Top 20 greatest inventions of all time

The most impactful technology inventions in history are ranked.

Technology is a core component of the human experience. We have been creating tools to help us tame the physical world since the early days of our species.


Any attempt to count down the most important technological inventions is certainly debatable, but here are some major advancements that should probably be on any such list (in chronological order):

1. FIRE - it can be argued that fire was discovered rather than invented. Certainly, early humans observed incidents of fire, but it wasn't until they figured out how to control it and produce it themselves that humans could really make use of everything this new tool had to offer. The earliest use of fire goes back as far as two million years ago, while a widespread way to utilize this technology has been dated to about 125,000 years ago. Fire gave us warmth, protection, and led to a host of other key inventions and skills like cooking. The ability to cook helped us get the nutrients to support our expanding brains, giving us an indisputable advantage over other primates.

2. WHEEL - the wheel was invented by Mesopotamians around 3500 B.C., to be used in the creation of pottery. About 300 years after that, the wheel was put on a chariot and the rest is history. Wheels are ubiquitous in our everyday life, facilitating our transportation and commerce.

Circa 2000 BC, Oxen drawing an ancient Egyptian two-wheeled chariot. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

3. NAIL - The earliest known use of this very simple but super-useful metal fastener dates back to Ancient Egypt, about 3400 B.C. If you are more partial to screws, they've been around since Ancient Greeks (1st or 2nd century B.C.).

4. OPTICAL LENSES - from glasses to microscopes and telescopes, optical lenses have greatly expanded the possibilities of our vision. They have a long history, first developed by ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, with key theories of light and vision contributed by Ancient Greeks. Optical lenses were also instrumental components in the creation of media technologies involved in photography, film and television.

5. COMPASS - this navigational device has been a major force in human exploration. The earliest compasses were made of lodestone in China between 300 and 200 B.C.

Circa 1121 BC, An ancient Chinese magnetic chariot. The figure, pointing to the south, moves in accordance with the principle of the magnetic compass. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

6. PAPER - invented about 100 BC in China, paper has been indispensible in allowing us to write down and share our ideas.

7. GUNPOWDER - this chemical explosive, invented in China in the 9th century, has been a major factor in military technology (and, by extension, in wars that changed the course of human history).

8. PRINTING PRESS - invented in 1439 by the German Johannes Gutenberg, this device in many ways laid the foundation for our modern age. It allowed ink to be transferred from the movable type to paper in a mechanized way. This revolutionized the spread of knowledge and religion as previously books were generally hand-written (often by monks).

1511, Printing Press, from the title page of 'Hegesippus' printed by Jodocus Badius Ascensius in Paris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

9. ELECTRICITY - utilization of electricity is a process to which a number of bright minds have contributed over thousands of years, going all the way back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, when Thales of Miletus conducted the earliest research into the phenomenon. The 18th-century American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin is generally credited with significantly furthering our understanding of electricity, if not its discovery. It's hard to overestimate how important electricity has become to humanity as it runs the majority of our gadgetry and shapes our way of life. The invention of the light bulb, although a separate contribution, attributed to Thomas Edison in 1879, is certainly a major extension of the ability to harness electricity. It has profoundly changed the way we live, work as well as the look and functioning of our cities.

10. STEAM ENGINE - invented between 1763 and 1775 by Scottish inventor James Watt (who built upon the ideas of previous steam engine attempts like the 1712 Newcomen engine), the steam engine powered trains, ships, factories and the Industrial Revolution as a whole.

circa 1830: An early locomotive hauling freight. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

11. INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE - the 19th-century invention (created by Belgian engineer Etienne Lenoir in 1859 and improved by Germany's Nikolaus Otto in 1876), this engine that converts chemical energy into mechanical energy overtook the steam engine and is used in modern cars and planes. Elon Musk's electric car company Tesla, among others, is currently trying to revolutionize technology in this arena once again.

12. TELEPHONE - although he was not the only one working on this kind of tech, Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell got the first patent for an electric telephone in 1876. Certainly, this instrument has revolutionized our ability to communicate.

13. VACCINATION - while sometimes controversial, the practice of vaccination is responsible for eradicating diseases and extending the human lifespan. The first vaccine (for smallpox) was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. A rabies vaccine was developed by the French chemist and biologist Louis Pasteur in 1885, who is credited with making vaccination the major part of medicine that is it today. Pasteur is also responsible for inventing the food safety process of pasteurization, that bears his name.

14. CARS - cars completely changed the way we travel, as well as the design of our cities, and thrust the concept of the assembly line into the mainstream. They were invented in their modern form in the late 19th century by a number of individuals, with special credit going to the German Karl Benz for creating what's considered the first practical motorcar in 1885.

Karl Benz (in light suit) on a trip with his family with one of his first cars, which was built in 1893 and powered by a single cylinder, 3 h.p. engine. His friend Theodor von Liebig is in the Viktoria. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

15. AIRPLANE - invented in 1903 by the American Wright brothers, planes brought the world closer together, allowing us to travel quickly over great distances. This technology has broadened minds through enormous cultural exchanges—but it also escalated the reach of the world wars that would soon break out, and the severity of every war thereafter.

16. PENICILLIN - discovered by the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928, this drug transformed medicine by its ability to cure infectious bacterial diseases. It began the era of antibiotics.

17. ROCKETS - while the invention of early rockets is credited to the Ancient Chinese, the modern rocket is a 20th century contribution to humanity, responsible for transforming military capabilities and allowing human space exploration.

18. NUCLEAR FISSION - this process of splitting atoms to release a tremendous amount of energy led to the creation of nuclear reactors and atomic bombs. It was the culmination of work by a number of prominent (mostly Nobel Prize-winning) 20th-century scientists, but the specific discovery of nuclear fission is generally credited to the Germans Otto Hahn and Fritz Stassmann, working with the Austrians Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch.

Austrian nuclear physicist Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968) congratulates German chemist Otto Hahn (1879 - 1968) on his 80th birthday, Gottingen, Germany, 8th March 1959. The pair collaborated for 30 years in the study of radioactivity, work which culminated in the discovery of nuclear fission. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

19. SEMICONDUCTORS - they are at the foundation of electronic devices and the modern Digital Age. Mostly made of silicon, semiconductor devices are behind the nickname of “Silicon Valley", home to today's major U.S. computing companies. The first device containing semiconductor material was demonstrated in 1947 by America's John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley of Bell Labs.

20. PERSONAL COMPUTER - invented in the 1970s, personal computers greatly expanded human capabilities. While your smartphone is more powerful, one of the earliest PCs was introduced in 1974 by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) via a mail-order computer kit called the Altair. From there, companies like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM have redefined personal computing.

(BONUS) 21. THE INTERNET - while the worldwide network of computers (which you used to find this article) has been in development since the 1960s, when it took the shape of U.S. Defense Department's ARPANET, the Internet as we know it today is an even more modern invention. 1990s creation of the World Wide Web by England's Tim Berners-Lee is responsible for transforming our communication, commerce, entertainment, politics, you name it.

Cover photo: a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.