Although humans are not alone as tool using animals, we are definitely the planet’s designated experts in the field. Our use of invention, or the innovation of altering an object or process in new ways, may be what truly defines us as a species. Every once in a long while, something is invented which changes, in some small way, the very nature of our lives. Over time, this has made us unique among the animals. While little inventions come out every day, it is these big ones that move us forward into whatever the destiny of mankind turns out to be.
This list can’t help but be relative and therefore controversial. As always, be kind and appreciate the effort even if you disagree.
Near as we can tell, people have been brewing alcoholic drinks for about the last 12,000 years, making booze one of the first human inventions. That is, if you consider it a human invention, as some animals are known to consume fruits that have naturally fermented, and may even become alcoholics. Alcohol has many uses in many fields, but as a drink it is particularly important. The alcohol in wine and beer kills most microorganisms, which historically made it safer to drink than water in the ancient world. And without alcohol, we’d have no excuse to explain why we got caught singing karaoke naked.
- The Internet
Because of the relatively short time since its birth, the importance of the Internet has still not been fully realized. Starting as several separate communication networks in the 1970’s and 1980’s, what we call the ‘Net is now coalescing into a single mass of all information to which any connected computer has access. No longer is information limited by location, and no longer is it only available the privileged few who can afford it. Imagine my surprise when my research uncovered the fact that it can be used for things other than porn.
- Birth Control
Although there have been methods of preventing or terminating pregnancy for thousands of years, reliable birth control techniques have only been generally available for about a century, with a great upswing in efficiency and popularity beginning about 50 years ago. This has allowed women to have a more predictable and controllable life, and allowed them to take on roles and occupations previously out of reach. Since this allows our society to draw on a much larger base of expertise for our labor pool, this benefits everyone, not just the men who have learned that the pill reduces the effect of PMS.
Up to the point in the late 1870’s when science began to explore how certain substances inhibited the spread of disease-causing microorganisms, infection and disease were threats for which humanity had little protection. Various diseases could only be treated by keeping a patient comfortable and hoping. A deep-tissue injury might be a minor inconvenience, or it might be a death sentence, depending largely on luck. With antibiotics, we have removed most of the fear of dying from a minor injury or infection.
Combined with antibiotics, the development of substances that can safely and effectively kill pain has allowed all modern surgery to develop. Surgical procedures were once horrific and bloody procedures that were almost as dangerous as the conditions they were aimed at curing, and often far more painful. Now you can just take a nap, and the pain doesn’t set in until you get the bill.
- Printing Press
Before good old Gutenberg did his thing and built his revolutionary printing press in 1439, books were all hand-written. This meant that not only were they very difficult and time-consuming to create and copy, but that they were very expensive. They were limited to personal notes and to very important texts, generally on religion or science. Like the later invention of the Internet, the printing press allowed information to be spread across the world in a far more efficient and inexpensive process. This allowed for the spread of intellectual achievement and the written arts, followed shortly thereafter by trashy romance novels in supermarket checkout lines.
The ancient Romans may be credited with the development of plumbing, but it didn’t really become popular until the 20th century. These days, most people don’t remember a time in their lives when their toilet consisted of an outhouse or, in the city, a bucket. Showers and sinks are a convenience, but a system that allows for us to live in a house that doesn’t smell like poop is the true beginning of civilization. This improvement was naturally trailed by the development of toilet paper, followed closely by the toilet plunger.
Imagine you are stuck in the wilderness with nothing, and you have to survive. What do you do to stay alive? You come from a “highly advanced” civilization, and yet most people have no idea how to take advantage of technology starting from scratch. That’s because we have tools, which are the first technology. A tool is anything you use to build, change, repair, or destroy something, and it’s the first thing you need to create any other technology. A stone knife will help you skin an animal for clothes, or carve wooden weapons. Without tools, we’re just slow, clumsy animals.
It might be tempting to include fire as an important human invention, but humans didn’t invent fire. Fire happens on its own all the time. What we did was find out what it was good for. Among the most important uses of fire is to sterilize food, allowing us to eat more safely by using the heat to kill parasites. People have been doing this for over a million years, making it an integral part of our evolution. It also is the beginning of the process of turning mere survival into civilization, as the process of cooking allows us to prepare food as an art rather than just a meal.
This is the number one innovation of humanity for a very good reason: it is in many ways the definition of humanity. Our ability to communicate, whether via voice or writing, lets us join our minds together so as to go from bands of individuals to become a true culture. All animals communicate somehow, and some are quite sophisticated, but humanity is the king of communication. No one knows how old true language is, but it is old enough that our brains have developed around it and become specialized in its use. No other technology would be able to develop reliably without language to teach it to the next generation.