What is the most amazing invention created in human history? And why?
December 3, 2004 7:20 AM   Subscribe

In your opinion, what is the most awe-inspiring, amazing invention created in human history? And why?
posted by grefo to Technology (72 answers total)
The bacon cheeseburger.
posted by bondcliff at 7:39 AM on December 3, 2004

Sewers. Imagine a city without them.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:43 AM on December 3, 2004

. . . That’s easy. Antiseptics. Like the whole sanitation thing. Joseph Lister, 1895. Before antiseptics, there was no sanitation, especially in medicine.

[he's right you know]
posted by jenovus at 7:44 AM on December 3, 2004

Writing. Plain and simple. I mean, it created the idea of human history, didn't it?
posted by ruddhist at 7:46 AM on December 3, 2004

The lever, from which just about all other creations spring forth.
posted by majick at 7:49 AM on December 3, 2004

Hay. Before it was invented, no ability to keep horses anywhere that didn't have year-round grass. Ah, you laugh, but just try to imagine settling half of the world without them.
posted by frallyth at 7:50 AM on December 3, 2004

The internet, which allows you to ask this question.
posted by brownpau at 7:51 AM on December 3, 2004

Music. Probably 20th century choral music, if I had to pick, but fortunately I don't.
posted by weston at 7:51 AM on December 3, 2004

Irrigation. Hunters and gatherers no more! We have tamed Mother Earth under a yoke of canals and streams!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:55 AM on December 3, 2004

the light bulb. it harnessed electricity in a meaningful way, and opened up the nights.

i always liked to think of tvs as lots of little light bulbs. (i know it's not true, but it's fun.)
posted by sachinag at 7:59 AM on December 3, 2004

What about trade? Without trade you'd have to make or do everything yourself. Trade gives you free time to do other stuff, like inventing sanitation or the internet.
posted by isthisthingon at 8:00 AM on December 3, 2004

Yeah, money as a medium of exchange.
posted by kenko at 8:05 AM on December 3, 2004

I've got to go with the wheel...

And sliced bread ;-)
posted by hex1848 at 8:06 AM on December 3, 2004

Important is different than awe inspiring. I'm going with Gunpowder. Fireworks and guns sure were full of shock and awe, and still have a powerful effect.

Important? Well masonry gives you the ability to build the Pyramids, but pottery allows you to build granaries and the Hanging Gardens. Oops, got derailed.
posted by stovenator at 8:09 AM on December 3, 2004

I asked my grandmother once what she thought the greatest invention of her lifetime was. Without missing a beat, she replied "air conditioning and electric iceboxes" (she grew up in the sweaty Texas gulf coast).
posted by Irontom at 8:10 AM on December 3, 2004 [1 favorite]


We take for granted that bread is such a simple thing, but it isn't, not really. You can't forage or hunt for bread, it has to be systematically created; from seeds that are cushed, then mixed with water, then cooked. Sure, it could've been discovered by accident, and like most great inventions, it probably was.

To me, it's one of those little things that fades to background noise, but I believe is of fundamental importance in our histroy.
posted by C.Batt at 8:10 AM on December 3, 2004

The atomic bomb. It has forced us as a species to try to come to terms with our power to annihilate ourselves. In the end it will likely change us as a species more than any other human innovation, one way or the other.
posted by thirdparty at 8:12 AM on December 3, 2004

posted by defcom1 at 8:14 AM on December 3, 2004

Radio - how did that voice from NYC get into this little box by my desk?
posted by caddis at 8:14 AM on December 3, 2004

Yeah, language is pretty cool, and drawing. Imagine the first person to discover a way to take pictures from inside their head and put them in someone else's head. Magic!
posted by Capn at 8:15 AM on December 3, 2004

Tough question, good answers. I'd characterize the lever as more of a "discovery" than an "invention" (like fire), though that's a bit of slippery slope.

I think we can probably agree it wasn't organized religion...

I may have to go with writing.
posted by mkultra at 8:19 AM on December 3, 2004

The Concept of Zero.

"The point about zero is that we do not need to use it in the operation of daily life. No one goes out to buy zero fish. It is in a way the most civilized of all the cardinals, and its use is only forced on us by the needs of civilized modes of thought."

--Alfred North Whitehead

"Whitehead's phrase 'cultivated modes of thought' suggests that the concept of zero unleashed something more profound than just an enhanced method of counting and calculating. As Diophantus had sensed, a proper numbering system would enable mathematics to develop into a science of the abstract as well as a technique for measurement. Zero blew out the limits to ideas and to progress."

--Peter L. Bernstein, Against The Gods.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:21 AM on December 3, 2004

Writing. Plain and simple. I mean, it created the idea of human history, didn't it?

No, actually ... I'm sure you're familiar with oral histories/legends like Beowulf or the Iliad.

Which is why I too am going with language, if it can be considered an invention.
posted by librarina at 8:27 AM on December 3, 2004


Because I like to ride them.
posted by birdsong at 8:30 AM on December 3, 2004

The printing press, at least in modern times, after stuff like fire and wheels and levers etc.
Because a printing press allows the quick and wide dissemination - and storage - of knowledge. Imagine if we still relied on monks spending their lives copying books?
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:31 AM on December 3, 2004

Airplanes. The ability to take a humongous metal tube, put upwards of 500 people in it and make it cruise safely at 36,000 feet. It's just ridiculous.
posted by vito90 at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2004

The first guy/gal/monkey who got tired of using his hands to dig up bugs, and instead grabbed a stick to do the work for him. The first tool! -- and first in a direct line that continues all the way to the keyboard I'm tapping now, or the stick I will use tonight to dig up dinner bugs out of the yard.
posted by luser at 8:37 AM on December 3, 2004

I think thirdparty is onto something here, but when we do annihilate ourselves it will probably be more like something out of the "Andromeda Strain."
posted by caddis at 8:37 AM on December 3, 2004

The Times in London asked this question of it's readers recently, the winner - the bicycle (vote rigging by cyclists was suspected). Personally I'd have to go for electricity, discovery perhaps but there's still something miraculous about it. Also see here for the greatest, most amazing thing that still, urgently, needs to be invented.
posted by grahamwell at 8:37 AM on December 3, 2004


Oh, and the George Foreman Grill, which may apply to the former.
posted by Stan Chin at 8:39 AM on December 3, 2004

Most awe-inspiring has to be landing on the moon though. That we were able to pack up a few members of our fragile species, pack them into a rocket, land them on another world and then get them back again - when only about a half century before everyone knew those silly rickety flying machines were a pipe dream - that just blows my mind every time.

I do worship my Foreman though.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:56 AM on December 3, 2004

Since no one else has called it out: Well played, Jenovus.

I'd say language—how we got from the emphatic grunting of neanderthals (just think, there was no voice inside their heads forming the sentence "I'm trying to tell you that thing you're about to pull out of the fire is going to be REALLY hot!") to hundreds and hundreds of written and spoken languages.
posted by emelenjr at 9:21 AM on December 3, 2004

feh. if language is an invention, so is sex. Tell me what's more important to the species -- the ability to talk or the ability to reproduce. Or the ability to talk on the phone during sex.
posted by luser at 9:37 AM on December 3, 2004

The dog.

That is, of course, assuming that deliberate breeding counts as inventing.
posted by stet at 9:51 AM on December 3, 2004

The transistor, which led to home computers (among many other things) which led you to the internet which allows you to ask this question.
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:58 AM on December 3, 2004

The bicycle. It is original: nothing like it had come before or since.
posted by dydecker at 9:59 AM on December 3, 2004

The scientific method.
posted by cogat at 10:00 AM on December 3, 2004

Both language and sex evolved out of necessity (and necessity is the... you know) so luser you're right that neither one is really an invention in the strictest sense. But there once was a time when we didn't have names for things. Talk on the phone all you want, but without language there would be no Reverse Cowgirl.
posted by emelenjr at 10:16 AM on December 3, 2004

For "awe inspiring," I'd have to go with thirdparty and extend it to all atomic and nuclear weapons. Our ability to manipulate the building blocks of matter and turn it against each other with such devastating force is pretty awesome (in the way that the Grand Canyon is awesome, not in the way that pizza is awesome).
posted by samh23 at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2004

The switch. My first reaction was the transistor, too. But, strictly speaking, the transistor is a very cool implementation of the original idea. Plus, I never liked Shockley.
posted by copperbleu at 10:21 AM on December 3, 2004

caddis: You may very well be correct.

Just to explain further, it's not that I think our demise as a species is inevitable, at least not anytime soon. My point was that the very idea that we hold the power to purposefully destroy our own species has made us reconsider our place on this Earth, in this universe, like no other invention before. In that way, unexploded bombs sitting in silos (and god knows where else) will have just as much an effect on our fate and our way of thinking as if they were ever used. More than half a century on, we're still struggling to processing it. That's "awe-inspiring" to me.
posted by thirdparty at 10:21 AM on December 3, 2004

The bicycle. It is original: nothing like it had come before or since.

dvdecker, there's horse-riding... not an invention per se, but still, it's a precedent.

without language there would be no Reverse Cowgirl.

Sweet, sweet language, how I love thee!
posted by Non Serviam at 10:25 AM on December 3, 2004

posted by andrew cooke at 10:37 AM on December 3, 2004

This actually covers a few of the previous ones... Concrete, without which we would lack modern sanitation, defense, transportation, construction, and agriculture.
posted by Mercaptan at 10:51 AM on December 3, 2004

feh. if language is an invention, so is sex.

Both language and sex evolved out of necessity

This is a complex issue, and both of these statements are highly arguable.

The most awe-inspiring? The PC/Internet.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:06 AM on December 3, 2004

eyeglasses, electricity as a useful utility, and air-conditioning
posted by amberglow at 11:11 AM on December 3, 2004

Some TV show asked this question several years back, and the "#1 Most Important Invention" to mankind was the Gutenburg press. We had information already, but the press was the thing that allowed us to record it and distribute it, enabling communication and literacy to elevate.
posted by robbie01 at 11:21 AM on December 3, 2004

Windows XP!
posted by robbie01 at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2004

I have to agree with Brian Greene and say the telescope, because it fundamentally changed humanity's ideas about our place in the universe.
posted by Dean King at 12:13 PM on December 3, 2004

In a strange way, many of us wouldn't be here right now if 40 years ago the Pill hadn't been invented. Family planning has deffered pregnancies (I mean, most of the children born into today's families were mostly planned, not random), stopped pregnancies (and probably abortions, too), allowed women to choose a career and motherhood, transformed production and increased the amount of happiness and joy in the world (by uipping the frequency that people have sex.)

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you - industrially produced hormones.
posted by dash_slot- at 12:19 PM on December 3, 2004

The plow. Easy.

The plow tied the previously nomadic humans to the land, creating towns and (as populations rose) cities. The plow gives you excess food supply, which creates the need for storage (pottery). Keeping track of food stores requires counting, keeping records requires money. The increased population sizes create the need for law and order, which creates government. The need for uniform law that lasts longer than a single generation requires codification -- thus writing.

Basically, all civilization can thank the plow.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:21 PM on December 3, 2004

Whoops, should have previewed.

Instead of "keeping records" that should be "trade amongst neighbors".

Move along... move along.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:23 PM on December 3, 2004

Oh, and this was all said much, much better by James Burke in his wonderful series Connections.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:30 PM on December 3, 2004

I am always awed by the public library. This vast resource where you can just go and read stuff, learn stuff -- whatever you want.

That, as a species, we had it together enough to bring this idea to fruition... I think it speaks well for us.

And I gotta say the whole postal service thing is also pretty cool... "Wait, you're telling me if I buy one of your little 50 cent stamps, you'll take this piece of paper—this exact piece here—from Nepal all the way to North America? Sign me up!
posted by blueberry at 12:56 PM on December 3, 2004

posted by sixpack at 1:58 PM on December 3, 2004

I would have to say that the concept of cause and effect (one still not entirely clear to some people) was most important. Without it there could be no logic or science or even cooking.
posted by Megafly at 2:09 PM on December 3, 2004

“Of all the achievements of the human mind, the birth of the alphabet is the most momentous” —Fredrick Goudy
Followed by libraries.
Followed by the printing press.
Followed by computers and databases.
Followed by networked, publicly accessible databases.
posted by Grod at 2:12 PM on December 3, 2004

it's the bicycle.
posted by RockyChrysler at 2:14 PM on December 3, 2004

I don't consider language, music, etc. to be inventions in the context of this question. Tools like irrigation and plows, which enabled man to manipulate his environment, are solid picks.

My vote is for the ship. We stood at the water's edge and envisioned ourselves upon it. The application, the construction, the very design -- sealing up a bit of our native environment, so we could travel where man was never meant to go. We've revised and adapted the design to conquer the skies and even climb into space, but the concept has remained the same, proving itself timeless.
posted by cribcage at 2:30 PM on December 3, 2004

posted by the duck by the oboe at 2:47 PM on December 3, 2004

Saran wrap is the greatest thing devised by man. You can look through it, you can put three olives in it, you can put 10 sandwiches in it -- it's clear, it clings and it sticks.
posted by mwhybark at 3:02 PM on December 3, 2004

Beer: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.
posted by electro at 3:52 PM on December 3, 2004

I second, or third, or something, beer.

What was I talking about? I forogt.
posted by neckro23 at 3:59 PM on December 3, 2004

posted by crunchland at 5:06 PM on December 3, 2004

The compass. Just imagine the impact it had on exploration and travel.
posted by rhapsodie at 5:39 PM on December 3, 2004

The rhetorical question.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 8:45 PM on December 3, 2004

A similar question was posed to my ninth grade science class. We were assigned to pick the invention we personally considered the most important and then give a presentation to the class defending our choice. Being 13, I naturally chose the television. A few weeks later, we all did our presentations and then the class was asked to vote on what truly was the most important invention. My peers sided with me, and the television won.
The kid who did his presentation on electricity was pissed.
posted by honeyx at 9:28 PM on December 3, 2004

posted by TimeFactor at 10:07 PM on December 3, 2004

Systems for the distribution of electrical energy.
posted by clockzero at 11:36 PM on December 3, 2004

Fire was discovered, not invented.

Was language invented? I should think so; nobody "discovered" words, they made them up. Since our ability to think rationally (not react instinctually) is dependent upon language, and by extension all inventions are derived from our ability to think, I would have to second language as teh allltime must awesomist invenchen evar!
posted by sic at 6:41 AM on December 4, 2004

atomic bomb. Awes me, and it's amazing the effect it had.
posted by bonaldi at 7:27 AM on December 4, 2004

Thanks, Grahamwell, for the link to this article. That's the best thing I've read in a long while. This is just what I hope to find whenever I go online.
posted by Termite at 8:45 AM on December 4, 2004

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