My school recently ran a discussion on what is the most important invention of all time.
Before I jump to what my answer was, and why, I just want to provide some context. Last term, they ran a similar debate where people had to vote for what one famous person in history they thought was the most important. On this list were such horrible examples as Alexander the Great, Ho Chi Minh, at least one British queen, and a past US president (I think Washington). There were also better examples, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. These people I ruled out early in my selection process because although they did great things, their achievements were largely limited to a particular demographic in their effect. While it was incredibly important for that demographic, and therefore humans in general, it couldn’t really have the same effect as same of those that will come later.
My top three were Steve Jobs, Louis Pasteur, and one other person who’s name I unfortunately have forgotten, as I didn’t actually know it at the time. I looked it up, and found that their contributions to medicine were astounding. I ended up knocking out Steve Jobs relatively easily compared to the other two, but finally decided on the unknown person. When the school’s votes were tallied, Steve Jobs won. While I’m not surprised at this result, I am disappointed. I defend my position in putting him in third place by saying how much of an indirect effect he and Apple have had on technology, which I’m sure many of you probably already know (but I’ll go into more detail if anyone asks). Not just through Apple products, but nearly all computer-type devices today, from the traditional desktop and laptop computers, to smart phones and tablets. Not to mention the music industry.
However, I definitely don’t think that these achievements trump pasteurisation, germ theory, and the rabies vaccine (all Pasteur’s discoveries); and again, you have to take my word that I thought this third person’s medical discoveries trumped even that, at least in my opinion.
So, fast- (or not so fast) forward to the current discussion. I saw a poster about the debate on what is the greatest invention of all time, and decided to hop online just to make sure people weren’t voting for the iPod. It turned out they weren’t, but a couple of other interesting things came up.
The first was simple, but fundamental to the question. What is an invention? How does one distinguish between an invention and a discovery. I’m sure anyone would agree that we discovered fire, or that we invented the computer. But what about the wheel? The argument was that round objects exist in nature, and it may have been observed that they could be useful for various human purposes. Other things suggested that can’t really be considered inventions include language, mathematics, and steel. All of these, in my opinion, are things that either existed naturally or were developed in an organic and natural way, rather than being specifically invented.
People also suggested refrigeration (which I would consider a discovery), the Internet, contraceptives, electricity. These all have their advantages, but for various reasons I would not consider them as important as my suggestion, which is (finally…)
The printing press.
The printing press allowed, for the first time in human history, mass availability of information to anyone who wants it. It made learning to read so much easier, and allowed people to be more informed about what was going on outside of their immediate area. I believe that this spread of knowledge is a crucial part of the long-term scientific and cultural advancement of the human species. Let me consider each of those points one by one:
The printing press made the supply of books cheaper, which in Economics is a shift of the supply curve to the right, and results in a higher quantity supplied at a lower price. This means that more people can get books, and it is cheaper for them to do so. Whereas previously only the most affluent few could afford books, as a result of the printing press nearly anyone can afford to own a book today.
Because they are able to have books, they are then able to use them to learn. First to learn to actually read, which is arguably the most important step in primary education, and then to use that ability to read to get more comprehensive education in all areas.
Spread of information
The printing press made it possible for written information to easily be spread to further areas. Because a written work could now be produced in large quantities, that written work no longer had to be kept carefully in the area which it was most relevant to. Because it can be spread information like this, people could, for the first time, learn about things that were happening thousands of kilometres away. The printing press made it possible to have newspapers that could be spread around the general public. For the first time, the general population was able to learn about events in faraway places such as politics, natural disasters, and scientific discoveries. This last point, in particular, is key. It makes it easier for new discoveries to be built upon old ones. Newton’s work on gravity was based upon the previous work of Kepler. Without easy access to this work, Newton not have so easily been able to form his theories. Every major advancement in human history has been built upon previous ideas. Because of the printing press, written information can be copied and sent to different areas, to make it more readily available to people hoping to build upon it.
Freedom of speech
The printing press was perhaps the ultimate symbol of freedom of speech and freedom of press in its time. The printing press greatly increased the availability of a wider variety of information, as it was relatively easy for one to obtain a printing press and distribute media. A great example of this is in the 1983 French film “Danton”, starring Gérard Depardieu. In it, the titular character, Danton, runs a publication that the local government disapproves of, which he is able to distribute widely thanks to the power of the printing press.
What about the Internet?
Sure, the Internet has been an even greater tool in promoting the spread of information and in promoting free speech than the printing press. It gives a much wider degree of anonymity, wherein people can speak out even against governments that may otherwise attempt to persecute them. Danton ended up being executed, but had he been distributing his message via the Internet, that likely wouldn’t have happened.
The Internet is also a much more effective way of spreading information. With the printing press, we can have multiple copies of the same work sent out to various areas, but they must still be carried there by hand. The Internet allows instantaneous availability of content anywhere in the world.
The reason I decided against choosing the Internet is that I feel its philosophy is a direct descendant of the printing press. In my opinion, all these great benefits of the Internet came about directly as a result of the philosophy of the printing press, allowing freedom of press and the easy transference of information.
Another factor others considered for why the Internet should not be the most important is that it’s not a tangible item. I personally don’t think that this matters, as it is nevertheless something that had to be invented.