Greatest invention/discovery in the last 500 years?

Everyone is forgetting the true, objective answer that has been the benchmark for greatness ever since its invention:

Sliced Bread

My take:

  1. AC Electricity and the mass development of electrical power distribution

  2. The development of mass water distribution and sewerage systems

  3. Invention of internal combustion engine

  4. Discovery of antibiotics

  5. Invention of the telephone

  6. Invention of the television

  7. Invention of the integrated circuit

I came here to say the same thing. I think it was the critical development.

I’m probably missing a pun on “remark” or something here, but the dry-erase board is functionally not that different from the slate or chalkboard, which was developed well over 500 years ago.

…or just dirt.

Except that the slate offers portability features that merely writing in the dirt doesn’t have. Even the more portable medieval form of “writing in the dirt”, namely the dust-board or takht, is less convenient than the slate or chalkboard.

Which would put the dry erase board in the conversation, and take slate/chalkboard out of it. However…

this is the way.

I wonder if it’s not to some extent the other way around.

Steam power’s been known since at least the first century CE. It’s just that nobody did anything useful with it until much later.

– I’m not going to try to pick a single most important invention; seems to me that a number of them interlaced to produce results that none of them would have produced on their own.

But if we’re going to talk about single inventions that significantly changed people’s lives, while I don’t think it would hit the top of the list I think the clothes washing machine is somewhere in the top ten. The impact first on the amount of household labor required, and then eventually on the standard of cleanliness expected (which only partially cancelled out that first impact), was considerable.

On the other hand, it was a labor saving machine (Whitney’s cotton gin) that preserved slavery in the United States several decades past its expected demise.

The electric guitar.

In my original post, I had set the 500-year limit to eliminate inventions such as the wheel, pulley, and the printing press - which I was sure everyone would pick. My two choices (marine chronometer and telegraph) were inventions that changed the world almost instantly. Many other suggestions may have changed the world, but over a longer period of time. The telephone developed from the telegraph, so it was another “longer period” invention.

On balance, I’d say that the invention of the steam engine liberated more people than the cotton gin retained in bondage. Especially over time

Can you give some examples? Most slaves worked in agriculture where steam-powered tractors and such didn’t start being used in earnest until well after slavery was abolished.

#1 was the discovery and taming of electricity. All those things like telegraph, telephone, transistors, … would have been impossible without that one.

Printing is much older and goes back to China. But what is #2? Not calculus. Infinitesimal methods were known to Archimedes. Calculus was inevitable. Looking back, it is amazing it took till Newton and Leibniz to formalize. If you count the enlightenment as a discovery, it might be #1 in fact. Maybe the discovery that the heavy hand of the church needn’t be.

I think either the steam engine or the integrated circuit, although it remains to be seen exactly which is the more relevant. In terms of human civilization-defining moments, plentiful machines that do work and that think are up there with agriculture as the most influential.

You can argue that the aeolipile is a steam engine, but it didn’t do any work. There were wind and water mills before, but the jump to taking heat and making it do work is the fundamental game-changer.

I don’t think that the scientific method falls within 500 years. It’s had a lot more use lately, but arguably the ancient Greeks figured it out. Eratosthenes measuring the circumference of the earth by measuring shadows in different locations is science.

“The pill” should be on the list somewhere.

It was at number 9. Not all inventions or discoveries are mechanical or electrical. The social changes caused by the pill accelerated the woman’s rights movement into hyper drive over the short period of my lifetime.

That is a huge, book-worthy topic, and I haven’t got time (or yet done the research) to give a comprehensive answer .


a.) Slaves did everything. All kinds of grunt work not requiring skilled workers. In fact, they did skilled work, too – lots of specialists were slaves.

b.) Most of what slaves did was agricultural work because most of what was done WAS agricultural work. Until fairly recently, most folk were farmers.

I will point out that the first practical steam engines were used for pumping water out of mines. Before you had steam engines, that was done by human muscle.

Steam power also took over from water power (and, I suspect, wind power) that had already supplanted human muscle in many cases – steam-powered sawmills replaced water-powered sawmills that replaced the sawpit where two people handled a long saw to make planks. Steam power freed these things from their tethers to milldams, and allowed them to replace people where there were no mills.

Think of all the labor-intensive tasks done in homes – washing, ironing, grinding of wheat and the like. These were slave tasks originally. In the 19th century they were the province of low-paid servants, but today they are done or expedited by machines.

Corrugated Cardboard - especially that used in boxes. It allows things to be packed in a protective, durable, flexible, strong and light container. All sorts of things are packed in corrugated cardboard each day. Cardboard boxes are used for expensive goods and for people moving form one location to another. The number of times a box can be used and reused is incredible. There are almost no instructions needed to use a cardboard box. Humble but effective - the corrugated cardboard box.

I’m gonna say Venetian blinds. Without them, it’d be curtains for all of us.