What are the most important inventions of all time? Some people go for big, obvious things…like boats, the printing press, or gunpowder. Don’t get me wrong, those are all pretty great and everything. But the printing press is nowhere without paper and sans compass, boats were pretty much stuck paddling around in sight of land. This list rights the wrongs of history’s tunnel vision. Here are history’s 5 most underrated and overlooked inventions.
Oh paper, how we take you for granted! It’s everywhere. We roll our eyes when the printer is out and we have to add more. But paper was a big deal in the ancient world. It is believed the Chinese first invented paper in 105 AD. In ancient Egypt paper made from the papyrus plant was invented around 140 BC. Now some people say this doesn’t count as paper because it is not made from macerated fiber. Trees have always been in short supply in Egypt; so they worked with what they had and the papyrus plant was plentiful. Paper changed the way that cultures recorded their histories and their daily lives; so that printing press everyone talks about… kinda small potatoes without paper, huh?
Almost every culture on the planet has designed some sort of clothing. It didn’t take long for our ancient ancestors to figure out clothing is needed to protect our sad, hairless hides from the elements. Somewhere,sometime it was decided that certain body parts should be kept private. While draping the body in animal skin might be ok at night, it’s awkward during the day…I mean how can you hurl a spear and hold onto your mammoth hide at the same time? The needle allowed us to create clothing that conformed to each individual, for every type of weather. The needle hasn’t changed much over the last 20,000 years or so. The first needles appear around 28,000 BC. Early needles are crafted from bone. Then copper, bronze, iron…well you get it. But the basic design has stayed the same. New York Fashion Week would be even scarier without the needle.
How to store and carry items is an old problem. Basket making goes back at least to 7500 BC in North America. Baskets could be very simple for everyday use and very intricate for special occasions (think breaking out the good china for Thanksgiving). Baskets could be soft and flexible, or firm and rigid. There are baskets used to hold liquids and for cooking (hot stones were added for heating). We assign roles to baskets. Certain baskets held specific foods, were ceremonial, or communicated social status, it’s not so different today.
Here on the Front Range we have those gorgeous mountains to the West and they are always there helping me figure out the cardinal directions. When it’s dark I can use my smart phone to guide me. It’s all so handy. Our ancient ancestors weren’t so lucky. If they were not near a known landmark or able to see specific constellations…they were in trouble. You can see why a long ocean voyage would seem pretty scary if you had no idea how big the ocean was or what direction home was. It is believed the magnetic compass was invented sometime around the 3rd or 4th century BC in China. Early on the compass may have been used in divination or in the practice of Fung Shui, by the 11th century the compass was used in navigation. Give folks several hundred years and they were routinely crossing the oceans. I give the compass extra props for portability. Even early versions could fit inside a pocket (you could even store yours inside a lovely wooden or ivory case). Every sailor’s necessary accessory.
Glass is a naturally occurring material. Volcanic glass, obsidian, has been used in creating stone tools since…well…the stone age. It took people a lot longer to figure out how to create glass to make vessels and windows. Most likely the first glass was a by-product of other processes, just leftover scrap…and someone decided they would make a nice strand of beads or a lovely amulet out of that scrap around 2500 BC. Shaping glass took longer to figure out. Around 1500 B.C.some curious Maker figured out how to use a mold to make glass cups and bowls. Not long after glass blowing begins in Syria and shortly thereafter glass windows in Rome.
I have seen people over the last week all excited about the latest and greatest smartphone. You know what makes it possible? That’s right, good old glass. So the next time you scratch out a quick grocery list, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of ancient technology at your service.