The 5 Greatest Inventions in Human History
The journey of humanity from hunter-gatherers to a species that has the power to shape almost every aspect of its lives and its environment has been marked by great inventions.
There are countless inventions that have made humans the world’s dominant species and enabled us to live lives that are different in every way from those lived by our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. A hunter-gatherer’s life was short; children had little chance of surviving infancy, and for adults, any accident could be fatal. Survival was a matter of luck, heavily dependent on the elements and on the animals they hunted. But as hunter-gatherers gave way to the farmers of the Neolithic, and then the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age all the way up to the present day, intelligent, inventive humans managed to make their world a better, safer, healthier place.
Any list of the key inventions that allowed this progress to happen will naturally exclude some that seem vital. But here are our suggestions of the inventions that allowed us to be who we are today. If you disagree, let us know in the comments!
1. The hand axe
Perhaps the oldest ever human invention is the hand axe, the oldest examples of which date back 2.6 million years, found in Ethiopia. To say that they are a human invention is debatable; they were invented by precursors to Homo sapiens, either by Australopithecus garhi or Homo habilis. There is evidence of even older tool use among prehistoric humans, but creating a hand axe involved more than just picking up a conveniently shaped rock to use as a tool. A hand axe requires inventiveness – finding the right sort of stone, usually flint or chert, and carefully shaping the tool, so that it fits comfortably in the hand, and can be used without its sharp edges cutting its user.
Calling this an ‘axe’ makes it sound like a weapon, but the hand axe has often been describing as being more like the Swiss army knife of the prehistoric world. It could be used for butchering animals, cutting through branches and tree bark, and for digging. Hand axes could, of course, also be used for hunting or fighting, but like a Swiss army knife, that wasn’t their primary function. But hand axes were more than just a creation for practical purposes. They were created and used for more than a million years, and it seems likely that a well-designed hand axe was a status symbol as much as it was a tool. As the creation of hand axes grew more accomplished, they became ever-more symmetrical, and many writers have recognised them as artefacts showing craftsmanship and an appreciation of beauty.
Before fire and cooking, before clothing, before rope or the construction of shelter, for hundreds of thousands of years the hand axe was the singular human invention that distinguished the people that would one day evolve into Homo sapiens from the other apes around them. It enabled one of the things at the heart of humanity’s success: the control and shaping of our environment into something better suited to us, even if that was just in small ways, like being able to cut through thick vines or butcher animals to product meat that was more to our liking. From this beginning, specialised tools could be developed for each of these different purposes, and the history of human invention had begun.
For most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and there are some societies that still live that way today, such as the Hadza of East Africa or the Pirahã in the Amazon. We hunted wild animals and ate plants wherever they grew naturally.
The initial invention of agriculture, around twelve thousand years ago, probably happened more by accident than by design. It’s easy to imagine a transition whereby hunter-gatherers began to herd the animals they hunted, or provide food for them, and from there, full domestication was just a short step away. The step from gathering wild crops to deliberately planting them is not much larger; from there, new farmers could choose the tastiest, most bountiful and easiest to harvest crops and breed them selectively, and learn through trial and error what methods were best to help them grow. In this way, many hunter-gatherer societies developed agriculture independently over thousands of years. In other instances, hunter-gatherers may have been introduced to agriculture by their neighbours through the peaceful sharing of ideas, or been forced to convert to farming as the farmers overran their lands.
It’s been widely argued that the development of agriculture had a negative impact on individuals’ lives. Farmers were unwell more often than hunter-gatherers, as they caught diseases from their livestock, their diets were much less varied and therefore less healthy, and it seems likely that they would have needed to work longer hours than their hunter-gatherer predecessors in order to keep themselves fed.
But agriculture had benefits, too. It enabled a settled society; there are only very few places on Earth where the local flora and fauna were sufficiently bountiful for hunter-gatherers to settle in a single place. Because they no longer had to be nomadic, the new farmers could have more children. Hunter-gatherers can only have the children they can carry with them or who can walk, so typically one child every four or five years; farmers were able to have larger families. Although they were typically less well-nourished, they were also less likely to starve, as settled farming allowed for longer-term storage of food, to survive times of shortage. Above all, agriculture and settled societies gave humans a foundation on which to develop further technology. No longer limited by what we could carry, we could build villages, towns and cities; we could live in larger groups that allowed people to specialise their labour and develop expertise.
Until the development of writing, what any society could know was limited to the total of what its members could remember, and if someone died without having passed on what they knew, the knowledge would be lost. Even bearing in mind that the average person in a preliterate society could remember much more than the average literate person can today (just as people who grew up without calculators are better at mental maths), without writing the storage of ideas was strictly limited.
Unlike agriculture, the development of writing couldn’t happen by chance. In fact, the idea of turning spoken words into written text is innovative enough that it’s verifiably known to have developed independently in just two locations, unlike the countless separate inventions of agriculture. Those locations were Sumer in Mesopotamia (modern-day southern Iraq) in around 3,500 BC and the Mayan civilisation of Mesoamerica around 400 BC. Other cultures that developed writing seem either to have been inspired to create their own writing after having heard about the concept elsewhere (such as the Sumerians’ neighbours in Egypt), or simply copied a script from their neighbours and adapted it to their own language.
Writing allowed for information storage on a scale never seen before in human history. Information could be held permanently and in a manner that couldn’t be altered – for instance, laws, contracts and business deals could be recorded in a form that wouldn’t be affected by anyone’s faulty memory, and that could be independently verified by anyone able to read. Any new discovery could be recorded and passed down, speeding up innovation by reducing the occasions on which prior knowledge was lost and had to be rediscovered. Over a couple of thousand years, writing developed from basic pictograms that were essentially a series of drawings, to more metaphorical interpretations of those drawings, to drawings based on phonetic sounds, and finally to the phonetic scripts used by most languages today.
4. Individual reason
Each of the inventions so far marked a turning point in human history. The hand axe was key to the tool use that differentiated humans from other apes; agriculture changed our way of life; writing enabled the record-keeping that fuelled the growth of civilisation. A Paleolithic hunter-gatherer with a handaxe would have been lost in a Neolithic farming village; a Neolithic farmer, used to settlements of 50 or 100 people, would have been dazed by the Sumerian city of Ur (population: 65,000). But a cosmopolitan Sumerian would not have felt too ill-at-ease in most of the world until the 18th century; even by 1750, the only British city larger than Ur in 2000 BC was London, with Bristol’s population of 45,000 coming a very distant second.
But by the eighteenth and nineteenth, the Sumerian might face just as much of a culture shock as the Neolithic farmer in Ur, with the Industrial Revolution well under way. It’s hard to pick a single invention of this time as world-changing when there were so many: the spinning jenny to revolutionise weaving, the steam train to make travelling much faster and the telegraph to do the same for communication. Anyone of these would have been mind-blowing for our Sumerian time-traveller.
What might have shocked him or her even more, though, was perhaps the most significant invention of the 18th century; so significant that we find it hard to fathom how people thought about the world prior to this. That’s the Enlightenment invention of the individual: the idea that each of us has not only free will, but the ability to reason and think for ourselves. Not only that, but if we exercised our reason and came to the conclusion that everyone else in our society was wrong about something, it could be that the flaw was in society, not in ourselves.
It might seem self-evident now, but the idea that everybody could and should shape their society and find their own way was liberating and would have been deeply alien to our predecessors. And it was a belief that helped challenge mistaken doctrines, spur scientific and technological development, and ultimately lead to new systems of government and organisation of society that allowed for much greater human flourishing to form the world that we live in today.
5. Artificial intelligence
The last of the greatest inventions in human history is still a work in progress. In relation to artificial intelligence, we’re like the first people of the Paleolithic chipping at a conveniently-sized rock to make it sharper: we’re already seeing the changes, but the full impact of the tools we could create remains to be seen.
Artificial intelligence can be defined in different ways. In some definitions, it’s the ability of a machine to perform an action as well or better than a human can, and there are many fields in which artificial intelligence in this sense already outstrips our abilities, such as arithmetic, data storage and retrieval, playing most games of mental skill, and under most circumstances, driving a car safely. But for the most part, we need a different machine for each of these different tasks: a chess-playing computer wouldn’t be much use for navigating rush hour traffic.
The other sense in which artificial intelligence is used is artificial general intelligence, or AGI, which refers to an intelligence that is generally as or more capable than a human: not just at adding numbers or playing chess, but at writing poetry, recognising faces or understanding language. This kind of artificial intelligence hasn’t been invented yet – but more than half of AI experts think it’s coming this century. Since the extinction of the Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago, humans haven’t co-existed with any being of equal intelligence to ourselves, and we’ve never lived alongside anything smarter than we are. Given that the global dominance of humans as a species is a consequence of our intelligence, the development of machines that can out-think us, if it occurs, will alter our society beyond recognition. Some people predict that this will be a techno-utopia; others the extinction of the human race, just as the rise of Homo sapiens led to the extinction of thousands upon thousands of less intelligent species. It remains to be seen whether AGI, if invited, will be humanity’s greatest invention – or its last.
Images: hand axe; neolithic farmstead; papyrus; mary wollstonecraft; robot plays table tennis; lightbulbs; new invention sign