The 20 Greatest Inventions of All Time

by Tom Triumph, Featured Contributor

I WAS FLAT ON MY BACK and everybody standing around me had their faces covered. They covered my mouth and nose with a rubber mask; told me to close my eyes and start counting backwards from ten — which is exactly what I did. I tried to be brave, but it was scary. 10… 9… 8… Maybe I got to 5 or 4. And then I passed out. I was seven years old, and in the hospital to get my tonsils removed.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why anesthesia is in my list of “The 20 Greatest Inventions of All Time.” That was a sufficiently memorable experience. Though if there was any doubt, there have been a few subsequent visits to the dentist that further solidified my thinking.

Although not as subjective as listing the top 20 movies of all time, listing the 20 greatest inventions is nonetheless open to discussion and argument.

Our personal experiences and the era in which we live influence what we rank as important. Also, an invention’s impact may not be apparent for decades, so we need the perspective of time to understand an invention’s utility and reach. Remember, it was Ken Olson, founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation who said, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” So time is clearly necessary for the impact of an invention to shake out.

My logic of what makes this list is primarily based on what has most benefitted mankind. Again, it’s difficult to compare some of these inventions, or to determine exactly where they rank. Both the airplane and the computer are in my top twenty, but there wasn’t a fancy algorithm used to order them, or even that put them on the list in the first place. It was just a matter of my estimation.

As a side note, I thought about listing “The Lever” or even “The Sewing Needle,” as those were also very important and fundamental “tools,” but in the end decided not to include them as “inventions” since levers and needles exist in nature (sticks and thorns) and somebody just had to start using them.

Side note 2: There were some profound ideas that I thought might be considered great inventions — such as the “The Scientific Method” or “Evolutionary Biology” or theories of the universe, but I also decided those would better be classified as “ideas” since they exist without a specific invented product.

Here then are my “Top 20 Greatest Inventions of All Time,” along with a very brief explanation as to why.

1. The Wheel
The wheel is everywhere, but interestingly historians say the first wheels were not used for transportation. Evidence shows that the first wheels were potter’s wheels that were created around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. They were used for chariots about 300 years later.

2. The Printing Press
Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and movable type in the early 1400s, books or other documents were generated by hand. Once the printing press mechanized book making, the number of books grew exponentially to 20 million volumes by 1500, and then upwards of 200 million just ten years later. This explosion of books drove literacy and the spread of knowledge around the globe.

3. The Plow
The plow allowed for the soil to be more easily turned so that the nutrients buried several inches underground would be brought closer to the surface, while at the same time burying the grass and vegetation which would decompose and in turn provide more nutrients to whatever crops were planted. When pulled by an animal, a plough greatly improved food production.

4. Cement
The invention of cement allowed for everything from pottery, housing and canals. Its been described as the bond that held civilization together.

5. The Steam Engine
I’ve written about the steam engine previously, as think of it like the dawn of the industrial age. Invented by James Watt in 1781, the steam engine was initially a relatively small ten-horsepower engine, that within a dozen years grew a thousand fold to 10,000 horsepower. Which is basically the doubling of Hp every year (I just did it on a napkin), and that’s Moore’s law.

6. Penicillin
One of the first drugs to be used against disease, penicillin has improved and saved countless lives. Although penicillin was discovered by Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928, it proved very difficult to produce in quantities until the mid 1940’s. In fact, the first patient was treated with US-made penicillin from Merck in 1942, and that single patient used half of the total supply produced. Eventually, the production process was sorted out, and the U.S. produced 646 billion units per year in 1945.

7. The Light Bulb
On the back of my business card is a quote from Thomas Edison “Results! Why man I have plenty of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.” I’m actually reading it now and it’s after midnight (and very dark outside).

8. The Lens
The invention of an optical lens allowed the unseen to be seen, and therefore the unknown to be known. What was previously invisible to the naked eye, whether microscopic organisms or distant stars — all were made visible by the invention of the lens.

9. Paper
Paper and the printing press worked hand-in-hand to drive literacy, spread knowledge and improve the world.

10. Vaccines
Basically a way of getting the body to fight and then remember a disease — so that when it is encountered in the future, the body is prepared to recognize and destroy the disease before it can multiply in large numbers.

The World Health Organization reports that licensed vaccines are currently available for 25 diseases.

11. The Computer
The small amount of programming I did was in high school and then in engineering school at college. Like most everyone at the time, we held our punch cards together with rubber bands, and spent hours waiting for the ream of green and white printout. A missing comma or extra period somewhere in our punch cards would result in an error message, and we’d have to make the correction and then start all over. It was painful. There was only one building on campus where our programs were run — and it was in the basement of the Math & Science building. For some reason, we were always there very late at night, and it always smelled like peanut butter. We’d hand our rubber-banded-stack of punch cards though a window to an operator, and they went into a back room and handed them over to HAL from “2001 A Space Odessy.

It was incredible to see the emergence of the personal computer. One of my engineering friend’s built a computer in his dorm room in the late 70’s. I remember several years later being fascinated watching a plotter generate a graph, or the first time I used a graphical user interface with a mouse.

Like many of you, since then I’ve used a computer nearly continuously throughout my career. My amazement continues to grow along with the increased performance and capabilities. “A bicycle for the mind.” as described by Steve Jobs.

12. The Telephone
As with many inventions, the telephone was developed by several different people that each made contributions. The telephone made voice communication possible, and that resulted in lessening the distance between people. It also lets you talk to your mom when you’re far away, and say “love ya’ mom.”

13. The Internet and World Wide Web
The internet provides untold utility to billions of people around the world. Anyone (anywhere) with a basic computer ($300) and internet access, has access to a treasure trove of essentially unlimited information. Even more mind-boggling, it provides anyone (anywhere) with a communication platform with greater capability and greater reach, than what the most powerful commercial broadcasting companies had even ten years ago. It’s like giving you the keys to a worldwide media empire. Its impact is still nearly unimagined.

14. The Automobile
One of the first complex machines to be mass-produced, the automobile quickly became ubiquitous and necessary. It drove the construction of highways and byways, impacted where people worked and lived, and profoundly impacted the social fabric of America.

15. The Flush Toilet
Nick Veléry wrote an article for The Economist wherein he described the flush toilet as more miraculous than the invention of antibiotics. “Without plumbed sanitation within the home to dispose of human waste,” he wrote “we would still be living in a brutal age of cholera, dysentery, typhus and typhoid fever — to say nothing of bubonic plague.”

Not surprisingly, the earliest history of a toilet that used water as a means of flushing, used the flow of river water diverted through a drainage system to carry waste downstream. Probably the phrase “location, location, location.” was heard shortly thereafter.

16. Anesthesia
Hard to believe, but anesthesia was invented only in the mid 1800s. I’m not sure what was used before the invention of anesthesia, but I would hate to have had a major injury that required a trip to the surgeon or dentist before that time.

17. The Airplane
If you have the chance, you should visit Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina. That’s where in 1903 the Wright brothers first flew a controlled heavier-than-air powered flight. Out among the grassy sand fields, the distances of their first few flights are shown with markers. There’s a model of the Wright Flyer and of their modest cabins where they lived and worked during their visits from Ohio to North Carolina where they made repeated attempts to fly. It’s hallowed ground.

Hard to believe that just a little more than 50 years later, Boeing introduced the 707. And just 66 years after the Wright brothers first flew, in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Hallowed ground indeed.

18. Semiconductors
Made mostly from silicon, the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, semiconductors are the foundation of our computers (now in our cars, homes and phones, and on our wrists) and currently a $330 billion global business.

19. The Radio
Marconi patented the radio a few years before 1900, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that it worked well enough to be used as a medium for news and entertainment. Although the telegraph allowed for immediate communication over long distances, the radio provided the ability to effectively communicate with huge numbers of people directly by voice.

20. Genetics
People have been studying, experimenting and manipulating plants and animals since ancient times through selective pairing, but Gregor Mendel is considered a leader of modern genetics when in the mid 19th century he studied the nature of inheritance in plants.

Bonus 21. Steelmaking
Learning how to create quality steel in large production quantities provided the material for the industrial age. It is a fundamental component within virtually every industry — from automobile, aircraft, construction, machinery, ship building and manufacturing.

Bonus 22. The Telegraph
The telegraph actually had a long process of improvements, one could argue with the beginning of smoke signals and reflected light, through electrical telegraphs like that used to send Morse code, and continuing on through wireless telegraphy.

As with pretty much all such “top lists” there’s subjectivity. Your own list will not be exactly like mine. Actually, my own list may change the next time I give it a look. Even luminaries disagree.

A few years ago, The Atlantic surveyed a dozen leaders within technology, science and engineering and asked them to list the inventions that had the greatest impact on civilization. These were twelve incredibly smart people that contributed, including:

  • John Doerr, a leading Venture Capitalist and general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
  • George Dyson, a technology historian and author
  • Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab
  • Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of the Aspen Institute; and well-known author

In the end, The Atlantic editors compiled and weighted the lists submitted by everyone, and published their “50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel“.

I didn’t see everybody’s individual list, but I do know this. If they were seven years old and getting their tonsils out, they’d put anesthesia very (very) near the top.

You can see The Atlantic results here.