The 5 Most Important Inventions in Human History

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Guest Writer: Zackary Carpenter (@zackmacg)

Zackary Carpenter currently studies magazine journalism at the University of Missouri. He is from Blanchard, Okla. just south of Oklahoma City. Carpenter likes video games, science fiction, beat poetry and various forms of music. Opinions are his own.

To say on the Internet that the Internet is the greatest invention in human history is just an example of a network-based circle jerk. In a May 2012 post on livescience.com, Natalie Wolchover wrote that, “the global system of interconnected computer networks known as the Internet is used by billions of people worldwide.”

While this is true, and while the Internet has surged human innovation forward, it simply would not have been possible without these five inventions. They are the groundwork for the rest of human innovation, and in my personal opinion, they are the most important.

They are also the most universal.

5.   Hitting rocks repeatedly until they break, then moving them elsewhere and stacking them

Brocken Inaglory

Photo by Brocken Inaglory

Otherwise known as masonry, the act of building with stone might go back to when humans were living in caves. They might have wanted to add a second bedroom onto their already spacious four-person hovel, so they would extend the mouth of their cave outward. The human need to increase a home’s resale value drove innovation forward.

In the 3rd millennium BCE, the ancient Pharos took real estate development to unprecedented heights. They erected massive stone temples to their pantheon of gods, and, like most wealthy individuals in human history, to themselves.

But the Egyptians weren’t the sole creators of masonry. It turns out that across Central America, South America, and Asia, a simultaneous technological leap was taking place. The Romans later added concrete to the mix, and before all of this was taking place, Ancient Sumerians were cooking clay bricks.

4.   Taking shiny materials, and then hammering or burning them until they look kind of like what we want them to look like

Lutetium (Lu) sublimed, dendritic

Photo by alchemist-np.

This one is special. Without metalworking, the modern world simply wouldn’t be possible. It’s also special because, unlike masonry, a lot of metalworking’s early history is based around chemistry.

The likely first metal to have been worked was gold. It has the lowest oxidation level of the seven metals known to the ancients, which means that gold can be found in nature as (almost) pure nuggets. It is easy to bend, and you really only need stone tools to work with it.

After gold, copper and tin were each extracted from the earth. As early as 7000 BCE, metalworking was being carried out in South Asia. Iraq, though, wins the award for having the oldest archeological evidence of copper mining and working. A copper pendant was discovered there.

3. Making roads go in a straight line, putting all the smiths in one place and rich people in another, prettier place, and putting important buildings in the middle

City planning today is perhaps one of the most under appreciated professions there is. How often do you hear someone say,

Photo by Paulo Barcellos Jr.

Photo by Paulo Barcellos Jr.

“Here’s my daughter, the urban designer?” If you answered often, then you run in a very exclusive circle of people.

The first examples of city planning can be found everywhere, literally everywhere: China, India, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean world, and North and South America. Once governments became powerful enough to impose order on urban chaos, they did.

Without city planning, intricate transportation networks simply wouldn’t be possible. Every city would look like Washington D.C., except even less intuitively planned. The economies of ancient states would never have taken off. Empires would’ve never been born.

2. Drawing shapes on stone, papyrus, or paper, and then telling everyone what those shapes mean

Photo by Biblio De Tours.

Photo by Biblio De Tours.

Writing allows humans to pass information along to one another effectively. It also allows us to communicate, in a rudimentary sense, to people we will never see. The spread of knowledge around the world and generations down the line has given our species a rich understanding of the world and our place in it.

Writing is believed to have been invented in Sumer around 3200 BCE and in Mesoamerica around 600 BCE. It is debated that writing could have also been independently invented in Egypt around 3200 BCE and in China around 1200 BCE. It is clear that writing something down is an inevitable result of increasing technological advancement. At a point, it just becomes necessary to write down how to mine copper.

Also Harry Potter.

1.   Putting seeds in a hole, covering them with dirt and dung, and then eating whatever grows

Agriculture is the basis for human civilization. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, the argument is quite clearly made that without agriculture, humanity would still be roaming about the world. Our tribes would never expand past around 100 people.

Photo by Luc Viatour

Photo by Luc Viatour

The most stunning result of agriculture, though, is that it led to domestication of animals. It led to mining metals out of the earth to better plow the land and level forests. It led to the wheel (in most areas of the world) to better transport larger quantities of food. It led to cities, which in turn led to a pressure cooker of human ideas. The numbers one and zero wouldn’t have come into existence without agriculture. Governments wouldn’t have power, and money would have no basis. Most importantly, we wouldn’t have french-fries.

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4 thoughts on “The 5 Most Important Inventions in Human History

  1. I like your choices, though I must hang tough for my choice as #1, the invention of language, without which the other five you mention wouldn’t be possible. I’m also a big fan of the lever. Damn convenient thing that lever, especially if you’re buried under masonry.

  2. Hey Stim,

    As someone whose only proficiency is in language, I would like to agree with you there. Language is arguably the most important advancement in human evolution, but I would like to argue that humanity did not invent language.

    It was the argument of Medieval rationalist thinkers that language was invented by humans. They argued that humans were rational creatures capable of rational design. They further argued that because humans were rational, they invented spoken language as a way of presenting their thoughts.

    The French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac presented quite a different argument. He argued that language was not the byproduct of rational thought and construction, but rather language and rational thought developed together. He, and others like him, said that language was a means of thought itself. Weird right?

    So who is right? It would be ethnocentric of me to say that the more modern individual is correct, because who’s to say that we in the modern era understand anything? So I will present a few outside facts.

    1. Only humans can speak. This is important, because it is a result of our physiology. We just have the right organs in the right spots.
    2. Other animals communicate. This is also important, because it doesn’t relegate communication (a primary function of language under the Medieval view) to us.
    3. Other animals problem solve and construct tools. Look to dogs or certain primates.
    4. Language developed right around the time that homo sapiens did. It is the only thing separating us from the apes. Well, also body hair.

    It is my belief that language is a mode of thought specific to humanity. No other species even comes close to having it. In a possibly related note, no other species has constructed the atomic bomb or made three decent X-Men movies in a row.

    Also, I apparently don’t know the definition of a comment and how it’s different from another blog post.

    –Zackary Carpenter

  3. Hi Zachary – I’m laughing to myself because I recently commented on a science-denier’s blog (some claim about natural selection can’t be responsible for language) that language can be considered an organized system of communication understood by members of a group (human tribe, dolphin pod). Since apes have such systems, it’s possible/likely that our common ancestor had a capacity for language. That a few million years or so of environmental pressure led to our current, far superior capacity for language. So somewhere I suspect someone is testing my petard for its hoistability (if “hoistability” isn’t a word, it is now).

    Although the X-Men movies argument is persuasive, I will counter by pulling something out of the air. Language is not so much a mode of thought as it is a means to communicate thoughts and emotions, even a simple inductive thought such as, “Hey, move your ass! That big thing with huge claws and teeth is about to eat you!.” The failure of language is when the “there are no words” moments come along. Our brains grasp the data (abstract thought, emotion, sensory information, et al), but can’t accurately communicate said data beyond, “Holy ______.”

    • Stim,

      You brought up a good point. As a journalism major, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve uttered the sentence, “uh… well… you know… words are hard.” Sometimes language does fail.

      However, our brains are also uniquely capable of mathematics. We can do complex trigonometric equations without even knowing what a tangent or cosine is. Look at the ancient cavemen who first used a lever to move a boulder or who judged distance when throwing his spear. Those things should be impossible without understand mathematics, yet we can.

      Again, that trait is not unique to humans. Much like language, many creatures can do rudimentary mathematical and spacial reasoning. Look at the dog who can catch a frisbee in his mouth or the bear that can recognize patterns of salmon jumping from a river.

      So where does that leave us? Language does fail at times, but so does our innate ability at mathematics. We lose count, we misjudge distance, we wreck our cars by failing to see patterns. Our formal ability at mathematics fails even more often than that. Even though one can express in words how a boulder moves from a trebuchet to its target, putting it on a cartesian plain is much harder.

      My point was this: language fails during those “holy shit” moments, because our brain fails during those “holy shit” moments. We panic, and something deep and ancient within our brain tells us the best course of action is to either freeze or repeat “double rainbow’ over and over again.

      Your view on the function language serves is one that has been held since Medieval times, and it is persuasive. After all, humans can invent languages. However, the view that language and thought biologically serve the same purpose is one that (in my opinion) is more valid as we study the way people develop. After all, we have a language center of the brain. We do not, to the best of my knowledge, have a masonry center.

      –Zackary Carpenter

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