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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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".
> "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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
+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,).
"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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
"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.
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).
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.
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.
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!]
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My suggestion would be:
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.
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)
- 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.
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
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
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)
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
"[...] 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.
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 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.
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.
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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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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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. ;)
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?
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