The 20 Most Significant Inventions in the History of Food and Drink

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Science experts rank the refrigerator as Invention #1.

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An Egyptian ploughman, circa 1200 BC (Wikimedia Commons)

The Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, had a question: What are the most meaningful innovations in humanity's culinary history? What mattered more to the development of civilization's cultivation of food: the oven? The fridge? The plough? The spork?

To answer that question, the Society convened a group of its Fellows -- including, yup, a Nobel Prize Winner -- and asked them to whittle down a list of 100 culinarily innovative tools down to 20. That list was then voted on by the Fellows and by a group of "experts in the food and drink industry," its tools ranked according to four criteria: accessibility, productivity, aesthetics, and health.

Below, via Edible Geography's Nicola Twilley, are the ranked results of that endeavor. These are -- per the eminent body of the Royal Society -- the top 20 innovations in food and drink, from the dawn of time to the present day.

1. Refrigeration
The use of ice to lower the temperature of and thus preserve food dates back to prehistoric times. Machine-based refrigeration, however, was developed as a process starting in the mid 18th century and moving into the 19th. Domestic mechanical refrigerators first became available in the early 20th century. Throughout its long history, refrigeration has allowed humans to preserve food and, with it, nutrition. It has also allowed for a key innovation in human civilization: cold beer.

2. Pasteurization / sterilization
Useful for the prevention of bacterial contamination in food, particularly milk. 

3. Canning
Developed in the early 19th century, canning is a method of preserving food by processing and sealing it in an airtight container. Canning provides a typical shelf life ranging from one to five years. It also provides a fun weekend activity for humans who live in Brooklyn. 

4. The oven
The earliest ovens, found in Central Europe, date from 29,000 BC, and were used, at times, to cook mammoth. Their more contemporary counterparts, gas ovens, were first developed in the early 19th century and were used, at times, to cook buns. 

5. Irrigation
Irrigation is the artificial application of water to land or soil. It is used to assist in the growing of agricultural crops, and in the revegetation of disturbed soils in dry areas. This is particularly useful during periods of inadequate rainfall. 

6. Threshing machine/combine harvester
Invented in the late 18th century, the thresher brought more industrialization to farming, allowing for the mechanized separation of grain from stalks from husks. The device was originally called the "thrasher." Prior to its invention, farmers had separated grain by hand, with flails. 

7. Baking
This is a food cooking method that employs prolonged, dry heat to cook food. Baking acts by convection, rather than by thermal radiation, and is typically undertaken in ovens, in hot ashes, or on hot stones. Its results can also be facilitated by invention #14. 

8. Selective breeding / strains
Selective breeding is the process of breeding plants and animals for particular traits. It allows humans to manipulate natural selection among the plants and animals they consume in order to produce food products that are genetically stable. It is also the reason that a bull named Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie has sired thousands of the dairy cattle in the United States.

9. Grinding / milling
Grinding is the process of grinding grain or other materials in a mill. It produces, among other things, flour, which is the main ingredient of bread -- a staple food for many cultures. The milling of grain has been a practice since 6000 BC, enacted by millstones and similar implements -- and replicated pretty much the same way until the late 19th century brought the advent of the steam mill. 

10. The plough
A plough is a tool (or, more commonly now, a machine) that cultivates soil in preparation for sowing seeds. It has existed, in some form, pretty much since the dawn of recorded history, and represents one of the major advances in agriculture. In that regard, it facilitated the rise of sedentary human civilization

11. Fermentation
Beer. More formally, "the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions" -- which leads to such products as alcohol, wine, vinegar, yogurt, bread, and cheese. Mostly, though: beer. 

12. The fishing net
Fishing nets have been used since the stone age, with the oldest known version made from willow and dating back to 8300 BC. The nets are still in wide use today, and currently include casting, drifting, dragging, landing, trawling, and leg-wrapping varieties. 

13. Crop rotation
The practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons. 

14. The pot
The food container was an invention of revolutionary simplicity -- one that allowed for such revolutionarily simple acts as boiling water. Which led to innovations like tea and pasta and cook-in-a-bag omelets. Additionally, "the pot" is the culinary innovation with, by far, the most intriguing disambiguation page on Wikipedia

15. The knife
Including, ostensibly, the Ginsu

16. Eating utensils
Excluding, ostensibly, the spork

17. The cork
The cork allowed for the production of wine and beer. Cork's elasticity and near-impermeability make it ideal as a material for bottle stoppers.

18. The barrel
Same deal: wine and beer. While barrels store other things, too -- water, oil -- they made this list, ostensibly, because of the booze. As a technology, barrels also led to the advent of one of the least-scary forms of clown yet invented.

19. The microwave oven
Often colloquially shortened to microwave, this is a kitchen appliance that heats food by a dielectric heating process in which radiation is used to heat the polarized molecules in food. The microwave is notable mostly as a gateway technology, leading to the culinary innovation of the late 20th century: Easy Mac.

20. Frying
The cooking of food in oil or another fat originated in ancient Egypt around 2500 BC. Civilization recently combined frying with all of the above 19 innovations to create the product that will probably, somehow, lead to its end: deep-fried beer.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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