11 Innovations That Changed History

11 Innovations That Changed History


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1. The Printing Press

Prior to the rise of the Internet, no innovation did more for the spread and democratization of knowledge than Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Developed around 1440 in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg’s machine improved on already existing presses through the use of a mould that allowed for the rapid production of lead alloy type pieces. This assembly line method of copying books enabled a single printing press to create as many as 3,600 pages per day. By 1500 over 1,000 Gutenberg presses were operating in Europe, and by 1600 they had created over 200 million new books. The printing press not only made books affordable for the lower classes, but it helped spark the Age of Enlightenment and facilitated the spread of new and often controversial ideas. In 1518 followers of the German monk Martin Luther used the printing press to copy and disseminate his seminal work “The Ninety-Five Theses,” which jumpstarted the Protestant Reformation and spurred conflicts like the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). The printing press proved so influential in prompting revolutions, religious upheaval and scientific thought that Mark Twain would later write, “What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.”

READ MORE: 7 Ways the Printing Press Changed the World

2. The Compass

Magnetic compasses may have been made somewhat obsolete by satellites and global positioning systems, but their impact on early navigation and exploration was inestimable. Originally invented in China, by the 14th century compasses had widely replaced astronomical means as the primary navigational instrument for mariners. The compass provided explorers with a reliable method for traversing the world’s oceans, a breakthrough that ignited the Age of Discovery and won Europe the wealth and power that later fueled the Industrial Revolution. Most importantly, the compass allowed for interaction—both peaceful and otherwise—between previously isolated world cultures.

3. Paper Currency

Throughout much of human history, money took the form of precious metals, coins and even raw materials like livestock or vegetables. The inception of paper money ushered in a bold new era—a world in which currency could purchase goods and services despite having no intrinsic value. Paper currency was widely used in China in the ninth century, but did not appear in Europe until the late 1600s. Spurred on by frequent shortages of coins, banks issued paper notes as a promise against future payments of precious metals. By the late 19th century many nations had begun issuing government-backed legal tender that could no longer be converted into gold or silver. The switch to paper money not only bailed out struggling governments during times of crisis—as it did for the United States during the Civil War—but it also ushered in a new era of international monetary regulation that changed the face of global economics. Perhaps even more importantly, paper currency was the vital first step in a new monetary system that led to the birth of credit cards and electronic banking.

READ MORE: First Paper Currency Is Issued In the 13 Colonies

4. Steel

While early human societies made extensive use of stone, bronze and iron, it was steel that fueled the Industrial Revolution and built modern cities. Evidence of steel tools dates back 4,000 years, but the alloy was not mass-produced until the invention of the Bessemer Process, a technique for creating steel using molten pig iron, in the 1850s. Steel then exploded into one of the biggest industries on the planet and was used in the creation of everything from bridges and railroads to skyscrapers and engines. It proved particularly influential in North America, where massive iron ore deposits helped the United States become one of the world’s biggest economies.

READ MORE: The Spies Who Launched America's Industrial Revolution

5. The Electric Light

While they are easy to take for granted, all it takes is a short power outage to remind us of the importance of artificial lights. Pioneered in the early 19th century by Humphry Davy and his carbon arc lamp, electric lights developed throughout the 1800s thanks to the efforts of inventors like Warren de la Rue, Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Alva Edison. It was Edison and Swan who patented the first long-lasting light bulbs in 1879 and 1880, liberating society from a near-total reliance on daylight. Electric lights went on to be used in everything from home lighting and street lamps to flashlights and car headlights. The complex networks of wires erected to power early light bulbs also helped lead to the first domestic electrical wiring, paving the way for countless other in-home appliances.

READ MORE: The Race to Electrify America

6. Domestication of the Horse

Since their domestication some 5,500 years ago, horses have been inextricably tied to human development. They enabled people to travel great distances and gave different cultures the chance to trade and exchange ideas and technology. Equine strength and agility meant that horses could also carry cargo, plow farmland and even clear forests. Perhaps most influential of all, horses changed the nature of war. Nothing was more feared than a horse-drawn chariot or a mounted warrior, and societies that mastered the use of cavalry typically prevailed in battle.

READ MORE: How Horses Transformed Life for Plains Indians

7. Transistors

A criminally under-appreciated innovation, the transistor is an essential component in nearly every modern electronic gadget. First developed in late 1947 by Bell Laboratories, these tiny semiconductor devices allow for precise control of the amount and flow of current through circuit boards. Originally used in radios, transistors have since become an elemental piece of the circuitry in countless electronic devices including televisions, cell phones and computers. The amount of transistors in integrated circuits doubles nearly every two years—a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law—so their remarkable impact on technology will only continue to grow.

8. Magnifying Lenses

Magnifying lenses might seem like an unremarkable invention, but their use has offered mankind a glimpse of everything from distant stars and galaxies to the minute workings of living cells. Lenses first came into use in the 13th century as an aid for the weak-sighted, and the first microscopes and telescopes followed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Figures like Robert Hook and Anton van Leeuwenhoek would go on to use microscopes in the early observance of cells and other particles, while Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler employed the telescope to chart Earth’s place in the cosmos. These early uses were the first steps in the development of astonishing devices like the electron microscope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Magnifying lenses have since led to new breakthroughs in an abundance of fields including astronomy, biology, archeology, optometry and surgery.

READ MORE: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Hubble Space Telescope

9. The Telegraph

The telegraph was the first in a long line of communications breakthroughs that later included radio, telephones and email. Pioneered by a variety of inventors in the 18th and 19th centuries, the telegraph used Samuel Morse’s famous Morse code to convey messages by intermittently stopping the flow of electricity along communications wires. Telegraph lines multiplied throughout the 1850s, and by 1902 transoceanic cables encircled the globe. The original telegraph and its wireless successors went on to be the first major advancements in worldwide communication. The ability to send messages rapidly across great distances made an indelible impact on government, trade, banking, industry, warfare and news media, and formed the bedrock of the information age.

READ MORE: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Help Win the Civil War

10. Antibiotics

A giant step forward in the field of medicine, antibiotics saved millions of lives by killing and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. Scientists like Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister were the first to recognize and attempt to combat bacteria, but it was Alexander Fleming who made the first leap in antibiotics when he accidentally discovered the bacteria-inhibiting mold known as penicillin in 1928. Antibiotics proved to be a major improvement on antiseptics—which killed human cells along with bacteria—and their use spread rapidly throughout the 20th century. Nowhere was their effect more apparent than on the battlefield: While nearly 20 percent of soldiers who contracted bacterial pneumonia died in World War I, with antibiotics—namely Penicillin—that number dropped to only 1 percent during World War II. Antibiotics including penicillin, vancomycin, cephalosporin and streptomycin have gone on to fight nearly every known form of infection, including influenza, malaria, meningitis, tuberculosis and most sexually transmitted diseases.

READ MORE: It Took Surprisingly Long for Doctors to Figure Out the Benefits of Hand Washing

11. The Steam Engine

Cars, airplanes, factories, trains, spacecraft—none of these transportation methods would have been possible if not for the early breakthrough of the steam engine. The first practical use of external combustion dates back to 1698, when Thomas Savery developed a steam-powered water pump. Steam engines were then perfected in the late 1700s by James Watt, and went on to fuel one of the most momentous technological leaps in human history during the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the 1800s external combustion allowed for exponential improvement in transportation, agriculture and manufacturing, and also powered the rise of world superpowers like Great Britain and the United States. Most important of all, the steam engine’s basic principle of energy-into-motion set the stage for later innovations like internal combustion engines and jet turbines, which prompted the rise of cars and aircraft during the 20th century.

WATCH: Assembly Required with Tim Allen and Richard Karn premieres Tuesday, February 23 at 10/9c on HISTORY. Watch a preview now.


25 innovators and innovations that changed education over the last 25 years

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), in partnership with EdScoop, today revealed the contents of a virtual EdTech Time Capsule, the culmination of a national crowdsourcing project that sought to identify the top 25 products, people and developments that transformed education through technology over the last 25 years.

The time capsule recognizes nine innovators and 16 innovations, with a handful of others included as honorable mentions.

The winning individuals span lawmakers, educators, academics and founders, from Seymour Papert — considered the father of education technology for his hand in changing the way people think about computers for learning — to U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and John “Jay” Rockefeller, D-W.Va. — the lead sponsors of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which created the E-rate program and played a huge role in the expansion of digital education.

Other people include Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy and a leader in championing free online instructional materials, and Darryl Adams, a district superintendent in California who broke down broadband barriers for students with the creation of his “WiFi on Wheels” program.

Many products on the list are still used widely in schools today, like the Chromebook, iPad and Google Apps for Education (now the G Suite for Education). Interactive whiteboards and YouTube are among the products featured in the time capsule as well.

The education technology community voted in developments like the advent of mobile devices, the E-rate Modernization Orders, open educational resources (OER) and classroom internet access. The full effect of these developments, and others featured in the time capsule, can be seen in classrooms all across the country today.

“As CoSN approached its 25th anniversary, we wanted to honor and reflect on the recent past, as well as anticipate the future,” said Irene Spero, chief strategy officer at CoSN. “The best way to think about the future is to ‘invent it.’ And, understanding history can be helpful in seeing what in the past has been important — namely, the people, products and developments that have had a significant impact.”

CoSN and EdScoop asked education and technology leaders across the country to nominate their recommendations in August, then asked them to vote in October for their top choices. The highest vote-getters are now enshrined in a virtual time capsule.

“I have a flood of memories as I look over the list and see what has ‘moved the needle’ around technology in education,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN.

“The time capsule provides a trip down memory lane,” Spero added. “The 25 selections have all shaped our history over the last 25 years and transformed the educational experience.”

The EdTech Time Capsule will live permanently on CoSN’s website and on this page on EdScoop. CoSN will pay tribute to the winning selections at its annual conference in March 2018 and at other events.


The 10 Inventions that Changed the World

The U.S. librarian of Congress ranks history's most important innovations.

Thomas Edison liked to say that he never failed. He succeeded every now and again with an invention that would change the world. The rest of the time, he tried thousands of other things with only one fault—that they would never work.

That’s the sort of spirit and tenacity that leads to progress, says Carla Hayden, the U.S. librarian of Congress. The library keeps archives of many of America’s copyrights and blueprints, so National Geographic asked Hayden to list what she considers 10 of the most meaningful advances in history—the inventions and innovations responsible for the trappings of modern life.

Ranking innovations is more art than science. Can you really compare a camera to an airplane? But while progress is incremental, it’s also exponential it builds on itself. The printing press allowed literacy to spread and thinkers to share ideas and, thus, invent more things.

Modern inventions tend more toward improving than transforming: an app that connects the world in a better way, planes that fly farther, faster. But there’s still room, every so often, for dramatic advances like, say, 3-D printing or the Internet. “There will be more great leaps,” says Hayden. “We have a momentum and acceleration I think we can all feel.”


The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress.

S ome questions you ask because you want the right answer. Others are valuable because no answer is right the payoff comes from the range of attempts. Seven years ago, The Atlantic surveyed a group of eminent historians to create a ranked list of the 100 people who had done the most to shape the character of modern America. The panelists agreed easily on the top few names—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, in that order—but then began diverging in intriguing ways that reflected not simply their own values but also the varied avenues toward influence in our country. Lewis and Clark, or Henry Ford? Thomas Edison, or Martin Luther King? The result was of course not scientific. But the exercise of asking, comparing, and choosing helped us understand more about what these historical figures had done and about the areas in which American society had proved most and least open to the changes wrought by talented, determined men and women.

Now we turn to technology. The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) We also invited panelists to add explanations of their choices, and I followed up with several of them and with other experts in interviews.

One panelist ranked his choices not by importance but by date of invention, oldest (cement) to newest (GPS satellites). Some emphasized the importance not of specific breakthroughs but of broad categories of achievement. For instance, Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern, nominated in his top 10 “modularity.” By that he meant the refinements in industrial processes that allowed high-volume output of functionally identical parts. This enabled mass production and the Henry Ford–style assembly line (49 on The Atlantic’s list), and the profound shift from handmade to volume-produced versions of everything. Modularity didn’t make it onto our final list the adoption of standardized shipping containers, which extended the same logic in a different realm, just missed the cut.

In short, these scientists and creative types decided to answer the question they wanted us to ask, rather than the exact one we posed. We have new sympathy for people attempting to manage universities and R&D labs. But in the end we had enough comparable and overlapping suggestions, from enough people, with enough spelled-out explanations, and enough force of experience and insight behind them, to be comfortable presenting The Atlantic’s survey of humanity’s 50 most important technical breakthroughs since the wheel. We converted all the responses into values we could enter on a spreadsheet we weighted, as reasonably as we could, the intensity and breadth of support we watched the combined rankings go up and down as each new response arrived and we came up with the final ranking you see here.

One aspect of the results will be evident as soon as you start looking through them: the debatability of the choices and rankings once you move beyond the first few. For instance, anesthesia (46), which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer (16 on our final list). In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn’t exist? (Our panelist John Doerr, a well-known technology investor, said he worked his way through his own top‑25 list using a similar set of “pairwise comparisons,” asking which technology he would miss more.) I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn’t pay for novocaine.

Less evident from the final list is what I was fascinated to learn from my talks with many of the panelists. That is the diversity of views about the types of historical breakthroughs that matter, with a striking consensus on whether the long trail of innovation recorded here is now nearing its end.

Innovation: A Taxonomy

The clearest example of consensus was the first item on the final compilation, the printing press. Ten of the 12 people who submitted rankings had it at or near the top. To draw another parallel to our Influential Americans survey, the printing press was the counterpart to Abraham Lincoln as the clear consensus for the top choice. And just as that previous exercise revealed the major patterns through which historical figures had exerted influence—as political leaders in times of crisis, as industrial pioneers, through pop culture or design—a set of categories emerged from the individual nominations. One of our panelists, Leslie Berlin, a historian of business at Stanford, organized her nominations not as an overall list but grouped into functional categories. From our panelists’ nominations, a similar but slightly broader set of categories emerges. Here is my adaptation of Berlin’s useful scheme:

Innovations that expand the human intellect and its creative, expressive, and even moral possibilities. This group includes the printing press (1) and also paper, (6) and now of course the Internet, (9) the personal computer, (16) and the underlying technology for the modern data age, semiconductor electronics (4), plus photography (29). Charles C. Mann, the science writer and frequent Atlantic contributor, put writing third, behind fire and agricultural improvements, including the domestication of animals. Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, ranked as his top three innovations items from this category: alphabetization, paper, and the printing press.

Innovations that are integral to the physical and operating infrastructure of the modern world. George Dyson, the technology writer, said that cement, which in the end ranked 37th, was a crucial early innovation, “at the foundation of civilization as we know it—most of which would collapse without it.” Three of the top five choices from John Doerr were in this category: electrical systems were first, indoor plumbing was second, and filtration systems to create potable water were fifth. (One panelist mentioned aqueducts.) Doerr said that in much of today’s poor world, “the payoff of clean water, in terms of community prosperity,” is at least 20‑to-1. In our ranking, electricity was No. 2 and sanitation systems were No. 12. Through the past half century, air-conditioning (44) played a major role in America’s expansion across the Sun Belt. Air-conditioning is now having a similar effect in China, India, the Gulf states, and elsewhere. Our panelist Joi Ito, the head of the Media Lab at MIT, said that air-conditioning “was famously identified by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore as the technology that allowed residents to have white-collar work, and that empowered populations living in temperate climates.”

Innovations that enabled the Industrial Revolution and its successive waves of expanded material output. These include the steam engine (10), industrial steelmaking (19), and the refining and drilling of oil (35 and 39, respectively). A century ago, a comparable list would have had to include the use of coal, which does not appear here, although it is still the most widely used fuel for electric-power plants.

I nnovations extending life, to use Leslie Berlin’s term. This broad group includes the successive agricultural revolutions that now let the Earth support its billions of people: nitrogen fixation (11), notably the Haber-Bosch process, about a century old, which made modern ammonia-based fertilizers possible and, by making more nitrogen available to plants, lifted a previously unbreakable limit on crop yields. (That same process led to modern explosives and the poison gas used during World War I.) Also, the green revolution (22) the moldboard plow (30) Archimedes’ screw (31), which drew water from streams and canals to irrigate fields and scientific plant breeding (38). This group also includes the advances in medical knowledge and treatment that predate our current genomics revolution: No. 3, penicillin (nearly a century old) No. 8, vaccination (a few hundred years old) and No. 20, the pill (half a century old). One of our panelists suggested “the germ theory of infectious disease” as one of humanity’s top 10 breakthroughs. A list made 50 years from now, or maybe only five, would undoubtedly emphasize the revolutionary potential of genomics, but as yet it did not make our cut. The life-extending category also includes the public-health measures that have advanced in parallel with improved medical treatment: sanitation systems (12) and refrigeration (13).

After penicillin, the highest-ranked item from this category was optical lenses, at No. 5. I am glad they were mentioned by several panelists, because their inclusion illustrates the underappreciated ripple effects of certain technologies. Before the advent of corrective lenses, people with imperfect vision could be vulnerable to enemies or predators in humanity’s early hunter-warrior stages, and later intellectually handicapped by their simple inability to see letters or numbers as clearly as others. None of our panelists put it this way, but I have always believed that the adoption of corrective lenses amounted to the largest onetime IQ boost in human history, by expanding the pool of potentially literate people. It was also one of several puzzlingly “late” innovations, occurring many long centuries after the Romans and others discovered the optical properties of lenses. A similar puzzle, according to Joel Mokyr, involves the delayed appearance of the wheelbarrow. “It is about as simple a labor-saving device as you can think of,” he told me, “but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone for thousands of years after the wheel, and it took about a thousand years longer to occur to anyone in Europe after its first use in China.”

Innovations that allowed real-time communication beyond the range of a single human voice. The Internet (9) obviously brings new scale and speed to communication, but the real leap beyond previous limitations occurred in the mid‑1800s, with the development of the telegraph (26), followed by the telephone (24) and then radio (28). As Joel Mokyr put it, before the telegraph, “with few exceptions, information could move no faster than a man on horseback. Smoke signals, homing pigeons, and the semaphore telegraph all had very little bandwidth and were unreliable. The telegraph made it at least in principle possible for information to move at the speed of light, and thus vastly improved long-distance communications and hence command and control over much larger territories.”

Considering how often the modern era has been called the “television age” and how much time people now spend before a variety of screens, it is notable that television comes in only at No. 45. Many years from now, perhaps people will regard the second half of the 20th century as the brief moment when broadcast TV could seem a dominant technology. With its obvious-in-retrospect limitations, like one-way information flow rather than interactivity, and dependence on heavy hardware for best display, maybe TV was bound to be a transition to some other system more tailored to individual tastes. Or maybe our panelists were embarrassed to vote for it.

Innovations in the physical movement of people and goods. Through the past 150 years, the internal combustion engine (7) made possible the social, economic, political, and environmental effects brought on by the age of the automobile (18). With variations in propulsion systems (and later the emergence of jet-turbine engines), this same innovation made possible the airplane (15). Why is the airplane ahead of the car? Presumably because automobile travel sped up the land journeys people had long made by other means, whereas the airplane made possible an entirely new form of human movement—and, perhaps as important, an unprecedented way of seeing and understanding the Earth. Until the first, tentative balloon flights in the late 1700s, human beings had never viewed the layout of their environment from an elevation higher than that of a treetop or a mountain. In the age of 20th-century powered flight, they could see for themselves the natural contours and man-made features they had approximated on maps.

Starting in the 1700s, the steam engine (10) enabled growth of the railroad—which, like the bicycle, presumably would have come near the top of a comparable survey a century ago. Even now railroads carry far more freight in the United States than do trucks, barges, or any other form of transport they are the backbone of passenger-travel systems in Europe and they account for more of China’s infrastructure investment than airports or roads. But not everything could make the final cut! Also in this category are No. 40, the sailboat (with the sextant at No. 23 and the compass at No. 17), and No. 41, rocketry (“our only way off the planet—so far,” in George Dyson’s words).

Organizational breakthroughs that provide the software for people working and living together in increasingly efficient and modern ways. Linda Sanford, a senior vice president for enterprise transformation at IBM, picked the Gregorian calendar (34) as her very first item, ahead of her second choice, paper. The importance of alphabetization (25) is easy to overlook until you consider the challenges of indexing, arraying, and retrieving knowledge that arise in non-alphabetic languages, notably Chinese.

Finally, and less prominently than we might have found in 1950 or 1920—and less prominently than I initially expected—we have innovations in killing, including gunpowder (14) and nuclear fission (21). The machine gun, which received only one nomination, would have dominated in this category 100 years ago. Nor did anyone bring up drones, or chemical or biological weapons, or terrorism or guerrilla warfare. But on reflection, our panelists probably got it right. Except for the atomic bomb, breakthroughs in weaponry matter less than the culture and temperament of human conflict.

Any collection of 50 breakthroughs must exclude 50,000 more. What about GPS systems, on which so many forms of movement now depend, and which two panelists recommended? What about the concept of the number zero, as suggested by Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco? (She did not rank her 25 items, but 18 of them showed up among the final 50 Michelle Alexopoulos, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, had 21, and Walter Isaacson had 25 of the 26 he submitted.) In addition to coal, how can no one have mentioned paved roads? Or the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA? Landing on the moon? Or the mathematics of calculus, on which space flight and so much else depended? The more questions and discussions our ranking provokes, the more successful the endeavor will have been.

We notice that innovation may be less personalized than we assume. Our Influential Americans survey was all about specific people who made a difference, though in some cases—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King—the difference they made was to persuade large groups to work toward a common end. In this survey, it is remarkable how few world-changing breakthroughs can be tied directly to a single, heroic, Nobel Prize–worthy innovator. Pasteurization (33) is the only one of the top 50 to be named for a person, unless you count the Gregorian calendar or Archimedes’ screw. Other people made other celebrated advances, from Johannes Gutenberg to Alexander Graham Bell, but overall these are the achievements of groups of people who built on one another’s efforts, sometimes over spans of many years.

We learn, finally, why technology breeds optimism, which may be the most significant part of this exercise.

The Future

Popular culture often lionizes the stars of discovery and invention. A century ago, this meant the Wright brothers, Edison, and the auto pioneers in the Eisenhower years, Jonas Salk and Wernher von Braun and in the past generation, first Bill Gates and then Steve Jobs. But about technology’s onrush in general, cultural and political attitudes have been mixed at best. For each writer or thinker or government leader who has enthusiastically welcomed whatever changes technology might bring, there has been a counterpart warning of its dangers. From Blake to Dickens, from Metropolis to Blade Runner, from Upton Sinclair to Rachel Carson, and through a long list of similar pairings, the culture of a technology-driven era has continually played catch-up to correct modernity’s destructive and dehumanizing effects.

For our era, the major problems that technology has helped cause, and that faster innovation may or may not correct, are environmental, demographic, and socioeconomic. Environmental challenges, because of the unsustainable burden being placed on the world’s oceans, skies, soils, and nonhuman life-forms demographic, because advances in medicine and public health are rapidly pushing up the median age throughout the developed world and socioeconomic, because a globalized, high-tech economy is widening the gap between rich and poor everywhere.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that people who have thought deeply about innovation’s sources and effects, like our panelists, were aware of the harm it has done along with the good. I found it notable that the technologists I spoke with volunteered lists of innovation-enhanced perils. “Does innovation raise the wealth of the planet? I believe it does,” John Doerr, who has helped launch Google, Amazon, and other giants of today’s technology, said. “But technology left to its own devices widens rather than narrows the gap between the rich and the poor.” Despite the prospects for innovation that excite him, he said, “I don’t think there is any reason to assume there will automatically be enough ‘good’ jobs, for enough people, in the long run.” Joel Mokyr pointed out that innovation has always done both good and harm. “You look at antibiotics, insecticides, transportation—every time we solve one problem, a new one comes up,” he said. “Each invention relies on subsequent inventions to clean up the mess it has made.”

Please stop to think about this: Outside of the sciences and technology, and apart from the legacies created in each family, humanity is struggling today for a sense of cumulative achievement. Are today’s statesmen an improvement over those of our grandparents’ era? Today’s level of public debate? Music, architecture, literature, the fine arts—these and other manifestations of world culture continually change, without necessarily improving. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, versus whoever is the best-selling author in Moscow right now? The original, elegant Penn Station, versus its warehouse-like replacement?

A central question for technologists is whether innovation in the material and productive realms can be sustained—or whether we might, on the contrary, already be entering another of the long, stagnant eras that have marked much of human history, including the ones after times of rapid advance. Amid today’s onslaught of the new-and-improved, a slowdown of any sort might seem improbable—but possibly desirable. The argument that a slowdown might happen, and that it would be harmful if it did, takes three main forms.

The first is historical. Some societies have closed themselves off and stopped inventing altogether: notably China after its preeminence in the Ming era, and much of the Arab Islamic world starting just before the European Renaissance. By failing to move forward, they inevitably moved backward relative to their rivals and to the environmental and economic threats they faced. If the social and intellectual climate for innovation sours, what has happened before can happen again.

The second draws from the visible slowdown in the pace of solutions that technology offers to fundamental problems. Between 1850 and 1950, life expectancy nearly doubled in the United States, thanks to the combined effects of antibiotics, immunization, and public-health measures. Since then, it has only crept up. Between 1920 and 1970, improvements in cars, roads, airplanes, and even railroads made travel faster, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable. Since then, travel in the developed world has improved slowly at best. Crop yields per acre doubled within a generation of the green revolution but have not doubled again.

The third and broadest form of the argument is that a slowdown in, say, crop yields or travel time is part of a general pattern of what economists call diminishing marginal returns. The easy improvements are, quite naturally, the first to be made whatever comes later is slower and harder.

The most systematic recent presentation of this view has come from the economist Robert J. Gordon, of Northwestern, who has argued that America’s history as a nation happens to coincide with a rare moment in technological history now nearing its end. “There was virtually no economic growth before 1750,” he writes in a recent paper. This, he said, left open the possibility that “the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well be a unique episode in human history rather than a guarantee of endless future advance at the same rate.” Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, says in The Great Stagnation that America’s long centuries of rapid growth amounted to harvesting the “low-hanging fruit” of open land, cheap energy, and industrial-era breakthroughs—harvesting that could not be sustained.

Everyone I spoke with was familiar with such cautionary analyses none dismissed them out of hand. But when pressed, every one of them said they expected the pace of useful innovation to speed up, not slow down. Again, their explanations took three main forms.

First, and reassuringly, whatever field a panelist knew most about, he or she considered most promising. John Doerr emphasized the transformative potential of radically cheaper and more efficient batteries, which in turn are a crucial element of a cleaner-energy economy. (Wind turbines, solar panels, and other renewable sources don’t produce power on a schedule that matches the grid’s demands. Modern batteries cost too much, and store too little energy, to be useful in buffering undersupply. See "Technologies to Bet On" in this issue.) Others I spoke with saw similar prospects in other fields. Elon Musk, not officially one of our panelists, is perhaps this era’s most ambitious innovator. He simultaneously heads a company building rocket ships, SpaceX another making a popular electric car, Tesla and another that is a leading provider of solar power, SolarCity. When I asked him what innovation he hoped to live long enough to see but feared he might not, he said, “Sustainable human settlements on Mars.”

Most of these U.S.-based technologists thought prospects for innovation remained brighter in the United States than anywhere else. And this judgment came from people fully aware of the continued erosion of basic-research funding and other challenges. “We can be concerned about the last 1 percent of an environment for innovation, but that is because we take everything else for granted,” Leslie Berlin told me.

Second, many pointed out that ever cheaper, ever faster computing power could in itself promote innovation in all other fields—much as steam-powered engines did in the 19th century and electricity in the 20th. For one example: Eric S. Lander, the director of the Broad Institute for medical research in Cambridge, Massachusetts (also not on our panel), pointed out that in the past 12 years, the cost of sequencing human DNA has fallen to one one-millionth of its previous level. This reduction in cost, he says, means that the next decade should be a time of “amazing advances in understanding the genetic basis of disease, with especially powerful implications for cancer.”

Finally, the people I spoke with said that the very concept of an end to innovation defied everything they understood about human inquiry. “If you look just at the 20th century, the odds against there being any improvement in living standards are enormous,” Joel Mokyr told me. “Two catastrophic world wars, the Cold War, the Depression, the rise of totalitarianism—it’s been one disaster after another, a sequence that could have been enough to sink us back into barbarism. And yet this past half century has been the fastest-ever time of technological growth. I see no reason why that should be slowing down.”

George Dyson put it a different way, in a sense the most optimistic of all. “I am a technological evolutionist,” he said. “I view the universe as a phase-space of things that are possible, and we’re doing a random walk among them. Eventually we are going to fill the space of everything that is possible.”

What innovation did Dyson most hope to see during his time in the phase-space of the living? He had obviously thought about this before, and answered immediately: “The return of sailing ships as a commercially viable transport system.” Even in the days of cloth sails and hemp rope, he said, clipper ships could convert 60 percent of the raw energy of the wind into useful work. With modern materials and design, they could capture more energy than they used en route. “When a fleet of ships got to port, they could not only deliver cargo but even put energy into the grid.” This is how innovators think.

The List

The Atlantic asked a dozen scientists, historians, and technologists to rank the top innovations since the wheel. Here are the results.

You can also choose your own top five innovations, and see how the readers' choices stack up against the Atlantic experts'.

1. The printing press, 1430s

The printing press was nominated by 10 of our 12 panelists, five of whom ranked it in their top three. Dyson described its invention as the turning point at which “knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own.”

2. Electricity, late 19th century

And then there was light—and Nos. 4, 9, 16, 24, 28, 44, 45, and most of the rest of modern life.

Accidentally discovered in 1928, though antibiotics were not widely distributed until after World War II, when they became the silver bullet for any number of formerly deadly diseases

4. Semiconductor electronics, mid-20th century

The physical foundation of the virtual world

5. Optical lenses, 13th century

Refracting light through glass is one of those simple ideas that took a mysteriously long time to catch on. “The Romans had a glass industry, and there’s even a passage in Seneca about the optical effects of a glass bowl of water,” says Mokyr. But it was centuries before the invention of eyeglasses dramatically raised the collective human IQ, and eventually led to the creation of the microscope and the telescope.

6. Paper, second century

“The idea of stamping images is natural if you have paper, but until then, it’s economically unaffordable.” — Charles C. Mann

7. The internal combustion engine, late 19th century

Turned air and fuel into power, eventually replacing the steam engine (No. 10)

8. Vaccination, 1796

The British doctor Edward Jenner used the cowpox virus to protect against smallpox in 1796, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine in 1885 that medicine—and government—began to accept the idea that making someone sick could prevent further sickness.

9. The Internet, 1960s

The infrastructure of the digital age

10. The steam engine, 1712

Powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution

11. Nitrogen fixation, 1918

The German chemist Fritz Haber, also the father of chemical weapons, won a Nobel Prize for his development of the ammonia-synthesis process, which was used to create a new class of fertilizers central to the green revolution (No. 22).

12. Sanitation systems, mid-19th century

A major reason we live 40 years longer than we did in 1880 (see “Die Another Day”)

13. Refrigeration, 1850s

“Discovering how to make cold would change the way we eat—and live—almost as profoundly as discovering how to cook.” — George Dyson

14. Gunpowder, 10th century

Outsourced killing to a machine

Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 40)

16. The personal computer, 1970s

Like the lever (No. 48) and the abacus (No. 43), it augmented human capabilities.

17. The compass, 12th century

18. The automobile, late 19th century

Transformed daily life, our culture, and our landscape

19. Industrial steelmaking, 1850s

Mass-produced steel, made possible by a method known as the Bessemer process, became the basis of modern industry.

Launched a social revolution

21. Nuclear fission, 1939

Gave humans new power for destruction, and creation

22. The green revolution, mid-20th century

Combining technologies like synthetic fertilizers (No. 11) and scientific plant breeding (No. 38) hugely increased the world’s food output. Norman Borlaug, the agricultural economist who devised this approach, has been credited with saving more than 1 billion people from starvation.

23. The sextant, 1757

It made maps out of stars.

24. The telephone, 1876

Allowed our voices to travel

25. Alphabetization, first millennium b . c .

Made knowledge accessible and searchable—and may have contributed to the rise of societies that used phonetic letters over those that used ideographic ones

26. The telegraph, 1837

Before it, Joel Mokyr says, “information could move no faster than a man on horseback.”

27. The mechanized clock, 15th century 28. Radio, 1906

The first demonstration of electronic mass media’s power to spread ideas and homogenize culture

29. Photography, early 19th century

Changed journalism, art, culture, and how we see ourselves

30. The moldboard plow, 18th century

The first plow that not only dug soil up but turned it over, allowing for the cultivation of harder ground. Without it, agriculture as we know it would not exist in northern Europe or the American Midwest.

31. Archimedes’ screw, third century b.c.

The Greek scientist is believed to have designed one of the first water pumps, a rotating corkscrew that pushed water up a tube. It transformed irrigation and remains in use today at many sewage-treatment plants.

32. The cotton gin, 1793

Institutionalized the cotton industry—and slavery—in the American South

33. Pasteurization, 1863

One of the first practical applications of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, this method for using heat to sterilize wine, beer, and milk is widely considered to be one of history’s most effective public-health interventions.

34. The Gregorian calendar, 1582

Debugged the Julian calendar, jumping ahead 10 days to synchronize the world with the seasons

35. Oil refining, mid-19th century

Without it, oil drilling (No. 39) would be pointless.

36. The steam turbine, 1884

A less heralded cousin of steam engines (No. 10), turbines are the backbone of today’s energy infrastructure: they generate 80 percent of the world’s power.

37. Cement, first millennium b.c.

The foundation of civilization. Literally.

38. Scientific plant breeding, 1920s

Humans have been manipulating plant species for nearly as long as we’ve grown them, but it wasn’t until early-20th-century scientists discovered a forgotten 1866 paper by the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel that we figured out how plant breeding—and, later on, human genetics—worked.

39. Oil drilling, 1859

Fueled the modern economy, established its geopolitics, and changed the climate

40. The sailboat, fourth millennium b . c .

Transformed travel, warfare, and our view of the world (see No. 15)

41. Rocketry, 1926

“Our only way off the planet—so far.” — George Dyson

42. Paper money, 11th century

The abstraction at the core of the modern economy

43. The abacus, third millennium b.c.

One of the first devices to augment human intelligence

44. Air-conditioning, 1902

Would you start a business in Houston or Bangalore without it?

45. Television, early 20th century

Brought the world into people’s homes

46. Anesthesia, 1846

In response to the first public demonstration of ether, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote: “The fierce extremity of suffering has been steeped in the waters of forgetfulness, and the deepest furrow in the knotted brow of agony has been smoothed for ever.”

47. The nail, second millennium b.c.

“Extended lives by enabling people to have shelter.” — Leslie Berlin

48. The lever, third millennium b.c.

The Egyptians had not yet discovered the wheel when they built their pyramids they are thought to have relied heavily on levers.

49. The assembly line, 1913

Turned a craft-based economy into a mass-market one

50. The combine harvester, 1930s

Mechanized the farm, freeing people to do new types of work

Our Panel of Experts
The scientists, historians, and technologists we consulted to make this list.

Michelle Alexopoulos
Professor of economics, University of Toronto

Leslie Berlin
Historian of business and technology, Stanford author, The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley

John Doerr
General partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

George Dyson
Historian of technology author, Turing’s Cathedral and Darwin Among the Machines

Walter Isaacson
President and CEO, the Aspen Institute author, Steve Jobs , Einstein: His Life and Universe, and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Joi Ito
Director, MIT Media Lab

Alexis Madrigal
Senior editor, The Atlantic author, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

Charles C. Mann
Journalist author, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovring the New World Columbus Created

Joel Mokyr
Professor of economics and history, Northwestern University

Linda Sanford
Senior vice president for enterprise transformation, IBM

Astro Teller
Captain of moonshots, Google[x] co-founder, Cerebellum Capital and BodyMedia

Padmasree Warrior
Chief technology and strategy officer, Cisco Systems


31 Inventions of the 20th Century That Changed the Course of History

The 20th century was marked by progress in every field and walk of life. In this article, you will find a list of the most important inventions of this century that have made our life easier and comfortable.

The 20th century was marked by progress in every field and walk of life. In this article, you will find a list of the most important inventions of this century that have made our life easier and comfortable.

The era between 1901-2000, better known as the 20th century, witnessed the birth of some of the most remarkable creations. Right from electronic gadgets, automobiles, to articles of everyday use these inventions stupefied the world at the time they were made. But, today, they have become a part of our lives and we literally cannot imagine life without them.

Following is brief information on some of the most important inventions, designed and created in the 20th century, and also a list of other noteworthy innovations.

The Radio
The invention of the radio was the first among all the major inventions of this period of 100 years (1900-2000). Radio was not invented by a single individual, but was resulted out of contributions of several scientists and inventors. Although claimed to be invented earlier, patent for radio was granted in 1904. Both, Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi are considered as inventors of the Radio. In 1901, Marconi sent the first radiotelegraph message from England to Canada. Radio-telegraphy became one of the most used communication techniques after the radio was invented. The AM (Amplitude Modulation) radio was a modification that helped in making access to numerous radio stations possible.

The Airplane
After the radio, the airplane ranks as one of the earliest inventions of the 20th century. Wilbur and Orville Wright, through their invention of the airplane in 1903, demonstrated that man could fly actualizing a concept that was found earlier only in mythological stories. Before the actual airplane was designed, Wright brothers tried various methods like gliders, hot air balloons, etc. for flying. The airplane, although invented earlier, was not taken seriously until Charles Lindberg made a solo flight across the Atlantic ocean. With its unmatchable applicability, the airplane is truly one of the greatest inventions that has changed the world.

The Television
The invention of the television dazed people all over the world. Today, life without the television is literally unimaginable for more than half of the population of the world. This significant invention was made in 1926, by John Logie Baird. He is credited for making the world’s first television broadcast. Soon after the first television broadcast, Baird made the first Trans-Atlantic broadcast as well as the first broadcast with color images. Philo Farnsworth is credited for making the first complete, functional all-electronic television system. The latest technology in television includes integration of the television and the Internet.

The Computer
The computer is the greatest, incomparable invention belonging to the 20th century. There is no single inventor accredited with the invention of the computer, as it was born out of many scientists’, researchers’ and mathematicians’ contribution. Charles Babbage is credited with the actual concept of the computer, while Konrad Zuse made the first programmable computer. As further inventions took place, desktop computers, Pentium processors and laptop computers soon came into being. The Internet is also one of the most useful and remarkable inventions of the 20th century. Today, computers are used in nearly all fields like in education, defense, robotics, banking, telecommunication, etc.

Cell Phone
The invention of cell phones, also called mobile phones, in 1977, made communication easier, quicker, and more comfortable. Improved versions of cell phones are constantly available in the market due to the ever-advancing technology. Today, cell phones also perform functions of computers, music players, camera, video recorders, and televisions, and hence, are in great demand. The calling rates have also dropped drastically since the time cell phones were first made. Nearly half of the world owns a cell phone today and it will not be wrong to say that cell phones have replaced telephones or other traditional means of communication.

Apart from these, there were several other inventions made in the 20th century. The following is a list of some other noteworthy ones.

… in the Field of Science and Technology

  • Escalator
  • Helicopter
  • Robot
  • Radio Telescope
  • Radar
  • Jet Engine
  • Electron Microscope
  • Atomic bomb
  • Laser
  • Space shuttle
  • Compact Discs

… in the Field of Medicine

  • Safety Razor
  • Vacuum Cleaner
  • Neon Lights
  • Zipper
  • Toaster
  • Microwave Oven
  • Transistor
  • Ballpoint Pen
  • Cellophane
  • Chocolate Chips
  • Tea Bags

Don’t you think all these things have made our life easier? Therefore, we can conclude by saying that nearly all the inventions of this century have transformed from novelty to necessity. Ciao!


Technological Innovations That Changed the NBA Forever

The simplicity of basketball is what allowed it to catch on like wildfire when it was introduced. Hoops flourishes across all classes and income strata because it requires virtually no equipment and no technology.

And yet, NBA basketball has been significantly altered through the years by technology. Some of the alterations we take for granted now and barely notice. But oh, how the game would be different—was different—without these advances.

The shot clock

No technology transformed NBA basketball like the shot clock, added in 1954. The high-scoring duels we see now would have never existed. Even the low-scoring affairs would have been a figment of the imagination.

Consider this: The lowest-scoring NBA game since the shot clock was added featured the Boston Celtics defeating the Milwaukee Hawks, 62-57. A mere 119 points were scored.

In the lowest-scoring game before the shot clock, the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers, 19-18. That's 37 points total.

In other words, Kobe Bryant (get well soon, Black Mamba) outscored both teams combined the other night in New Orleans.

How ironic that his jersey number is 24?

That's the kind of difference the 24-second shot clock has made. Before, teams could and did play keep-away the entire game. Now, less than a half-minute of keep-away costs you a turnover.

The pre-shot clock era wasn't just points-poor either. One game, featuring the Rochester Royals against the Indianapolis Olympians, went 78 minutes and six overtimes—the longest game in NBA history—because both teams used stall tactics, like winning the overtime tip and then immediately holding onto the ball for the last shot.

Former Boston Celtics Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy explained the pre-shot clock era this way on nba.com:

"Before the new rule, the last quarter could be deadly. The team in front would hold the ball indefinitely, and the only way you could get it was by fouling somebody. In the meantime, nobody dared take a shot and the whole game slowed up.

With the clock, we have constant action. I think it saved the NBA at that time. It allowed the game to breathe and progress."

I'm not nearly old enough to remember the pre-shot clock era, but I am just old enough to remember the NCAA before the shot clock. Anyone who thinks basketball is ever boring now should be forced to watch one of those games.

Triangle offense? This was the pentagon offense—five guys passing to each other over and over and over again.

It was so unimaginably stultifying, I'm surprised fans didn't run on-court and knock the Spalding out of the ball-handler's hands.

I can only imagine pre-1954 NBA fans desperately resisting the impulse to claw their own eyes out.

How did the NBA powers-that-be land on such a seemingly arbitrary number as 24? Inventor Danny Biasone explained:

"I looked at the box scores from the games I enjoyed, games where they didn't screw around and stall. I noticed each team took about 60 shots. That meant 120 shots per game. So I took 48 minutes – 2,880 seconds – and divided that by 120 shots. The result was 24 seconds per shot."

In the 2011-2012 season, the shot clock was modified to display tenths of a second once it hits the five-second threshold. The seemingly minor change can dramatically alter game strategy: Because the game happens at such a fast pace, a player can look at the clock and see, say, 2.8 seconds versus 2.1 seconds—and know how much more he can accomplish.

Maurice Podoloff, the NBA's first president, probably said it best:

"The adoption of the clock was the most important event in the NBA."

Basketball shoes

Believe it or not, there was a time in the not-so-distant past where no basketball players wore Nikes.

Because there were no Nikes.

From the early '20s until 1984, Converse, not Nike, ruled the NBA.

The canvas sneakers with rubber soles—called Chuck Taylor All-Stars after a famous basketball player of the 1920s and his all-star team—were what the pro basketball players, as well as their fans, wore until the mid-'70s, when Converse came out with their Pro Leather shoe.

Chuck Taylor All-Stars are the best-selling sneakers of all time.

In 1978, however, a burgeoning shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports changed its name to Nike. Four years later, the other shoe dropped. (Wow, I just astonished myself with my own pun.)

The 1982 all-white Nike Air Force 1, with their air-filled soles, were the original pumped-up kicks. They were an instant hit, and made Nike the top-selling basketball shoe.

But in 1985, Nike became a household name when it made possibly the smartest business decision ever in the history of capitalism: signing a player named Michael Jordan, fresh off his rookie campaign, to a shoe endorsement deal.

"Nobody expected the mass hysteria created by its release."

- Michael Jordan, on Nike Air Jordan shoes

Up until that time, NBA shoes were white, with team colors as trim accents. Air Jordans's red and black Chicago Bulls colors, instead of being merely trim, dominated the shoe.

The look shocked the world.

Because they didn't conform with other NBA shoes, Air Jordans were originally banned by the NBA. Jordan wore them anyway—and was hit with a $5,000-per-game fine, which Nike sprung for.

It was money well spent. The fine, and Jordan's ostensibly wanton disregard for it, just added to the shoes' mystique—and the public's frenzy for them.

Like designer jeans in the '70s, Air Jordans were fashion statements. If you had them, you were in the in-crowd. Release dates were moved to weekends, because kids were skipping school to get the newest pair. Air Jordans were so prized that people actually and horrifyingly murdered each other for them.

Fortunately, Nike shoes also had a myriad of positive impacts on the game itself.

First, the shoe technology arguably improved game play, giving rise to the famous and brilliant advertising slogan, "It's gotta be the shoes."

Nike further enhances play by creating shoes for players according to their positions. Power players with an inside game like sturdier shoes, for more support. Guards and perimeter players opt for lighter shoes which allow them greater movement and cutting ability.

Second, Nike's overwhelming success—and Jordan's first retirement in 1994—gave rise to the now-common multi-million dollar athlete sneaker contract.

With Jordan absent from the game, Nike feared their shoe sales would collapse—and other shoe manufacturers saw the opportunity.

Other superstar players like Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and David Robinson were pursued and richly rewarded for their endorsements. Soon, shoe endorsements often became more lucrative than player contracts.

Today, an NBA athlete getting his shoe deal is almost expected—but still a sign that you've made it.

Heck, they even added shoe commercials and deals to NBA 2K12.

Oh, and if you're looking for an original pair of Air Jordans, you can pick 'em up on eBay. if you can scrounge up $1,500 from between your couch cushions.

Technology to improve officiating

Used to be that when the buzzer sounded as a shot was fired, the referees had no precise way to determine whether a player got the shot off in time. Still, whatever they called, stood.

This haphazard manner of officiating reached its nadir in the unforgettable 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.

In Game 4, the Lakers' Samaki Walker made a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer. Television replays showed Walker's shot left his hand after time had expired, but the shot counted. The Lakers went on to win the game 100-99.

Those three points would have given the Kings the series victory (which was stolen from them in other ways, but that's for tomorrow's article).

The season after that fiasco, the NBA implemented instant replays to view multiple angles of plays which occur at the end of each quarter. Any basket or foul at the quarter-ending buzzer is automatically reviewed to see whether the action went down before or after the quarter ended.

In 2008 and 2009, instant replay was expanded. At any point in the game, referees could replay a shot at the three-point arc to determine whether a player is behind the line or not. This allows them to accurately award teams two points or free-throw opportunities vs. three.

Because the ends of games are the most critical, the league has over the years instituted other advances to help the refs make the right call. For example, all backboards now have a red LED light that glows when the game clock expires.

In addition, lighting along each sideline near midcourt helps referees spot precisely where the ball was when the horn went off.

The precious seconds on the game clock have gotten more accurate too. In the old days, the sideline timekeeper would have to listen for a ref to blow his whistle, and then shut off the clock. That left plenty of room for human error.

To improve precision, the NBA installed a sensing device on referees' whistles. When a ref blows his whistle, the clock automatically stops. When play resumes, the ref just presses a tiny button at their waist to restart the clock.

Even with all this technology at their disposal, NBA referees still manage to miss their share of calls. But it would be a lot worse without these advances.

So Sacramento, take heart: Your beloved 2002 squad didn't lose entirely in vain.

Breakaway rims

You think a dunk is an emphatic statement? Then you've never witnessed a backboard-shattering dunk.

To the chagrin of anyone who's ever seen a Darryl Dawkins flush, breakaway rims were implemented in 1983. Before these rims, which bend as a player grabs onto them, and snap back into place when they're released, Chocolate Thunder (that was Dawkins' awesome nickname) shattered backboards twice in the 1979 season.

He wasn't the only one. Backboards had been shattered in the NBA and the NCAA since the 1960s. As cool as they were to watch, the shattered glass made for potential injuries, huge delays in games and even cancellations in some cases.

Randy Albrecht, an assistant coach at St. Louis University, had an uncle named Arthur Ehrat, who held two patents for farming equipment. Albrecht asked Ehrat if he could come up with a way to stop backboards from breaking.

His uncle wasn't much of a basketball fan. Which is probably why he said yes, and killed those glorious glass showers of power.

Now you'll generally only see a backboard-breaker in a video game. But it sure sets the mind to wondering:

Can you even imagine how many backboards Shaquille O'Neal would have broken?


11 Innovations That Changed History - HISTORY

Photography as we know it today wasn’t an invention that appeared, fully formed, overnight. Rather its arrival was a gradual process over nearly a century with each step refining or moving on from the innovation that came before it. It is hard to talk of the ‘inventor’ of photography since there are so many types of process that could qualify as a ‘photograph’ and so many different starting points for each type of technology.

So here’s a list of five major innovations that have shaped our idea of photography and some of the people we should be thankful to for helping to give us the astonishing little devices we all own today.

The first colour photo

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Scotland in 1831. Throughout the scientific community he is known as the mathematician and physicist who unified the theory of electromagnetism. But Maxwell was also responsible for the first colour photograph.

The image in question is a tartan ribbon photographed by Thomas Sutton at a lecture given by Maxwell in 1861. (Sutton himself went on to invent the Single Lens Reflex camera). It was made up of three exposures through red, green and blue filters. This colour plate – and two others – are now housed in a small Museum in Edinburgh in the house where Maxwell was born.

Photography for all: The Box Brownie

When the Eastman Kodak Box Brownie was first introduced in 1900 it was marketed as low-cost and simple photography (the first cameras sold for just $1). Due to its accessibility and cheap processing the Brownie is widely regarded as having instigated the notion of a ‘snap-shot’. Bizarrely, Kodak named their egalitarian cardboard box camera after Canadian Palmer Cox’s cartoon character stories.

Back in 1908, Austrian architecture critic Joseph August Lux argued that the accessibility of the camera meant everyday people could document their environments and gain some sense of permanence in the hectic rise and fall of the modern world. One wonders just what Herr Lux would have made of 2012?

The 35mm revolution

The arrival of 35mm film liberated photographers, changed what could be photographed and consequently re-wrote the history of photography. Leica initially led the way with the UR and followed it with the legendary Leica I in 1925. Contax got into the game next in 1932 and were rapidly followed by Kodak in 1934 and Canon in 1936.

Earlier this year, a 1923 35mm Leica sold at auction for £1.7 million – thus making it the most expensive camera ever sold! Digital may be the future, but the 35mm legacy still pulls at our heart (and purse) strings!

The man who made time stand still

Although a form of artificial flashing light was developed in the late 19 th century, it was in the early 1930s that Nebraskan engineer Harold E. Edgerton came up with a repeatable short-duration electronic flash (stroboscopic light). His strobe lights were capable of firing 120 per second and could capture balloons bursting, drops hitting the surface of water and, famously, a bullet passing through a playing card.

These happenings were genuinely too fast for the human eye to see and so his flash technology not only changed photography, but also how we all view the world.

A billion camera phones

Whatever your opinion on everyone documenting their daily activities there is no denying the way in which the camera-phone has affected our world – and the onward development of our notion of photography. Everything in our day, from personal experiences to the news content we consume, is delivered through our camera-phones.

Cameras are no longer only whipped out at special occasions, by the few who remember to bring them they are now an omnipresent aspect of our lives, wielded by everyone from 6 year olds to octogenarians. It’s sometimes hard to believe that these little devices have only been around for 12 years… And frankly its mind boggling to wonder about what is still to come.

These have all had a profound effect upon our lives, but have we missed any you think deserve a mention? If so, let us know in the comments below.


HIV/AIDS (1981 - present)

The first known cases of HIV/AIDS were reported in 1981 but the disease continues to infect and kill people today. Since 1981, 75 million people have had the HIV virus and approximately 32 million have died as a result. As a sexually transmitted disease for which there is no cure, HIV/AIDS is a persistent epidemic that continues to impact millions of people every year. Despite the lack of a cure for AIDS, antiretroviral therapy medications can control HIV and slow its progress dramatically, allowing someone infected to live a long life.

Basketball superstar Magic Johnson made history when he retired from the NBA in 1991, becoming the most prominent celebrity to go public with an HIV diagnosis at that time. Johnson remains a prominent businessman, and was part of a group that acquired the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team in 2012.

The negative influence of HIV/AIDS on the global economy is still being studied, particularly in Africa, the continent which has the largest percentage of HIV/AIDS cases. In the 1980s and '90s, the global LGBTQ community became vocal and visible in unprecedented ways because of the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on its members. One of the first mainstream films to address HIV/AIDS and homophobia was the Academy Award-winning "Philadelphia," released in 1993.


‘The Comanche Empire’: A book that changed how I understand our history

Earlier this year, Lance Blyth wrote a column here recommending 10 books to understand how American Indians adapted to the gun and the horse.

So far I’ve read two of them. I have to say that The Comanche Empire knocked my socks off. It changed my understanding of several things — how the U.S. expanded westward, why the Mexican War went the way it did, and why Texas is the way it is.

Earlier this year, Lance Blyth wrote a column here recommending 10 books to understand how American Indians adapted to the gun and the horse.

So far I’ve read two of them. I have to say that The Comanche Empire knocked my socks off. It changed my understanding of several things — how the U.S. expanded westward, why the Mexican War went the way it did, and why Texas is the way it is.

aThe author, Pekka Hamalainen, argues that the Comanches took advantage of the coming of the horse to expand from a tribe to an empire that covered most of today’s Texas and Oklahoma and part of Colorado and other lands. In addition, northern New Mexico and southeastern Texas became tributary vassalages. Moreover, he says, “the rise of the Comanche empire helps explain why Mexico’s Far North is today the American Southwest.”

One reason the Comanches rose is that they were lucky. They were close to Mexico and so could obtain horses. And the land they occupied, with open grasslands cut by well-protected river valleys, turned out to be perfect for raising herds of horses.

But they also were also “an extraordinarily adaptive people.” As they had moved eastward and then southward, they had learned new ways of living. Their culture was flexible and accommodating. They were able to assimilate other ethnic groups. “Beneath the martial surface were adaptable people who aggressively embraced innovations, subjecting themselves to continuous self-reinvention.” (Are you listening, U.S. military?)

So, he says, for about 100 years, from about 1750 to about 1850, they were “the dominant people in the Southwest,” able to manipulate the Spanish in Mexico almost at will. “The Comanche invasion of the southern plains was, quite simply, the longest and bloodiest conquering campaign the American West had witnessed.” They pushed the Utes westward and the Apaches southward. They had all the protein they needed, but needed access the New Mexican markets where they could trade meat and hides for maize, wheat and vegetables. “In essence … the Comanche-Apache wars were fought over carbohydrates.”

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1. Agriculture and Irrigation

Ancient Mesopotamian farmers cultivated wheat, barley, cucumbers, and other different foods and vegetables. They used stone hoes to plow the ground before the invention of the plow.

The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers that surrounded Mesopotamia made irrigation and farming a lot easier and more convenient. The Mesopotamians learned to control the flow of water from the river and used it to irrigate crops. During the main growing season, the flow of water was properly regulated. Each farmer was allowed a certain amount of water which was diverted from a canal into an irrigation ditch.