There was a television program on 7Two during the week called "Inventions Which Shook The World". I found some of it quite surprising to think that many of the devices we see just about every day were invented so long ago. I think that it's fair to say that the century in which the world changed the most during the period of 1800-1900, when the foundations for the industrial world either came to fruition or were initially laid down.
It got my mind ticking over about what constitutes the greatest inventions of all time and to this end, I'd like to suggest five:
Whilst electricity is a natural phenomenon, it is the generation, transmission and harnessing of that power which I think is important.
Whilst the light bulb might have scraped away at the darkness where once only the feeble lights of candles and gas lamps struggled, electricity itself does so much more than merely turning night into day.
To this point of the day, I've switched on and off several lights (none of which actually were filament bulbs), taken a shower heated by electricity, boiled water in an electric kettle to make coffee, taken milk out of a cold refrigerator powered by electricity, walked in the twilight of electric street lamps and travelled on an electric train and you are reading this on a device which is also powered by electricity.
The story of electricity is really the story of power. Electricity basically changed the world from a coal and wood burning place to a coal, gas and nuclear burning place with the generators being far away, rather than in the things they power. Fire driven engines such as trains and stoves and steam engines which powered the wheels of industry, have practically all been replaced by much larger engines which produce power from hundreds of miles away; even the wheels of industry themselves have in many cases been replaced by virtual wheels, thanks to computers. Where once typists, accountants and record keepers occupied great rooms in businesses, a whole host of them have been replaced by a quietly humming set of electronic brains in boxes.
Even the two 'essential' services that we would like to be hooked up to our homes, are the water and the electric. Especially in the last decade, we have shown that we do not necessarily require telephone lines any more but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would choose to live in a modern house with no electricity; this is in stark contrast to even a century ago.
I am perfectly aware that buildings can be made from stone, steel, glass, wood and fabrics but I think that it's fair that the vats majority of buildings which have a life-cycle of more than about 60 years, are all built from bricks (or at least most of the good ones).
Living in a yurt sounds kind of neat for a while and whilst it's true that I live in a fibro house, I honestly don't see it surviving much beyond the year 2030. Lost of buildings have been made from wood in the past too but wood isn't really any more an invention than steak is.
Bricks allow solid, warm buildings to be built without the need for vast numbers of stonemasons. Bricks can be made on-site or carted to a site with far more ease than dressed stones ever could. Granted that skyscrapers are for the most part made from steel and concrete but it's still worth remembering that great buildings can be made from bricks - the Chrysler Building which is 77 storeys tall, is a brick building with a steel structure.
Concrete and steel though, aren't exactly the sorts of things we tend to build peoples' homes from. Unless you happen to live in a very large concrete estate, the buildings we mostly live in which are smaller, are all built from brick.
Science as a pursuit of knowledge isn't exactly an 'invention' per se but rather, a long line of incremental advances, which all stack on top of each other. Mathematics as a science does have important advances such as calculus and imaginary numbers and the complex field but underpinning all of these is a little invention which is different in concept to mathematics - numbers.
Counting is something which the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Chinese &c. all did. Counting is important if you want to take stock of what exists in an empire and if you want to exact taxation and tribute from your citizens and subjects. However, doing maths and counting very large things with Hebrew, Greek or Roman numerals is both tedious and difficult.
I find it interesting that some Aboriginal languages for instance have no words for numbers greater than about six, beyond the vague concepts of 'little mob' and 'big mob'. I also find it completely bizarre that French which you'd assume is a relatively modern language, doesn't have a word for seventy, eighty or ninety and chooses to call them sixty-ten, four-twenty, four-twenty-ten (soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix).
In the fourth century AD, Indian mathematicians invented a positional decimal system, which we call the Hindu–Arabic system. Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi wrote a book in about the year 825 called "On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals" and these numbers spread to Europe during the middle ages.
I would suggest that the importation of these numbers, probably helped to fuel the renaissance and the enlightenment. Science itself wouldn't be as useful without a written abacus with which to perform mathematical gymnastics which is needed for calculation, extrapolation and recording of data. Numbers are the ultimate tool which hammered science into shape.
In 2007, Sherman Young wrote a book called "The Book Is Dead, Long Live The Book" which stood as a marker point, declaring another milepost in the death of publishing. Yet it's existence helps to prove my point here.
Writing carries out two extremely important functions. Firstly, that information is recorded, stored and disseminated; secondly and in consequence, that ideas live well beyond the moment that they were created in and even beyond the lives of their creators. I can still read the works of Suetonius, King Solomon, Cao Xueqin or Charles Dickens and all of those people are as dead as the dodo. Furthermore, I can know that there even was a dodo, having never seen one because someone wrote about them and drew them.
Up until the invention of the phonograph in 1877, the spoken word was ethereal dissolved like a snowflake into the air itself. Thanks to writing, we have access to the words, thoughts and ideas of people from hundreds and thousands of years ago.
The nuns in "The Sound of Music" may have asked the questions of 'How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?' and 'How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?' but the answer is ludicrously simple - writing. I could tell you the story of Jack Weatherspoon who caught a cloud, then grabbed a moonbeam and used that to lash the cloud to a lamppost, in the name of publicly ridiculing the cloud. Yes, the idea sounds idiotic but now that I have committed that idea to text, it's no longer an ethereal thing which disappears forever.
5. The Wheel
This seems horribly incredibly clichéd to include the wheel in a list like this because it's not like I'm breaking any new ground at all (in fact I'm not with any of this piece). Really, the lever, wheel, inclined plane, screw, wedge and pulley were already acknowledge by scientists in the Renaissance as the six classical simple machines. All of them are about magnifying the force inputted into a system by a mechanical advantage factor. The wheel though is of specific cultural importance.
It is the wheel which improves the loads by which humans, beasts of burden and even other machines can pull and carry by lowering resistance due to friction. Wheels allow the use of carts, carriages, trains and weapons of war derived from these. Wheels also drive the internal mechanisms of devices which further improve the loads and efficiencies of devices.
Wheels also serve as symbols of power. The chariots of the Canaanites were very formidable to the Israelites who were scared of them and chariots and carriages themselves required horses and oxen to pull them. It was the Iron Horse which helped to open up the world from the 1820s onwards and wheels within machinery are what drove factories to increase production of every sort of manufacture many millions of times over.
As entertainment, Roman chariot drivers earnt winnings which make modern sports stars look feeble. 'Scorpus' who drove chariots in the late 80s and 90s AD won ridiculous amounts of money and Gaius Appuleius Diocles who drove in the 2nd century AD reported won almost 36 million sestertii, which would work out to be about US$15 billion today. Fernando Alonso who drives for the most famous motor racing team in the world, Scuderia Ferrari, is only paid about €20 million a year.
Even during possibly mankind's greatest achievement of the twentieth century, landing on the moon, what did NASA do on their fourth journey? They sent a car up there.
Cars, Trucks, Trains, Chariots, Carriages and even Ezekiel's shopping trolley which had wheels within wheels and went wherever it felt like, have enamoured us for a long time. Apart from air and sea travel, it is wheels which opened up continents, drives products to markets and allows people to journey to new places.
This list of five great inventions is so obviously feeble that it fails to describe much at all, however I think that in principle, they shook the world harder than any of the devices in the television series. Concepts like agriculture, science, politics &c. however important they are, I don't know if they constitute an invention.
If you'd like to disagree with me, then please feel free to do so. Argument and the pulling apart of ideas is both fun and interesting to do but remember in doing so, you will have to reply in writing, using a computer which uses electricity, which is generated by a power station which has turbines driven by wheels. Maybe this is a a semantic self-referential paradox but it's still fun to think about.