’50 Social Innovations That Changed the World’


In my article accompanying our "50 Greatest Inventions [since the wheel]" project last month, I said that since such a list was inevitably arbitrary, its real value would be the discussion it provoked about what else could have been considered and why. [Not that our list itself wasn't good. I think it stands up very well. One of many reasons to subscribe! Or give a gift.] Herewith, a small sample of the "well, what about ….?" correspondence that continues to flow in. First, from a reader in Indonesia who offers a list of 50 social breakthroughs that, in his view, made the 50 tech breakthroughs possible. A few of these overlap with our list, but many are new: 50 Social innovations that changed the world more or less in chronological order. Rank order in top 10 shown in [ ] 1. Irrigation that 2. created a structured bureaucracy, land measurement and administration in Egypt and Mesopotamia 3. mathematics [3] 4. creation of nations as workable structures 5. empires based on bureaucracy and military discipline 6. writing, instructions could be sent over distance – Incas used knots [1] 7. written rules and laws – the lawyers and courts as independent 8. alphabet [11] 9. agriculture and and animal husbandry skills that could be recorder and spread 10. history as peoples myths and lessons 11. democracy in Athens – 12. rhetoric – philosophy – applied mathematics 13. 0 zero [12] 14. Universities, scientific societies, [13] 15. religious orders, The church built on Roman Model 16. The Holy Roman Empire 17. currency and letters of credit [2] money 18. double entry bookkeeping 19. money and banking by goldsmiths in Amsterdam, Florence 20. paper money in France 21. Treaty of Westphalia (1648) nation state 22. Joint Stock company (mutual fund) to spread risk of merchant adventurers 23. Insurance 24. the stock market 25. corporations [4] 26. copy rights, patents, 27. colonial administration – East Indies Company 28. federalism – US constitution 29. income taxes [5] 30. payroll deductions 31. social security 32. civil service as in Germany [10] 33. public schools Land grant colleges 34. scientific agriculture [8] 35. science in medicine [9] 36. public health by Florence Nightingale and JS Mills [6] 37. international press – media (WWI) and propaganda 38. research organizations such as bell labs, Medlo Park 39. The League of Nations and UN 40. international organizations such as the postal union, maritime, trade, standards 41. United Nations (UN), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Council of Europe (CoE), [7] 42. European Union (EU; which is a prime example of a supranational organization), and World Trade Organization (WTO). 43. NGO Red Cross, YMCA, boy scouts 44. social media facebook G+ 45. Chess 46. sports clubs and leagues 47. open society rational secular practical 48. records census, birth and death – statistical vital information 49. economics 50. political science In my article I said that one of our experts, Padmasree Warrior of Cisco, had suggested "the concept of the number zero" for our list. Many readers have written in to say that numbers, per se, should be added: I found the list of greatest inventions and the story that accompanied it very interesting. I kept waiting for the printing press to appear and then I found it – number one on the list. While your story mentions the mathematics of calculus, I wonder if the concept of "number" was ever mentioned by the panel of experts? Was it considered and rejected for some reason, or was it not at all mentioned? I think "number" and concept of "numbers" is so ingrained in modern society it is easy to forget it was a human creation. It created a way to differentiate between "some" and "any". Without the concept of "number" or "numbers" mathematics wouldn’t exist. Base two mathematics is the framework on which the computer is based. I would consider the concept of "number" right up there with alphabetization (number 25 on the list). Clearly without written language or the concept of "number" the printing press would be of little use. What would one print? There is a great book on the concept of "number", simply titled "Number", written by Tobias Dantzig in 1930.. Dantzig was born in Latvia in 1884 and moved to the United States in 1910, taking a job as a lumberjack in Oregon. He received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Indiana University in 1916 and taught at Johns Hopkins, Columbia University and the University of Maryland. He died in 1956 and sounds like an interesting character. I mean, how does one transition from being a lumberjack to getting a Ph.D. in mathematics? And finally for now, one of the many people stumping for an equestrian breakthrough: In addition to the thousands of other additions being proposed to your list of historic innovations, consider: The saddle stirrup, which made armored knights and then cavalry possible. Before the stirrup, horsemen were archers, incapable of staying in the saddle after the shock of impact. Enormously significant in the wars of the last several hundred years. Fertilizer, first natural then artificial. Without it, agriculture couldn’t be productive enough to support the population of the last millennium, never mind the next one. [We got at the artificial side of this, via #11 of our top 50, nitrogen fixation.] Finally, the barometer. Until the invention of the barometer (and the understanding of the natural world it reflected) weather wasn’t predictable… indeed, predictability wasn’t even thought of.

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