The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress.
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Some questions you ask because you want the right answer. Others are valuable because no answer is right; the payoff comes from the range of attempts. Seven years ago, The Atlantic surveyed a group of eminent historians to create a ranked list of the 100 people who had done the most to shape the character of modern America. The panelists agreed easily on the top few names—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, in that order—but then began diverging in intriguing ways that reflected not simply their own values but also the varied avenues toward influence in our country. Lewis and Clark, or Henry Ford? Thomas Edison, or Martin Luther King? The result was of course not scientific. But the exercise of asking, comparing, and choosing helped us understand more about what these historical figures had done and about the areas in which American society had proved most and least open to the changes wrought by talented, determined men and women.

Now we turn to technology. The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) We also invited panelists to add explanations of their choices, and I followed up with several of them and with other experts in interviews.

One panelist ranked his choices not by importance but by date of invention, oldest (cement) to newest (GPS satellites). Some emphasized the importance not of specific breakthroughs but of broad categories of achievement. For instance, Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern, nominated in his top 10 “modularity.” By that he meant the refinements in industrial processes that allowed high-volume output of functionally identical parts. This enabled mass production and the Henry Ford–style assembly line (49 on The Atlantic’s list), and the profound shift from handmade to volume-produced versions of everything. Modularity didn’t make it onto our final list; the adoption of standardized shipping containers, which extended the same logic in a different realm, just missed the cut.

In short, these scientists and creative types decided to answer the question they wanted us to ask, rather than the exact one we posed. We have new sympathy for people attempting to manage universities and R&D labs. But in the end we had enough comparable and overlapping suggestions, from enough people, with enough spelled-out explanations, and enough force of experience and insight behind them, to be comfortable presenting The Atlantic’s survey of humanity’s 50 most important technical breakthroughs since the wheel. We converted all the responses into values we could enter on a spreadsheet; we weighted, as reasonably as we could, the intensity and breadth of support; we watched the combined rankings go up and down as each new response arrived; and we came up with the final ranking you see here.

One aspect of the results will be evident as soon as you start looking through them: the debatability of the choices and rankings once you move beyond the first few. For instance, anesthesia (46), which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer (16 on our final list). In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn’t exist? (Our panelist John Doerr, a well-known technology investor, said he worked his way through his own top‑25 list using a similar set of “pairwise comparisons,” asking which technology he would miss more.) I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction; I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn’t pay for novocaine.

Less evident from the final list is what I was fascinated to learn from my talks with many of the panelists. That is the diversity of views about the types of historical breakthroughs that matter, with a striking consensus on whether the long trail of innovation recorded here is now nearing its end.

Innovation: A Taxonomy

The clearest example of consensus was the first item on the final compilation, the printing press. Ten of the 12 people who submitted rankings had it at or near the top. To draw another parallel to our Influential Americans survey, the printing press was the counterpart to Abraham Lincoln as the clear consensus for the top choice. And just as that previous exercise revealed the major patterns through which historical figures had exerted influence—as political leaders in times of crisis, as industrial pioneers, through pop culture or design—a set of categories emerged from the individual nominations. One of our panelists, Leslie Berlin, a historian of business at Stanford, organized her nominations not as an overall list but grouped into functional categories. From our panelists’ nominations, a similar but slightly broader set of categories emerges. Here is my adaptation of Berlin’s useful scheme:

Innovations that expand the human intellect and its creative, expressive, and even moral possibilities. This group includes the printing press (1) and also paper, (6) and now of course the Internet, (9) the personal computer, (16) and the underlying technology for the modern data age, semiconductor electronics (4), plus photography (29). Charles C. Mann, the science writer and frequent Atlantic contributor, put writing third, behind fire and agricultural improvements, including the domestication of animals. Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, ranked as his top three innovations items from this category: alphabetization, paper, and the printing press.

Innovations that are integral to the physical and operating infrastructure of the modern world. George Dyson, the technology writer, said that cement, which in the end ranked 37th, was a crucial early innovation, “at the foundation of civilization as we know it—most of which would collapse without it.” Three of the top five choices from John Doerr were in this category: electrical systems were first, indoor plumbing was second, and filtration systems to create potable water were fifth. (One panelist mentioned aqueducts.) Doerr said that in much of today’s poor world, “the payoff of clean water, in terms of community prosperity,” is at least 20‑to-1. In our ranking, electricity was No. 2 and sanitation systems were No. 12. Through the past half century, air-conditioning (44) played a major role in America’s expansion across the Sun Belt. Air-conditioning is now having a similar effect in China, India, the Gulf states, and elsewhere. Our panelist Joi Ito, the head of the Media Lab at MIT, said that air-conditioning “was famously identified by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore as the technology that allowed residents to have white-collar work, and that empowered populations living in temperate climates.”

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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