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What’s the greatest invention of all time?

We have been inventing things for millions of years. But which is the best of them?

January/February 2012

An introduction by Samantha Weinberg

Nearly two thousand years ago, three elderly Chinese men sat in the gardens of Changle Palace, arguing about what was the greatest invention of all time.

“Tools made of rock,” said one, banging his fist on the delicate carved table.

“Paper,” said another, slamming the side of his hand.

“No, scissors!” cried the third, making chopping movements in the air. And so a game was invented.

This little tale is an invention too. We do not know exactly when Rock, Paper, Scissors was dreamed up, nor how, since in the time of Han there were fewer ways of recording the events of the day: no photographs (invented by Louis Daguerre in 1836), no sound recordings (the phonautograph was first used in 1857) and no reliable method of storing and passing on information (more of that later).

But the fact that the game existed then, and did not before, means that it is an invention. It may not be a contender for the greatest of all time, but rock, paper and scissors most certainly are. Inventions, for the purposes of this debate, are tangible—technologies and processes, rather than more nebulous things such as ideas, principles and imaginings. Children might feel that Father Christmas (first recorded in 1616) is the greatest invention of all time, but we are ruling him out.

Tools fashioned of rock, or stone, were probably the earliest inventions worthy of the name. First used in the Paleolithic Age, around 2.6m years ago, they mark an essential progression, from proto-human to human. With simple tools, fashioned by pummelling one piece of rock against another to produce a sharp edge, early man began to shape the world according to his needs, to build rudimentary shelters, to hunt and flay animals for food and clothing. Just about everything else followed from there. There is virtually nothing about the way we live today that would have been possible without those first stone tools.

But does longevity alone qualify stone tools for the crown? I’m not convinced; theirs was a long, slow grind to efficacy, and in most forms they’ve long been eclipsed. The blade, however—of which scissors are just a manifestation, albeit an ingenious one—has been in constant use since it was first invented at the start of the Ages of Metal, some 400,000 years ago. Think of knives, swords, spears, axes, the guillotine…uh-oh. Although we depend on the blade for much of what we now take for granted, from cutting up our food to making the electronics which crowd our daily life, there’s a little too much of the chop and slash about blades to make them my greatest of all time. 

So how about the third of our Chinese gents’ suggestions: paper? Invented by an imperial courtier named Ts’ai Lun in 105AD, it was deemed so precious and important that successive Chinese dynasties kept it secret for six centuries. Not something that the Dragons of today’s Den, with their greedy eyes and piles of cash, would be inclined to do.

It is thanks to paper that we know about its invention. The ability to keep a written record is the foundation of mass learning. While the alphabet was invented around 2,000BC (at the same time as another useful device, the umbrella), it wasn’t easy to pass around heavy stone tablets, or to manufacture and preserve papyrus scrolls in great numbers. The invention of paper led inexorably to books, the printing press, newspapers and magazines, to sacred texts, art, photography and music scores, handed down through generations. And yet, here we are at the dawn of what may, finally, become a paperless society. Paper may cover stone, but it is cut by scissors and burned by fire—another of the foundations of our society.

There are more. Tracing a line through time, you keep bumping into inventions that precipitate many others. Invention nearly always fulfils a need, but it is also an agent of change and how you measure that change depends on who you are and when you lived. Let’s move our game to 1820s London; three learned gentlemen are gathered at the new headquarters of the Royal Society, in Burlington House, scratching their wigs over what was the greatest invention of the previous century.

“ ’Tis surely the internal combustion engine [1794],” said one, “for ’tis changing the nature of transport. Men and goods can move great distances in the wink of an eye.”

“Nay! Consider vaccination [1796],” his friend responded. “Jenner’s work is saving lives.” 

“Aye, and what of the electrical motor?” said the third. “The implications of what young Faraday is doing today will light up the lives of our grandchildren.”

Three more worthy contenders. But change the cast again, and the suggestions will be different. Put women on the chairs, and we might vote for the contraceptive pill (Carl Djerassi, 1960) which, by handing us the responsibility for our own fertility, freed us to run our own lives. Blind people might point to Braille (1824), astronomers to the telescope (1609), miners to the safety lamp (1815). Around my kitchen table, the suggestions were diverse and revealing: the Xbox 360 (son, aged 11), the bridle (daughter, 9), and the iPad (father, 80). Or not so diverse in the case of the menfolk.

In December 1999, the writer and thinker Umberto Eco was asked to name his greatest inventions of the millennium. He plumped for four things: the stern-mounted rudder, without which, he said, “Columbus could not have sailed to America and the history of the millennium would have been rather different”, and, more important than the rudder even, beans, peas and lentils. Pulses, in my book, although important both for nutrition and genetics, cross the line from invention to discovery, so they’re out.

There is hardly any concrete thing in our world today that didn’t start off as an invention, from the fish hook (c. 35,000BC) to a particular favourite of mine, the ice-rink cleaning machine (1948). The difficulty comes in picking the greatest. How do you measure the wheel against the space shuttle? I am taking the greatest to mean the invention that has had the greatest impact on the most people in a relatively immediate sense; power equals energy over time. And for that, we don’t have to look very far back at all.

If I had been writing this article 22 years ago, it would have taken much longer. I would have had to traipse around libraries, wade through encyclopedias and newspaper cuttings, and bother a host of people with a stack of questions. Instead, I’ve been sitting at home, in front of a flickering fire (c. 1.4m BC), drinking tea (first recorded in the 10th century BC; teabags patented 1903), tapping at my laptop (1983), and distilling what I’ve found by trawling the world wide web.

In 1989, a youngish British physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, was trying to work out a way to share information with colleagues at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN (1954). They were already using the internet (1972), then a sort of scaled-up messaging facility that enabled files to be sent from one computer network to another. But Berners-Lee devised a way to store the pages in a central information bank, much like the great library of Alexandria (3rd century BC), only infinitely bigger.

Knowledge and information are in themselves of incalculable value, and sometimes danger, but the web is much, much more. Already this morning, I have performed all the vital functions of the home-worker: checked the weather forecast, bought a train ticket, played a game of Scrabble and sent a birthday message to a friend across the world. Thanks to the web, we can sit at home and be connected; we can work and be parents at the same time. I can share videos of my children with friends and family around the world, whether they like it or not, and send an article to a young scientist living in the Comoro Islands, halfway from Tanzania to Madagascar.

The web has transformed at least a dozen fields: education, news, book publishing, music, finance, networking, dating, charity donations, shopping, language-learning, cartography, medicine, hypochondria and the way we talk to friends. But above all it has fanned the movement for democratic change in countries whose inhabitants used to be hobbled by the fear that they were alone. The web enabled them to reach out, find support at home and abroad, and muster the courage to overthrow their tyrants. It helped them bring in the promise, at least, of a brighter dawn. Ask a young Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan to name the greatest invention, and they might well choose the world wide web.

Paper covers rock, rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, but the web trumps them all.

Edward Carr The Blade

Go into the kitchen and find a chopping board, a tomato—not too ripe—and your favourite knife. To be sure that the knife is sharp, run the tip of your finger down the edge and feel it catch the tiny ridges on your skin. Place the tomato on the board and draw the blade across it. At first, you will sense the surface resistance, then a slight give as blade eases through flesh to the board beneath, like the keel of a boat running into the sand.

The stainless-steel blade in your hand barely differs from the sharp-edged flint and obsidian that our ancestors knapped from a core of rock two or three million years ago. The first flints were scrapers and knives for skinning and butchering animals. Larger stones, fixed to wooden handles, served as axes for chopping and adzes for smoothing rough wood. The smallest became arrowheads and spear-tips. From the beginning, technology both brought life and took it away.

The blade is so familiar that we tend to overlook its technical refinement. Pressure equals force divided by area: the thin surface at the cutting edge concentrates moderate forces into extreme pressures. By minimising the area, the teeth of a serrated blade concentrate the force still further. With a blunt knife, you have to exert a large force to make a cut—and you have a squashed tomato. But a sharp one can give us a surgeon’s incision; axes and saws generate enough pressure to slice through trees and rock; fine wires shave off a wafer of silicon for etching integrated circuits. 

Some technologies, like steam-power and the candle, have come and mostly gone. Others have been optional—the Incas, Aztecs and Native Americans got by without the wheel. Only the blade has been with people everywhere and throughout history. In fact, as the first tool, the blade opened a new world bursting with unimagined possibilities—and we are not done exploring them yet. Elegant and enduring, the blade was the breakthrough on which everything else is built.

Roger Highfield The Scientific Method

All great inventions rest on understanding how things work. And the greatest of all is the über-invention that has provided the insights on which other inventions depend: the modern scientific method, the realisation that we cannot grasp the way the world works by rational thought alone. 

To gain meaningful insights into the scheme of things, logic has to be accompanied by asking probing questions of nature. To advance understanding, we need to devise rational conjectures and probe them to destruction through controlled tests, precise observations and clever analysis. The upshot is an unending dialogue between theory and experiment.

Unlike a traditional invention, the scientific method did not come into being at a particular time: its history is complex and stretches back long before 1833, when the term “scientist” was coined by the English polymath William Whewell. The method is not a concrete gadget like Gutenberg’s press, the computer or the Pill. Nor is it a brainwave like the non-geocentric universe, the Indo-Arab counting system or the theory of evolution. It is a fecund way of thinking on which the modern world rests. In relatively few generations, the rigorous application of the method has bootstrapped modern society through a non-linear accumulation of both knowledge and technology. Its impact on everyday life is ubiquitous and indisputable, even though a surprising number of people, including some senior politicians, have only a feeble grasp of its significance. 

As one example, let’s look forward a few decades to an invention which is destined to end the energy crisis, change the global economy and curb climate change at a stroke: commercial fusion power. This invention, like nearly all others, is inconceivable without the scientific method, in this case the insights that it gives into the process by which the Sun and other stars transmute matter, transforming hydrogen into helium to release astounding amounts of energy. This invention will rest on the application of a diverse range of scientific insights, whether in the creation of reactor materials that can withstand unbelievable pummelling by subatomic particles or the design of affordable superconducting magnets that can confine plasma ten times hotter than the Sun’s core. 

The scientific method has changed life, culture and everything, and set the stage for a reassessment of our place in the universe. It is the mother of all invention.

Tom Standage Writing

The greatest invention of all must surely be writing. It is not just one of the foundations of civilisation: it underpins the steady accumulation of intellectual achievement. By capturing ideas in physical form, it allows them to travel across space and time without distortion, and thus slip the bonds of human memory and oral transmission, not to mention the whims of tyrants and the vicissitudes of history.

Its origins are prosaic: it was invented by accountants, not poets, in the 4th millennium BC, as a spur of the counting system with which farming societies kept track of agricultural goods. At first transactions were recorded by storing groups of shaped clay tokens – representing wheat, cattle or textiles – in clay envelopes. But why use tokens when pressing one into a tablet of wet clay would do instead? These impressions, in turn, were superseded by symbols scratched or punched into the clay with a stylus. Tokens had given way to writing.

As human settlements swelled from villages to the first cities, writing was needed for administrative reasons. But it quickly became more flexible and expressive, capable of capturing the subtleties of human thought, not just lists of rations doled out or kings long dead. And this allowed philosophers, poets and chroniclers to situate their ideas in relation to those of previous thinkers, to argue about them and elaborate upon them. Each generation could build on the ideas of its forebears, making it possible for there to be species-wide progress in philosophy, commerce, science and literature.

The amazing thing about writing, given how complicated its early systems were, is that anyone learned it at all. The reason they did is revealed in the ancient Egyptian scribal-training texts, which emphasise the superiority of being a scribe over all other career choices, with titles like “Do Not Be Soldier, Priest or Baker”, “Do Not Be a Husbandman” and “Do Not Be a Charioteer”. This last text begins: “Set thine heart on being a scribe, that thou mayest direct the whole earth.” The earliest scribes understood that literacy was power – a power that now extends to most of humanity, and has done more for human progress than any other invention.

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu The Transistor Radio

The greatest invention of all is the transistor radio (and radio wave signals), first developed by Bell Laboratories in the 1940s. I admire straightforward technology that solves complex, human problems. Where there are still holes in the web, radio waves travel powerfully around the world. And one of the wonderful things about the transistor is that it is portable. 

Spreading conversations to improve access to knowledge and quality of life is a huge task. Information opens the mind and motivates the spirit. A more informed person can make a better choice. Radio is the only way to reach so many people at the same time with the same information. It made news instant. It changed the way we listened to music. It spoke the language of the people. In rural Africa, where I live, radio is still the most pervasive, accessible, affordable and flexible mass medium. It gives people a louder voice to air and solve agricultural problems, improve farm production, strengthen specialist knowledge in their communities, protect their health and reduce poverty.  

Radio is sustainable, interactive and inclusive. Even illiterate smallholder farmers can suddenly be both heard and informed. They can shape opinions, enjoy the give-and-take of informed dialogue and become decisive agents in their industry’s development. People tend to relate to information best when it originates from their own communities. 

I was inspired to launch a network that gives poor rural farmers, especially women, daily access to information on crop production, livestock rearing, soil management, national and international markets. This information is used to negotiate with traders, to decide whether to go to market, and which market to visit or supply. It has been used to analyse prices over time, to help make decisions about diversifying or producing out-of-season crops. It can even be used to help subsistence farmers find opportunities for alternative income. Educational programmes broadcast over simple radios have improved crop and livestock yield and household income.

Nick Valéry The Flush Toilet

More even than the miracle of antibiotics, the flush toilet has done most to rid us of infectious disease. Without plumbed sanitation within the home to dispose of human waste, we would still be living in a brutal age of cholera, dysentery, typhus and typhoid fever—to say nothing of bubonic plague. 

The flush toilet was invented, and re-invented, many times. Indoor toilets first appeared in the Indus Valley over 4,000 years ago. The Romans built their latrines over drains carrying running water that discharged into a fetid Tiber. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I was too embarrassed to use the flush toilet built for her by her godson, Sir John Harington, for fear that the roar of the rushing water would inform the palace of the royal bowels being evacuated. 

But it is only in the past century and a half that the water closet has graced more humble abodes. After Prince Albert died of typhoid in 1861, a grief-stricken Queen Victoria demanded that piped water and sewage treatment be installed throughout Britain. A decade later, her son Prince Edward came close to dying of the same disease, and word about the need for flush toilets went out across the land. From Britain, it spread to France, and thence the rest of Europe and the world. 

The father of the modern lavatory was not, as myth would have it, Thomas Crapper, whose name, in blue Gothic script, embellished the inside of many a Victorian lavatory bowl. If anyone can lay claim to the title, it is Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker in Bond Street, who was granted the first patent for a flush toilet in 1775. The popular toilets made by Crapper’s workshop in Chelsea were based on a later siphon design, patented in 1819 by an employee named Albert Giblin.

The lavatory has changed little since Crapper’s time. Water trapped in an S-shaped bend keeps the stench at bay, while allowing the waste to be siphoned off. Pulling a chain, or pressing a handle, opens a valve that causes water in a cistern to gush into the bowl. When it is empty, a floating ballcock closes the valve, and the tank refills under pressure from the water supply. Tweaks over the years have simplified the valve system and reduced the water needed. The flushing toilet still hasn’t reached everyone, but it has done billions a great service. 

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