back to article So just what is the third Great Invention of all time?

So here's a fun little game for a Sunday morning: what was, or is, the third great invention of all time? I have a candidate for it and it's very much to do with what youse guys do all day. But I'm not entirely sure that it is the proper winner of third place: certainly, most economists wouldn't rate it there at all. Of course …


  1. Andrew Yeomans

    Surely money itself is the great invention?

    As it makes trade possible without the need for direct bartering of goods or services. Thereby allowing specialisation to develop economies of scale, leading to cities and nations.

    1. John Hawkins

      Re: Surely money itself is the great invention?

      But isn't money just another form of information? And for that matter, aren't all things connected with money (bookkeeping, limited liability companies and so on) just a subset of information flow? Money being information on the value on what I (or my ancestors etc) have contributed to the system and, if rules are followed, what I can expect to receive in exchange for that money.

      In a sense, the Enlightenment is also part of that information flow - things happen because there are various rules that are followed and what happened yesterday will happen today and tomorrow. Gravity being a good example - we know it happens and can measure it within the limits of quantum mechanics, but we know less about the how of gravity than we know about the how of evolution.

      Getting back to money, instead of me claiming the grain you grew because one of my foremothers was shagged by a local god, you can tell me to eff off because you grew it on your own land and you then exchange the grain for filthy lucre.

      1. Tom 13

        Re: But isn't money just another form of information?

        No. Information has no inherent value. If I share information with you I retain the information. If I share money with you, I necessarily lose some. Remember, money was invented to do away with the inefficiencies of barter. Under barter it is clear that what is being exchanged is something of intrinsic value.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: But isn't money just another form of information?

          It could have value if it is a SECRET.

    2. Daniel von Asmuth Bronze badge

      Money makes the world go square.

      Take money, then add theft and slavery: the answer is business or economy. The other two are war or politics and religion. Or maybe those are three names for the same thing.

    3. macjules Silver badge

      Re: Surely money itself is the great invention?

      I would have thought that the ability to educate ourselves and others would have been the third greatest 'invention', that is if we are claiming that the ability to cultivate and harvest food is the first great invention. Other than that I should think the invention of the telegraph wire would rate somewhere up there.

      1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

        Re: Surely money itself is the great invention?

        I suppose it depends on how 'raw' we're going to get. Certainly communication or language would be near the top since even preagricultural societies needed to be able to get across the idea of "When they chase it over here you hit it with that rock and I'll stab it with this stick and we'll all eat tonight."

        After that I'd put agriculture then maths to round out the top three. Again it depends on how conceptually bare we're wanting to get with things.

        I'm a bit dubious about money being a great invention since it seems like it's often just an easy way for government to tally up taxes on all sorts of things. If you swap potatoes for a chicken it's pretty hard for government to take a chicken leg from you and 1.5 potatoes from the other guy you traded with and that's especially true if it's a living chicken you ultimately wanted for the eggs. Granted, it's a lot easier carrying money around than a cart of chickens, potatoes and eggs so it isn't all bad.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'll go along with the limited liability company -– and I'm an engineer. Its evil twin, bankruptcy, has got to be in the running too, though. (Well, as practised in these isles, which seem to be ahead of many places in this arcane respect.)

    1. David Black

      Agree completely, the principle behind limited liability is solid but there's so many bastardizations of the principle now (everything from public transferrance of liability for banks through flatpack administration to companies are people) that it probably should be disqualified.

    2. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      Limited liability and bankruptcy are essentially the same thing a method of reducing the risk involved for an entrepreneur starting a new economic activity. Essentially we are saying the gains to the economy are greater than the costs to an economy of supporting the occasional bankruptcy.

    3. mykleh

      Limited liability is a misnomer

      Limited liability is a segregation of liability, granting an exclusive group an option on ownership. The liability does not go away. If things go well, this group gets the benefits of ownership, if things go bad they get to walk away and leave the mess for others to deal with. Its a great way to "externalise" costs and increase "profit" or, if you prefer, shift income distribution in your favour.

    4. Daniel von Asmuth Bronze badge


      Maybe the limited liability companies was the worst invention in all of economics.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Liability

        Its certainly heavily abused. A pub/hotel I used to drink in was phoenixed by the same bloke on an almost yearly basis for the 10 years I was there. And the building industry is rife with it too.

        I'm guessing limited liability is used by the open cast mining companies to avoid filling in the holes like they promised and by many other organisations in similar ways.

        If you use it I guess you might think its a good idea but I doubt it has any real positive effect on the economy.

    5. Tom 13

      The origins of bankruptcy go much farther back than the limited liability company. Therefore it cannot be it's evil twin. Minion perhaps.

  3. John Arthur

    The first great invention

    surely must be language. Without language complex and abstract ideas are impossible and passing information down the generations also.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The first great invention

      As far as can be determined, language evolved. The brain processing implementation necessary for this certainly supports this

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: The first great invention

        "As far as can be determined, language evolved. The brain processing implementation necessary for this certainly supports this"

        You'd have to include the evolution of the vocal tract along with that. You could make similar arguments about adaptations for tool use which is another candidate for significant invention.

        Despite the biological evolution involved I think there must have been an inventive element to both although you could then argue that there is a biological underpinning to invention itself. You can't really separate the biological from the mental development.

        1. Grikath Silver badge

          Re: The first great invention

          Language is the transfer of information through communication. The sound-carried version we *primarily* use as humans is by far not the only one, nor, in fact, the most sophisticated in terms of efficiency and accuracy. Language as a system to communicate evolved from the first single-celled organisms up, so you can hardly call that a "human invention".

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: The first great invention

            > "The sound-carried version we *primarily* use as humans is by far not the only one, nor, in fact, the most sophisticated in terms of efficiency and accuracy."

            Since when did efficiency and accuracy become the main critiera? When a bull bellows loudly at you and stamps its feet, that certainly is efficient and accurate, but I wouldn't call it sophisticated.

          2. Naselus

            Re: The first great invention

            "Language is the transfer of information through communication. The sound-carried version we *primarily* use as humans is by far not the only one, nor, in fact, the most sophisticated in terms of efficiency and accuracy. Language as a system to communicate evolved from the first single-celled organisms up, so you can hardly call that a "human invention"."

            Not really, no. Language and communication aren't synonymous, and single-celled organisms do not have 'languages'. Bee dancing is communication, but I don't know of a single linguist who would call it language either - a language needs to follow Saussure's clinical definition of the concept, and almost no animal communication does so (it's been argued to exist in higher mammals, like chimps or dolphins, but even that is pretty contentious. Biologists in the 1970s liked to say it does, but linguists, on the whole, didn't agree, and most modern biologists are increasingly coming round to the idea that describing animal communication as language is anthropomorphism rather than science).

            In fact, the more that the structure of language is looked at, the more it seems plausible that its use for communication may be a fortunate by-product. Language - by which I mean all 'natural' languages - is actually structured very inefficiently for the transfer of information.

            It seems to have evolved more around the articulation of complex abstract concepts than for actually talking to people - so language actually developed for thinking, and just happens to be something that can then be used in communication. It's a bit suppositional, but this might explain the 60,000 years or so between the evolution of anatomically modern humans, and the 'great leap forward' when they start making cave art etc.

            In which case, yes, language is the first and greatest invention of mankind, as it allowed the transfer of knowledge between people. Then agriculture, which allowed the control of the food supply; then writing, which allowed the storing of knowledge externally; then we're probably onto the scientific method and the use of fossil fuels. Economic toys like limited liability and double-entry bookkeeping are not remotely important compared to these - they're of no value in themselves if they're extracted from the capitalist world system, which is why they weren't invented by the Romans or the Egyptians. Tim's amazement at how they were able to run an empire without accountants tells you more about Tim's assumptions than it does about ancient societies, tbh.

            1. Tom 7 Silver badge

              Re: The first great invention

              The abacus is just tally stones on sticks. Has anyone worked out what the Aztec string vest jobies did? That may be the best invention that got lost - I'm guessing it has a lot more information in it than we've worked out.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The first great invention

      If not language, then at least written language.

  4. John Savard Silver badge


    I know that I've seen it claimed that the ancient Babylonians invented double-entry bookkeeping.

    Thinking about the original question, feeling that even "the computer" wouldn't be the third great invention, let alone the relational database... led me to think that perhaps one candidate would be modern place-value notation - the Hindu system of writing numbers that was transmitted to us by the Arabs. That greatly simplified working with numbers by pencil and paper.

    Of course, the germ of that idea was contained in the abacus, perhaps the first mechanical aid to computation.

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Bookkeeping

      The great inventions mentioned are very fundamental to society and how society operates. Agriculture allows more or less permanent settlement with the possibility of reliably generating excess food. The scientific method demands that people use logic, deduction, etc. to understand why something happened and not because of the arbitrary actions of an insane deity. Bookkeeping seems to be the forerunner of properly cross referencing data. The idea is that properly cross referenced data allows one to pull information by asking the correct question. The old card catalogs in libraries were an example: books were categorized by author, title, and subject. The limiting problem was the coarse of the organization when the system was paper based. The RDMS is nothing more than a more granular card catalog.

  5. Ole Juul Silver badge

    Not really an "invention"

    I don't think that an idea is really a nominee here. People have always been doing a lot of thinking and had a lot of ideas. This is not to say that they're not important, but rather to say that there's no shortage and it is actually because of something else that they have been able to become powerful and useful, and above all to become available at the right time in the right situation. The ability to take data and store, recall, and transport it over time and distance is what has allowed the civilization that we now take for granted. This facility we got through the development of paper.

    I say development, because I don't believe that someone sat down and invented it. Rather it just started coming about and the process got refined.* There were several huge steps involved in more modern times. I'd say the first was the invention of the Hollander (early 1700s), that drove down the price of paper for books to where many more people could have them. The second was the development of cheap fibre made from wood (late 1800s). I'm sure most people have noted the huge amount of books that started coming out in the 20 years following 1890s.

    * I'm familiar with Ts'ai Lun, but am skeptical. In any case there was a lot of work to do from that point on.

  6. Richard 12 Silver badge

    Surely it's the general-purpose computer itself

    The idea of a single machine that can simulate any arbitrary thing, given time, energy and somebody to write the program.

    Prior to that we had any number of specialised machines for calculating or simulating specific problems - log tables, addition, ballistic trajectories etc.

    The big leap was realising that we could build a single machine that could do all of that - which leads to awe-inspiring levels of economy of scale.

    1. QuiteEvilGraham

      Re: Surely it's the general-purpose computer itself

      Gets my vote. I'll buy the argument that the stored-program computer has changed the world more than anything else over the last 50 years (and kept me gainfully employed for 30 of 'em) and will continue to do so.

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Surely it's the general-purpose computer itself

      What all 5 of them?

      Or is the economies of scale that makes them so ubiquitous.

  7. Tim99 Silver badge

    Moveable Type

    Allowed the detailed workings of many of the other ideas to be circulated cheaply...

    1. Ole Juul Silver badge

      Re: Moveable Type

      And how far would you get with movable type if you didn't have paper?

      1. Tim99 Silver badge

        Re: Moveable Type

        @Ole Juul

        As you know, paper and papyrus existed for thousands of years before type. Anything that was written, or copied, was very expensive because it was all done by hand. You needed to be very rich to benefit from it.

        Even paper was not much use without ink, reading, and writing which had to be invented first - The tools that were used before pen and ink, like chisels or cuneiform styli, would not have worked well on anything but stone or damp clay, although ink worked on the inside surface of tree-bark and skin.

        1. Ole Juul Silver badge

          Re: Moveable Type

          As you know, paper and papyrus existed for thousands of years before type. Anything that was written, or copied, was very expensive because it was all done by hand. You needed to be very rich to benefit from it.

          Exactly. Although there were things like papyrus it did not allow people to transfer information in large quantities to other people across continents and generations. Academic work before paper, although intellectually significant, was not distributed to an extent that would allow real development of science and technology to the extent that it would really take off. It wasn't until a printing medium became cheap that we could have libraries all over the world where one could read about the work of others. What I'm saying is that without paper, we would not have any of our modern day science and technology. We now have digital storage and communication, but even that could not have happened without the ability to accumulate and transfer information in quantity.

          1. Kristian Walsh Silver badge

            Re: Moveable Type

            You're overestimating the cost of papyrus, and assuming that because very little of it survives, it was a rare thing in its time. Pliny famously describes extensive mass-production of papyrus in Roman times, with different grades used for everything from wrapping of goods to production of fine scrolls. Being Pliny, however, he neglects to clarify clear details, and often contradicts his own account. But it's still safe to say that papyrus was widely used to carry written messages. The amount of grafitti in Rome suggested that a great portion of the populace could read and write, which meant extensive circulation of written materials to even the lowest-status in society.

            The problem of Papyrus wasn't that it was rare, hard to make or expensive, but that it was fragile when dry, and susceptible to rotting when wet, which is why we have so little of it today.

            Paper was a "better' substrate for writing, but it wasn't a new idea in itself. The Chinese used silk, bones, and thin wooden strips to write on before they discovered paper.

  8. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    Three things

    The Wheel

    Language (As mentioned already)

    The joy of Sex. viz having fun and not just to procreate.

    1. damworker

      Re: Three things

      The joy of sex. Wasn't that invented by my generation? Or was it 1969?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Three things

        " Or was it 1969?"

        Philip Larkin nailed it as 1963 - in Britain at least.

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Three things

      The joy of sex is just mans exploitation of evolutions power to get us to reproduce. Having teenage kids will make you realise that sex merely turns intelligent people into reproductively aligned morons.

      If the wheel is an invention ( some think it merely the result of over-enthusiatic pushing) I'd say the next thing would be reciprocation - the realisation that one form of energy can be converted to another. Windmills/watermills were around for 3000* years or so before someone worked out how to really make things go.

      Boats - I'd put money on boats being the GREATEST invention ever - man got to Australia in them 50,000 years ago. They were used to transport a lot of stuff around the UK even before the canals and seem to have largely been lost to history but almost everywhere big had river or maritime access - even stonehenge ffs.

  9. mrtom84


    Or just medicine if you like.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Antibiotics

      That's the enlightenment. The idea that you try things, see which work and then come up with a reason - rather than pray/do something pointless but must be right because you have always done it that way and the guild says to do it.

      It's just that it took about 300 years longer for the idea of evidence to catch on in medicine than it did in physics. There are even signs it may soon be discovered b economics.

  10. Alan Sharkey

    How about the idea that "data" is useful. The concept of "data" as an entity in itself wasn't really understood before the printing press. Dr. Johnson nearly had it with his dictionary, but he was too limited (to words and their meanings).


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "How about the idea that "data" is useful. The concept of "data" as an entity in itself wasn't really understood before the printing press."

      I think TW makes a mistake on focussing on the Romans and the Vatican (which was basically an extension of the Roman system). The Babylonians at least had a very good idea of data; they recorded essential statistics on clay tablets using a consistent encoding (which seem also to have acted as a kind of currency, by recording what each farmer had contributed to the grain stores.) I remember a Scientific American article on the subject which observed that what archaeologists call "priests" we might equally call "data technicians" or "book-keepers."

      The Romans were a big step backwards; like the British administrative civil service they were focussed on ruling and control, not invention or progress. They were good at infrastructure (for the well off who could afford to travel and live in big houses) but they missed an awful lot of chances technically. Thanks to them Greek ideas like the Antikythera mechanism were lost instead of being further developed; they had little interest in astronomy or navigation because they were essentially a land empire around a big lake, and they never used their organisational powers to develop the steam engine, though the Greeks could have got there with help. Every time I see Boris Johnson come up with one of his Latin quips I remind myself that the Romans contributed to making the Dark Ages possible.

      1. John 62

        Darkness is bestowed posthumously

        Dark ages, smark ages. The Western Roman empire's fall just left much of Europe to be fought over by smaller states. Much of the so-called dark ages weren't all that dark.

        1. John 62

          Re: Darkness is bestowed posthumously

          A downvote! I know it's Wikipedia, but it's an informative read:

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      'The concept of "data" as an entity in itself wasn't really understood before the printing press.'

      No way. The concept of data goes at least as far back as the notion if recording things by impressing marks in clay tablets. And probably before that with cutting notches in pieces of wood. And before that as oral tradition. You can't really separate it from language itself.

  11. wiggers


    I would nominate writing, the ability to record information such that it doesn't rely on word of mouth communication. Recorded information can be transmitted across time and space. It means that each generation doesn't need to 'reinvent the wheel' and a civilisation can grow and share knowledge beyond the camp fire. Also essential for the scientific method, without being able to record your hypothesis no one would be able to test it and build on the body of evidence. And without writing there would be neither book-keeping nor databases. I've heard it said that the invention of writing also brought about patriarchal societies, although I don't recall the reasons.

    1. Schultz

      Re: Writing?

      I second writing. It allowed us to become distracted and forgetful scientists and engineers without too many adverse consequences. Oh, and it allowed knowledge to accumulate beyond a single lifetime. It's even a proper invention, as opposed to all the 'inventions' peddled in the article.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Writing?

      Don't denigrate word of mouth as a means of passing on information.

      1. Graham Marsden

        @Doctor Syntax - Re: Writing?

        Unlike word of mouth, writing has a permanent form which can be referred back to, rather than relying on someone's (possibly unreliable) memory or the tendency of some people to embellish details.

        Also (from another post) Printing is, ultimately, effectively just more efficient writing, allowing mass reproduction and distribution of information, rather than laboriously copying by hand, but really just a development of what already existed.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: @Doctor Syntax - Writing?

          Pre-literate societies have succeeded in transmitting information for many generations. Writing is also vulnerable; think of the library of Alexandria. WoM also has the advantage of speed: "Houston we have a problem" was spoken, not written. The two have different but overlapping roles.

          1. Graham Marsden

            Re: @Doctor Syntax - Writing?

            As a_yank_lurker points out, passing on information is not the same as storing it for future reference.


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