Humans are ridiculous. In our short history, we have gone from hunter-gatherers in Eastern Africa to a spacefaring race of 7 billion and counting. Our unmatched cognitive ability and outright bipedal lunacy have allowed us to walk to the top of the food-chain then shatter it entirely.
Along the way we did some thinking and came up with some rather profound technologies. Aren’t we smart?
Here are 5 human inventions that shook history.
It really is difficult to stress how significant language is in shaping the course of human history. It is so intrinsically linked to us a species it would be hard to imagine life without it – dare I say impossible as there would be no fiction.
Around 70,000 years ago, a random genetic mutation changed the wiring of the brains of Homo sapiens, but not our hominid cousins such as the Neanderthal. What followed was the Cognitive Revolution – the beginning of humanity’s unrivalled ability to think and communicate.
It might be a bit egotistical to say language was invented, after all, a lot of evolutionary hoops had to be jumped through for language to come about. But after these hoops, language presented itself as the next natural step.
Homo sapiens now had the power to gossip, assess situations, and make calculated decisions, but what came next would change the world forever.
Possibly the most significant consequence of language is our species bypassing the genome. Listen up. Language allowed Homo sapiens to form larger and more complex social structures, but our capacity for fiction meant we would go on to co-operate in the millions under the banners of nations, religions, and corporations. The first practices of these fictions and myths formed the basis of culture – this is extremely important, it was here that history and biology separated. The ways in which Homo sapiens lived were no longer dictated by DNA. Instead, we could rapidly change our culture and restructure our societies depending on pressures and needs. Think about it. We couldn’t just examine the DNA of some long dead band of Homo sapiens to understand how they lived. We would need to understand their culture, their shared myths and fiction.
In essence, language is a form of everyday magic; an idea gets from one mind to another through vibrations in the air or symbols on a page. With this tool, we scream of our existence to the universe.
2. The Internet
Infinite knowledge. Instantaneous communication. These were once considered impossibilities of God-hood and far-flung fantasies of science fiction. Now billions of us hold this power in our hands.
And what do we use it for? Pornography and memes, the crème de la crème of life. You were wrong, Uncle Ben; with great power comes great irresponsibility, and this is one world wide web that should have never been spun. But it was spun and this is how.
The internet wasn’t invented by a single person, it was a decades-long process in which many people contributed. Here are some key events and figures. Don’t worry, I got rid of the tech jargon.
The internet started out as the Advanced Research Agency Projects Network (ARPANET) in the mind of a man called Leonhard Kleinrock. In 1961, he wrote a paper called Information Flow in Large Communication Nets,in which he proposed the idea for a Wide Area Network (WAN) that connected universities and research centres.
In the following year, with renaissance man style, Joseph Carl Licklider envisioned a ‘Galatic Network’ not unlike today’s internet. Licklider became the first director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) where he pushed and popularised the idea.
In 1969, the ARPANET was born. The first two nodes were between the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute. On October 29th, UCLA student Charley Kline attempted to send the word ‘login’ to a computer at SRI, but the system crashed after ‘lo’.
Lo and behold, the ARPANET is here.
Fathers of the Internet & TCP/IP
Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf are heralded as ‘Fathers of the Internet’. In 1978, the virtual shit hit the fan when Kahn and Cerf designed Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). These sexy layers of computer code handle information with the touch of a good lover. Ones and zeros go where they need to go and in the right order.
On January 1st, 1983, the ARPANET migrated to TCP/IP and the virtual frontier as we know it was almost ready.
Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web
Tim Berners-Lee, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame, knighted by Queen Elizabeth, has not directly profited from his creation. In August 1991, he gave us the World Wide Web (WWW), making it possible to create web pages and share pictures, videos, audio, and other content. Three mechanisms make the web possible.
- URLs – an address for stuff.
- HTTP – a format for stuff.
- HTML – a way for stuff to get about.
The first website was launched on August 6th, 1991. Look, here it is. Not much, right? Wrong. That site is the cyber equivalent of Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. Be grateful.
The internet may be in its infancy but it has become inseparable from modern life. On average, a UK citizen spends more than 24 hours online a week. We check our phones first thing in the morning, every 12 minutes throughout the day, and right before we go to sleep.
What I said before about the power of the internet in our hands, it’s half true. The internet is a vast and indomitable spectre we glimpse through pixels on a screen. It is omnipotent and omnipresent. Life has been accelerated by it and an age of information ushered in. The implications of this technology are beyond us; we are yet to understand the effects.
There is a duality to this power: information and misinformation; connectivity and isolation; accessibility and data scandals. A future of artificial intelligence and fake news awaits us. Hence, the internet is one of humanity’s most significant inventions.
For 2.5 Million years, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies. That all changed around 10,000 years ago with the rise of the Agricultural Revolution. People all over the world were waking up to the glory of putting seeds in the ground and covering them with shit. Farming and animal domestication became the way in which we fed ourselves and brought about unprecedented changes to demography, genetic variation, culture, and the environment – not always for the better.
Agriculture is first said to have appeared in south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant around 9500-8500 BC. People farmed wheat and domesticated goats. In the following centuries and millennia, agriculture absorbed more plants and wildlife. Since 3500 BC, there have been no significant additions to the list of plants and animals we have domesticated.
You might suspect that agriculture spread outwards from this epicentre, passed on from person to person, sending ripples through humanity, but that is not the case. Scholars now agree that civilizations across the world became agricultural societies completely independent of one another. People in Central America, South America, West Africa, the Middle East, China, and Papua New Guinea, separated by impossible distances, arrived at this juncture themselves.
So, what’s all the hubbub?
Well, agriculture removed nomadism from society – we no longer had to move about to exploit resources or for fear of the weather. Farming and animals tied people to one spot, giving rise to the first permanent villages such as Jericho in the Middle East in 8500 BC. More food and permanent villages meant babies were being popped out left, right, and centre. Around 10,000 BC, Earth was populated with 5-8 million humans. By the first century AD, that number had risen to around 250 million.
However, agriculture had its costs; it’s about to get sad.
The work was laborious and ill-fitted for bodies designed for climbing trees to pick fruit and chasing gazelles through the savannah. Although people could have more children, they were weaned at an earlier age and worked on the fields to make food for the next generation. People were stuck in a loop of famine, work harder, food surplus, more mouths to feed, famine, work harder, food surplus, more mouths to feed . . . Furthermore, with the advent of larger settlements, disease was rampant. This combined with famine meant that child mortality was extremely high. 1 out of 3 people perished before reaching the age of twenty. Being tied to one location with one source of food also put people at the mercy of the environment. If conditions weren’t just right, if a drought or flood occurred, the crops failed and people suffered. On the other hand, if the granaries were full, rival villages might be tempted to steal and take over, forcing walls to be built and guards to be stationed. The fact is that the hunter-gatherers that came before them lived happier lives.
It’s important to remember the people in these societies weren’t our distant genetic cousins, they were people like you and me. The same brain and body, the same capacity for thought and discussion.
Nonetheless, agriculture and language paved the cobbled way towards our first cities. Out of the landscape, we apes carved a new world, one where impossible pyramids stand for thousands of years and metal spires touch the sky.
Humans have been fighting a war against disease and injuries since time immemorial. Even our cousins, the Neanderthal, waged this war – skeletal remains have shown signs of injury and recovery, meaning their tribe fought and hunted in their behalf. In early civilizations, shamans warded off evil spirits, used herbal remedies, and incited rituals of dance and magic. The oldest known medical text is the Ebers Papyrus, dating back to 1550 BC. This scroll contains 700 magical formulas and folk remedies, even one about birth control.
Medicine has a lineage nearly as long as our own but there are some milestones which shook history more than others. So, let’s give some credit to the innovations that let you live.
In 429 BC, Athenian historian and general Thucydides noticed that people who survived the smallpox plague did not become reinfected with it.
In 900 AD, the Chinese had discovered a primitive form of vaccination against smallpox called variolation. This involved putting scabs from pustules up the nose or under the skin of the patient. Jeez, I’d rather just die.
By the 1700s, variolation was used across the world. Since smallpox killed 1 out of every 3 that caught it, people were queuing up to put scabs up their nose.
So, the idea of immunity wasn’t new.
In 1796, Edward Jenner, a country doctor in Gloucestershire, England, carried out the world’s first vaccination. He had noticed that milkmaids who had caught cowpox did not get smallpox. Interesting. Jenner took some pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand and inoculated a boy called James Phipps. Nothing too mad just yet. Then, six weeks later, Jenner variolated Phipp’s arm with smallpox. Eight-year-old Phipp’s will go down as the medical guinea pig to end all guinea pigs. If Jenner was just a lunatic with a doctor’s license then Phipp’s was a dead man. But, no, Jenner was right and Phipp’s was immune.
Today, smallpox has been eradicated, except for some cheeky quantities in two research labs in the U.S. and Russia. Approximately 5 million lives are spared annually because of this vaccination and that is just one disease. We’re coming for you, polio!
But there is a new disease spreading across the land. It’s carried by Mums on the internet and threatens our very existence. This disease is anti-vaxxeritos. The only cure is avoiding misinformation and seeing a qualified doctor. Please, if come across someone with anti-vaxxeritos, run.
‘What you gonna do?’
‘Die, I guess.’
Such was life in the dark ages before antibiotics. The world of germs was a mystery and the common infections of today were deadly.
The first milestone occurred in 1909 when German physician and scientist, Paul Ehrlich, and Japanese bacteriologist, Sahachirō Hata, developed the Arsphenamine drug, the first effective anti-syphilitic drug.
Then Scottish physician, Alexander Fleming, accidentally discovered penicillin. You’ll remember him from GSCE biology, I’m sure, the teacher ranting on about a Petri dish or something. It was a September morning in 1928 in the basement laboratory of St Mary’s Hospital, London, where Fleming found that fateful Petri dish left open. The bacteria inside had blue-green mould on it. Around the mould there was a no-man’s land for bacteria, so Fleming concluded that the mould was stopping bacterial growth.
‘What you gonna do?’
Such is life in the golden age of antibiotics. According to the New World Encyclopedia, at least 200, million lives have been saved by the discovery and mass production of penicillin.
But, something isn’t right.
Today, humanity’s war with infection is taking a turn. Bacteria didn’t just lie down and submit, no, they doubled down and adapted. Antibiotics are being prescribed all willy-nilly and scientist fear that this will allow bacteria to outdo medicine.
Medicine is undoubtedly one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Since 1900, the global average life expectancy has more than doubled to nearly 70 years. The first person to live to 150-years-old has already been born – imagine that, getting to 75 and being half way there. Who knows, with advancements in stem cell research and nanobot technology, humanity might achieve the impossible and put the grim reaper out of a job.
5. The Gutenberg Press
How do I sum up Johannes Gutenberg’s invention? It was essentially the internet of the 15th century, a conduit for a medieval information age, and the foundations for the cultural blossoming we call the Renaissance. I can’t downplay the implications of the first printing press; imagine a world where books weren’t ubiquitous, where only a select few could read and afford them, where any idea, thought, and observation had to be remembered or passed down orally for fear of it being forgotten. Without the printing press, we would still be living in a pre-industrial age.
Before the printing press, books were crafted by hand and took years to finish. In all of Europe, there were approximately 30,000 books. 50 years later, there were 12, million.
Circa 1449, Gutenberg unveiled his creation; a machine whereby movable type could be placed and pressed onto paper. Simple yet ingenious.
German professor and priest, Martin Luther, took notice of the printing press and used it to spread his opposition to Roman Catholicism. In 1517, Luther nailed copies of his heretical Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church. The 16th century saw a schism erupt in Western Christianity between Catholicism and the new Protestant traditions Luther pushed for.
Gutenberg opened the door for the Renaissance. The landscapes of science, philosophy, mathematics, art, architecture, and so many other disciplines were changed forever. Gutenberg’s press made him a purveyor of ideas, the most lucrative currency we know.
You’ve made it to the end you absolute specimen, the rest are weak. I certainly hope you enjoyed reading my ramblings.