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
      Angel

      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
      Megaphone

      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
      WTF?

      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

      Liability

      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
    Stop

    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

    Bookkeeping

    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.

        http://allpoetry.com/Annus-Mirabilis

    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

    Antibiotics

    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).

    Alan

    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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages_(historiography)#Modern_academic_use

    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

    Writing?

    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.

        2. Tom 13

          Re: @Doctor Syntax - Writing?

          Because we've replaced the way the spoken word was used to pass along information in pre-writing civilizations, we denigrate its accuracy too much. If you look at societies that have oral traditions for keeping their records you'll find they built both redundancy and recall techniques into the spoken records they used to track such things.

          No, printing wasn't just a development of what already existed. It did fundamentally change the way society works. It did for the written language exactly what the LLC does for the home based shop.

      2. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        Re: Writing?

        The problem with an individual memory is that important details will be lost with time of an event. And it is possible for the event to be completely forgotten. Written records means, in theory, we can go back and read narratives written shortly after or even during the event. We know what Julius Caesar or Cicero said and did with decent accuracy because we still have writings by them and their contemporaries.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Writing?

          "We know what Julius Caesar or Cicero said and did with decent accuracy because we still have writings by them and their contemporaries."

          There aren't enough ancient diverse sources to cancel out the bias of particular writers.

          "History is written by the victors".

        2. Tom 13

          Re: is that important details will be lost with time of an event.

          Not for the really important ones. Again you can't carry your prejudices for the written word into the argument. You have to look at societies with actual oral histories and how accurate those histories are. They match what we do with writing. What writing gives us is the ability to forget it because we've written it down somewhere. With an oral tradition you have to keep repeating and reinforcing it so it becomes part of who you are.

    3. Quip

      Re: Writing?

      Writing but not for the reasons stated. The Greeks did not invent writing but they took it and did something new with it: they took a book-keeping method and made it into a means of recording language as spoken. Oral literature became literacy, and hence rhetorike —the ability to analyse what was said rather than just respond— and thus philosophy, logic and enlightenment.

      1. Toltec

        Re: Writing?

        I have seen the invention of iron gall ink pushed as a landmark due to it being indelible and therefore a way of preserving information for hundreds of years.

    4. Tom 13

      Re: Writing?

      Given the formulation Tim has given, I'd have to exclude Writing because as others have pointed out it was necessary to the scientific method and predates it.

      You could of course argue it was the Second and the Scientific Method should be moved to 3rd, but that would be a different debate.

  12. hekla

    Measurement

    The first invention must be measurement, being able agree on what is a metre,a second or a kilogram is essential to all other parts of an economy. Then there is definition of the Greenwich line as an example of defining where everything is in the world.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: Measurement

      +100 for this. Not only the standardised units, but the idea of standard parts (like Whitworth's screw threads) and the resulting interchangeability that led to mass production and, in many ways, the latter part of the industrial revolution and all those affordable gadgets we take for granted (you know pipes and taps for clean water, cookers, etc,).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Measurement

        "you know pipes and taps for clean water, cookers, etc,"

        I'll remember that when my half inch spanner doesn't fit a particular 13mm nut, I know an inch is "near enough" 25mm - and three quarters is "near enough" 19mm - but a half is often not "near enough" 15mm.

        In the old days many communities used a "thumb" as the basis of their measurements - and in wood hewn with an axe that was probably "near enough".

        There was the story of the wartime parts that didn't fit because the USA and Britain had slightly different national reference standard bars for imperial measurement. Never mind measurements in "cups" and "gallons".

  13. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    I would say the third invention is writing - that is, the recording of information in a way that can be preserved and transmitted without the reliance of the human brain. Everything Tim's mentioned is a subset of writing. Double-entry book-keeping is a methodical method of writing down information. Relational databases is a methodical method of writing down information. Cloud storage is still a method of preserving and transmitting information without relying on the human brain for the storage and transmission.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    writing

    I think writing/record keeping should be the second invention, without it the scientific method would be impossible. It also allowed larger economies and countries/empires to develop. Keeping records of the change of seasons, amount of harvest, even taxes paid to the rulers allowed societies to become more stable and contributed to general economic development.

  15. Awil Onmearse

    Limited Liability

    That it makes "large-scale" economic activity easier in no way detracts from it being an immoral abrogation of risk.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Limited Liability

      In what way?

      You pitch your great business idea to Mrs Investor, she agrees and wants to invest in your business.

      She buys a 20% stake, and you agree to give her 20% of the post-tax profit. You keep the 80% for yourself.

      You then screw up royally and the business goes bust, owing far more than its assets.

      Without limited liability:

      You go bankrupt, the creditors take everything you have.

      She's also jointly and severally liable for your fuck up, and also goes bankrupt.

      - If you run away, the creditors go after her instead.

      So your screwup not only killed the business, it bankrupted you and everyone who believed in you - perhaps including all your employees if they had shares too.

      Is she likely to let you run the business, or is she going to want to micro-manage absolutely everything you do?

      With limited liability, the shareholders are only liable for the book value of their shares. If they already gave the business the money then they've already paid.

      Thus if you screw up, you don't (necessarily) also go bankrupt. You personally only owe the 80% company share value, and your shareholders have already discharged their obligations.

      They are still able - and may even be willing - to help you try again.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Limited Liability

        The moral hazard is that it isn't your money.

        So if you are a CEO you run the company to maximise your bonus cheque this quarter and fsck the shareholders - as long as it goes bust after you are paid you don't care.

        1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

          Re: Limited Liability

          The problem is confusing the limited liability concept of shared and limited risk to the owners with the antics of the hired (mis)management team. The owners/shareholders do have a different perspective than the managers but many large companies the owners are not directly or very active in the running of the company. Many companies have trouble once the founders leave.

        2. BobRocket

          Re: Limited Liability

          this was true in the past but with todays technology I know where you work so I won't be placing bets with Coral or buying anything from Pharmacy2U (don't worry Andy, it's not personal, it's business)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Limited Liability

        With limited liability, the shareholders are only liable for the book value of their shares. If they already gave the business the money then they've already paid.

        This is generally a token gesture. They put in their £1 per share at the beginning- but how much is that share supposed to be worth now?

        1. Quip

          Re: Limited Liability

          "They put in their £1 per share at the beginning- but how much is that share supposed to be worth now?"

          Then they have lost that amount by not selling out in time. And if they purchased shares based on the value of projected earnings then they have lost the value of that income stream.

        2. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: Limited Liability

          No it isn't.

          Shareholding is fundamentally a way that a business raises initial capital.

          - Even Dragons' Den gets this right.

          The shares are sold to get some money to start the business up. Later on more shares might be sold to raise more capital - several banks did major share issues in the wake of the recent financial crisis, in order to get cash to meet their new leverage obligations.

          That dilutes the original shares so shareholders generally don't like it.

          After the share issue, the business has more cash, and some obligations to those share holders - eg. to pay dividends.

          All the other ways of getting capital (or goods to sell) involve debt - borrow from a bank, borrow from customers (ask them to pay up front), borrow from suppliers (buy on credit), borrow from the public (issue bonds).

  16. FelixReg

    These things

    Language. Hence, humans.

    Tool making (e,g, the bag and spear for starters). Hence able to go anywhere on land and sea. Many more humans.

    Animal domestication and breeding. Hence domination of other animals.

    Agriculture. Hence domination of plants. Many more humans.

    Literacy. Hence ability to organize on large scale.

    Industrial revolution (which we are in the center point of right now). Many more humans.

    Arranging them in importance is like arranging in importance all the turns you make in a road trip.

    But, then, hey, there's always the battery. Implying use of the electro-spectrum.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: These things

      You missed out organisation into villages and towns. Without that everyone was fully occupied with subsistence and child rearing. Once you had a sufficiently large community you could start to have specialists who traded their skills for your produce. Metalworker and teachers are two obvious occupations.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bacon !

    Is of course the 3rd - if not second - most important invention of all times, that clearly distinguishes modern western civilisation from all others.

    No bacon - No global navel gazing financial oligarchy twiddling with its algorithmic trading toys.

    No bacon - No X-factor

    No bacon - No NSA....

    Thank you oh mighty bacon !

    [For grumpy, bleary eyed, hung-over, sunday morning readers the above is not meant as an actual statement of fact, everybody really knows that western civilisation was built by Dr Who!]

    1. stucs201

      Re: Bacon !

      what about sliced bread? lts the thing used as a standard of relative greatness.

      Of course it also pairs nicely with your suggestion of bacon. Time for breakfast I think...

      1. Stork Bronze badge

        Re: Bacon !

        I had to downvote sliced bread. Judging by the sliced bread I have sampled so far, in order to be readily sliceable something is added that makes it barely edible compared to real bread*)

        *) I here assume we are talking white bread and derivatives. Rye bread is a different matter.

        1. stucs201

          Re: Bacon !

          Well at least you explained. Though I'm slightly surprised you took as a serious comment on the greatness of sliced bread (I agree it's not necessarily amazing), rather than a reference to the phrase "the greatest thing since sliced bread", which is reasonably common whether you agree with it or not.

          You're probably the only person around here to ever downvote a reference to making bacon sandwiches.

    2. Tim Worstal

      Re: Bacon !

      Actually, bacon has its merits. If you think of it as an exemplar of the ability (or even idea) to cure and thus store food for consumption later.

      Meaning that our civilisation is in fact built on beer and bacon. Sounds good to me.

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: Bacon !

        Every time I hear somebody denigrating "food processing" I need to shout at them that civilisation was built on processing food into a state where it lasted longer than a few hours after harvesting it.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cherry flavored Pez. There's no doubt about it

    Cherry flavor pez gets my vote if it has to be a real invention, otherwise fermentation would get it. Got to love fermentation in all of its tasty forms.

  19. tassiekev

    Markets

    As in trade

  20. JamesFilispek

    Writing surely is second

    I'm going to have to go with the crowd here - surely writing supersedes the scientific method, and is certainly a precursor to both double-entry bookkeeping and the limited liability corporation.

    If then we agree that the first two are agriculture and writing, the third would have to be something as world-changing as those two.

    I think I'd still have to agree with what my high school history teachers taught - mass production (the assembly line), which sparked the industrial revolution. You could argue the internal combustion engine, but then you'd have to admit that fossil fuels were a precursor to that. You could also argue electricity generation, but again, without mass production, these inventions would not have made such a huge impact on history.

    So there it is:

    1. Agriculture (& animal husbandry)

    2. Writing

    3. Mass production

    The relational database, the personal computer, semiconductors, or perhaps the internet would then be 4th. Just depends on which of those you think is more important.

    Ok mass production maybe wouldn't have been possible without the limited liability corporation. But which of the two, if you had to choose one, had the greater impact? I think mass production, but you may disagree.

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Re: Writing surely is second

      Yes: first agriculture, then writing.

      However, science trumps mass production. Look at history: the Enlightenment and associated discovery of the scientific method was well established before the Industrial Revolution took off.

      BUT, science would have been nearly impossible without numeracy and the associated branches of mathematics. Algebra and geometry were understood by the ancient Greeks, but numeracy requires the concepts or number and positional notation. The latter is very important: adding XVII to LXIV is bad enough, but very few Romans could have multiplied them and it would have taken a genius to do long division. In fact, even arithmetic never really took off until the Indians invented the concept of Zero and hence decimal positional notation. So, IMO, the first few Great Inventions were

      1) Agriculture, 2) Writing, 3) Integers, 4) Positional number system, 5) Mathematics, 6) Science, 7) Engineering

      Book keeping and commerce was able to be understood by many people once the positional number system made simple arithmetic easy. Science laid the foundations of engineering, which in turn supported building large ships and global commerce. These, along with accountancy, helped to set up overseas empires and then the Industrial Revolution. All this was up and running long before computers were invented, and they preceeded the relational database (and IDMS!) by 30 years.

    2. Tim Worstal

      Re: Markets

      I tend to think that came before humans so isn't really an invention. Adam Smith talked of the innate tendency to truck and barter. And we do have good evidence of pre-homo sapiens trade in things like flints and knapping stones.

  21. BobRocket

    Sad to say

    But I think it is social media.

    All revolutionary development has its downside (in this case FB/Twatter/Tindr etc.) but the upside is the dissemination of information outside of the silos it has historically existed in.

    Social media allows anybody to ask questions on any subject and in any field, a tiny subset of these questions will be good hard ones.

    Good questions are always in demand, they are the driver of definative answer supply, without which progress stalls.

  22. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge

    Sanitation

    Was the answer given by doctors. You would all die of disease before inventing anything else if you don't get rid of the human waste that surrounds your village.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Sanitation

      Which means, in fact, that the first great invention may have been the domestication of dogs, around 17000-35000 years ago and long predating agriculture.

      Dogs extended the hunting capability of human beings, but also they consumed food waste. The canine digestive system is extremely aggressive and dog turds are much less hazardous to health than either waste food or people turds. Sanitation per se was invented very late - really a 19th century invention - but long before that, it has been argued, dogs made it possible to site permanent villages, whereas without them the waste eventually built up till everybody died or decided to move. Permanent settlements make civilisation possible.

    2. Doctor_Wibble

      the magic of flushing toilets Re: Sanitation

      I was going to put "Flushing Toilets" as the example of the more general heading of sanitation, or to go even wider, the concept of 'organised disposal of waste stuff to some place elsewhere'.

      Flushing toilets might seem trivial but this implies the support industries related to actual drainage to elsewhere, the existence of enough of a water supply to use to chuck sht down the drain, an entire porcelain production line, some engineering to do the fancy cistern mechanics, and someone who knows how to make a comfortable seat out of a few sticks and a bit of moss.

  23. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Rule of Law

    Specifically, the idea that you can have any law you like, but you have to write it down in a self-consistent formulation and then it applies to everyone, not just the plebs.

    Without it, it's only a matter of time before your society is screwed over by some sociopathic imbecile. Long-term investment in economic undertakings are impossible unless you are already one of the social elite (and therefore able to defend yourself in the short term). Economic development and innovation therefore proceeds at N(elite) / N(population) of its potential rate.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Rule of Law

      You can run quite large groups of people quite successfully for centuries/millenia on the "I'm he boss, i have the pointy hat, I make the rules" principle.

      1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: Rule of Law

        Yes, as long as your neighbours haven't figured out Rule of Law yet. As soon as they do, you are left in the dust as they zoom off to world domination. There's a good reason that Europe, not China, owned the entire planet at the beginning of the twentieth century.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: Rule of Law

      Again, if we're accepting the scientific method as the second, this predates it and therefore does not qualify as the third, but could be the second.

  24. Schultz

    What about metallurgy?

    We'd all still be chipping stone if it hadn't been for those great chemists melting and smelting metals some 7k years ago. You think your new phone is cool? Imagine how cool the newest bronze knife was back in the day - and it actually kept its value for a few millenia.

  25. This post has been deleted by its author

  26. yoganmahew

    Trade Unions...

    Consumerism can only exist with waged workers. For capitalism to succeed consumerism must have a ready supply of consumers. `Oh dear,' says Worstall, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.

    1. John 62

      Re: Trade Unions...

      So basically you mean the invention of the club as a way of organising ourselves.

  27. Esme

    Agriculture

    Writing

    Scientific method

    Information Technology.

    Agriculture enabled us to settle and to produce a surplus of food.

    Writing, as well as enabling the p[reservation of knowledge also allowed the development of business in the modern form, as who can remember every last detail of a business' transactions with its many clients?

    Scientific method enabled us to make better sense of the world about us and develop more effective technologies, including truly effective medical treatments and engineering that wasn't just guesswork or rule of thumb.

    Information technology allows us to communicate, exchange data and ideas, and process data more effectively, right from heliographs and semaphore through to todays bleeding-edge computer technology. Modern computing, of course, enables us to find information from amid seas of data that an individual human mind would be overwhelmed by.

    I was tempted to include free software in there somewhere, but really that's a form of sharing data and information. Once science in its modern form really got going, with its notion of the free exchange of ideas, collaborative working on tough intellectual problems etc, the notion of free software can be seen as a logical extension of that. Which isn't taking anything away from RMS in standing up and actually saying that against a background of capitalism trying to lock up and set a direct monetary value to everything in sight. Sometimes it takes a brave individual to protest the stupidity of received wisdom to open the eyes of the rest of us to how we're being prevented from progressing by established interests.

    1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Writing *is* information technology.

      1. Esme

        @ J G Harston - Good point, well made! That's me down to three points then!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Esme

      My suggestion would be:

      Flint knapping

      Control of fire

      Domestication of animals

      You can't have agriculture without tools to dig the ground and you can't have tools without a first generation of cutting tools. You also need fire to cook grains if you want intensive food sources, and domesticated animals to pull the plough and provide protein.

      Once you have tools, fire and something to do the heavy lifting you have the possibility of leisure for some, and the rest follows.

      Another way to look at my list is that the first two are necessary for materials forming and hence engineering, and the last one is the start of the process of using external energy sources.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @Esme

        I'd say you're barking up the right tree, but stone tool making doesn't require access to flints in particular. Cookery should be on the list of greatest inventions: never mind eating grains, it makes food digestion more efficient overall which means we get more use out of the food we eat than otherwise, can get by with smaller guts and can grow bigger brains. It's incredibly useful, a fundamental requirement for our intellectual development. One might fantasise that cooking gets overlooked as a spectacularly useful technological development because cooking's generally considered a woman's job, but surely sexist attitudes like that are long extinct?

        And what about clothing?

        So: my list of greatest inventions would be, in what I suppose to be chronological order:

        Tool making (whatever the material - wood or stone or bone or whatever)

        Fire making (not just fire use, which I'm not sure counts as an invention)

        Cookery

        Clothing

        - and then move on to civil engineering, i.e., making house-type shelters and so on.

        The rest of it follows on from those foundations. Humanity spread over a large chunk of the globe long before agriculture and the scientific method turned up: they're clearly not fundamental to our success as a species. Admittedly, if we're going to last, agriculture and the scientific method are necessary.

    3. silent_count

      I think you were on the right track with "free software", but think rather "public domain".

      The notion of, "this thing I have created is freely available to every member of the public forever", is important.

      For one thing, it stops information from getting lost, as used to happen with trade secrets and now happens with, 'nobody can use it because nobody knows who had the copyright and the companies involved folded 20 years ago'*.

      Public domain stops us from having to reinvent the wheel ever again.

      * The TPP's extending copyright to 'the end of time or thereabouts' will undoubtedly be an unqualified boon to all humanity. /sarcasm

  28. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      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.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        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.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Domestication of other species and farming

          Both invented by ants long before humans copied them.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "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.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    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.

  30. PhilipN Silver badge

    None ...( Of the above)

    Zero

  31. thx1138v2

    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.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      We only get pelts to wear if the Greenies who want us back that far can deal appropriately with PETA. Otherwise... naked.

  32. James Anderson

    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.

  33. DaveDaveDave

    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.

  34. Peter Johnston 1

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      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.

      1. Loud Speaker

        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!

  35. BobRocket

    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.

  36. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. BobRocket

        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)

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      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?

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: More Worstall Shite.

        Wait a dang minute there... bacon IS the meaning of life... followed closely (or maybe led) by beer.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    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?

    :-)

  38. DougS Silver badge

    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.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Religion

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Religion

      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.

      1. annodomini2

        Re: Religion

        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.

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    LLPs

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: LLPs

      "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?

  41. abedarts

    Democracy

    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.

  42. Grikath Silver badge

    Good tries...

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      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.

  43. Camilla Smythe Silver badge

    This Post has Been Deleted by a Moderator.

    Worstall: Blithers.

    Premise: Evolution is the greatest inventor.

    Invite: Not available for discussion.

    Decision: Moderated.

    Example: Evolution is the greatest inventor.

    Decision: Moderated.

    Have we evolved yet? Oh, it seems we have. Well Done.

  44. HildyJ

    Syllabic writing

    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.

  45. Google

    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.

  46. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "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.

  47. 2+2=5 Silver badge

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      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.

  48. C. P. Cosgrove

    Since Mr. Worstall talks about databases, how about the Dewey Decimal System ? If this wasn't an early relational database what was ?

    Chris Cosgrove

  49. Wensleydale Cheese Silver badge

    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.

    1. Pompous Git Silver badge

      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.

    2. 2+2=5 Silver badge
  50. Stuart Halliday

    First was the Sewing Needle. Second was Fire, so the third must be farming.

  51. John Tserkezis

    Beancounters, BEANCOUNTERS!

    It's blasphemy I tell you!

  52. JLV Silver badge
    Joke

    RDBMS??? What stinking RDBMS?

    Vade retro relatio

    Repeat after me: NoSQL, NoSQL, NoSQL, NoSQL

    May Lord Bong cast you into the Pit.

  53. Acme Fixer

    Sorry...

    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. :-/

  54. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    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 [1510190453] 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.

  55. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    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.

  56. GrumpyWorld

    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....

  57. codejunky Silver badge

    Hmm

    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.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      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 ........

      Communications Technology Analysts

      Recruiter:

      GCHQ

      Listed on:

      5th October

      Location:

      Cheltenham

      Salary/Rate:

      Competitive package based on qualifications and experience

      Type:

      Permanent

      Start Date:

      ASAP

      Reference:

      TJ245

      Contact Name:

      GCHQ

      Find hidden messages in enemy communications.

      Our teams in Intelligence Operations analyse the communications behaviours and technologies of our adversaries and develop and use analytic tools and techniques to fulfil a range of operational mission requirements.

      Join us, and you will work alongside other analysts to develop new ways to analyse data while liaising between deep technical specialists and intelligence and security delivery teams. Communications Technology Analysts are generally specialists in one area, such as telecoms network analysis, geospatial analysis, internet communications technologies or crypt analysis. Some are specialists in weapons systems analysis. We also have data science specialists within the team.

      You’ll come to us with a 2:2 relevant degree plus one year of work experience. Alternatively, you may bring considerable experience as an equivalent to a degreein areas such as internet communications technologies; designing, planning and troubleshooting communications technologies; computer security operations centre analysis; or advanced weapons technology, communications and their military applications. Skilled in using Microsoft Excel to analyse large data volumes, you will have knowledge of large-scale data programming languages. Above all, you will have a real enthusiasm for learning with a keen interest in communication technology.

      For more information and to apply for this role, click the apply button

  58. Squander Two
    Devil

    Gods and dogs.

    Plus the insistence that things really do have some rational causes, ones that don't change at a whim. It's rather necessary to get God out of the system, or at least out of the detailed operation of it, before that idea can properly take hold and thus the connection with humanism.

    I think Pratchett and Stewart and Cohen argued very persuasively that in fact it's necessary to get gods, plural, out of the system. Once you have just one god, the idea begins to take hold that each phenomenon has a consistent cause and that therefore the same conditions will always give the same results. It's multiple gods bickering with each other that are the problem.

    Anyway, you're takling bollocks again, Tim. Everyone knows mankind's greatest invention is the puppy. Can't believe that's even up for debate.

  59. Paul Smith

    Abstract thought.

    I always thought that the first great human invention was abstract thought. The ability to think of things not necessary for immediate survival leads to the ability to think of time, as in the past, present and most importantly, the future, and that allows the ability to plan ahead. Sharing a plan with others makes hunting much more productive leads to language. Planned hunts mean traps become possible, if not inevitable, and that leads to tool usage. The ability to plan, communicate and make tools makes agriculture possible. With more effective hunting, and even more so with agriculture, society can maintain sections of the population who are not directly productive. Lets call them wasters. The first wasters would be good at planning and/or leading. Others could add value by entertaining, as with storey tellers, artists and musicians, which in turn gave us a sense of what came before and learning by the experience of others. And less useful members of society such as politicians, crooks, the infirm and dreamers. Most of whom contributed absolutely nothing. However, one dreamer in ten thousand turns a fire into a forge or a kiln and suddenly society becomes richer and can afford even more dreamers. All the other great inventions derive from the human ability to have abstract thoughts.

    P.S. I think the Dewey decimal environment trumps RDBMS but I could be biased.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Abstract thought.

      "The ability to think of things not necessary for immediate survival leads to the ability to think of time, as in the past, present and most importantly, the future, and that allows the ability to plan ahead."

      But animals have demonstrated the ability to plan ahead as well. Isn't that what feasting prior to hibernation is about? What about beavers with their dam building and so on? Building nests and homes with the intent to find a mate and raise a family? The thing is that we can't know for certain (yet) that animals other than ourselves are capable of abstract thought or the ability to teach and learn in ways other than by example.

  60. RobertD

    The 'number' zero.

  61. John 156

    Farming comes first because it enabled mankind to live in large groups and enabled those who lived in temperate climates to far more easily survive the winter.

    Metallurgy comes second because it enabled mankind to construct tools without having to rely on the limitations of naturally occuring materials such as stone and wood.

    The Steam Engine comes third because it meant that man became independent of animals, wind and water to power his engines.

    1. Benchops

      I'm fairly sure a steam engine requires water to power the engine. It's in the name.

  62. willi0000000

    three greatest inventions:

    1 - sex.

    2 - agriculture . . . it allows people to erect permanent abodes in which to have more comfortable sex.

    3 - booze . . . it allows those not having sex to ease the pain.

  63. DJO Silver badge

    Top 3

    1: The Lever

    2: The Wheel

    3: The Still

    You need a lever to get the still into position, a wheel for a cart to carry the ingredients in and the finished product whisky/vodka/calvados/whatever away.

    There really is little need for anything else.

  64. Robert E A Harvey

    Another idea

    Contraception

  65. Peter Simpson 1
    Thumb Up

    Three isn't enough

    Come on, if you expect civilization to involve (admittedly, that seem s to be asking a lot, nowadays), the number should be open ended.

    I couldn't leave any of these off the list:

    1. Language (extends to written language, and a common language) - to allow ideas to be passed efficiently between generations and continents

    2. The wheel.

    3. The boat.

    4. The airplane

    5. The (general purpose, digital) computer, including software for the same.

  66. sixit
    Mushroom

    Surely it is the Harnessing of Energy

    Without the application of harnessed energy, the rest of civilization would not exist beyond what was found in simple tribes such as those found in New Guinea or Central/South America.

    It goes far back enough to use fire, then later make fire. Later is the application of chemistry through chemical reactions. More recently it is harnessing electrons and protons. In the future, it will be harnessing components of those bits of matter and other bits we have only just glimpsed or not even conceived.

    Next will be the manipulation of time and/or space. But we aren't there yet.

    P.S.: Math isn't an invention - it is a series of discoveries. ;)

  67. niio

    Axe ag and sci, here are the four best inventions of all time

    I disagree with agriculture and the scientific method, so I'm not even close to accepting your third place candidates. Here are the four best inventions in history, and they are inventions not just concepts:

    The first great invention was paper, providing the means to preserve knowledge through means other than storytelling.

    The second great invention was the printing press, providing the means to broadly disseminate knowledge throughout society.

    The third great invention was the telegraph, providing the means to communicate knowledge rapidly across distance.

    The fourth great invention was the integrated circuit, providing the basis for all the automated processing of information we now enjoy.

    What do you think?

  68. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Alphabet. Data. Zero.

    Those three, in that order, are the foundations for human communication.

    John O'

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019