Some people nominated inventions that were influential in bringing
the world to where it is today, such as the printing press, calculus,
the invention of the scientific method and effective contraception.
Other interesting suggestions included anesthesia, plumbing and
sewers, reading glasses, batteries, the concept of education,
self-governance, and the notion that mathematics could be used
to represent things.
Christopher Langton, a computer scientist, proposed the telescope,
which "opened the doors to the flood of data that would resolve
what were previously largely philosophical disputes."
James J. O'Donnell, professor of classical studies at the University
of Pennsylvania, proposed modem health care from antibiotics
to medical techniques to the soap that doctors use to wash their
Review your own life and imagine what it would have been like
without late-20th-century heath care," he wrote. "Would you still
be alive today? An astonishingly large number of people get serious
looks on their faces and admit they wouldn't."
Douglas Rushkoff, a writer and teacher, proposed "the eraser.
As well as the delete key, white-out, the Constitutional amendment,
and all the other tools that let us go back and fix our mistakes."
Tor Norretranders, a Danish science writer, nominated the mirror,
which became commonplace during the Renaissance. "Only with the
installation of mirrors in everyday life did viewing oneself from
the outside become a daily habit," he wrote. "This coincided with
the advent of manners for eating, clothing and behavior. This
made possible the modern version of self-consciousness: viewing
oneself through the eyes of others, rather than just from the
inside or though the eyes of God."
Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University,
proposed classical music. "Most inventions -- from nuclear energy
to antibiotics -- can be used for good or ill," he wrote. "Classical
music has probably given more pleasure to more individuals, with
less negative fallout, than any other human artifact."
Other people nominated inventions for the promise they hold
for the future. The computer, the Internet and biotechnology were
"The Internet will dissolve away nations as we know them today,"
wrote Clifford Pickover, an IBM researcher. "Humanity becomes
a single hive mind, with a group intelligence, as geography becomes
putty in the hands of the Internet sculptor."
Lawrence Krauss, who chairs the physics department at Case Western
Reserve University, wrote: "While the printing press certainly
revolutionized the world in its time, computers will govern everything
we do in the next 20 centuries . . . The only other invention
that may come close is perhaps DNA sequencing, since it will undoubtedly
lead to a new understanding and control of genetics and biology
in a way which will alter what we mean by life."
"Ultimately," added Robert Shapiro, professor of chemistry at
New York University, "we may elect to rewrite our genetic code
text, changing ourselves and the way in which we experience the
Other nominations reflect seemingly simple things of life. Freeman
Dyson, a professor of physics at Princeton, said hay was the most
important invention. "In the classical world of Greece and Rome
and in all earlier times, there was no hay," he explained. "Civilization
could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive
through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could
not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization.
Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius
invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped
and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay
gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later
to Moscow and New York."
And Jeremy Cherfas, a biologist and BBC Radio Four broadcaster,
nominated the basket: "Without something to gather into, you cannot
have a gathering society of any complexity, no home and hearth,
no division of labour, no humanity."
The entire list of nominated inventions is on the Internet at
www.edge.org/documents/Invention.html. Reading them reminds
me of how wondrous our world is.
Copyright 1999 by Bill Gates. Distributed by New York Times