You’re reading this on your desktop/laptop/tablet/phone, most likely in a durable building, wearing insulating clothing (I hope), maybe eating some refrigerated food. At the same time, any number of other technological marvels work to keep you safe/comfortable/happy/healthy, and this all makes it crystal clear that the one area in which humanity reigns supreme is invention.
We’re not the fastest, strongest, hardiest, or most numerous species, but we are the best at dreaming up ways to make life more livable. In 10,000 years- a blink of the eye in a planetary timescale- we’ve gone from chasing mammoths with sticks to drones delivering cookies. As hard as it is to believe, human inventions are even more important than delivered cookies, those inventions that changed us and our world tremendously, and here are 10 of the best.
Technically, time is both a discovery and an invention. Time, as the fourth coordinate of an event (along with length, width, and height), is a natural feature of the universe. But time as a standardized unit of measurement, based on arbitrary human value, is an invention, and it’s an important invention, too.
Our standardized timekeeping system as we know it today, with 24 hours of 60 minutes apiece, and those in turn of 60 seconds apiece, dates back to a complicated mix of Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek systems and has been critical in the emergence of our modern, production-based society.
Before time became standardized, any process that took time- for example, cooking, fermenting, heating, cooling, etc.- was organic, left to general intuitions based on solar position and other phenomena. Timekeeping allowed it, finally, to be done precisely.
That is time’s greatest gift to society: precision. Now agriculture, medicine, engineering, computing, and every other process critical to our lives can be done with exactness and repeated, again and again, all with the same level of exactness. Just imagine scheduling a life-saving surgery: instead of scheduling it on the 24th at 3:35 pm, we’ll just do it ‘the day after the moon is halfway big again when the sun has gone down a bit but not too much.’ Oops, double-booked.
9 Space Travel
Thus far, space travel has provided humanity with two great gifts: scientific information about our solar neighborhood and symbolic triumphs. But any astrophysicist, futurist, or cosmologist will tell you that space travel will end up giving us more. So much more, in fact, that it is likely to go down in history as the single biggest step our species has ever taken.
It is easy to extrapolate from our species’ history of expansion, development, and energy usage that we are growing exponentially and will soon demand resources and energy beyond what our home planet can provide. The answer to that problem is our nearest neighboring planets. Talk of colonizing Mars increases every year, and others have entered the conversation- Venus, Mercury, and our Moon being the other big three. If we continue expanding our numbers and energy demands at our current rate, soon, all four of those bodies will be needed as new homes for the human race.
8 Machine Learning
For better or worse, machine learning is going through a renaissance at the moment, and it is beginning to affect our lives in a huge way. We all know that computers store and sort huge amounts of data, but machine learning is the process by which computers use that data to create data of their own. Computer’ analyze our data’s trends, independently adapt to it, and produce their own interpretations.
At the moment, we benefit from machine learning most when it comes to navigation: apps like Google Maps and programs that delivery companies use to optimize their route efficiency. It has other common uses, like image recognition and interpretation, but all of its best days are ahead. Machine learning is one foundational basis for artificial intelligence. It will likely soon lead to automatic diagnoses for hospital patients, completely immersive/reactive digital assistants, and high-functioning robots, to name a few.
Math has yielded many benefits to humanity, and it is hard to overstate. There are almost no major areas of society that math hasn’t either improved or outright created. Without math, there is no measurement, engineering, or physics. And that means no medicine, architecture, advanced technology, or computation.
Like time, math is another discovery/invention hybrid due to it being a series of universal constants and relations and a uniquely human interpretation thereof. Its universal nature may be at the heart of its ultimate, final use: communication with alien life. As farfetched as it may sound, joining a larger cosmic society may be humanity’s ultimate destiny. If it is, English, Spanish, and Mandarin will not be our language of choice; it will be math, the universal language. Though no alien species will know Shakespeare, they will certainly know that E=mc2, and that’s a good place to start.
6 The Printing Press
Although the printing press is the most cliche item to put on this list, we can’t ignore it. Gutenberg’s printing press wasn’t the first automated book-making machine (that honor goes to an anonymous Chinese inventor centuries earlier), but it was the easiest, most adaptable, and most inexpensive. The printing press made it useful and popular enough to mass-produce written works, and with it, we were able to pull ourselves out of the Dark Ages.
The printing press allowed information to reach larger audiences and fueled an expansion in literacy rates among the lower classes, which helped free knowledge from the hands of the elite and, in turn, fueled political reform and revolution. It also allowed scientists and mathematicians to record their ideas and spread them widely among peers, leading to an unprecedented amount of cooperation and competition, which launched the European Renaissance.
5 The Internet
If knowledge is power, then humanity is more powerful than ever- at least in terms of access. The internet took the information dissemination of the printing press and cranked it up exponentially. Now, the 50-70% of the world’s population with internet access can learn anything at any time, as much or as little as they want.
Though five minutes in any comment section will show how often internet users choose not to learn, the opportunity is still there, and that is a modern miracle. I currently have tabs open for articles on Boltzmann brains, Tir Na Nog, and chiaroscuro techniques. Don’t know what some or all of those are? Thanks to the internet, you can in seconds.
About 200 years ago, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 35-40. Today it’s 75-80. That is a full doubling of life expectancy in just a few generations. You might think this is due to advancements in medicine like antibiotics and vaccines (which are admittedly amazing), but you’d only be maybe 10-20% right. The period with the sharpest rise in expectancy- the late 1800s and early 1900s- occurred before the biggest advancements in modern medicine. That rise was due almost solely to improvements in sanitation.
Rapidly, we began to care more about clean water, safer foods, sewage management, garbage collection, personal hygiene, sterilization, and air quality. This led to a drastic decrease in infectious diseases and led to an era that has come to be known as the First Public Health Revolution. These same standards are gradually beginning to take hold across the world, and average life expectancies are rising in almost every country, almost every year, thanks in large part to sanitation.
There is not a single society on Earth that has no recorded mythology. Whether primitive hunter-gatherers in unexplored jungles or first-world empires home to mega-metropolises, all of us have created a mythology for ourselves. The oldest known myth is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian/Sumerian king, and adventurer, and it is 3,000-4,000 years old. After that, we have voluminous records of gods, heroes, and fables from the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, Hindus, Abrahamic religions, Native American tribes, and dozens of other sources.
Mythology serves a myriad of purposes, but the most common theme is to teach us and give us meaning. The human mind is a complex computer designed to formulate patterns and extrapolate them farther, and mythology is that computer working at its peak. The greats myths are universal and yet transcendent, and billions of people find their life’s calling in service to religion and mythology. After all, what good is a long life full of information and technology if it doesn’t have meaning?
2 The Scientific Method
For all that mythology allows us to reach the heavens in our minds, it’s science that keeps us grounded here on Earth. Well, that and literally getting us to the stars, too. Science, which we tend to think of as a sum of information and technology, is just a simple investigation approach. We call that approach the scientific method, and it really just entails asking questions, guessing at the answers, testing, and revising those guesses based on the test results.
It’s that simple, so simple in fact that we do it every day without noticing, but the standardization of that process has completely revolutionized the world around us. All the information we gather, we test based on more information, and it’s lead us to all the truths we have, whether they’re personal truths like your favorite breakfast sandwich or universal truths like The Planck constant. The scientific method is the foundation of such a large percentage of our civilization that there might not be a single better invention. Well, except…
Okay, just hear me out. It’s easy to extol the virtues of inventions that enable and enhance our technology, communication, and search for meaning. Still, there’s one aspect of life whose inventions deserve more attention: joy. That’s where dessert comes in.
Whenever the first dessert took place, it marked a huge step forward for our species. Life, as a rule, hunts and eats for necessity; every choice and action is solely for the sake of survival. Then one of our ancestors took a minute to look around, realize that they had plenty, and began eating- not for energy, but for pure bliss and celebration. That is still dessert’s role today. We have cake to celebrate our birthdays; we get ice cream after a fun day out; our kids get candy bars for being well-behaved. Dessert is the culmination of all our hard work and the rewards reaped from all that we’ve sown. The day we started eating dessert is the day we officially transitioned from survivors to thrivers.