@ J G Harston - Good point, well made! That's me down to three points then!
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 …
The big 3, in no particular order:
Language. Facilitates cooperation so humans can achieve more collectively than individually. Animals that hunt in packs or defend themselves in herds can cooperate but only by observing what each other are doing and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Language enables actions to be planned in advance and the actions to be directed in a coordinated manner in real time as a situation develops.
Tool making and use. Extends humans' physical attributes so an individual can achieve more with a cutting edge, a lever etc than with bare hands.
Fire: Extends humans' abilities to manipulate the world down to a molecular level, transforming food by cooking it, hardening soft materials, breaking up hard materials and eventually refining metals. Also clears land for hunting and later agriculture and drives animals for hunting.
I say in no particular order because it's difficult to say which came first or to separate them in importance. Everything else, writing, agriculture, metallurgy, ceramics, science or whatever is built on them.
I'm a little leery about putting in language since we now know animals can communicate orally, too. Some like dolphins and elephants have found ways to take advantage of the medium they live (water for dolphins, so their utterances are meant to convey well in water, earth for elephants, thus they use infrasonic communication that travels well along the ground)..Even monkeys and apes have shown various forms of communication and non-visual coordination. True, we've developed language to an extent these animals don't reach, but I don't think we were the first to truly pioneer it.
Tools I'll grant you, but to a finer degree. It wasn't just our ability to utilize tools that made the difference (apes improvise tools as well), but the idea we took it further and developed purpose-built tools, sometimes from scratch, to get our jobs done. For example, the basic machines (the inclined plane, the wheel and axle, etc.) as well as stuff like a real hammer or a bladed implement. Tool-making also goes to fire making and fire handling.
I view language as handling and conveying symbolic information rather than just a repertoire of sounds which have distinct meaning but aren't connected to express more complex ideas. That, as far as I know, is unique to us.
The three I listed are the foundation of our means of working symbolically, mechanically and chemically. They've been with us since we evolved. Certainly other animals have the ability to communicate and to use tools to a limited extent but our abilities outstrip any other species.
I suppose I should have added domestication of other species but that came relatively recently and adds biological methods to our toolbox. As far as I can tell it's also something that's been developed separately in different environments as different cultures have domesticated different species depending on what was locally available. Nevertheless it does seem to have been the spur for a much wider range of inventions, probably because it facilitated diversification of skills and enabled us to live in larger communities.
Domestication of other species and farming
Both invented by ants long before humans copied them.
"I view language as handling and conveying symbolic information rather than just a repertoire of sounds which have distinct meaning but aren't connected to express more complex ideas. That, as far as I know, is unique to us."
Given we haven't fully comprehended most forms of animal communication, we cannot rule out the possibility they can think in abstract terms, too, or can teach in ways other than by example.
The variable - i wanted to put dummy here, but shunned the pun
Actually goes in between your two - the idea of a place-holder that can take any value so prevalent and important everyone forgets there was a time we didn't do it.
None ...( Of the above)
I'm not sure about the three or, even, four, five, or six. But the LAST great invention is Twitter. We'll soon have a populace unable to think past 140 characters and the fall of mankind back to pelts as clothes and stone tools can't be far behind.
We only get pelts to wear if the Greenies who want us back that far can deal appropriately with PETA. Otherwise... naked.
Definately not limited liability companies
In the UK at least limited liability was introduced after some 1000 or so "innocent" shareholders were ruined by the Bank Of Glasgow's collapse in 1877.
Capitalism was in full swing well before this. Interestingly one of the victims was John Buchans (39 Steps and other antisemitic potboilers!) grandad. As a lawyer he was executing the will of a large shareholder and was deemed liable for the companies debt as the shares were in his possession at the moment of collapse.
Surely there's only one option here?
The Washington Consensus - the set of ideas that for the first time in history has lifted the majority of the human population of this planet out of desperate, starvation-level poverty.
Take the Bible's perspective
Obviously the first Great Invention was Man (OK - not a big leap - God did have the template).
Second was Woman (amazing what you think of as you sit down to a plate of ribs).
And the third, of course, was sex. Without that were would we all be?
Or perhaps it was Apples - if you want an IT perspective.
Re: Take the Bible's perspective
"Obviously the first Great Invention was Man (OK - not a big leap - God did have the template)."
That would make the first invention God. The only problem would then be who created God (see recursion). Let's just say the Universe exists - and that God is a figment of wo/man's imagination that ceased to have any practical use after the Enlightenment.
Re: Take the Bible's perspective
Proof indeed that recursion was the first great invention. Which makes the language Forth the second, thus cunningly obviating the need for a third!
What was .v. What will be
Rather than RDBMS which only gives us 'What Happened' information on historical data, I would suggest that the spreadsheet is a greater invention as it allows us to ask 'What If' type questions.
Both are good inventions because they generate 'Why' questions.
Re: More Worstall Shite.
It's sunday morning and you are reading a free blog about economics on a site devoted to IT/sarcasm/bacon. What the fsck did you expect - The meaning of life?
Re: More Worstall Shite.
The previous post to which I (nonPC) replied has been deleted by a mod.
(without the whiplash of the 'Trix)
As such it is only right I remove my reply (which was left hanging like a clingon) in support of the orignal rant.
(I don't agree with anything anybody says but I will defend their right to make a fool of themselves)
Re: More Worstall Shite.
Wait a dang minute there... bacon IS the meaning of life... followed closely (or maybe led) by beer.
definition of invention?
"my definition of an invention is being limited to " before the thing actually works?
What's the Humpty Dumpty quote - when I use a word it means what I want it to mean?
You're not a patent attorney on the side, are you?
Zero / decimal places
I'd agree with the others who have argued 'writing' as one of the great inventions, as without it knowledge could only be transmitted orally, and a plague that kills enough of the wrong people means much of your knowledge is gone forever until it is rediscovered.
But before worrying about double entry bookkeeping, you had to have a concept of numbers better than counting on your fingers. The invention of the zero and a decimal place method of representing numbers is a lot more important than any of the things Tim has listed.
An invention that is not great as in super, but great as in huge impact would have to be all the imaginary gods and their religions.
I don't think gods per se are an invention. I have one of those dogs who occasionally decides to be worried about some harmless object. I suspect that fear of the gods, as distinct from religion (common myths and ideas that bind a society) or theology (speculation about how things came to be and why there are physical laws), is just a hangover from a low level brain mechanism that causes us to be wary in future of things that have bitten us once, useful for fish and reptiles which don't have much symbolic processing but increasingly less useful as the cpu power increases.
Lightning strikes, unfortunate.
Strikes again, avoid place in future.
Strikes again, there's something going on there.
Religion stems from 2 factors:
1. The human brain's ability to fill in missing gaps, we regularly have to make decisions based on incomplete information, some of it past experience, some of it pattern recognition etc.
Where individuals would ask a question, but be unable to come up with an answer.
2. Kids, see second part of answer 1. Many people always underestimate the power of a curious and imaginative mind.
Whatever the advantage to the economy of limited liability companies may be, it has been somewhat diminished, if not reversed, over the last few years by the creation of the limited liability partnership. I think these were originally introduced by Blair's lot to provide a mechanism by which the large accountancy firms could protect themselves from the consequences of their mistakes, but since then thousands (it might be up into the tens of thousands) have been set up. Mostly these seem to involve untraceable owners, shadow directors, no employees or trading activity, and the transfers of large sums of money. Fortunately we can be sure that the City regulators are on the case, ensuring that everything is above board.
"I think these were originally introduced by Blair's lot"
The Germans, I seem to recall. The country where insider trading used to be (still is? not involved there nowadays) legal, and there were clever ways to organise the company so you could avoid publishing your accounts. KG & Co. where Co. is a private individual, anybody?
In terms of what 'inventions' have yielded the greatest good for the greatest numbers, I'm happy with agriculture and the scientific method and would like to suggest democracy as a third - I understand it as a social arrangement where a society elects its own leaders and the laws under which it agrees to live. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness sums it up well.
but most of them are not unique to humans....
The things we did figure out, and make us unique, and are root discoveries are: use of fire , animal husbandry, the wheel, writing, metal working, in their order of discovery. The root inventions for energy production, food provision, transportation, accurate information preservation, and (processing) technology.
All other discoveries can either be observed in nature ( including "language" and all manners of social structures ) , or are evolutions/refinements of these root inventions. Animal husbandry does have parallels amongst certain species of ants, but those don't live where the idea must have originated, and metal working is *technically* speaking a derivation of the fire root, but the basis of the technology *is* rooted in uniquely human curiosity (and pyromania) : How Hot Can I Get This Fire Going?, something most of us males can *still* relate to.
All the rest is fluff and feathers.
Re: Good tries...
"use of fire"
A dog will warm itself by a fire started by natural combustion. All living things respond favourably to a source of warmth. Our ancestors probably did the same for quite a while before they accidentally found out how to start one from tinder. It would presumably be accidents that led to other important uses - like cooking then smelting.
This Post has Been Deleted by a Moderator.
Premise: Evolution is the greatest inventor.
Invite: Not available for discussion.
Example: Evolution is the greatest inventor.
Have we evolved yet? Oh, it seems we have. Well Done.
Cuneiform was the first writing system to transition from pictures to simplified symbols representing syllables. Its system is still seen in some Eastern languages and it allowed for and was probably required for the ultimate Western transition to alphabets. Just to throw a bone to the accountants, the majority of rarly examples involve bookkeeping and business transactions.
Vaccination. It's the reason influenza no longer comes around and shuffles 20 million off our mortal coils.
Or Polio debilitates us for the rest of lives.
"It's the reason influenza no longer comes around and shuffles 20 million off our mortal coils."
Contagious disease is the natural predator to keep our numbers in balance with the environment. If it gets too crowded then like many species we become our own predator - if an epidemic doesn't thin us out first.
Agriculture... the scientific method... meritocracy
Many of the previous answers in the comments are very good and it's a fine line between something being a landmark invention or innovation (e.g. writing or the number zero) versus something that is epoch defining, like the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture. So I ask myself what is the defining aspect of the modern world and I think that the answer has to be meritocracy -- i.e. that status and position derives from ability and achievement rather than class, family or payment.
Inventions like writing, printing or the zero of mathematics are only so good on their own - it needed the advent of universal education to really exploit them. And meritocracy is the inevitable outcome of universal education.
We are not quite fully there yet, of course, as girls are still held back in a few countries. But no one seriously argues that people shouldn't have the opportunity to progress based on their ability rather than parentage or skin colour, and the world advances at a far more rapid pace than it possibly could without it.
Re: Agriculture... the scientific method... meritocracy
"[...] and I think that the answer has to be meritocracy [...]"
A meritocracy usually awards merit for conformance to some designated rules or principles. It does not necessarily encourage a competence that may help solve a society's problems. It may even do the opposite where conformity of thinking is the rewarded rule.
Since Mr. Worstall talks about databases, how about the Dewey Decimal System ? If this wasn't an early relational database what was ?
Nobody's mentioned credit yet
The idea of selling a pile of goods abroad without having to lug a pile of gold back with you helped trade enormously.
Re: Nobody's mentioned credit yet
Nor logic and Aristotle's three Laws of Thought. Without logic there's no chance of rational discourse, computers etc.
Re: Nobody's mentioned credit yet
First was the Sewing Needle. Second was Fire, so the third must be farming.
It's blasphemy I tell you!
RDBMS??? What stinking RDBMS?
Vade retro relatio
Repeat after me: NoSQL, NoSQL, NoSQL, NoSQL
May Lord Bong cast you into the Pit.
But leaving the flowers and traveling down the twigs to the branches and then down to the trunk, it all gets more generalized, until... until... no one really knows!
One could say statistics, but that is just another branch of mathematics, as is double entry bookkeeping.
One could say the lever, but it and the wheel are just another form of mechanical engineering.
One could say the astrolabe but it and sextants and telescopes are just an improvement in astronomy.
And so forth. I think the greatest contribution to mankind in the 20th century is penicillin or antibiotics, which has saved millions of people. But that is just a flower on the tree. And then I wonder, with 7 plus billion people on this planet, if that was such a good idea after all. :-/
The Much Bigger Present Future Pictures Show
The first, second and third greatest inventions of all time are surely all simply absolutely fabulous fabless works in current progress and as yet totally unfinished classic works of contemporary art ......
You might like to cogitate, El Reg, on the greater elements in this reply to a comment posted and hosted elsewhere, exploring an oft cited inconvenient reality which is into destroying great orders, both past and present, with introductions and injections of chaos for CHAOS [Clouds Hosting Advanced Operating Systems]
amanfromMars  replying to a comment from FauxScienceSlayer on http://thedailybell.com/exclusive-interviews/36593/Anthony-Wile-John-Knapp-No-Stopping-This-Cannabis-Train-Now/
That all more than suggests, FauxScienceSlayer, that command and control of the Afghan drugs trade/poppy and marijuana harvests are what US troops are now/still fighting the natives for, and why they are still to be deployed in that foreign land, despite all the empty politically incorrect promises that foretold of a foreign troop exodus.
Playing to the ignorant crowd ...... the divisive corrupt and perverse art of politics, aided and abetted by an equally intellectually challenged media mogul operation hosting rogue missions and covert activities ...... :-) deep and dark web internetworking programmes.
Methinks though, that such as the above and as may be New Orderly Novel World Order Programmes are not run by the same powers that be behind the Old Disorderly World Order Project for the New American Century And a valid question to ask in this new CyberSpace Age, and of its true IT pedigree, is whether it is much more Sino Soviet in nature and planning than Wild Wacky West in application and delivery ‽ .
And Daily Bell ..... that is/those are the great white elephants in the room and the much bigger pictures being outed to alternative media messaging pioneers in order that the new virtual realities of the future do not terrify and terrorise the masses with their machine precision engagement.
The gratest invention of all time is language or if you want to limit it to human inventions the written language, double entry book keeing is an offshoot from this.
I hate to poo on everyone's parade but...
Sanitation. Sanitation. Sanitation.
Without some efficient way of disposing of the 'night soil' major population centres would not be viable. Without them most of the other discoveries would either have not been made or would not be useful.
Manual methods of disposal are OK up to a point but do limit population densities and the overall size of a town (you can only handcart it so far). Mind you; they did lead to the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle for which we should all be grateful.
If we all live in 3 hut villages then arguably subsistence farming will do just fine; its only when we start collecting together in large numbers that you need the advances in agriculture.
Major advances in science are usually collaborative efforts (or at least supported by the Royal Society) which requires some sort of intellectual organisation. A pre-requisite for these is a population centre.
..and we are nowhere near getting to limited liability companies; unless they are building and operating the sewers....
I would wonder if communication would be in the running. We now have multiple ways of transmitting more data than could have previously been considered at speeds that outstrip previous capability over spaces never seen before. Instead of a runner who may or may not survive the potentially long and slow trip (or even get to the right place/person) we had the development of the phone which has leaped to the mobile device and computing capability. Instead of a small transportable item/letter we now send such amounts of data to remote places (including distant space) and can receive a timely response.
The data capacity is so great that encryption is not 'codewords' but complex mathematical processes which can be used to secure communication with no involvement of the user and no noticeable performance loss.
Hmm .... cc GCHQ Ref TJ245 re Advancing Steganographic Protocols and Virtual Pornography in AI
Free-wheeling universal communications would indeed be in the running, codejunky, with it and ITs mastery rendering to Caesars, what are Caesar's, and novel noble messages open up a whole new area of virtual enterprise for lucrative reward, although one has to admit it be a nightmare field of failure to be found wallowing in if and when simply only able and enabled to react to discoveries rather than practically inventing them for applications and forward base operations.
And is it spooky to find this revealing ad parading itself on Register pages ........
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