If you want a great understanding of how innovation happens, and how it borrows, adapts, and expands on other (often unrelated) innovations, check out the fascinating and enjoyable BBC series "Connections" (1978/1979) hosted by James Burke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connections_(TV_series). Innovation is not linear, not predictable, and does not follow a "road map".
n my opinion the WHEEL is one of the greatest innovations of all time as it is the WHEEL that set the whole humanity in motion.
In today's world some of the importance of the wheel has been taken away by modern communications which have made a lot of tasks to be done sitting at home but otherwise the life on this earth would have been much different without this WHEEL.
May be without wheels the whole of humanity would have habitats on the seas because that is the only place where you move without wheels
I am going to disagree both with your opinion of the importance of the wheel and your assertion that "the whole of humanity would have habitats on the seas because that is the only place where you move without wheels."
The great civilizations of the western hemisphere (Incas, Mayans, Aztecs, as well as the North American tribes) knew of the wheel but made little use of it; despite the breadth of their society and the importance of communication and transportation, wheeled transport was not used.
I like your answer. And since the question asked included "what was the most innovative century?" I was going to answer, the 19th century.
Or if we could go off grid a little, I would say the century from 1830 to 1930. Most of the fundamental scientific discoveries that enabled everything that has come along since then were made during that 100 year period.
The transistor and the integrated circuit only made electronics smaller and more efficient, and a bit more rugged. The greatest impact of the last century may be the computer but it did not provide the greatest benefit. As for the greatest age of innovation, perhaps it was indeed 1830 to 1950, although the 2 wars certainly pushed out a whole lot of innovation, and it was done with tubes.
A reader named Roxy emailed these comments: I had to answer your question about the innovation of 1100's compared to today. If we could be half as creative we would still be lucky. I can't imagine memorizing drawings from sand pits or tables and working toward an image that has never been seen, and wich may not be completed in your life time. It never occurred to me that any on those earlier buildings fell down because of design flaws. In my ignorance I didn't realize the ones that remain are only the success stories, explained as being "right in God's eyes". Considering that most of the work force were illiterate and work conditions were brutal the whole building process must have been a challenge to organize and keep on track.
The craftsmen made their own tools and often invented new ones as needed, we would never be able to match the skill, dedication, and work ethic of the time.
And when asked about favorite innovation from the book...
It's been some time since I read either of the books but I would have to agree that the single most dramatic or at least the most significant innovation was the flying buttress. Although seeing those very high stone walls with wonderous images in stained glass and light are still very impressive today, it must have been very awe inspiring to the local peasants.
Fuel (or the controlled use of). Of course, fuel comes in many forms, but going back to the first fires to deliver warmth and cook food. [A side question - why did we ever start to cook food?]
The utilization of different types of fuels in different capacities has been a prerequisite to almost every major period of innovation. Wood, Coal, Oil, Fusion (hopefully). Each exponentially increased our capacity to develop as a civilization.
A side question - why did we ever start to cook food?
[p]That question was answered by a documentary on NPR. They claimed it advanced humankind's brainpower. Without cooking, we were only able to extract to many nutrients from raw food. The other important aspect was killing harmful bacteria in meat. The documentary even went on to claim that we rose from the land of the apes that way, because we are the only species that cooks its food. I've simplified this tremendously but the documentary made it an important step in the evolution of our civilization
There is a very good reason for cooking food, which is that it allows us to eat a much wider variety of things than we could eat without cooking them. Rice and potatoes for starters. Most grains can provide much more nutrition once they are cooked, although they may provide some when eaten raw and un-ground. The majority of the worlds population would starve if it were not for being able to cook food.
I suggest language played a major part in all early inventions and innovations as a way for those prehistoric engineers to bounce ideas around. Let me add to the example previous quote - "Let's all make some new spears and then log-roll our heavy fat deer home and roast them tonight."
Which probably led to campfire discussions (with full tummies) about better ways to make spears, better ways to make fire, better ways to manually machine flint, and improvements to the concept of the wheel ("Hey Gronk, what if we somehow fastened those logs to a platform so we won't have to keep moving them from back to front?".
If not for language and translators and measurements and the printed word followed by machines to print words (and librarians), none of the progress in later centuries would have happened.
Therefore I suggest that the development of language was the enabler for all the technological progress that followed.
Sophisticated language that actually conveyed ideas, not the springtime birdsong that says "This is my tree, all males stay away, females welcome...", or the grunts, growls, barks, and whines that many creatures use to convey threats, submission, hunger, and mating invitations. While this could be considered basic language, it cannot say anything as complex as "I'm cold. Build a fire."
Early humans had the good fortune to be blessed with a vocal tract that was initially intended for eating and breathing, but became a method for modulating sound into meaningful harmonics. Without that ability humans might still be competing with gorillas for food.
As a mathematician, I am going to vote for nothing, that is, '0', the zero. An innovation of the Middle East (hence the name "Arabic numerals"), it allows both the concept of "none" and works as a placeholder, allowing us to group numbers into sets, whether decimal, octal hexidecimal or binary. Think how much harder arithmetic would be if we still did everything in Roman numerals.
A powerful argument can be made for symbolism, the idea that a thing stands for something else, as this is the basis of oral and written language, mathematics, art, ritual, political and social structure.
A separate argument can be made for various tool inventions, whether stone, iron or silicon, as well as an argument for synergy between tools and symbolism. In a way, a tool is a symbol, an item that abstractly takes the place of hand, fingers, teeth, feet or other body part.
A third argument can be made for agriculture, but agriculture would hardly have gotten far without prior development of at least stone tools.
Fuel and energy are only used to power tools.
The computer is a tool whose business it is entirely to store and manipulate symbols. It is now used to design and control most every other kind of tool. The practicality and ubiquity of the computer and its associated communication and control networks are made possible by the silicon integrated circuit. Eventually it might
replace humans altogether, and would certainly be the most disruptive of all innovations if that happens.
But the question was the "greatest" innovation. What one innovation would I be least willing to live without?
There are substitutes available for almost everything except writing. However, writing is of limited use if few can read it, and widespread literacy was not possible until the invention of phonetic writing in 1400 BC. It allows me to know the past, record my thoughts and feelings for the future, forms the basis of symbol and therefore tool manipulation and design, and is my nomination for the "greatest" innovation. It also escapes blame for the perils of war, agriculture, and civilization generally, which far pre-date phonetic writing.
Most notable inventions don't cause a quantum leap or immediate big change in the way the human race works. You could say the transistor - but that just made things a bit smaller at the time, though its importance was that - over a relatively short 50 years - it led to the ICs that control just about everything today, and massive changes in lifestyles.
The industrial revolution - mid 1700s to 1800s - also caused some fairly massive lifestyle changes for the "developed" world, though it was a series of less important inventions.
I'd probably get behind Glen with language, that's what really separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (though I sometimes wonder whether to our advantage or not.... :-) but even that was a series of small developments, not one big step.
No doubt at all in my mind. Without it, we'd still be just another great ape eating berries and the occasional animal. Nothing much more advanced than basics like stone tools, levers, rollers or wheels and simple shelters seems likely.
The moment I saw the question, I scanned the answers looking for it.
It's encouraging to me to see so many of us in engineering see it, because it seems to me that most other groups overlook it. I think it demonstrates that engineers see a bigger picture than most people.
Of course there are dozens of close behind innovations that could be number two on the list.
Transport: Pockets or woven bags must rate pretty high as Enablers; removing basic limits on foraging, allowing eating to be deferred to safe locations (including weaning children), creating trading possibilites, creating the need for other inventions like measurements, counting, drawing/mapping (more berries like these over there). Apes don't need advanced technologies because they can only carry a little at a time and so food is never an abstract concept, separated from its source.
Probably language was invented around the meal table - it was the only place where it was safe to make any noise.
Great suggestions here. Language then the written word (images, hieroglyphics etc..) are definitely atop the list, but to the others I'd add candles (so we could write, read and invent late into the night), the lever, the telegraph (and Morse code), RF communication, the telescope, flight, submarines, pennicllin...it's incredible when you think about it. The list could go on forever. Thanks for posting this Naomi!
I posed a similar question to my friends about a year ago ... Name the top 5 greatest inventions of mankind. After much deliberation (and a few fermented beverages) we came up with our list of 5 generalized inventions.
Time - we considered this a building block that allowed the interpretation of quantative measurement
Language/written/spoken word - Allows the free flow of information and ideas
Agriculture/mass farming - As a basis for allowing a culture to grow and expand.
Navigation - Whether by stars, the sun, dead reckoning or signposts, it allowed exploration, the free flow of ideas and commerce
Mathematics - In essence, this could be considered another language, but it is a building block. We had trouble deciding whether this should be considered an invention or a discovery.
Others generalizations that were considered:
Medicine, alchemy, the wheel, fire (control of), tools (in general), energy storage/conversion (ie a dam), electricity, sanitation and currency (also debated as one of the worst inventions)
It was a lively debate that night. We then went on to discuss how our top 5 picks applied to the purchase of another round. As you can imagine, we did alot of research that night.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. That forces me to say every invention is only another form of discovery. Invention or discovery, the best of the best are Music, Language, Agriculture, Cloth, Electricity, Transistor, Medicine and Movies, Cooking, Mirror etc...
"The greatest innovation" is perhaps too hard to pin down, since you can answer differently depending on the criteria you set up. However I've always been amazed at the incredible avalanche of modern inventions that came about between mostly the middle of the 19th Century and the early 20th century. Astounding.
Just think about the fact that the automobile and the heavier than air, powered airplane, were invented just a few short years apart. The train, steam-powered ships, factories, the light bulb, and the first power generating plant, radio and electronics, all in that slim sliver of time.
During the time of Lewis and Clark, people lived and traveled much like thay had been doing centuries before. That was the very early 1800s. It's incredible to think how different everything became all of a sudden, starting just a few short years later, to the first couple of decades of the 20th Century.
All incredible suggestions...keep them flowing! I like Jeff.Petro's list, though I don't think time can be considered an innovation: humans did not invent time, nor did we alter it to suit our desires.
All forms of communication seem to rank very high. Forms of transit are also up there. And both would be of limited use without the other...
Anesthesia. Imagine a c-section without anesthesia. How many babies and women saved because of emergency c-sections. Or a heart bypass, brain tumor, kidney transplant; not even possible. Removing wisdom teeth would be unbearable. Antibiotics would be a close second since all of these can result in infection.
That's easy. When god created us he gave us the human mind. That is easily the greatest creation. Sorry but all the other inventions came from this one! Man made innovation is difficult to pin point as a singular item. Possibly the use of easily obtained fire. Without it the rest of humanity would not have survived.
This subject is really flawed. The whole idea of technology is to borrow, grow, and build from earlier ideas. Needs to be narrowed down a bit or you end up with these fundamental issues of water, clothing, fire, food, shelter.
The most innovative century was the 19th. Coming into the 19th, people got around the way they always had - muscle or wind power. By the end of the 19th there was a worldwide rail system and powered ships (steam) and the beginnings of our oil driven transportation. There was a worldwide telecommunications network (telegraph & telephone). Oh, and slavery was abolished in most of the world.
I'd say the most far-reaching invention of the last thousand years was movable type. That made publication affordable, and was probably a prerequisite to the scientific revolution.
The most innovative century in technology would be the nineteenth, or the 1830-1930 period; still, that built on the industrial revolution, which began in the late 18th centuryl
The most innovative century in politics and society would be the 18th, though it built on important philosophical thinking of the 17th.
I believe most of the computer generation is about innovation and not as much invention. The greatest inventions I can think of no greater invention in the last 60 years than the transistor and integrated circuit.
“Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.” – Dave Barry
All of the suggestions thus far are really great. I would also consider Einstein's theory of General Relativity, which was a staggering achievement...
..if we want to talk about the things that really changed the world and made us into the creatures we are today, I would offer the following as being the most fundamental:
-- The mastery of fire and the use of it to cook food and keep us warm
-- The invention of the fish-hook, especially the version with the barb (some of the earliest recorded fish hooks were from Palestine about 7000 BC)
-- The invention of stone blades (knives, axes, and spear heads)
-- The invention of the bow and arrow
-- I don't know if I would class spoken language as an "invention" -- but certainly written language has to count.
-- MUSIC!!! From multiple people banging on things together to whistles and flutes to stringed instruments and song.
-- ART!!! Whenever I see pictures of stone-age cave paintings and Australian Aboriginal paintings I am rendered speechless (and it's not often you'll hear that).
-- BEER!!! I can't help it. Alcohol in general, and beer in particular, certainly makes me happier and my life better (check out by recent blog http://bit.ly/ns2XHe)
The above suggestions are just off the top of my head -- I could waffle on for hours about this (or most things, come to think about it)
Thank goodness it's Friday :-)
Wheat? It's importance is getting smaller as rice and maize is increasing, but these three provide approx. 60% of the world's food energy.
I also consider Norman Borlaug's work that doubled farming output in the second half of the 20th century to be extremely important innovation. What would've happened without it? Definitely huge famines. Wars?
Inventing the human's ability to invent was probably the greatest invention :-)
The toothbrush or dental floss. Without good oral hygiene ones health, longevity and overall well-being are seriously diminished.
From another P.O.V. we as in our/the various consciousnesses like to think that it is the concious man that invents, but a plausible argument :) can be made that our conciousness is little more than a by-product(or perhaps the beginning of a potentially more inclusive/meaningful feedback system), of the subconsciousness (the link with the 'greater' universe, with the larger nature that our conciousness and everything else that we think of is an extension of), and 'we' don't actually decide to do or think of anything, it just appears that way. So with this in mind :) I go with the mitochondria.
oh by the way all the "what is the greatest..." type questions are just for fun of course. There is no greatest anything. Not even nature for I don't have the ability to manifest the idea of nature in another nature, but then I suppose that greater nature would become the new nature... but it is still a creationist way of thinking. All of the parts(if you will), of nature that can be categorised are just as important as each other. Everything that can, does or will exist including all corporeal and non-corporeal and all that do and do not fit into this way of thinking are of equal importance all of no importance at all. :)
I'd have to stand behind agriculture, though it wasn't a single innovation. From the day Thag decided it would be a lot more convenient if we had a pear tree over here rather than on the other side of the valley to modern intensive cultivation, they all decreased the fraction of a person's time spent in getting something food for the tummy and allowed time to perfect the wheel, hour glass, and beer can.
FWIW, were you aware that the can opener was not invented until almost a decade after merchants began carrying food in cans? The Mrs. had to stop at the blacksmith's on the way home from the supermarket!
A lot of these suggestions would only benefit part of the human race. Optics for example - I wear glasses so in the caveman days I'd have been history long before I got to my present age - but the rest of the well sighted human race would have gone on quite well without me (sob).... and a lot of them thwart Darwinian natural selection so actually make the human race worse....
Language was invented, but I get the feeling most people want something more tangible.
Which makes it very difficult. I'd have to second Max's nomination of beer.
Apart from "WHEEL" which I feel is the greatest innovation, the binary ( or mistakenly called digital ) computing is the greatest innovation that has caused today's information technology and electronics revolution.
The greatest innovations are many and many. Just sit and think for a few minutes. It starts with learning every thing from nature. The nature on this earth has taught us every one innovation a nd leading us to a safer and safer healthier life. It starts with the invention of creating Fire whenever we need.The Food ,then land,then dressing,the shelter ,then travel on earth,water and fly in space, then magnetisim, communicatio,information storage,information processing and very important medicines for longeivity.There are end less innovations and it will continue.On top of all the greatest innovation is our Earth with 8400000 vareities of living beings and the Solar system.
It is difficult to say which are the greatest inventions, but I would like to put few here (in no particular order):
The fridge is a pretty powerful invention. Without it a lot of modern medicine would be near impossible and it's been one of the inventions that can be credited with having major improvements on human health by preventing food poisoning. In fact it has produce enormous change in societies that have adopted it.
Of course it still requires electricity so... maybe electricity is the greatest discovery and the electrical grid the greatest invention. Without it not much would happen these days!
I would put forth Nicola Tesla and his lifetime. He was so far ahead of his time and created so many new inventions that I feel he (and his time) is the most inventive. Wireless, remote control subs, Tesla coil, Tesla Turbine, AC power distribution (over Thomas Edison's objections), the list goes on...
I believe the introduction of tea to England allowed the industrial revolution to occur. Prior to that, in an ubran setting, the only safe beverages where alcoholic. Drinking boiled water made urban living safer and avoided the problems of operating the new fangled dangerous equipment while tipsy. The introduction of tea predated our understanding of water borne deseases by at least 100 years.
Actually people drank beer (or small beer) for similar reasons long before tea was introduced to the UK. You need to boil the water to make beer, so it is generally a lot safer.
Greatest innovation was whichever of the grain crops was first domesticated enough in order for one person to be able to produce food for more than themselves - this ultimately lead to "civilisation" ie where people had roles other than food production, and gave the time for all other things to happen, as well as the possibility of more people so more thoughts could be had etc
I read somewhere that the invention that was most quickly adopted around the world was eyeglasses. They were invented in China in like the 12th century, and within 2 years had spread to India and Baghdad, and in a few more years reached Europe. Given that most geeks and the elderly wear glasses, this invention is something which is a sine qua non in the modern technological world.
Glasses spurred the development of lenses, which led to their use in telescopes and camera.
Perhaps they also changed the very way we think about disease...we no longer see health problems are a curse or something to suffer through--we just look at diseases as problems to be fixed. Because of eyeglasses there is no "stigma" attached to vision problems, pardon the pun.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.