Tools that changed our civilization and our minds

This weekend I’ve been thinking about examples of tools that have changed our civilization. The human kind has made enormous discoveries that has changed our lives forever, but here is a short list that I believe lists some inventions that for me were crucial for our advancement.

  1. Writing – writing is the foundation of our intellectual achievement, it is the basis for the advancement of our civilization.  Through writing, we put ideas that travel the space and time, archiving the human history.  Scientist agree that writing was invented because of the increased need for counting agricultural goods and recording transactions. Those first steps of writing were represented by various symbols, and during the centuries, writing evolved mainly because it was crucial for administrative purposes.
    It should be noted that unlike speech, writing is not innate ability of human beings – it is a thought activity and it is incredible that people learned and developed it.
    After all in ancient time, reading and writing was not for the masses – it was a privilege of the aristocrats until 19 century, when education became widespread.
    But through writing, people were able to capture the thoughts and ideas of tinkerers and build on them, making possible the human progress.
  2. Clocks – In 21st century we barely think of the clock as an invention, do we?  We just take for granted the ability to have accurate time measurement, not to mention that wherever we turn, we are surrounded by clocks. It is integral part of our lives and allows us to schedule events in our lives. But this was not always the way and that is why I believe the clock should be in this list.
    Since the dawn of civilization, people had the need to tell time and have some kinds of time tracking – cycles, Egyptian calendar, sundials to seperate the hours of the day, invention of water clocks. But the need for proper time keeping devices was most pronounced for the medieval monks, who needed to track time for their prayers. Thus the clocks with bells came to existence.
    With the years clocks became more accurate due to their need for navigational purposes- since if you could tell the time difference between two locations, you could understand where you are. And in 1761 John Harrison invented a watch that passed the accuracy set up in an England government grant.
    Time became standardized as Nicholas Carr explains in his book “The Shallows”1 – with the decrease in price and size of clocks, as well as improvement of their function, facilitated the change of everyday human activities – sleep, work, leisure time. Carr asserts that the clock changed the way human kind think – ” Once the clock had redefined time as a series of units of equal duration, our minds began to stress the methodical mental work of division and measurement.”
  3. Maps – to be honest, before I’ve read Carr’s book, I’ve never thought of maps as important innovation.  Maps are so embedded in our culture that we do not think twice about them – whether they are on paper on on our devices. Carr says: “The historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped propel and guide the very intellectual advances that they documented. The map is a medium that not only stores and transmits information but also embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking.”
    But it is important to note that maps are generalized/simplified version of the world – and once again the notion of scale is vital for the success of the maps.
    Thus it changes our perception of the world around us, introduces abstract thinking and helps transfer information through time.
  4. Printing Press – a lot have been said about the printing press.  But this is the invention that set a chain reaction around Europe of increasing literacy and desire for books that ultimately led to the Enlightenment.
    Around 1440-1450s the German innovator Johannes Gutenberg was working on a way to automate the production of books by introduction of a printing machine. He created the movable type, allowing for fast arrangement of letters into a page and the ability to be quickly reassembled for the next page. Guttenberg also developed a way to transfer images onto sheet of paper. In 1452 he printed his 42 row Bible and started the most remarkable revolution – the faster spreading of knowledge. It introduced speed of production, change in the economic side of the publishing business and turning books from expensive products, affordable only to the chosen ones, to a commodity many people could afford. The printing press most valuable contribution is that it allowed for.
    The printing press most valuable contribution is that it allowed for the faster and more accurate spreading of information – scientist from various parts of Europe could share information without fear of it being miscopied, thus allowing for the printing and dissemination of increased number of secular books.
    Another important role of the printing press is the removal of central censorship unit in the face of the Church. When books were copied manually, it was easier for the Church to remain in control of what type of information is spreading, but with the printing press it was easy to set up shop in every major European city and start publishing various books.
    In 1999 Time Magazine, rightfully so, named Johannes Gutenberg as the most influential person of the entire previous thousand years.
  5. Microscope – maybe not a lot of people will agree that I’ve put the microscope in this list, but for me it is crucial part of the advancement of science and of society.  It allowed us to see organism and the processes on a smaller scale than ever before. This idea of scales is crucial part of the science – not only to see things on smaller, even subatomic level, but on larger as well. As physicist Lisa Randall puts it: “scale helps us understand the universe around us”.
  6. Light Bulb and Electricity – Can you imagine your live with no electricity – no fans, television, internet, ovens, etc.  Additionally,the electric bulb illuminated the night and made possible various activities – such as reading, that required light. Even though people used candles, oil and gas lamps, the light was not as bright as it is from the bulb. Furthermore, electricity brought many new business and social activities, regardless the time of day, it improved productivity and enhances the quality of life.
  7. Telegraph – The ability to communicate on unprecedented speed over vast distances brought to us unprecedented change in the speed of communication, reduced information costs, allowed for market information transfer and the widespread of news stories.
  8. Steam Engine – Of course the steam engine is surpassed  in popularity by the electricity and combustion engines, but the Steam engine was integral part during the industrial revolution. After all, through steam engines people were able to get energy to run transportation vehicles, allowing for faster transportation of raw materials and finished goods.
  9. Transistors – the transistor was developed in 1947 at Bell Labs and it acts as a switch – when it is turned on, the current flows, when it is off, it stops.  Many people might be surprised that the transistor is thought as one of the most important inventions in 20th century. But look at it from this way: without the transistor we might not have the processor, or we could have watched TV, made still of vacuum tubes. Furthermore, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google may have never existed.
    Not to mention that due to its robustness, small size, automated manufacturing processes, resulting in low per-unit cos and low power consumption it drove the wave of miniaturization that led to the development of the computers, mobile phone and others.
  10. Computers – nowadays we can find computers everywhere we turn.  In this article I describe computers, not only as PC/laptops, but also as an electronic device that takes instructions and performs computations. Computers are of significant importance due to the accurate and fast way they accomplish tasks and store huge amount of data.
    It is worth mentioning that even though the first modern computer was created around 1950s, it was heavy, big and expensive.Therefore, the real computer revolution began with the development of the personal computer in 1975, when computers became accessible to the general public. But computers are essential part of business transactions and innovation. Can you imagine doing science without the facilitation of computers?
    We use computers in every part of our life – government institutions, army, in banks and financial transactions, markets. Human communication is another important use of computers – we communicate with peers through internet, emails, social networks and chats. It connects individuals around the world and makes the world flat, as first coined by T. Friedman2.
  11. Web – in 1980s Tim Berners-Lee was working in CERN and among other things he was wondering how to help people share and find information through hyperlinks and nodes. For that Berners-Lee worked on building web browser and web server and the underlying protocols (http), as well as html.
    One of the crucial initiatives of Berners-Lee is that he released his invention for free to the world3, hoping for faster adoption of the technology. The most important moment came with the establishment of the Mosaic browser.
    This era is also known as web 1.0 – people need to have knowledge to develop standalone websites and most internet surfers were readers.
    The next wave of innovation provided the tools and technology for the creation of not only readers but producers of content and sharing of that content. The rise of the web allowed for various inventions and increase in human productivity, widespread knowledge sharing, crumpling of wall of societies, instant communication from distance and the birth of virtual organizations. It is hard to list all the improvements and all the sectors that were changed with the invention of the Web, and for certain this is not the end since we are moving towards the linked data and semantic web technologies, for which major force is again Tim Berners-Lee.

There will be more important inventions during my lifetime, which we have no idea how they will change our lives. This is not meant to be as a comprehensive history or even as the best list of tools that have change the path of our civilization. It is just a list of tools, that have been crucial for our advancement, according to my own perspective.

Please comment and share your own thoughts on the tools you think are the most important.

  1. Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.
  2. Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  3. CERN agreed to release it as well royalty-free