The world is filled with amazing technologies, many that are so old we don’t even think of them as technologies at all.
Today, we present the definitive list of every important technology ever, ranked by their importance. These aren’t all necessarily good technologies, of course. There are plenty that have made the world a more miserable place for everybody. But they’re still on the list.
If you have any opinion about the fact that this list may be omitting an extremely vital technology, you would be wrong. This list is both correct and definitive and cannot be changed. And you’re wrong.
100. Cow milking machine
Are you one of those chumps still milking a cow by hand? An extremely primitive automated cow milker was invented around 1860, but the contraption would see many iterations through the 1920s and ‘60s as the rise of futuristic “factory farms” (not yet a dirty word) would become the norm.
The humble screw thread was invented sometime around 400 BC. And while we may only think of its applications in modern construction today, it radically changed everything from irrigation (the turning of large screws can raise water very efficiently) to food production (some of the first screws were used to press olive oils).
98. Video camera
Images from early video cameras looked like shit. But once they became mainstream and commercialized, the modern video camera changed the way that people captured the world around them, and eventually the way that we saw ourselves.
All things considered, the surgeon’s scalpel is a pretty important invention in the history of humankind. Maybe not as vital as anesthesia, which it should be noted was invented way later, but important nonetheless.
Sure, the flashlight is predated by thousands of years by the simple torch. But I’d rather not grab a torch after dropping my Apple TV remote behind the goddamn couch again. Why does that thing suck so much? The Apple TV remote, not the flashlight.
Some people are old enough to remember the various home video format wars of the 1980s (remember Betamax?) and the later ones involving Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. But the VHS tape was an entire new world for home movie watching.
As I wrote many years ago for the Atlantic, VHS was a medium that could wear out from too much love, as I did of a VHS tape of Michael Jackson in Captain EO when I was a kid. But for all its imperfections, it brought Hollywood blockbusters (to say nothing of porn) into our living rooms.
94. Electric guitar
There’s nothing that sounds cooler on this Earth than an electric guitar. That’s just science. Or, at least, the science of cool.
The electric guitar made rock and roll possible. And while it seems tremendously 20th century-centric to praise rock and roll, it really was one of the most important music movements of all time.
A distorted electric guitar still has the ability to sound fresh and unnerving after all these years. And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away.
93. Zippo lighter
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
Much like the electric guitar, the microphone has transformed music in more ways than we can possibly imagine. But obviously it’s not just for music. You know who else stood in front of microphones besides David Bowie? Hitler.
Escalators are just neat, ok? They’re not sexy, they’re not highly advanced, but when they were first invented in the 1890s, people would travel from far and wide to see them.
90. Walkie Talkies
Walkie talkies weren’t just playthings for 1980s kids in countless movies. They were invented for very serious business—namely, the business of killing people.
89. Whiskey still
Alcohol is poison. Quiet literally. But humans love poisoning themselves, and with good reason. It feels damn good.
Whiskey, much like wine and beer, has contributed great things to the creative aspects of civilisation. And it has also ruined lives. Good job, whiskey still.
88. The automatic dishwasher
The automatic dishwasher may seem like a silly extravagance, and it really is in many ways, but it’s getting a place on this list for its unfulfilled promise as much as its direct impact on society. The dishwasher represents the failures of the push-button society. And for that failure we salute it.
Much like the dish-washing machine, CRISPR is on our list for both its potential and the fact that it’s a technology that hasn’t yet delivered. MIT Technology Review even put CRISPR on its year-end list of “the biggest technology failures of 2018” and it’ll likely stay on those lists and remain a symbol of unfulfilled futuristic promises for some time to come.
86. Electric chair
Sure, it’s weird to think about. But the 20th century would’ve been a very different timeline without the theatrics of the electric chair.
There are a number of different things that those of us in the 21st century have a difficult time imagining. What was it like before artificial light? What was it like before the aeroplane? But perhaps nothing compares to the question, “What was it like before anesthesia?” The answer? Very unpleasant.
Anesthesia was first invented in 1846, provided you don’t count smoking old-fashioned opium as a form of anesthesia which dates back to 4000 BC. But today, it’s standard for medical procedures the world over.
Yes, anesthesia is still imperfect, and there are plenty of horror stories that you can find online. People have been left completely awake during surgery. And while people of the 22nd century will view our medical techniques as barbaric (provided society moves in the right direction and doesn’t go backward), at least we live in a time with anesthesia. Put me under for a paper cut, as far as I’m concerned.
It may not have been quite as revolutionary as the invention of recorded music in the 19th century, but the MP3 still deserves a place on any list of important inventions. Taking thousands of songs with you on a tiny device was the stuff of science fiction within my lifetime. Now, it’s nothing at all.
83. Contact lenses
Contact lenses can be a horror show, but they’re actually pretty clever pieces of technology. For me, they were the things that allowed me to participate in sports when I was a kid without my fucking glasses (which I acquired at the ripe old age of 9) getting in the way. Yeah, I know plenty of nerds like myself swore by rec-specs. But c’mon. Contacts are the way to go.
82. DVD player
Do you remember the first time you saw a DVD? For film nerds, it was like a revelation, not only because the audio and visual quality was simply great. DVD more than any other technology made widescreen movie formats (as opposed to pan-and-scan transfers) the norm for home viewing. With DVDs you could finally see the whole movie, not just a third of it.
81. Home microwave
Microwaves are good. Fight me.
Modern Americans eat a lot of corn, even when they don’t think they are. It’s in soda, chips, cereal, and even fish. It’s everywhere, and it looked a lot different a few thousand years ago. Back then, it had just a few kernels on a cob. But it was “invented” to be what we know today—a food that’s literally killing us.
79. Mobile phone
If we step back and examine all of human technological history, the mobile phone is incredibly new. But it’s proving to be one of the most important inventions of our era. And not necessarily for the better, when we consider the applications we’re staring at on our smartphones all day: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has been used to facilitate genocide. So maybe we should take a break with the phones and figure out what the fuck is going on.
78. Mechanical computer
The first mechanical computer used to be largely credited to Charles Baggage’s Difference Engine in 1822. But thanks to the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism from around 100 BC, we now know that mechanical computers have been around for a lot longer. And that makes any fan of “hidden history” excited for all of the other high-tech inventions that may have been lost to history over the past few thousand years.
Recorded music turned a completely ephemeral experience into something that could be transported and listened to again and again. Music recorded on cylinders may have been the first, but the gramophone brought recorded music to the masses. And we’re all better for it. Usually.
HDTV may not be the most important technological development in the past few thousand years, but it certainly wins awards for being one of the most watched devices of all time. Next to our phones and computers, HDTV is something that we literally spend over five hours staring at every single day. For many of us, it’s probably both our longest and most precious relationship. Aside from our phones, of course.
75. Pocket matches
Oh hell yeah. Hellll yeah. Fire, motherfuckers. Though it’s a little strange that lighters were invented before matches.
First invented around 4000 BC, but not fully embraced until around the year 14 AD, Romans used the waterwheel for irrigation, pumping water, and in so doing dramatically altered the landscape around them.
73. Air conditioning
Indoor air conditioning obviously made living in hot climates more comfortable. But with comfort comes a change in where humans feel like they can live. Just look at the American southwest. The Sun Belt of the early 20th century was sparsely populated. But air conditioning, as The Atlantic has explained, caused a rapid population boom in places like Arizona. So depending on how you feel about Arizona you can determine whether the invention of air conditioning was a good thing.
72. Sanitary napkins
Sanitary napkins date to at least the fourth century, but many of the best innovations for menstrual protection have come since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Feminine hygiene products are still often overlooked when it comes to serving the needs of low income people and those in disaster areas, but that’s only because we live in a very backwards and broken society that should be destroyed.
Some people drink raw milk. And while I don’t believe that raw milk should be illegal, I think that every bottle of raw milk should be mandated to have a picture of Louis Pasteur and the word, “Really, idiot? Really?”
We take the elevator for granted, but modern skyscrapers wouldn’t be possible without them. Have you ever tried to walk up a dozen flights of stairs or more? It’s not fun, if movies have taught me anything. And it’s easy for some people to forget just how revolutionary the elevator was for accessibility. Elevators are so crucial to mobility for certain people that they even have their own section in the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
We told you this list wasn’t going to be all sunshine and sleek, shiny objects.
Modern cement was patented in 1824, and has helped define our modern age, but this incredibly useful mixture of stone and sand has been around for thousands of years in one form or another. The story of concrete is a great lesson in how sometimes the things that most change our environment are simple improvements on technologies that have been around for many generations, if not even thousands of years.
67. Space Shuttle
When Americans landed on the moon, it was seen as the greatest achievement in space travel ever. And with good reason. But the Space Shuttle program was arguably even more important. How important? Despite the fact that the Shuttle program has died, we probably won’t know just how world-changing it was for another few decades.
The Space Shuttle program was unique in that it allowed astronauts to blast off into space and then return in the same ship. But what many people don’t know is that Space Shuttle missions included classified missions and classified payloads. That’s right, America’s spies were using the Space Shuttle to launch all kinds of things into space.
Maybe give the shuttle program a little more credit than it’s gotten for changing the world. Especially now that people seem to have completely forgotten it when they’re talking about all the exciting innovations in reusable rockets today.
66. Super 8mm film camera
Much like 16mm, 8mm film cameras changed the world, putting home movies into the hands of millions. And while we eventually developed more user-friendly mediums, 8mm was no less revolutionary for bringing films into our homes.
65. Cotton gin
Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in the 1790s and helped change the course of American history. It helped turn cotton into America’s largest export until the Civil War and the abolition of slavery got in the way. But oddly enough, America’s destruction of chattel slavery led to the rise of slavery in other parts of the world who wanted a piece of the lucrative cotton market, driven by Britain’s seemingly insatiable need for the product.
64. Night vision goggles
The U.S. military didn’t invent night vision capabilities. But they sure as hell improved upon it and utilised it like no one else.
Night vision was introduced in Britain in 1929 by a Hungarian scientist who was working on infrared sight. But that primitive contraption would prove to be pitiful compared to the night vision systems that were developed by the Army for the Vietnam War. And, like so many of the technologies improved upon in Vietnam (from drones to border sensors), night vision was brought back home to be used on Americans.
If you ask any average person on the street if we have a cure for cancer, the answer would be no. But in many ways, we do have a highly successful treatments. It’s called chemotherapy and it’s getting a little bit better with every decade.
Yes, we still have a long ways to go. But cancers that would’ve killed people very quickly just a few decades ago are now on the run, thanks to advancements made in chemotherapy. The part that’s still up for debate, at least in the U.S.: who should be able to access chemo and should expensive treatments be allowed to bankrupt people just because they got sick?
62. Printing press
You learn about the printing press as one of those “world changing” inventions in school. And everything you learned is absolutely correct. It was important. And while Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type (check out number 30 on this list), he did make improvements in mechanizing the printing process in such a way that his name has rightly gone down in history for his innovations during the 1430s.
61. The web
The web wouldn’t have been possible without the internet, but the web is distinct and important in its own right. The world wide web, invented by Tim Berners Lee, provided a portal to kids like me in the 1990s who saw the internet as something truly transformative. We couldn’t foresee the shitshow that was to come in the 2010s, but for a period in the 1990s, everything was cool as hell online.
The invention of television is remembered as something that popped into existence in the 1950s, but there was decades of toil that went into this innovation before it became a mainstream reality. People of the 19th century pictured a world where you could be transported to any point on the globe, even the bottom of the sea, to explore new worlds. And they imagined that TV would allow you to see and hear someone on the other side of the planet.
TV has had its ups and downs, as media theorists of the mid-20th century worried that television was rotting our brains and turning Americans into little more than consumers. And they weren’t altogether wrong. But the invention of television, more than perhaps any other technology up to its invention, changed the way that we see the world dramatically.
We did get to see the bottom of the sea, and the edge of space, thanks largely to the idiot box. But today the definition of TV is a bit more hazy. It’s not longer a tangible medium, it’s just a message. And the message is breaking us apart, no matter how you’re getting it.
The first artificial human-made satellite was launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union. Called Sputnik, it made the Americans shit their pants and kicked off the Space Race. Not bad for a little satellite.
Oh yeah, it’s also an absolute necessity for things like worldwide TV broadcasts, GPS, and many aspects of modern state-sponsored espionage. So there’s that too.
58. Jet engine
Without it, there’d be no modern aircraft industry and no rockets blasting into space. So pour one out for the jet engine—a noisy piece of machinery with sometimes deadly consequences that would make the capital-F Futurists proud.
Radar literally won the war for the Allies in World War II. I mean, that’s the story we’re told. And it’s nearly true. So, um, thanks radar? Otherwise we might be living in an alternate reality world where a Nazi sympathizer was in the White House. What a nightmare.
56. AR-15 gun
The AR-15 may seem like a weird choice for a list of important inventions, but its deadly functionality has led this gun to be the firearm of choice for mass shooters in America.
The AR-15 has dramatically altered American life in ways that few other inventions have. It was the gun of choice in mass shootings like Aurora in 2012 which saw 12 people die and 70 wounded. The AR-15 was used in Orlando in 2016 when 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded. And it was one of many guns used in Las Vegas that killed 59 and injured 851. The AR-15 was also used at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 where 20 children and 6 adults were slaughtered. And it will almost certainly be used in another mass shooting in the near future.
The AR-15 is used by countless mass killers and America is alone in the developed world as a country that still sells this weapon to almost anyone who wants one. It’s an invention that has changed the world and will continue to change the world until American lawmakers come to their senses and finally do something about it. But I’m not holding my breath.
TV may have changed the world in the 1950s and ‘60s, but radio was arguably even more revolutionary as a broadcast medium. Invented as a means to communicate from one person to another, radio became a broadcast technology thanks to advancements in the late 1910s. And pretty soon broadcasting meant that a single person could talk to thousands, and eventually millions of people all at once.
54. Steam train
It seems rather antiquated now, of course, but we wouldn’t have the world we live in today without the old iron horse. First appearing in Great Britain at the beginning of the 19th century, the steam locomotive would conquer distant lands and spread humans and commerce throughout the world. For better and for worse, of course.
53. Mechanical clock
The mechanical clock and capitalism are forever linked. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, the notion of being precisely “on time” was rather silly. But with the clock came the ability for bosses to say, “you need to be here exactly at 8am.”
So, thank you mechanical clock? You’re a great daily reminder of the inhumanity we endure every day as we’re beholden to this strange concept of “being on time.”
Sometimes I try to think what might life would look like without glasses. And it’s not pretty.
Yes, it would be an ugly world in the very literal sense for me, as things would be incredibly fuzzy. But I wouldn’t be able to do many of the things that help me simply live my life—like walking around without fear that I’m going to run into something, or worse yet, get mugged by a huge blurry mass of humanity.
50. Canned food
Many people may not think of canned food as technology. But it revolutionised the way that people eat. Invented by a French brewer in 1809, canning gave an extended life to foods that might otherwise spoil.
Global positioning system, more commonly known as GPS, has dramatically changed how we navigate our world. Just ask anyone who had a first generation iPhone. I still remember pulling over in my car to input a starting address to get a map of where I was supposed to go. Thankfully, I also had a paper map at the time, but GPS more than virtually any other technology has changed how we move around in the 21st century.
GPS, like most important innovations of the past 100 years, was invented by the U.S. military and was first developed by the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s and didn’t become fully operational until the 1990s. But that military-to-civilian pipeline brought GPS to our fingertips and now it’s hard to imagine the world without it. But we might have to, since GPS is incredibly vulnerable to hacking.
48. Electronic computer
In retrospect, it was probably a mistake. But it changed the world, that’s for sure.
The thing you put in between wheels, not the singer. That’s Axel. Still good, but not appropriate for our list.
The car has transformed the way that humanity lives. And it’s also fundamentally destroying our planet. What an absolutely shit world we’ve built for ourselves, eh? Enjoy it while it lasts. Which is to say, not much longer.
45. Oil refining
Oil refining was invented in central Europe during the 1850s. And while it helped give birth to the world we know today, it’s obviously up for debate whether that was a good thing. One thing’s for certain, we don’t need to be using fossil fuels anymore. But uttering such an idea is still considered heresy in certain corners. Much like automobiles, it’s enabling mass suicide. And we’re doing very little to stop it.
They cut things. Gotta have ‘em.
43. Birth control pill
The birth control pill was incredibly controversial when it first received FDA approval in 1960. It was even banned in many states — an affront to God, apparently. But like most social movements of the 20th century, the good guys eventually won. Which is tough to say today. Society seems to be going in the wrong direction when it comes to giving people the right to have control over their own bodies.
Ancient peoples had some fascinating ways of navigating the seas, but the compass really changed the game and did more than perhaps any other invention to open up the world to exploration.
41. AK-47 gun
The AR-15 changed the modern American mass shooting. But the AK-47 changed the world. It’s estimated that at least 8 million people have been killed with an AK-47 worldwide. And while that pales in comparison to the potential destruction of a nuclear weapon, that’s still a lot of death.
The first condoms were made of sheep intestines. Don’t ask me who the first people were to try that, but we tip our hats to them. What absolute legends.
39. Still camera
Photography, invented in 1839, changed the world for better and for worse. Do you know how hard it was to sext before some weirdo invented the camera?
38. Internal combustion engine
Much like the automobile, this one has probably done more damage than most inventions. But it needs to be acknowledged. The internal combustion engine would be a damn cool invention if it wasn’t contributing to the complete destruction of our planet.
Alexander Fleming, a professor in London, discovered penicillin in 1928 and changed the world. Large scale production of antibiotics wouldn’t begin until World War II, but once it did, this live-saving treatment made life a lot more likely for humans. It’s estimated that roughly 200 million lives have probably been saved since the invention of antibiotics. Not bad. Not bad at all. Unless you live in the 21st century, where antibiotics are becoming increasingly useless.
The sailboat was invented in Mesopotamia around 1300 B.C. and had an incredibly long and successful run, helping people circle the globe many times over. The only problem? Sails require not only wind, but wind going in the direction you’d like to travel. By the late 19th century, the sail gave way to steamships powered by coal, and the rest is history.
35. Mechanical refrigerator
There were a number of mechanical inventions in the 20th century that changed the world. But one that can be easily forgotten is the mechanical refrigerator. Few things outside of trucks themselves revolutionised the way that people ate in the 20th century. It used to be incredibly rare to find “out of season” fruits and vegetables in the supermarket shelves. But there’s no such thing as out of season anymore in the modern grocery store.
Thanks to refrigeration, food travels from all over the world in ships, trucks, and personal cars, and is deposited in the home refrigerator for consumption later.
34. Cast iron
Cast iron was invented in China in roughly 550 BC, and it would radically transform life for average people with its use in agriculture and eventually warfare.
The modern pencil wasn’t invented until 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, but it went through many iterations before this particular birth. And much like other landmarks in creation, such as photography, the pencil would alter how we recorded the world and how we saw our place in it.
Where would you be without a fork? Eating some fucking spaghetti with your bare hands, that’s where, motherfucker.
They’re like forks, only cooler. And much more versatile. Have you ever tried eating sushi with a fork? I’ve seen it done, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
30. Moveable type
Invented sometime around the year 1000 by Bi Sheng in China, moveable type would change the world, making it easier to print books and other knowledge. Hilariously to modern eyes, many people saw the transition away from oral traditions to the printed word as a form of laziness.
But when we step back and look at the transition to internet-available knowledge, it’s perhaps easier to understand their concerns. When was the last time you felt like you truly absorbed information and didn’t check a fact on the internet in an instant when confronted with a tough question? That’s what I thought.
29. Oil lamp
Oil lamps can be traced back to 4500 BC and virtually every civilisation since has made their own improvements on this vital device. There were few things more important than an oil lamp before the invention of electric light—at least if you had any desire to not rely on the sun as your only means of light.
Say what you will about capital punishment, but the guillotine gets the job done.
The guillotine, or at least something like it, was invented in the 1200s, but this invention and the name we use today became popular during the French Revolution in the 1790s.
Decapitation seems unpleasant (I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been decapitated) but the guillotine wasn’t just a way of killing someone. It was meant to send a message. That message? Off with their heads. No gods, no masters. Off with their fucking heads.
No wonder the guillotine has become a bit of a meme these days. History has a funny way of resurfacing this invention any time the wealthy decide that they prefer austerity to economic concessions for the masses.
27. Sewing machine
The modern sewing machine was invented around 1790 in England, but it’s another great example of a time when the inventor isn’t necessarily the one who was able to successfully market and sell it. The sewing machine would come into common use during the 19th century, would revolutionise the production of clothes for generations to come.
Without irrigation we wouldn’t have modern agriculture or the modern world. And while some people insist that a lack of modern agriculture might be a good thing, they’re romanticizing a past that never existed. What would you be in a hunter-gatherer society? The person who forages for tweets? That’s what I thought. Pass me another microwaved burrito, fellow nerd. We’re not hunting for shit.
25. Horse saddle
Have you ever tried to bareback a horse? Me neither. But apparently it’s really hard. Invented around 365 AD by the Sarmations in what’s now modern Russia, the horse saddle fixed that problem.
People at the turn of the 20th century predicted that the horse would be extinct by now, thanks to the invention of the automobile. And while they’re not exactly gone forever, thankfully we don’t have to deal with the roughly 2.5 million pounds of horse manure and 420 million gallons of horse piss that used to flow through New York’s streets per day at the start of the 20th century.
The longbow was probably invented around 3300 BC, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when this weapon of war really came into its own. English archers killed a lot of people with their longbows, so there’s no doubt it deserves to be on any list pertaining to important inventions.
Chop that shit up.
22. Spinning wheel
The spinning wheel, used for creating thread and yarn, was likely invented in India sometime around the year 500 and spread throughout Asia and the Middle East from there. The spinning wheel was an absolutely essential invention for clothes and textiles before the Industrial Revolution.
Likely invented around the year 500 by the Persians, the windmill would go on to be used for crushing grain and pumping water in countless societies. The humble windmill might just be an aesthetic novelty to many Americans. But modern agriculture and manufacturing owes a great deal to this invention.
Few things have made the world smaller than the aeroplane. Humans spent generations trying to make powered, heavier-than-air flight a reality, but when the Wright Brothers first succeeded on December 17, 1903, the world entered a new age.
Just like every major technological breakthrough, the world didn’t change overnight in 1903. There were plenty of hurdles to surpass, like crossing the Atlantic (Charles Lindbergh made the first solo trip from New York to Paris in 1927 and so on), but the world would look a lot different without the aeroplane. Especially 1990s stand-up comedy.
It would be impossible to guess how many people have been killed with pistols throughout history since their invention in the 16th century. But let’s just say it’s a lot. The worst thing about pistols? They’ve made suicide a lot easier. When we talk about gun violence, the mass shootings and gang violence get all the headlines.
But we barely talk about the number of Americans who kill themselves with handguns every year. Currently, it’s about 20,000 Americans who die by suicide every year.
The Egyptians constructed the first dam sometime around 2950-2750 BC, and while that dam fell apart pretty quickly, the concept ushered in a new era of humanity’s ability to control its environment.
I think I speak for all of humanity in the 21st century when I say that the telephone is more of a burden than it should be these days. But it was quite important in its time. Quite.
Much like the wheel, nobody knows exactly who invented the spear. We just know that the first one was created roughly 500,000 years ago. And it’s been used to kill plenty of animals (and humans) ever since.
For when you need to see small shit.
Prozac, otherwise known as fluoxetine hydrochloride, was the first mainstream antidepressant in the SSRI family. It got a lot of bad reactionary press after it became the world’s most prescribed anti-depressant in the late 1980s, but for people who respond to SSRIs, it’s been a godsend.
There is a segment of the population that believes going on drugs like Prozac is wrong, and that all you need is to radically change your life with some vaginal jade eggs or some shit. Those people, of course, are idiots and you should take any drug that makes you feel better.
I mean, they’re fucking swords. They had to be on the list.
12. Electric light
It’s difficult to imagine what it must have looked like to see the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It had so many fantastic attractions, from the Ferris Wheel to the Midway. But for my money, I’d love to see that particular fair (as a time traveller, of course) just to see the artificial electric lights.
Electricity wouldn’t become come in homes for decades after the Chicago World’s Fair. At the start of the 1920s, just 35 per cent of American households had electricity. But by the end of the decade, it was 68 per cent.
Again, it all seems rather pedestrian from the vantage point of the 21st century, but electric light was a radical invention in humanity’s long timeline.
Gunpowder was discovered in China in the 9th century, but it was mainly used for peaceful purposes like fireworks. It wouldn’t be used for warfare for another few centuries, when it changed the world of battle forever.
But gunpowder wasn’t just for war. It could literally move mountains. Or, at least, large pieces of a mountain. Explosives became crucial for mining, opening up the Earth with a tremendous bang and literally creating empires.
10. The internet
The birth of the internet is tough to pin down. Even experts can’t agree on the details. But if we go with the IEEE, an important engineering organisation, we know not only when but where the internet was born: The night of October 29, 1969 in room 3420 at Boelter Hall at UCLA.
The rest is history. The internet has transformed our lives in the 21st century. And we’ll let future historians determine whether it was a net negative or a net positive for humanity.
9. Sewer system
No invention improved public health better than the invention of the sewer system. If you’re a fan of not having literal shit in your water supply, thank the development of the sewer system.
It’s a technology that can be easy to forget, but it changed the world. The humble transistor made modern computing possible. And without it, we wouldn’t have computers, smartphones, or the internet.
The earliest modern computers used vacuum tubes, which were bulky, cumbersome, and unreliable. But the invention of the transistor miniaturized computing in the best ways possible, opening the door to the computer revolution that we’ve seen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Some of the earliest evidence of steel that we have is in modern Turkey, dating back to 1800 BC, but this incredibly versatile alloy of iron and carbon would be used in countless different ways over the next few thousand years. Post-World War II production in the United States depended heavily on steel, giving rise to entire pockets of the country now known as the Rust Belt that have never fully recovered.
The job of the plow is pretty straightforward: It’s used to break up the earth so that crops can be planted. It’s a deceptively easy concept to those of us in the 21st century, but it was absolutely necessary for the rise of modern agriculture. We wouldn’t have civilisation as we know it without the plow.
During the 19th century, the electric telegraph was arguably more revolutionary than the telephone and the internet would ever become. In fact, there’s an entire book with that premise. And it’s probably right.
When Samuel F. B. Morse transmitted his first message, “What hath God wrought?” from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore on May 24, 1844 he opened up an entirely new world of technological possibility. The world became instantly smaller, allowing for communication over vast distances in a way that use to require physical delivery (letters) or large visual signal stations most common in wartime.
Anyone who wanted to send a message from the United States to Europe in the 1850s would have to wait at least 10 full days—the time it took for ships to cross the Atlantic. But that all changed on August 16, 1858 when the first transatlantic electric telegraph line was laid. Suddenly a message could travel around the globe in minutes.
We wouldn’t have the world we know without it. Electricity was harnessed in the 19th century and by the end of that century it was being used to light up homes and power street cars.
By the turn of the 20th century, electricity was being used in homes for any number of gadgets and the tech nerds of yesteryear were geeking out over the earliest radios, dishwashers, electrical saws, electric light baths, and light-up Christmas tree holders. To say nothing of the more grim side of electricity, like the electric chair.
But all in all, most Americans in the 21st century couldn’t imagine their lives without it, despite the fact that roughly 1.3 billion people still don’t have reliable access to electricity.
3. The wheel
If you ask a hundred historians what the most important invention is, a vast majority would no doubt put the wheel in their top ten. And for good reason. have you heard about this wheel thing? It’s pretty neat!
Ancient peoples harnessed fire in ways that allowed them to control their environment. For example, aboriginal Australians were able to keep bushfires under control by shaping and manipulating what they destroyed—reinvigorating the land and limiting the number of fires that had the potential to get out of control.
It’s fire. It’s kinda important.
1. Nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons catapulted humanity into an age when we can now destroy virtually all human life on Earth. There’s no going back.
The most conservative estimates of the death tool in Hiroshima (150,000 people death) and Nagasaki (75,000 people dead) from the United States’ decision to drop two atomic bombs and kill thousands of civilians doesn’t include the suffering that came from those exposed to the bomb and lived or died much later.
So no, nuclear bombs haven’t killed as many people as conventional weapons. Not even close. But the idea that we live in a world where virtually everyone could be dead in the span of less than a day—that’s what makes it take the top spot.