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

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.

Presented by

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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