Copyright 2012 © by Ralph Couey
“There's no such thing as 'the unknown,'
only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. “
--James T. Kirk
Humans have proven themselves to be marvelously creative creatures. We have faced challenges throughout our entire existence, going back to the point in time some 60,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens achieved supremacy over the fading Neanderthals. With every challenge came an invention, an development, or just an idea that solved the problems that were faced. Most were useful and enduring and helped further our development.
Having some rare free time the other day, I cruised the Internet looking for a list of the top ten inventions of all time. As you might expect, everyone and their second cousin has an opinion on this matter and my search turned up literally hundreds of lists. While they all labored under the restriction of picking 10 great ideas out of 60,000 years of history, I found a remarkable number of agreements on the lists I read through.
High on everyone’s lists was plumbing, more specifically, the flush toilet. That one’s so obvious that I won’t take up any space explaining why. Another was language, both spoken and written. Along with that came mathematics. The obvious subsets there include such things as paper, the printing press and the computer. There are so many of these kind of things that I concluded that it would be impossible to settle on only 10 items. But, I thought about it for a while and came up with what I consider to be the most significant things humans have done.
1. FIRE – There’s no way of knowing who or how fire was “invented.” Perhaps it was a lightening strike that set a forest afire, or maybe something as simple as a case of spontaneous combustion occurring in a pile of stuff. Whatever the source, fire became one of the things that assured our survival. Night could be pushed back by the light of torches and lamps. Winters now could be survived, perhaps reducing the impact of sickness. Meat could be cooked and preserved, providing a steady supply of protein even in times when fresh provender was hard to come by. Fire also made possible the firing of clay into pots, and the smelting of metals, such as bronze and iron into all kinds of useable things. In this modern era, it is still absolutely essential to industry, and it is that tiny spark inside that makes the engines of our cars and trucks go down the road. You could say that fire was the flame that has lighted our way.
2. COMMUNICATION – This covers a wide swath of things, initially the ability to speak to each other, to convey ideas and messages; to teach and therefore carry forward the irreplaceable gift of knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. Written language meant that now knowledge could be captured and preserved for the ages. History, the accounting of where we’ve been and what we’ve done, could now be written and studied by, as Chamberlain said, “generations that know us not.” From clay tablets to animal-skin parchment, to modern milled paper, and even digital storage media has enabled us to learn, and also to teach.
3. MEDICINE AND MEDICAL CARE – In our early years, many of our forebears died from things as complicated as disease, and as simple as a bad fall. The development of medicines, originally from herbs, helped beat back the scourge of sickness. The advancement of medical science was initially slow. Even as late as 1790, doctors were still bleeding sick patients, believing that the body held too much blood and that letting some out would also release the bad spirits causing the malady. Along came surgery, unfortunately before the invention of anesthesia, where doctors actually went inside the body to fix problems. John Adams, the revolutionary leader and our second president had a daughter called Nabby. She contracted breast cancer and was forced to endure a radical mastectomy with only a stick clenched in her teeth to allay the pain. Now we live in a world where even the worst kinds of illnesses, ones that killed thousands of our forebears, have been brought to heel by incredible advances in drugs and treatment protocols. Yet other things like cancer, diabetes, and MS still resist the onslaught of the power of human intelligence. However, despite the continuing struggle, most researchers consider the cure for all disease to be only a matter of time.
4. TECHNOLOGY – The first use of technology was probably tools – stone knives, spears, and other tools – that made survival possible. Technology, in the form of boats and later ships meant that the bounty of the sea and the ability to transport ourselves across it was now available to us. Other things like the magnetic compass that made trans-oceanic navigation possible, or the wheel itself that made us mobile and able to transport things. Electricity lit the civilized world; heated our homes in winter and cooled them in summer, also making possible the telephone and eventually the computer and the Internet. The integrated circuit, the heart and –dare I say? – soul of the modern computer, and that also found itself into things as simple as a child’s toy to things as complex as cardiac pacemakers. As they continue to get smaller and more powerful, their applicability will only expand. Even now, engineers are developing switching devices the size of atoms that will shrink the size of our phones, music players and storage media to as small as we need or want them to be. Batteries, the ability to store electricity and make it portable are getting more powerful every year. Almost everything we touch and interact with embodies the breath-taking developments so far, and presages even more wondrous things in the future.
5. AGRICULTURE – Humans must eat to survive and the ability to plant a seed, help it grow, and harvest the plant brought a balance to our diets that meat alone could not fill. Agriculture, being fixed, also helped organize humans into rational communities, such as towns and eventually cities. Farm technology has advanced from the pointed stick to the plow and oxen, to the modern tractors and implements which now enables a single farmer and family to plant, harvest, and send to market the bounty of hundreds of acres.
6. INDUSTRY – The ability to make a thing has always been one of the hallmarks of humanity. The development of methods to make many things at the same time meant that now a person need not have to invent something, but could buy someone else’s idea. Growing from the neighborhood blacksmith to manufacturing plants covering tens of acres, industry became the primary mover in global economies, harnessing skills and providing employment to millions.
7. CHEMISTRY AND BIOLOGY – From the development of life-saving medicines to the formulation of exotic materials, the ability to combine constituent elements into substances is another development that has touched us all. Combining iron with other metallic elements made possible the development of steel, which made possible tall buildings, among other things. The manipulation of polymers and carbon atoms created structures that are even stronger than steel. Even simple bread is the result of the complex reaction between yeast, flower, and water. Understanding the mysteries of life from the micro of DNA to the macro of evolution has given us a clearer comprehension of the biological world and our place in it.
8. SANITATION – The discovery that germs and viruses were the cause of most of mankind’s most devastating illnesses, and the susceptibility of those same microbes to things like soap and hot water, and pure alcohol, meant that children had a much better chance of survival. No more would they die of sicknesses such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery as long as the water they drank was boiled. The understanding of the biohazard inherent in human waste drove the development of safe and efficient ways of disposing them. The introduction of antiseptic standards into hospitals and particularly operating rooms greatly reduced the incidence of infection. We learn to live cleaner, and therefore, safer lives.
9. WARFARE – Humans, for the most part, have been generally kind and decent to each other. However, the mystery of genetics and DNA still produces the occasional bent human who not only is violent and ruthless but possesses the ability to marshal millions to follow them on a path of conquest and destruction. Without the ability to resist, humans would eventually all come under the thumb of dictators and perhaps murdered as well. The ability to protect good against evil is not as subjective as some might think. A battleground is, after all, the place where inventions of need are most often created. Weaponry started out as sticks and stones, became spears and lances, bows and arrows, swords and knives, guns, cannon, bombs, and noxious chemicals. The secrets of nuclear physics were cracked, not out of a peaceful situation, but under the heat of battle. Not only did two of those weapons end the costliest war in human history, but also that same knowledge has since unlocked the secrets of the cosmos. Medical developments meant to save soldiers in the field now save the lives of patients in hospitals. War, with all its violence, destruction, and dark terror, is nonetheless a laboratory of ideas.
10. LAWS AND ORDER – From the time when humans first organized themselves into communities, the need for a body of rules by which to govern themselves was always required. From the narrow to the broad, it was necessary to define acceptable behavior within society. Laws, and the ability to enforce them, ensured that some semblance of fair treatment and justice would exist. While there have been many times when laws were different for leaders than they were for citizens, the codification of legal statutes has still made it possible for societies to exist absent chaos. With laws, came the necessity for those to enforce them. Police and their many forebears made sure we were protected against each other, and also ourselves. Courts and judges provided the venue for the hearing of those cases. And prisons made it possible for the guilty to be segregated from the rest of society. Unfortunately, laws also created lawyers, but I guess you have to take the good with the bad.
So there they are. My take on the most significant things humans have done is necessarily broad because everything else flows from these ten. And even given the wondrous nature of human ingenuity up to this point, there’s still a spectacular future to come.