The greatest inventions of all time

Necessity is the mother of invention. But no one has ever asked – “what would be the father?” We’d argue that it’s imagination. Somewhere at the intersection between needs and dreams, practicalities and possibilities, are the foundations of great inventions.

Our respondents voted for everything from penicillin to bicycles to ‘0’, choosing inventions as humble as the pencil and as earth-shaking as the concept of democracy. But each of them, as diverse as they are, has in some way contributed to bettering the quality of life of its users. And there is something particularly significant about that fact – that human endeavour, when it comes to inventions, seeks to improve upon the status quo. There is surely something very pure in that, and something that holds a mirror to the kernel of ingenuity that exists within all of us.

It’s that kernel of ingenuity we wanted to celebrate with this question – asking people what they believe is the greatest invention of all time is a way to celebrate entrepreneurship, genius, creativity – the best of the human mind. Whilst we were surprised and tickled by how outlandish some of the answers were (cheese and onion crisps, for instance), we were also thrilled with the sheer variety of responses.

We always stand on the shoulders of giants, and no invention, however ingenious, is de-linked to what came before

We asked a very circumspect audience, comprised of scientists, engineers, academics, students in relevant fields, tech journalists, people working in R&D or product development and others – and were graced with responses from the likes of NASA astronauts, renowned authors, and editors and writers for some of the world’s best news sites and publications like The Guardian, Forbes, Mashable, TechCrunch, and O’Reilly Media.

Though some of the votes were for ‘discoveries’ rather than ‘inventions’, we’ve included them as best we could, in order to permit respondents to pay homage to people’s ingenuity in channelling existing phenomena into ideas which improved quality of life. And whilst, upon research, some of the dates of origin for the Top 60 remain contentious, ultimately what’s clear is that we always stand on the shoulders of giants, and that no invention, however ingenious, is de-linked to what came before.

Not even the categories of society, science, technology, medicine, transport, and discovery are truly mutually exclusive. What we hope to show is the diversity of great inventions, which have also stood the test of time and spawned new ideas after their creation.

As for the number one? It was the World Wide Web – and perhaps rightly so. It might be contestable, but it absolutely has its place in the hall of fame. In fact, our favourite response of all to the poll asking what is the greatest invention of all time was, “It’s either the steam engine – or the search engine.”

Top 6 inventions of all time

Some inventions were conspicuous by their absence – where is the astrolabe? Where is film or photography? Where is e-mail? Where is the pacemaker? Perhaps this points to the truth of how history is recorded – part truth, part opinion, and part simply what gets remembered first.

Whilst compiling and editing the results, we wondered – if we were to re-make this infographic in 2050, what would remain on the list? What would fall out, or be replaced? And would the ones that slip out of the Top 60 be any less important, really, or just overshadowed by something newer, or what certain people thought of in that moment?

Most outlandish inventions of all time

In the last thirty years especially, a staggering level of technological change has occurred – and what’s exhilarating is that we haven’t even begun to feel the repercussions of this yet. The invention of glass led to the invention of the microscope, the telescope – even spectacles! What feats of human ingenuity will 3D printing, the smart phone or the World Wide Web lead to? The possibilities are like the human imagination – limitless.

Celebrating creativity, and indeed encouraging it, is important. Whether it’s the Government’s ‘Your Life’ plan to introduce 2,000 jobs and apprenticeships in STEM fields or the introduction of a more widespread culture of ‘incubators’ and venture capitalism or even the simple democratisation of invention as consumers are more and more empowered to take an active part in our mutual future, there is much to look forward to. And, also, to look back upon.

See other Raconteur surveys: “World’s Greatest Storytellers” and “Most Inspirational People”