What technology has reduced work the most?

This is one of those questions that I’m having a hard time quantifying, but I’m thinking of asking it something like this:

What technology used to facilitate a major human activity has reduced the percentage of time that the average person spends engaged in that activity?

For example, I thought early on of cars, given how much less time it takes a person to travel a given distance in a car compared to on foot. However, it seems likely to me that we spend at least as much time traveling today as people did 500 years ago–we just travel much further than we used to.

And it might be that card shufflers reduce the time it takes to shuffle cards, but that’s not really a major human activity.

I have a guess:

The sewing machine

but I really don’t know if that’s correct.

Any thoughts? Better yet, any cites?

It would be hard to discount microwave ovens; the cumulative productivity increase for a society as a whole is massive.

Washing machine
Vacuum cleaner (ever string a rug over a clothesline and beat on it? google “rug beater” to see how rugs used to be cleaned (once: in the great ritual of “Spring Cleaning”)
Central heating - ever have the entire household sack out around the one fireplace to keep alive overnight?
Sewing is optional to begin with - punch a few holes, and string a lace to keep fabric together.
Disposable diapers (yes, bad for the environment, but labor-saving).
Oldest one nobody will ever think of: newspaper - info never spread so fast or opinions established so widely.

Threshing machine?

I think there are a lot of different ways to look at this. Is it the difference between how we use the technology today and how it was 500 years ago, or the difference between today’s tech and the previous iteration of it?

Or in the case of information dissemination, is it the difference between today’s tech and the amount of work needed 500 years ago to reach a comparable level? That’d be near-infinite, considering the shear amount of information we’re bombarded with these days.

Mechanical harvesters.

The printing press might fit the bill.

Electricity and running water.

Electric light. You used to have to work for your candles.

I think the answer is going to be something that has agricultural uses, since the human requirement for food hasn’t changed a great deal over time. Yes, we have a richer diet now and tend to eat more food (and particularly more meat), but industrialized countries now only employ 2-5% of their labor in food production, where pre-industrial revolution it was a substantial majority.

Dang I missed it… my guess was printing press and/or computers (the latter of which I still think is true).

Remember, “technology” doesn’t mean “recent”. I would agree with agricultural implements. Perhaps the horse collar, which allowed horses to be used rather than oxen for plowing and other pulling of heavy loads. Or perhaps the invention of animal drawn plows, which saved a lot of effort over hoe farming. You might simply say the invention of agriculture itself.

Agricultural implements actually makes perfect sense. Computers don’t make sense at all: while we can create far, far more information today than 500 years ago, we also spend far, far more time doing it. I’m virtually certain I spend more of my time creating information than did the average person 500 years ago.

Definitely it’s an issue whether we’re talking about one iteration to the next, or over a given time frame. If we say “since our species was founded,” then yeah, probably something like the plough would work. What would the answer be if we said over the last 500 years? Over the last 100 years?

Technology creates the need for work. Hunter gatherers generally spend about 4 or 5 hours per day in food and shelter activities. Without technology there is no ability to build up a surplus so any extra work is wasted. Agriculture created so much work that people found that forcing others to farm for you was useful and thus slavery was invented.

The question should not be work saved but instead productivity gained.

Electricity? Just the time saved on food preparation (chopping firewood!) is tremendous. Add to that running a washer, a dryer, a hot water heater–all those tasks involved tremendous physical labor pre-electricity. Carrying coal scuttles up and down stairs. Dragging rugs out to beat them.

The Internet. I’m not working now.

This isn’t just one technology, but heavy duty farming equipment. Because of that we’ve gone from a world of subsistence farmers to one where in wealthy nations only 2% need to farm to provide a higher quality diet for all.

If I had to pick one technology, the internal combustion engine.

I’m not sure if you’d classify it as a technology, but…

The most forgotten invention with the greatest benefit to mankind worldwide is: synthesized nitrogen fertilizer.
It singularly enabled the population boom.
Modern, large scale farming equipment would be meaningless without it.
It enabled metropolization.

If an invention doesn’t count, I’d say the technology of standardized parts. It has universal application.

I was going to say ‘the printing press’, but I wasn’t sure if it was strictly true.

Before Gutenberg, printing a book was of course a laborious exercise, so much so that books themselves were rather rare, and the knowledge to read them rarer still (and pretty much completely unnecessary for the ‘common man’). Movable type changed all that.

But as far as a ‘labor saving device’, it depends on how we look at it. If we just measure the amount of actual effort that was reduced, it’s a fairly small amount; there weren’t *that *many people spending effort to print and copy books in the first place.

But if we measure the amount of potential effort that would have gone into producing by hand the three-and-a-half-gazillion books that have been printed in the last 560-or so years, the number is staggering. And when you factor in the whole ‘literacy’ thing that followed from the widespread availability of ‘books’, and all of the other technological (and social, and cultural) advances that would have been impossible without it, I think we have a winner.