The printing press is the greatest invention of the past 6,000 years, according to an article in The Atlantic titled “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel” and published Oct. 23.
The magazine assembled a panel of 12 professors, journalists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and historians to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape modern life. In an introduction to the top 50 list, national correspondent James Fallows explained, “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.”
Fallows presented a taxonomy of innovations. First are those that expand human intellect, such as the printing press, paper, the Internet, and the personal computer. A related subcategory includes the underlying technologies—including semiconductor electronics. The vacuum tube—the first enabler of linear electronic amplification—did not make the list.
Second are innovations that enable the physical and operating infrastructure of the modern world, including cement, sanitation, and air conditioning. Also in this category is electricity, which finished in second place behind the printing press. The light bulb did not make the list—an interesting omission considering that electricity users such as air conditioning, television, and the PC did.
Third are innovations that enabled the industrial revolution and subsequent waves of material output, including the steam engine and industrial steelmaking. The assembly line made the list at number 49.
Fourth are innovations extending life, including the moldboard plow, the green revolution, Archimedes’ screw, penicillin, vaccination, and refrigeration. Fallows put optical lenses in this category because vision-impaired people could be vulnerable to enemies. He suggested that corrective lenses may have enabled the largest IQ boost in human history by increasing the number of potentially literate people.
Fifth come innovations that allow real-time communications beyond the range of a single human voice—including the Internet, telegraph, radio, telephone, and television. He quoted panelist Joel Mokyr, professor of economics and history at Northwestern University, as pointing out that smoke signals and semaphores offered limited bandwidth and reliability.
Sixth are innovations that speed the physical movement of people and goods, such as the sailboat, internal combustion engine, automobile, airplane, and rocketry. Also in this category are navigational aids including the sextant and compass.
Seventh are innovations in organization that enable people to work together, including the Gregorian calendar and alphabetization.
And finally and unfortunately are innovations in ways of killing people, including gunpowder and nuclear fission. Fallows noted that innovations have always resulted in both good and harm. He quoted Mokyr as saying, “Each invention relies on subsequent inventions to clean up the mess it has made.”
Fallows noted that any list of 50 innovations must exclude 50,000 more. He asked about GPS, or the concept of the number zero (as suggested by Padmasree Warrior, CTO at Cisco), neither of which made the top 50.
He also presented an interesting way of looking at innovation rankings: Which would you rather do without—your personal computer (16th on the list) or anesthesia (46th on the list)?
Despite the inherent shortcomings, the list is great food for thought. As Fallows put it, “The more questions and discussions our ranking provokes, the more successful the endeavor will have been.”