The top 10
1. The printing press. It’s on most top 10 lists for a very good reason; it was the first tool that enabled true knowledge sharing and mass communications.
2. The steam engine. The invention that powered the Industrial Revolution. Without it, we’d still be living in pre-industrial gloom.
3. Electricity. No human invented electrons, of course. But the inventors who found ways to harness them illuminated our world, both literally and metaphorically.
4. Lenses. Glass-based optics helped us to see further in all kinds of ways. Eyeglasses made us more literate, while telescopes, microscopes and cameras made it possible to examine previously invisible facets of our universe.
5. Antibiotics. The discovery of drugs that can cure and prevent some of our most destructive diseases saved uncountable millions of lives and opened the door to a safe new era of life-saving surgery.
6. Refrigeration. The ability to make food and air cold has had a profound impact not just on what we can eat but where we can live, too – opening up new parts of the globe to habitation and commerce.
7. The car. No other invention has changed the rhythm of our lives as much as the motor car – complete with its tyres, of course – nor wrought such extraordinary change on our landscapes.
8. Semiconductors. Far more than mere computer chips, semiconductor-based technologies are the engine of change for every industry – key devices driving the unstoppable trend of global digitisation.
9. The internet. The digital glue that binds the world together; a powerfully democratic and data-neutral platform for all the ideas that we haven’t yet thought of.
10. The smartphone. On one level, just a small boxful of well-known and well-integrated digital technologies. On another, a revolutionary invention that puts powerful knowledge and communications tools within reach of literally everyone on the planet.
“To invent,” said Thomas Edison, “you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” And he of all people should have known; famous for his light-bulb moment, he’s also credited with other inventions ranging from electrical voting machines to magnetic iron-ore separators. In total, he registered 1,093 US patents in his lifetime, covering everything from fruit preservation to waterproof paint. He was, by any standards, a very busy and imaginative man.
Ideas keep on coming
But Edison’s creations are just part of a very long list of inventions that goes back to the dawn of humanity – and which will continue extending for as long as humans are around to think of new ideas. To put this into some sort of present-day context, consider that in 2016 China alone registered more than a million new patents. When it comes to invention, it turns out that we’ve barely scratched the surface.
In 2016 China alone registered more than a million new patents. When it comes to invention, it turns out that we’ve barely scratched the surface
With so many to choose from, ranking these myriad inventions is thus a profoundly difficult exercise with many variables to consider. The importance of an invention is, for one thing, inevitably context-dependent; where and when you invent something, and exactly how you employ it, may be just as important as the article itself.
Solar water pumps, for example, are of little importance in countries such as the UK, where sunlight is unpredictable at best and there is a highly-developed water distribution system. But they may be of overwhelming significance in developing nations, where sunlight is abundant but utilities infrastructure (and thus reliable irrigation for agriculture) is non-existent. Similarly, air-conditioning is an expensive and largely irrelevant luxury in many countries of the world; yet Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, famously regarded it as “perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilisation by making development possible in the tropics.”
Attempting to arrange inventions into hierarchies invariably creates other problems. How do we define invention in the first place? And how do we distinguish it from innovation? Inventions are, broadly speaking, the creation of a product or an idea for the first time; innovation is the subsequent refinement of that invention in creative (and often marketable) new ways, perhaps integrating it with other products and ideas.
So far, so good; but such definitions merely invite further questions. For example, should we rank the invention of the semiconductor ahead of all the innovations that it enabled – PCs, smartphones, medical scanners, industrial robots and many more? Similarly, can any one person or invention really account for the modern motor car? The inventions underpinning the basics of its design and operation have been well understood for more than a century, but it is the integration with everything from air filtration and cooling systems to GPS-based navigation systems that has been truly innovative. With that in mind, does it belong on our list?
Only time will tell
So-called ripple effects often take a long time to reveal the full impact of a particular invention or innovation. Consider alphabets – something so deeply embedded in our communications that we barely notice them any more. Yet without these systems for organising and storing information, we may never have arrived at the need for paper or printing presses – widely recognised as two of humanity’s most important inventions. Which of these, if any, deserve to be in our top 10 list?
So-called ripple effects often take a long time to reveal the full impact of a particular invention or innovation
Finally, there’s the question of scale of impact to consider – a factor which is very hard to predict. Big things, as Lawrence of Arabia famously noted, have small beginnings. The humble plough, for example, dramatically increased the amount of land that could be farmed productively – literally sowing the seeds for the future of humanity. Very much later, cement and concrete have enabled much faster and cheaper urbanisation, creating the very foundations of modern cities and the infrastructure that supports their billions of inhabitants.
Edison’s biggest contribution to the world may not have been a product at all, but his system for industrialising the process of invention
These are the considerations that lie behind our top 10 so far. In a hundred years, this list may look very different indeed. Big names and big inventions have got us where we are today – Gutenberg’s printing press, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, John Logie Baird’s television, Tesla’s induction coil, Edison’s light-bulb. But as we look forward even into the near future, we need new names and ideas to ensure that we can survive our own extraordinary success. In this context, Edison’s biggest contribution to the world may not have been a product at all, but his system for industrialising the process of invention – in effect, his invention of the R&D lab. That idea alone has arguably set the scene for the myriad inventions that will carry us into the next human era.