What’s the greatest invention of all time?


I read this from Raymond, which prompted this post.


To qualify for greatness, an invention would have to affect the most people and benefit humankind in a big way


 


When pondering this question, I’ve heard things like:


 



  • Wheel

  • Transistor

  • Computer

  • Printing Press

  • Vaccines

  • In4ternal combustion engine

  • Cars

  • Planes

  • Sandwich

  • Language

  • Internet

  • Tablet PC

 


Two things that are rarely mentioned come to mind: phonetics and the decimal representation of numbers.


 


By phonetics I mean that there is a simple relationship between the written and oral representations of a word or concept. Phonetics allows humans to communicate simply through the span of generations. People can learn from the accumulated knowledge of predecessors.


 


By decimal representation I mean the 1’s, 10’s, 100’s decimal number system that we use today (including understanding and using zero). Imagine mathematics and science without decimal numbers, or even with Roman numerals. Of course, I’d prefer base 8 rather than base 10, so things like ½, ¼, 1/8, etc. would be simpler. Imagine drill bits: which is bigger: 5/64th or 3/32nd ?


 


Then again, wouldn’t it be nice to have 10 days in a week, 10 months in a year, 10 hours in a day, 10 seconds in a minute? And the US would be using the metric system.


 


I don’t know to whom to attribute these two “inventions”, but I think they are of such immense importance to humans that they should not be forgotten

Comments (37)

  1. Doug says:

    My guess would be that the ancient Phonecians had something to do with phonetics.

    Math history books that I have read give credit to the Arabs for introducing the digits to Europe in about 1000 A.D.

  2. David Betz says:

    Now, let’s not forget sliced bread.

  3. Aleem Juma says:

    It is sometimes difficult to qualify things as inventions, especially when considering them in their own right. For example the computer could not have been conceived without the prior ‘invention’ of the transistor, itself born of the idea behind the valve whose own generation could only have been brought about after the discovery of the properties of semiconductors, preceded by that of the electron and so on.

    Did the sandwich exist before sliced bread? Or perhaps a more pertinent question, did the sandwich exist before the Earl of Sandwich, after whom the standard lunch of millions is named?

    Without belittling the tremendous feats of brilliance shown by many inventors all over the world, it is often difficult to tell how much of an invention was actually ‘invented’. Many of the items people credit as modern inventions are simply miniaturisations of older versions, such as the transistor and the Tablet PC.

    Your honourable mention of the decimal system and phonetics are much more than inventions. I would consider them as full paradigm shifts in the evolution of civilisation. Indeed the spread of some such concepts would not have been so wide were it not for the military ‘inventions’ (referring here not only to weaponry but also to intellectual inventions in strategy and technique) of peoples like the Chinese, Romans and Greeks enabling their expansive conquests.

    In summary, while we’re staring in awe at the marvellous inventions we use in every day life today, it’s worth remembering – and giving credit to – the full historical origins of these inventions and how they came about. Thanks for bringing it up.

    aleem.juma@gmail.com

  4. Brian bolton says:

    IMHO- 1) Wheel and a close second I think is the whole freon /refrigeration/Air conditioning thingy.

  5. Hernan E. Delgado says:

    A lots of inventions are due to others, as they mentioned before, transistors to computers, slide bread to sandwich, etc.

    IMHO one great invention that lead to many others is the electricity, but there is many others like the wheel, the first tools, etc.

    All this inventions that are natural for our daily living, but we can not live with out them.

    Thanks for giving us the opportunity to think in this small thing that keeping us alive.

    Hernan E. Delgado

  6. Gerardo Czajkowski says:

    What about plastics? They’re everywhere nowadays and I don’t think we can live without them and maintain our lifestyle

  7. Ian says:

    How about fabric and loom? Also AC dynamo and motor (Tesla), metal forge, paper and rubber, coins/currency. Musical instruments?

  8. MobyDikc says:

    TiVo, the Toaster Oven, and Visual FoxPro

  9. Dawa Tsering says:

    Who invented human beings?

  10. Carl says:

    Satellites? Cel phones?

    Didn’t apes invent human beings? <tic>

  11. Carl Warner says:

    I clicked to quickly.

    I wanted to say that anything that furthers communication is a great invention. It’s just that some of these things advance the state of communication more than others.

    The really important invention would be to take communication to the next level. Communication without understanding is really hollow. How do we invent something that conveys the true meaning of what we intend to give to the the other parties so that they understand what we really mean. How can understanding of all of the communication we are inundated with be crystal clear?

  12. Ron says:

    A name like "Hsia" and you think phonetics are great? *grin* … your forefathers must be turning in their graves.

    A few years ago I was in the National Palace Museum, in Taipei. It contains examples of ancient Chinese writing on turtle bones, some of the oldest writing known to man. The man next to me was translating some of the characters for his grandson. Try THAT with any phonetic language – none have lasted so long.

  13. Aleem Juma says:

    [quote – Carl Warner]

    The really important invention would be to take communication to the next level. Communication without understanding is really hollow. How do we invent something that conveys the true meaning of what we intend to give to the the other parties so that they understand what we really mean. How can understanding of all of the communication we are inundated with be crystal clear?

    [/quote]

    Carl, you have a very good point! However, this ideal will be impossible while we still use communication that can be interpreted in different ways. Until communication elements have only one meaning and any concept can only be communicated in one way, there will always be ambiguity in communication.

    Hmmm… those criteria sound familiar… anyone see the link with computers? Computers have been communicating with such languages for a long time now. Standards sets such as the IETF RFC repository (www.ietf.org/rfc.html) and ISO standards (www.iso.org) have been instrumental in standardising communication across the globe.

    For example, the standard defining the Internet Protocol (IP) ensures that any computer can construct a message with absolute certainty that any other computer on the Internet can understand its contents.

    Sounds like something we humans might try and emulate…

  14. Meagan says:

    The plow, it cleared land away, which allowed civilizations to combine so ideas could circulate, and things could get written down. The plow also allowed things to be developed further, by cutting back on the amount of time someone was out in the fields, they could relax and propel their ideas into action.

    – Meagan

    12th grade

  15. Ronald says:

    generators

  16. WL says:

    the aeroplane.

    it gave people wings and hope.

    allowing mankind to believe that impossible is nothing (thus resulting in many more inventions).

  17. Leesotho says:

    The Thermos.

  18. Laura says:

    Nobody has said "writing" yet, so I think I should!

    Writing is not a natural instinct for humans.

    Of course, this would have started with the cave-wall paintings created by cavemen.

    There is more I can say, but can’t, the brain’s fried, I’m actually procrastinating from an essay on technological determinism.

  19. George says:

    Immunization and Antibiotics. Three centuries ago, almost everyone died of infectious diseases.

  20. Jonathan says:

    Light weight writing materials:  This allowed for the spread of ideas.  This goes along with writing in general.  With out writing knowledge is limited to what individuals can remember in their own minds.  It would make it impossible to accumulate great knowledge.   Light weight writing materials (paper, papyrus, etc)   allows the knowledge of one group of people to be easily transported to another group to then be expanded upon (Before this people wrote on caves, rocks, stone tablets, etc…)  Knowledge leads to invention; Alexander Bell would not have been able to invent the telephone if he had no knowledge of electricity, conductance, magnetism, even the basics of how to make wire…  He read what was written down by men before him.

  21. David says:

    I would say sewing and the sewing needle is the greatest invention by humans.  It forever changed how humans lived.

  22. tuxman says:

    well, i would have to say language. some countries in this world have like 30 diferent languages. its is important to have a common language that everyone can gravitate to and use to communcate and enforce laws and commerce. it is for this reason that i think the english language may be th egreatest invention of all time.

  23. tuxman says:

    well, i would have to say language. some countries in this world have like 30 diferent languages. its is important to have a common language that everyone can gravitate to and use to communcate and enforce laws and commerce. it is for this reason that i think the english language may be th egreatest invention of all time.

  24. Bob Bobson says:

    I agree with Leesotho.

    The Thermos has to be the greatest invention of all time.  It keeps Hot things HOT and Cold things COLD ~ But how does it know????

  25. hann says:

    hhhghghghgutrjreyfhgnrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  26. kartik says:

    obv computers!!!! dont u think so

  27. Airikonline says:

    I believe that people who say that the greatest invention created in sliced bread are incorrect. For without the invention of the knife sliced bread would be nothing.

  28. Bogosi says:

    Theres no dought in my mind that the greatest invention of all time is lingerie and condoms

  29. Alex Yoo says:

    the greatest invention of all times would be a modern day toilet…

  30. Alex Yoo says:

    the greatest invention of all times would be a modern day toilet…

  31. cool man says:

    the zippo lighter (i don’t smoke)

  32. God says:

    Well, the greatest invention of all time would be artificial intelligence, for as far I can see in the future..

  33. T says:

    The greatest invention of all time is the invention of language. Think about it, if language was not invented, we would all be wondering around like idiots trying to communicate our thoughts with grunts and what not. Without laungage, none of these other inventions would exist. We wouldn’t have a need for them.

  34. Ibrahim Hussein Ibrahim says:

    No doubt, Wheel was the most important invention till now. generation of electricity even needed its principle to be generating ! and it was need for so many machines as well as transportations and more…

    So, the importance is of invention which make the life easier and give more profit to the human was the standard. but in the present become nothing could be in comparable with the saving the life on our planet.

    But believe look at the European Patent Office, about The Greatest Invention ever an Invention will save our Planet, and will dramatically change the life of all humanity by an alternative free green energy. Patent no. (EP1980745)

    For any question and detail, may you contact media office of the inventor, Ibrahim Hussein Ibrahim:

    (Ibrahim.h.Ibrahim@live.com)