John D. Sanders, Ph.D.,
This subject of "The World's Greatest Inventions" has been explored many times by many people much smarter and more well read than I. However in a recent discussion with Bruce HandlerÑ who called me with a comment on one of my previous articles in this publicationÑ I began waxing strong on this subject and even liked my own stuff. So, here it is!
I can identify six inventions in human history that were truly revolutionary for producing dramatic results: three for reducing human labor content ; and three for increasing information flow. By dramatic or revolutionary, I mean a true change in the way people do things and utilize the inventions (and their offshoot developments) to produce future increases in standards of living. By the way, there are certainly more than six inventions; but, I can make my points on these and there's not room in this article for more anyway.
1) The wheel and those other basic items somebody did way back then. (much B.C.)
2) The printing press and moveable type (the 1500's). Suddenly, information was going to be available to the masses and not just restricted to the rich and privileged. Governments and institutions could no longer plan on monopolizing information. People no longer had to rely solely on learning only what individual teachers could directly present.
3) The electric motor (turn of century - 1900). OK, you could argue that it was the harnessing of electricity, internal combustion engine or even the light bulb. However, it was electric motor that really provided the opportunities for the broad and dramatic reductions in manual labor.
4) Wireless broadcasting (early 1900's). With this development, information that had been available only by word of mouth and through printed books was now able to be disseminated without respect to walls or physical facilities.
5) The microprocessor (the 1950's). Not only was the onslaught to reduce physical labor content continuing, but now there was a true dramatic development to reduce mental labor and expand information storage/retrievalÑ so that the previously unthinkable in technological calculations could truly become routine.
6) The InterNet (the 1990's). As I have written in several previous articles, we have yet scratched the surface in what this true revolution in information transfer will lead to. Our whole ways of doing business, educating, selling, service and support are being upended. Now we have progressed such that as dramatic as the printing press with moveable type led to mass dissemination of information, and wireless broke down all the walls and geographic boundariesÑ this is making all the information ever created available at any time to any person. The next generation will get any data they want, not just what you want them to get. No longer is the consumer of information limited to what is delivered. "You ain't seen nothing yet." There will be no secrets. There will be no holding back. Every human mind can have immediate access to all the knowledge it can absorb, and have it right now.
Again, I picked these because of those two factors so important to learning, commerce and basic living standards: 1- availability and flow of information to the masses, and, 2- reduction in labor contentÑ both physical and mental. These "inventions" have each contributed to an increased new wave of commerce. We can only speculate on this next wave, and what new businesses will be fostered. (However one of my salespeople instinctively reminded me, "What about the Microwave Oven?" She might have truly identified the ultimate.)
I would really appreciate your comments on this list, and on new business developments that could emanate from "the next wave." Thanks very much for your interest.
If you have comments, please contact me at Technology Transfer Business magazine: phone: 703-848-2800, ext. 151; fax: 703-848-2353; InterNet: email@example.com.
prepared for the January, 1996 Issue of the Federal Laboratory Consortium NewsLink