The 40 Greatest Innovations

The first steam engine, invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen

The first steam engine, invented in 1712 by British iron maker Thomas Newcomen, powered the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, enabled factories to greatly increase their productivity, formed the basis for the steam locomotive, and led to a great rise in human productivity.

by Ryan Allis

In order to develop world-changing innovations, it helps to be aware of that which has come before us. Here’s a brief tour through some of the most important innovations in human history. Let me know in the comments if you think I left out any important ones!

1. Fire (400,000 BCE) –  The controlled use of fire was an invention in the early Stone Age, with some of the earliest evidence dating back to hundreds of thousands of years ago. It’s not exactly certain when fire was first being used by humans, but most research puts it somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago.

2. Language (100,000 BCE) –  True semantic, phonetic language was first being used around 100,000 BCE, making it a lot easier to pass on how-to knowledge from generation to generation and speeding the spread of innovation.

3. Trade and Specialization (17,000 BCE) –  In Chapter 2 of the book The Rational Optimist, author Matt Ridley highlights just how important specialization and trade has been to our advancement as humans. Matt gives the example of two early humans Oz and Adam. Oz focuses on getting really good at catching fish and Adam focuses on getting really good at making fish hooks, and then they trade as needed for both to benefit. The first known instance of humans trading with other humans comes from New Guinea around 17,000 BCE, where locals exchanged obsidian, a black volcanic glass used to make hunting arrowheads, for other needed goods. By 3,000 BCE, trade routes across Asia and the Middle East developed, followed the domestication of the camel and the creation of the trade caravan. Trading merchants, who purchased goods up front and held the inventory as they transported it were, of course, the original entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs rearrange land, labor, goods, and capital to enable the sum of the outputs to have high value than the sum of the inputs.

4. Farming (15,000 BCE) –  Around 15,000 BCE (about 17,000 years ago), the first animal domestication began taking place, and around 10,000 BCE, the first domestication of plants. This step was critical for the advancement of the human species. Instead of having to be a nomadic species that continually moved around seeking new places to hunt and to gather, we could stay in one place. This allowed us to start to form communities and cities (the basis for civilizations), which have been critical in the development of human knowledge. Around 12,000 BCE, food preservation began as civilizations in the Middle East extended the life of their foods through drying them in the sun. With the ability keep food edible beyond the time that it would naturally go bad, and store it for the future, time and energy were made available to work on other things besides simply farming, hunting, and gathering, enabling a great advance in our ability to specialize and trade. With greater specialization and trade came a substantial increase in the variety of tools and goods available.

 5. The Ship (4000 BCE) –  Around 4,000 BCE, the ancient Egyptians were making wooden sailboats and around 1200 BCE the Phoenicians and the Greeks began to make even bigger sailing ships. The advent of the ship was a huge step forward from humanity because it was one of the first forms of transport that enabled commerce to begin happening between different parts of the world.

6. The Wheel (3400 BCE) –  The next significant step in the history of innovation came with the creation of the wheel, sometime between 3300 and 3500 BCE We know this thanks to the discovery in southern Poland of the earliest known depiction of a wheeled vehicle on a clay pot.

7. Money (3000 BCE) –  The next critically important innovation that contributed to the development of a strong human civilization was money. Around 3000 BCE, the Sumerians were one of the first societies (if not the first) to begin using money to help the ease of commerce and exchanging of goods, replacing the barter system.

8. Iron, (3000 BCE) –  The whole science of metallurgy began around 4400 BCE when human civilizations began to use copper and silver, and soon thereafter we figured out how to merge copper and tin to form bronze. Around 3000 BCE we found an even stronger substance called iron, which gave rise to a new age of human history.

 9. Written Language (2900 BCE) –  Although language had been around for tens of thousands of years, the invention of written language was extremely important because it made written records and numerical calculations possible. The first recorded written language was Sumerian cuneiform, which started around 2900 BCE.

10. The Legal System (1780 BCE) –  In 1780 BCE, Hammurabi,  the sixth king of Babylon, was one of the first to write down a formalized code of laws. He created a structure that enabled his people to understand what the societal norms were. Other examples include the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Ten Commandments, the Twelve Tables of Rome, and the Book of Leviticus—early legal systems that enabled society to tackle dispute resolution at a lower cost and create an understanding of what the norms are. These systems helped create amazing advancement in our ability to conduct commerce in a frictionless environment.

11. The Alphabet (1050 BCE) –  The first “true alphabet” (containing vowels as well as consonants) was created by the Phoenicians around 1050 BCE. Many modern alphabets evolved from the Phoenician alphabet.

12. Steel (650 BCE) –  Steel is a compound, an alloy between iron and carbon, and one of the strongest substances we know.The earliest known production of steel is a piece of ironware excavated in Western Asia that is about 4,000 years old. The Spartans used steel extensively around 650 BCE, as did the Chinese from 400 BCE, and the Romans.

13. Water Power (200 BCE) –  The next great innovation, around 200 BCE, was water power—first used in the Fertile Crescent area in the Middle East. This breakthrough enabled enormous transformations in our ability as a species to harness power, and water power continued to be used into the nineteenth century, when water-powered mills were still common in England and New England.

14. Paper (105) –  Moving into the common era (CE) calendar, we saw the creation of paper, which was first used by the Chinese in around the year 105. Around the sixteenth century, wood pulp paper became more widely used, replacing rag paper. With wood paper, knowledge could spread much more easily.

 15. Movable Type (1040) –  Advancing about 900 years, we had the creation of movable type. While many people think that movable type began in 1436 with Gutenberg’s printing press, it actually goes back to imperial China in year 1040. Later, when Gutenberg invented his press, he was able to use special inks and tin, lead, and antimony to mass-produce books and get content to the educated folks of Europe in fifteenth century.

16. The Microscope (1592) –  The microscope was an extremely important invention that has led to the more recent breakthroughs in the understanding of nanotechnology and the understanding of atomic structure. Back in 1592, Dutch spectacle makers Zacharias and Hans, a father and son team, discovered that nearby objects appeared greatly enlarged when looking through a specially shaped lens, creating the first known microscope.

17. Electricity (1600) –  Going forward to 1600, English scientist William Gilbert coined the term electricity, which originated from the Greek word for amber. Later, in 1752, Ben Franklin showed that lightning and the spark from amber were one and the same substance: electricity.

18. The Telescope (1608) –  In 1608, Hans Lippershey created a convex lens and concave eyepiece that enabled the creation of the telescope. The next year, Galileo Galilei built on these early designs to create a much more powerful telescope that enabled us to truly see the heavens and understand our place in the universe.

19. The Engine (1712) –  The steam engine was first invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 building on the ideas on Denis Papin and Thomas Savery. Steam power was tremendously important to the development of seafaring navigation and to powering the machinery that drove the industrial revolution. The internal combustion engine followed, first made commercially successful by Etienne Lenoir in 1858.

20. The Light Bulb (1800) –  In 1800, Humphry Davy, an English scientist, created the first light bulb. It was improved in 1879 by Thomas Edison, who discovered that a certain type of carbon filament, when placed in bulb without oxygen, could glow for 40 hours. Later on, Edison would create a bulb that could last for over 1,500 hours—a tremendous advancement in our ability as a society to be able to do things even after the sun has set.

21. The Telegraph (1809) –  In 1809, the first crude telegraph was invented in Bavaria by Samuel Soemmering, and in 1828 the first telegraph in the United States was invented by Harrison Dyer. It was, of course, Samuel Morse, creator of the Morse code, who invented the telegraph communication system that ended up succeeding commercially.

22. The Electromagnet (1825) –  In 1825, the electric magnet was discovered by British inventor William Sturgeon. His first magnet was an iron horseshoe wrapped with copper wire. When he passed an electric current through the wire, the 7 oz. horseshoe became a magnet and current life nine pounds. Electromagnets went on to be used in motors, generators, loudspeakers, hard drives, MRI machines, and particle accelerators.

23. Petroleum (1859) –  In 1859, petroleum was discovered. The first natural gas well was created in Ohio and the first oil well was created and the first oil refined in Pennsylvania. Petroleum was one of the most efficient substances in terms of the amount of energy that could be expended per ounce of liquid when burned. The discovery of petroleum, of course, led to the gas-powered car half a century later as well as a substantial increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

24. The Telephone (1860) –  In 1860, the telephone was invented by Johann Philipp Reis. He was the first to produce a functioning electromagnetic device that could transmit understandable sounds. Sixteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell received the first patent for telephones and invented the first commercially successful telephone.

25. The Vacuum Tube (1883) –  In 1883, Thomas Edison discovered that an electrical current doesn’t need a wire through which to move—it could actually travel through gas or a vacuum. In 1893, ten years later, Lee De Forest invented the Audion, which could control the flow of and amplify the current—an innovation that became critically important to telecommunication later on in the twentieth century.

26. Semiconductors (1896) –  In 1896, the first semiconductors were discovered. A semiconductor is simply material that has electrical conductivity due to flowing electrons. Today, silicon serves as the main component for most commercially produced semiconductors. Germanium, gallium, arsenide, and silicon carbide can also be used but silicon is more common (which is the main reason that the area between San Francisco and San Jose is called Silicon Valley.) Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first to apply semiconductors for commercial purposes around 1896.

27. Penicillin (1896) –  In 1896, the French medical student Ernest Duchesne originally discovered the antibiotic properties of Penicillium, however his research went mostly unnoticed. It took until 1928 for Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming to re-discovered penicillin. Penicillin enabling doctors to fight bacterial infections, save lives, and cure syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis.

28. The Radio (1897) –  The next great invention was the radio. In 1897, Nikolai Tesla applied for and received the first radio system patent after demonstrating it the year before at the World’s Fair. Radio took advantage of the amazing invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit information through waves. Today, we take it for granted that signals can travel invisibly through the air, but 130 years ago it was quite radical to demonstrate that there were things that we could not see that were still real. In fact, the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is only a very small fraction. From the studies of the electromagnetic spectrum now know that there are gamma waves and x waves and radio and television, which have revolutionized human communication globally.

29. The Electron (1897) –  That same year, 1897, J. Thomson discovered the electron. An electron is a negatively charged subatomic particle and it’s the primary carrier of electricity, which of course has revolutionized the world in the last 115 years.

30. Quantum Physics (1900) –  The history of quantum physics is quite fascinating. It began with a number of discoveries going back all the way to 1838 with Michael Faraday’s discovery of cathode ray tube, and included 1887’s discovery by Heinrich Hertz of the photoelectric effect. But the real beginning of quantum physics was arguably in 1900 with Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis: that any energy-radiating atomic system can be divided into individual energy elements. Using that research in 1905, Albert Einstein theorized and later proved that light is made up of individual quantum particles which were later termed photons by Gilbert Lewis.

31. The Airplane, 1903 –  In 1903, we saw the invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, on the North Carolina coast with the first successful flight of a manned machine occurring on December 17.

32. Television, 1926 –  The creation of television happened in 1926, but there were many inventions that led up to it, including the discovery of the photoconductivity of selenium in 1873 by Willoughby Smith and the 1884 invention of the scanning disk by Paul Nipkow. It was John Logie Baird who created the first televised moving images in 1926. Ten years later, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcast the first public television show.

33. The Transistor, 1947 –  1947 saw the creation of the transistor. A transistor is a device that’s used to amplify and switch electronic signals. It’s extremely important in the ability to exchange information over a distance. Once we could amplify electronic signals we could have global telecommunications. In 1906, Lee De Forest had developed the triode in a vacuum tube that could amplify signals, which had helped overseas telephone calls be made for the first time, but it was in 1947 at AT&T that Bill Shankly and his team created the first semiconductor transistor. Of course, it was Bill Shankly who later founded Shankly Semiconductor, out of which Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel were born.

34. DNA (1953) –  In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA while working at Cambridge University. The duo suggested that the correct model for DNA structure was the double helix model and famously walked into a local pub and exclaimed, “We have found the secret of life.”

35. The Integrated Circuit (1959)-  In 1959, we saw the creation and discovery of the integrated circuit. Integrated circuits allow engineers to fit a lot more transistors, resistors, and capacitors in a smaller area. It was Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor, along with their teams, who created the first integrated circuits in 1959. All computers eventually ended up using integrated circuits, which later developed into microprocessors.

36. The Internet (1969) – In 1969, we saw the creation of the early Internet, called the ARPANET, which was built by the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (then called ARPA, today called DARPA) to connect researchers at different locations. The ARPANET delivered its first message on October 29, 1969 between UCLA and Stanford. The first message was simply the word “log in.” The message crashed the network and only the first two letters, L and O, made it through. By the end of 1969, four computers were connected to the ARPANET. By the 1980s, the ARPANET had turned into a global network that was used to send files and data from one computer to another. But it took until 1991 for the creation of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) by Tim Berners-Lee, which enabled the creation of a web of hyperlink documents. The World Wide Web became a communication tool that formed a constantly updating record of human knowledge and expression. A year later, in 1992, researchers of the University of Illinois developed a browser that created a user-friendly way to view the World Wide Web. Initially called Mosaic, that first browser turned into the company and product Netscape, which revolutionized the ability of individuals to access information globally.

37. Microprocessors (1971) –  In 1971, Ted Hoff of Intel created the microprocessor, which was an integrated circuit. It had all the functions of the computer or a central processing unit (CPU) on it, in a tiny space. The first chip was called the Intel 4004. It had 2300 transistors on it. It had as much power in one single chip as the ENIAC supercomputer, a 30-ton computer built in 1946. The microprocessor led to the miniaturization and the creation of the PC industry in the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, which enables us to have a supercomputer in our pockets today, connected to the global Internet–an amazingly important invention in human history that happened only a little more than four decades ago.

38. The Mobile Phone (1973) –  In 1973, Motorola launched the first handheld mobile phone. The first prototype weighed 2.5 pounds, offered 30 minutes of talk time, and featured a battery that took ten hours to recharge.

39. The Smartphone (2007) –  On January 9, 2007, the iPhone launched, the first widely available smartphone with multi-touch capabilities (the ability to detect two fingers at once, enabling more complex user interactions such as pinch-to-zoom). The lowly telephone had turned into a cloud-connected smartphone with built-in GPS, compass, voice recorder, camera, maps, and web browser with an app store that allowed the user to download from a selection of millions of specialty applications. The multitouch smartphone paved the way for the tablet and the coming convergence of the laptop/tablet/and smartphone and new hybrids such as cloud-connected glasses and smartwatches. A world with smartphones with sufficient processing power and memory to be used as full-featured computers connected via docking stations to flexible frame monitors with hand gesture inputs and a projected keypad was soon approaching.

40. The Quantum Computer (2011) –  The last step in our brief history of innovation is the quantum computer. In 2011, the first quantum computer was brought to market by D-wave. It was called the Dwave One. Quantum computers use superposition and entanglement to solve some computing problems thousands of times faster than traditional computers. In May 2013 Google announced it was purchasing a D-wave Two quantum computer to be hosted at the Quantum Artificial Research Lab at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA.

What will be next on this list of innovation list? Will you be part of a team that creates of the most important innovations in human history?