Science and Technology Inventions Sociology Impact Archaeology Advancements Discovery

Just ten top inventions of all time?  What comes to mind is fire, language, the wheel, the carved rock, (hammering tool), which would eventually lead to things as diverse as the hydraulic drill and industrial hammers. Then there is a stick, or bone, which led to other digging tools, as varied as the simple shovel, and trowel, and as complex as back hoes, and bulldozers.

Once able to dig in the ground, early humans were a small step away from agriculture, arguably the invention that allowed us to settle in stable areas which led to the invention of cities and civilization.   Cities led to such things as written language, ideologies such as monarchy, theocracy, religion, and shops for specific trades. Using signs  and symbols became the basis for computer language, but of course it was influenced by every other invention along the way as well.

Suddenly there are too many inventions to keep track of in this rapidly evolving, early world.  So many inventions are dependent upon the prior advancement, it becomes nearly impossible to tease apart what is really the  most influential of all these discoveries.  For the purpose of this article, I would argue that after the first six mentioned: Fire, language, rock,(pounding tool)  stick, (digging tool) wheel, moving/transport tool, agriculture, would come cities, calendar, writing, and medicine.

Cities enabled trade, which drove industry and invention.  Calendars provided a way to plan far in advance. Writing was a huge leap for humans for the same reasons, to plan, and to store gathered knowledge.  Last but not least comes medicine.  Everything from willow bark to modern birth control has been extremely instrumental in all human advancements.  Indeed, birth control, maybe for the twenty first century,  is the one thing that allows us to achieve sustainable levels of human population, no small feat.

But, to play the devil’s advocate for just a moment, it may be that there are advancements, and what we call inventions, but what is really happening is discovery.  Discovery, unlocking nature’s secrets, allows us to continually shape environment, and environment, we know, drives evolution.

Could there ever be just ten top inventions of all time?  It would seem if one digs deeply enough the answer is it is unlikely.  Even things like calendars, and the wheel could be thought of as discoveries rather than inventions.  People watched events unfold, each in a specific time in the heavens, and on earth.  Planets, sun, moon, seasons, and life followed patterns.  Did recording these patterns mean we invented the calendar? Stonehenge has been called both calendar and astronomical observatory, which invention is it?  The wheel was easy to envision when humans witnessed logs and round objects roll by.  From the wheel to Velcro copied from seed burrs for NASA, we seem to be clever, but always at copying more so than “inventing.”

Of course we do have things called inventions.  But Nature deserves most of the credit.  We came along, and eventually nature found ways to continually improve our language skills. Nature provided fire and we found ways to control it.  The more you think about it the fewer inventions we can really claim. 

Another aspect of the question is greatest to whom?  “Greatest” implies to someone’s benefit, but all species rise and fall, extinctions occur, results of technology cost some life forms, including some human life forms, their very lives.  One could not objectively quantify Hiroshima’s fate as great to all, nor could one attribute perfecting wheels into CO2 belching machines as globally welcome.  What about agriculture?  Farming is done extremely minimally by other species; does that mean we are better at it, or that they are more efficient?  Also agriculture is another wonder that remains to be perfected, or even good for most of the planet in the overall scheme of several million years ahead.

Great could just mean big and/or grand, but who is to say whether a freeway system, or a space station is bigger, or grander? For every invention is a counter argument as to how that thing may be life enhancing, or biosphere damaging, demanding upon point of view.