Inventing the Future

What a difference 1,000 years have made! In AD 1000 the world was a very different place. Most people spent their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace. Communication was limited to a small circle of villagers and the occasional passer-through. Disease struck with dreadful regularity against a population that had almost no defenses. With the exception of a few priests and other elites, people were basically illiterate, and there was very little to read anyway. People in 1000 measured time by the Sun and the Moon. Scientific observation was limited to what could be seen with the naked eye. Today, thanks to a millennium of scientific discovery and innovation, people’s lives have been transformed. They can view events as they happen half a world away. They can pick up the phone and talk to a friend or relative in a foreign country in seconds. Motorized transportation, from cars to jets, allows people to travel long distances in short time periods. Electricity runs a vast array of labor-saving and entertainment devices. Newspapers and books are inexpensive and readily available. Life expectancy has greatly increased as medical science tracks down the causes and cures of more and more diseases. The desktop computer is a powerful tool for working, creating, and communicating.

The inventions that meet these criteria, in chronological order, are the compass, the mechanical clock, the glass lens, the printing press, the steam engine, the telegraph, electric power, wireless communications, antibiotics, and the transistor.

The list of greatest inventions has focused exclusively on technological achievements. In a broader sense, humans have invented a great many other things over the past 1,000 years. One is modern democracy, with its assumption of basic human rights; another is symphonic music; still another might be baseball. Humankind’s creative output spans a huge range of fields in addition to science and engineering—each with their own great developments and innovations during the last millennium.

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