Typically that phrase refers to big ticket items. One thinks of dazzling intellectual breakthroughs: the telescope, the steam engine, the airplane, the wheel…
And those were all tremendous, of course.
But often, it’s some mundane little device that changes history. It might be no more than a slight improvement on some earlier invention. If it intersects with a historical moment, it can become a pivot. Then, like the lever that lifts the elephant, it produces consequences far out of proportion to the ingenuity of the thing itself.
I’ve drawn up a list of nine such items. There might be better examples, but any such list illustrates, I think, the way our lives are interwoven (almost creepily) with the things we make.
The Chariot The wheel was great. The cart followed from the wheel and it was great too. But the chariot? That’s just a two-wheeled cart. How hard was it to think of four minus two? And how consequential could that have been? The fact is, the chariot had an immense effect on history. Here’s how. In ancient times, the world of farms, towns, cities, workshops and governments—the “civilized world” —was a belt of territory stretching from the Indus River to Asia Minor. These folks had the cart, which is useful mainly for going straight: it can’t turn quickly. North of the civilized belt lived a nomadic people, now remembered as the Indo-Europeans. They invented the chariot, which was really just a basket slung between two big wheels, but it was light enough for a horse to pull, and it could pivot as no four-wheeled vehicle could. The horse-drawn chariot gave the Indo-Europeans a crucial military advantage over the sedentary farmers. It keyed their expansion into India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Italy, where they overwhelmed and replaced the original inhabitants. That’s why English, French, Italian, Greek, Persian, Hindi, and so many other tongues all belong to the same group, the Indo-European family of languages. Most of us from America to India are descended from those nomads.
Concrete Some might say concrete wasn’t an invention because it already existed in nature. That’s like saying the airplane wasn’t an invention because birds could already fly. The Romans figured out how to make artificial concrete by mixing lime, sand, and bits of broken rock with a certain pink volcanic ash. Then they reinforced it with bronze rods. This invention had a precious property: it set and hardened when wet—even under water. Reinforced concrete could span distances, as bricks and stones never could. Using concrete, Romans could build sea walls to protect coastal towns. They could bridge just about any waterway. Rome’s conquest of the world and its ability to hold its conquests together rested largely on its ability to build walls, bridges, roads, aqueducts, and monumental buildings. Concrete was the key to all that. The rule of law is often called Rome’s greatest contribution to civilization, and maybe so, but concrete has to come in a close second.
Horse Collar In medieval Europe, the collar that attached an animal to a plow had flat straps that pulled across the animal’s chest. Because of the way a horse is built, these straps pressed against the horse’s jugular vein, rendered it incapable of pulling a plow. Farmers, therefore, used slow-moving oxen. Then someone invented a collar with softer straps that distributed the weight a bit differently. This tiny innovation allowed the same familiar collar to be used on horses. Horses work roughly fifty percent faster than oxen. Using horses (and a slightly improved plow) peasant farmers could suddenly produce a surplus. A surplus gave them goods to trade at crossroads markets on weekends. Markets soon turned into towns. Towns meant some folks could give up farming and just make goods for sale. A proliferation of such goods meant some people could live purely by buying and selling. You see where this is leading—the horse collar played a pivotal role in ending the feudal system and launching the rise of Europe.
Longbow When people think of major military inventions, they usually think of the gun, which did key the European conquest and colonization of Africa and the Americas. But if you want to talk about a weapon that triggered the greatest historical change in the least amount of time, the longbow gets my vote. The longbow changed history on three specific days in 1346, 1356, and 1415. On those days, English and French armies clashed at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Why was the longbow so important? Because it enabled leather-clad English commoners to defeat iron-clad French knights. Throughout medieval times, a European army consisted fundamentally of armored noblemen on armored horses. These living tanks personally won or lost battles, and that’s what made nobles noble. At Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, the French army had roughly three times as many knights as the English, but the English army had archers armed with a new kind of bow. It differed from the old kind of bow only in length. But that extra length gave it just enough power to shoot some hundred feet further and pierce armor. Just like that, the armored knight was finished as a significant element in war. From this time forward, power began shifting from the armored class to the moneyed class—which soon came to include merchants, manufacturers, and bankers.
Eyeglasses Reading glasses were invented in Italy about 1350 and eyeglasses that corrected near- and far-sightedness around 1450. Isn’t that just about when the Renaissance began? All right, this is pure speculation, but I know one thing. I have an affliction considered trivial today: I’m myopic. If I were living before eyeglasses, I would be considered blind. My job would be to sit by a road with a begging cup. Roughly 25% of the people in North America are nearsighted like me. I wonder how many potential writers, artists, scientists, inventors, philosophers, and the like never grew their talents because they lived before the invention of eyeglasses? How many seminal intellectual feats since the invention of eyeglasses were achieved by people who wore glasses?
Rotary Printing Press Johannes Gutenberg invented the flatbed printing press in 1450. His invention remained basically unchanged until 1827. That year, the steam powered rotary printing press was invented, which printed from a single continuous roll of paper. The best flatbed press could print about 125 pages an hour; the new device could do about 18,000. At the time, no one needed that many copies of anything that fast, but invention is the mother of necessity. In 1833, a New Yorker named Benjamin Day decided to print a newspaper so cheap that at least 10,000 people a day could afford it: he would profit on volume. But—what could he possibly put in a newspaper that 10,000 people a day would want to read? That’s when Day’s newspaper the Daily Sun (and soon a host of imitators) invented…news. Before this time, “news” was whatever gossip drifted past a person’s ear. Mass-newspapers, however, had to find events to report every day or they’d go broke. Spotting events of the greatest interest to the greatest number emerged as a skill. This was the first step toward mass culture, mass media, mass opinion, mass movements, and “the mass” in general.
Barbed Wire In 1870, the American Midwest teemed with wild cattle, which cowboys collected and herded to railroad stations to sell for meat and hides. The land was “open range,” belonging to no one: any herder could graze his cattle on any pasture. Branding kept herds private. Farmers tried to settle here, but they couldn’t fence out the cattle, wood being scarce and walls of sod being laborious to build. Then in 1874, barbed wire was invented: Joseph Glidden took out the basic patent, and by 1880, he was selling over 80 million pounds of barbed wire every year. “Devil’s wire” was cheap and easy to string and it quickly divided the open range into private plots. Farmers could then move in. By 1900, the entire Midwest was on its way to becoming the nation’s granary. Cowboys and the Old West had moved from the prairies into those deep crannies of the American psyche where myths are stored..
Carborundum Perhaps you’ve heard of carborundum. It’s an industrial abrasive consisting of silicon carbide. Okay, probably you haven’t heard of carborundum. Invented in 1893 by Edward Goodrich, this invention made possible the mass production of precision-ground interchangeable metal parts. You need carborundum to make machines used in a factories to make other complex machines. Most of us will never find a use for carborundum in our daily lives, but we wouldn’t have cars, cameras, or CAT-scan machines without it. That is why the United States Patent Office called carborundum one of twenty-two American inventions most responsible for the industrial age of the twentieth century.
Bakelite All right, I’m cheating a little here. Few have heard of Bakelite, because Bakelite is no longer made. What we’re really talking about here is something bigger. Bakelite, invented in 1907, was the world’s first plastic. By the 1920s, it was everywhere. The invention of one plastic inspired the search for others. World War II gave intense impetus to this research. After the cataclysm, Bakelite gave way to Lucite, fiberglass, nylon, and many others. It’s all plastic, though, and plastic has two salient features. It can take any shape, and it never decomposes. It has therefore shaped, literally, the way our (designed) world looks, and it has magnified the waste disposal problem to a scale the ancients never imagined.
Traditionally a list like this has ten items, and I could go on. Consider the adhesive postage stamp. (It led to the concept of prepaid mail delivery.) Consider the electromagnet. (It led to the telegraph.) Consider the tin can. And then consider the aluminum one. And then consider the pop-top beer can.
Okay, maybe don’t consider that one.
Because here’s the thing, of course: the closer you come to the present, the larger small things loom. It gets ever harder to identify which inventions had the hugest impact on history—because less and less history lies downstream from the invention.
If I had to add one device from the last twenty years to my list, for example, I might pick the cell phone. There’s no telling what the consequences will be of a device that enables people to remain in touch while on the move. And of course, the cell phone quickly stopped being a phone. Just like the telegraph (once invented) it quickly expanded into a myriad subsidiary inventions that revolutionized communication. The operative phrase is “no telling.” That’s the thing about historically pivotal inventions: we can’t really know what they are—only what they were.