The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the top 25 best-designed products, here is a listing of the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel. (Sorry for following in the footsteps of Buzzfeed here with these “listicles”).

I want to thank Brad for the inspiration since he originally thought yesterday’s post was about what products have had the greatest impact and was wondering why air conditioning was not on the list.

That made me curious, so I thought I’d do a little investigating, and that is how I came across this article by James Fallows from The Atlantic from 2013. It’s quite an impressive list and helped me put things in perspective, as well as make me aware of the impact that these breakthroughs have had, many of which I take for granted. It also humbled me to think that man was responsible for all these wonderful breakthroughs and gives me hope for what the future will be like.

I had replied to Brad’s comment on my post by saying I was confident that the iPhone would be near the top of such a list. So imagine my surprise as I scrolled through the list, and discovered that it did not even make the top 10, or the top 25. In fact, it didn’t even make the list at all!

Perhaps one reason why the iPhone did not make the list was that it was only three years old at the time of the article in The Atlantic, and nobody could have foreseen how ubiquitous a product it would become. Whether it be on a train, at a college campus, or even the beach, it seems like everyone has a smartphone.

Anyway, I digress.

Let’s get to the listing of the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel. One final note – the panel of experts seems to have a nice variety of respected experts, such as

Leslie Berlin: Historian of business and technology, Stanford; author, The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley

John Doerr, General partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield, venture capitalists

George Dyson, Historian of technology; author, Turing’s Cathedral and Darwin Among the Machines

Walter Isaacson, President and CEO, the Aspen Institute; author, Steve JobsEinstein: His Life and Universe, and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab

I think such a distinguished group adds a good deal of credibility to the list.

The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

  1. The printing press, 1430s: The printing press was nominated by 10 of our 12 panelists, five of whom ranked it in their top three. Dyson described its invention as the turning point at which “knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own.”
  2. Electricity, late 19th century: And then there was light—and Nos. 4, 9, 16, 24, 28, 44, 45, and most of the rest of modern life.
  3. Penicillin, 1928: Accidentally discovered in 1928, though antibiotics were not widely distributed until after World War II, when they became the silver bullet for any number of formerly deadly diseases
  4. Semiconductor electronics, mid-20th century: The physical foundation of the virtual world
  5. Optical lenses, 13th century: Refracting light through glass is one of those simple ideas that took a mysteriously long time to catch on. “The Romans had a glass industry, and there’s even a passage in Seneca about the optical effects of a glass bowl of water,” says Mokyr. But it was centuries before the invention of eyeglasses dramatically raised the collective human IQ, and eventually led to the creation of the microscope and the telescope.
  6. Paper, second century: “The idea of stamping images is natural if you have paper, but until then, it’s economically unaffordable.” — Charles C. Mann
  7. The internal combustion engine, late 19th century:Turned air and fuel into power, eventually replacing the steam engine (No. 10)
  8. Vaccination, 1796: The British doctor Edward Jenner used the cowpox virus to protect against smallpox in 1796, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine in 1885 that medicine—and government—began to accept the idea that making someone sick could prevent further sickness.
  9. The Internet, 1960s: The infrastructure of the digital age
  10. The steam engine, 1712: Powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution
  11. Nitrogen fixation, 1918: The German chemist Fritz Haber, also the father of chemical weapons, won a Nobel Prize for his development of the ammonia-synthesis process, which was used to create a new class of fertilizers central to the green revolution (No. 22).
  12. Sanitation systems, mid-19th century: A major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880 (see “Die Another Day”)
  13. Refrigeration, 1850s: “Discovering how to make cold would change the way we eat—and live—almost as profoundly as discovering how to cook.” — George Dyson
  14. Gunpowder, 10th century: Outsourced killing to a machine
  15. The airplane, 1903: Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 40)
  16. The personal computer, 1970s: Like the lever (No. 48) and the abacus (No. 43), it augmented human capabilities.
  17. The compass, 12th century: Oriented us, even at sea
  18. The automobile, late 19th century: Transformed daily life, our culture, and our landscape
  19. Industrial steelmaking, 1850s: Mass-produced steel, made possible by a method known as the Bessemer process, became the basis of modern industry.
  20. The pill, 1960: Launched a social revolution
  21. Nuclear fission, 1939: Gave humans new power for destruction, and creation
  22. The green revolution, mid-20th century: Combining technologies like synthetic fertilizers (No. 11) and scientific plant breeding (No. 38) hugely increased the world’s food output. Norman Borlaug, the agricultural economist who devised this approach, has been credited with saving more than 1 billion people from starvation.
  23. The sextant, 1757: It made maps out of stars.
  24. The telephone, 1876: Allowed our voices to travel
  25. Alphabetization, first millennium b.c.: Made knowledge accessible and searchable—and may have contributed to the rise of societies that used phonetic letters over those that used ideographic ones
  26. The telegraph, 1837: Before it, Joel Mokyr says, “information could move no faster than a man on horseback.”
  27. The mechanized clock, 15th century: It quantified time.
  28. Radio, 1906: The first demonstration of electronic mass media’s power to spread ideas and homogenize culture
  29. Photography, early 19th century: Changed journalism, art, culture, and how we see ourselves
  30. The moldboard plow, 18th century: The first plow that not only dug soil up but turned it over, allowing for the cultivation of harder ground. Without it, agriculture as we know it would not exist in northern Europe or the American Midwest.
  31. Archimedes’ screw, third century b.c.: The Greek scientist is believed to have designed one of the first water pumps, a rotating corkscrew that pushed water up a tube. It transformed irrigation and remains in use today at many sewage-treatment plants.
  32. The cotton gin, 1793: Institutionalized the cotton industry—and slavery—in the American South
  33. Pasteurization, 1863: One of the first practical applications of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, this method for using heat to sterilize wine, beer, and milk is widely considered to be one of history’s most effective public-health interventions.
  34. The Gregorian calendar, 1582: Debugged the Julian calendar, jumping ahead 10 days to synchronize the world with the seasons
  35. Oil refining, mid-19th century: Without it, oil drilling (No. 39) would be pointless.
  36. The steam turbine, 1884: A less heralded cousin of steam engines (No. 10), turbines are the backbone of today’s energy infrastructure: they generate 80 percent of the world’s power.
  37. Cement, first millennium b.c.: The foundation of civilization. Literally.
  38. Scientific plant breeding, 1920s: Humans have been manipulating plant species for nearly as long as we’ve grown them, but it wasn’t until early-20th-century scientists discovered a forgotten 1866 paper by the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel that we figured out how plant breeding—and, later on, human genetics—worked.
  39. Oil drilling, 1859: Fueled the modern economy, established its geopolitics, and changed the climate
  40. The sailboat, fourth millennium b.c.: Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 15)
  41. Rocketry, 1926: “Our only way off the planet—so far.” — George Dyson
  42. Paper money, 11th century: The abstraction at the core of the modern economy
  43. The abacus, third millennium b.c.: One of the first devices to augment human intelligence
  44. Air-conditioning, 1902: Would you start a business in Houston or Bangalore without it? (There it is, Brad!)
  45. Television, early 20th century: Brought the world into people’s homes
  46. Anesthesia, 1846: In response to the first public demonstration of ether, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote: “The fierce extremity of suffering has been steeped in the waters of forgetfulness, and the deepest furrow in the knotted brow of agony has been smoothed for ever.”
  47. The nail, second millennium b.c.: “Extended lives by enabling people to have shelter.” — Leslie Berlin
  48. The lever, third millennium b.c.: The Egyptians had not yet discovered the wheel when they built their pyramids; they are thought to have relied heavily on levers.
  49. The assembly line, 1913: Turned a craft-based economy into a mass-market one
  50. The combine harvester, 1930s: Mechanized the farm, freeing people to do new types of work

The most recent item on the list is the Personal Computer, from the 1970s. This means there have not been any significant breakthroughs for about 50 years. Again, I would have added the smartphone, which combines numbers 9 (the internet), 16 (personal computer), and 24 (the telephone).

And perhaps once we find a cure/vaccine for covid-19, that may be added to the list as well.

Finally, I am certainly grateful for all of these breakthroughs, but perhaps the most personal one is number 5, optical lenses. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was 10 years old; I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without them…

*train image from medium
*college image from UT Austin
*beach image from dreamstime

25 thoughts on “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

    1. Thanks, Beth. I’m sure there was a lot of spirited debate putting the list together. Personally, I would have put electricity before the printing press. Who needs a printing press these days, everything is digital! 🙂

  1. That is an impressive list. I keep looking at the items and agreeing how important they are to our lives. When it comes right down to it (and this is not meant to be humorous), the human race is brilliant. Considering all that we’ve accomplished, coming up with a vaccine for a virus is a question of when, rather than if.

  2. I thought air conditioning would have been higher on the list, but I cannot argue with the value or importance of the items that appear before it. And I would never argue with such a diverse and well-educated group of authors. Thanks for tackling this question. I feel a bit smarter now, as is common after reading your posts. Stay well and safe my friend!

  3. as you may have guessed, i’m a fan of number 5 myself, and i’ve also am in favor of anesthesia, as needed, not a fan of enduring pain if i can help it.

    1. would you pick that above all musical instruments? I’m guessing the acoustic guitar came before the electric; was the electric guitar a major breakthrough compared to the acoustic? keep on rockin’:) By the way, a friend of mine has been performing one guitar song a day during the lockdown, on Facebook. Some of the songs are original, some are covers. Today he sang a Steve Earle tune; others have been John Prine and Tom Waits. Here is his Facebook page if you are interested:

      https://www.facebook.com/smcclatchy

      I do not know if you have to friend him in order to see his posts…

  4. Wow.. a fascinating list.. For the want of a nail.. the shoe was lost.. For the want of a shoe the horse was lost… For the want of a horse the battle was lost… What made me think of that.. The nail… The power of thought and inventions always fascinates me… Loved reading this.. Thank you, Jim and Brad for triggering that thought…. Be well 😊

Leave a Reply