A “meta-mousetrap” as it were.

Computers, sophisticated software, and automation have been disruptive in that sense, making a lot of human occupations obsolete while creating entirely new niches elsewhere.

But try to imagine technologies that are orders of magnitude more disruptive. Energy, food production, communication, healthcare, and transportation figure prominently in the Atlantic’s committee list. What kind of change might make those technologies obsolete?

Most people can’t imagine even trying. Dangerous Children do it unconsciously, as a matter of course.

More: Why big wind farms and big solar arrays do not belong on any list of transformative technologies:

Germany’s twisting road of good energy intentions

Germany and Denmark pay high price for “renewables”

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4 Responses to 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel?

  1. Simon says:

    Molecular manufacturing would be up there on my list, closely followed by FTL/warp engines as far as most disruptive tech goes.

  2. alfin2101 says:

    Two good selections, thanks.

    We tend to think in terms of hard science and technology when thinking about disruptive techs, but biotech and the life sciences are red hot cauldrons of innovation as well.

    Imagine a redesigned human who looks much the same on the outside, but who requires only about a half hour a day of sleep. Imagine indoor decorative plants that could produce almost any food or pharmaceutical that you select. Imagine healthy human lifespans in hundreds of years rather than dozens. How would these biodevelopments change society as we know it?

    There will always be issues of affordability, and inequalities of intelligence and competence that limit the ability of some to take advantage of disruptive transformations. But the inequalities are likely to be on altogether different levels than we can currently comprehend or recognize. That is another aspect of the word “disruptive.”

  3. Stephen says:

    I am looking forward to fracture glue and fracture putty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UglIWL_LTM AND http://medcitynews.com/2013/04/biologically-active-putty-under-development-could-help-bone-fractures-heal-quicker/ .
    I imagine that artificial DNA and RNA and perhaps later nanobots will have a huge impact on medicine and medical treatment. Maybe this will be the century in which disease is eradicated.

  4. Matt Musson says:

    I am more convinced that Tricorder medicine is closer than any of us believe. The current disruption of the US medical system is giving us an opportunity to bypass the traditional medical clinic wait and see a doctor scenario.

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