Which was more important to history, penicillin or the arch? How about cement—invented by the Romans, I believe. Or steel. Or the circuit. Or the cell phone.
When I was writing my Editor’s Note for last Friday’s newsletter, I realized that both Brian and Max had dredged up a few impressive innovations during the week. This got me thinking on the history of innovating in general. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, innovation is “the introduction of something new.” Sounds pretty simple, but what is “new”—I went back to Webster: “having recently come into existence.” So, an innovation is the introduction of something that did not previously exist. Wow.
The author Ken Follett included a truck load of innovations in his two novels set in the 12th and 14th centuries. According to Follett, the 12th century saw the invention of flying buttresses, stained glass windows, the fulling (or felting) machine, vibrant red dye, and much more. Which led me to wonder, what was the most innovative century ever and what were the greatest innovations of all time?
Put forth your opinion, backed up with some thoughtful reasoning. Once we have a good list, I’ll put it to a vote and we can crown one innovation the greatest in the world.
I think the innovation that makes innovation possible is the concept of free thought, allowing individuals to freely exchange ideas and pursue dreams for a better standard of living. Without the opportunity to use the human mind for this endeavor by oppression of free thinking would have kept us in the caves.
While for some baffling reason innovation in our culture is benchmarked by the invention of sliced bread, I think the greatest physical innovation may be the wheel. I'd vote for language as the greatest conceptual / abstract innovation.
I tend to side with monoculture farming and the plow as the greatest inventions of all time. Without those we would still be running over hill and dale several hours a day trying to eat instead of being able to sit around and invent ICs.
In my mind the greatest invention is the universal language of mathematics. I would also include the advancements made in agriculture and farming. People tend to explore, invent, create and think more productively when the are not distracted by hunger. (Agriculture and trade was one of the earliest reasons for creating mathematics.)
The development of new stronger and lighter materials from which to make things. Early on, we made things from naturally occurring substances like stone, wood, and bone. Then came bronze and iron, then steel, aluminum, and now plastics and silicon.
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