The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel
October 23, 2013
Doing book research (and shifting as much of it from my bookshelf to Evernote as possible), I came across this little gem that had escaped my attention while I was on the road last fall.
James Fallows turned to some experts to help him come up with the 50 greatest post-wheel innovations, and while each deserves a book – or at least a long chapter – the list is intriguing for several reasons. My favorite: counting the innovations that first came out of China.
From the top 50, they are:
- 43. The abacus
- 17. The compass
- 14. Gunpowder
- 6. Paper
- 1. Moveable type printing
Two points fascinated me. First was printing press showing up on top, and the fact that the article does not ascribe an origin to the invention. People who have studied the history of Chinese innovation understand that the movable-type printing press was invented in China by Bi Sheng some 400 years before Johannes Gutenberg and Laurens Janszoon Coster argued about who of the two of them was first. History will out, though, and China gets credit for the most important innovation since the wheel.
Speaking of wheels, a sort of honorable mention on the list goes to the wheel barrow, a simple device created in China that allows a man to move heavier loads than he can carry without the aid of an animal. And I always search these lists for acknowledgement for China’s invention of investment casting, a process that turned complex metalworking from a handicraft to a mass-production process.
But these are quibbles. The point that the article brings home is that China was once far more innovative than we – and, indeed, Chinese – give it credit. While taking credit for four great innovations, China deserves credit for at least five, and probably more.
The perpetual challenge, of course, is how to make it innovative again. And to that theme we shall return in due course.