Technology, Ranked
January 9, 2019 6:29 PM   Subscribe

The world is filled with amazing technologies, many that are so old we don’t even think of them as technologies at all. Today, we present the definitive list of every important technology ever, ranked by their importance. These aren’t all necessarily good technologies, of course. There are plenty that have made the world a more miserable place for everybody. But they’re still on the list. (Matt Novak, Gizmodo)
posted by Johnny Wallflower (59 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
No lever, pulley, or wedge?

Wonder why fighter pilots sometimes have the nickname "Wedge?" Because they're the simplest tool known to man.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:33 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]

So good to finally see a list that no one could possibly disagree with.
posted by ckape at 6:39 PM on January 9 [9 favorites]

71. Pasteurization

Some people drink raw milk. And while I don’t believe that raw milk should be illegal, I think that every bottle of raw milk should be mandated to have a picture of Louis Pasteur and the word, “Really, idiot? Really?”
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:40 PM on January 9 [15 favorites]

Fire got robbed.

Also, 'noose' and 'sailing' but not 'rope'?
(No sailing without I learned in the article about all the (super-rare) ropes they recently found neatly coiled in a cave in Egypt)
posted by sexyrobot at 6:41 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

This list is too narrow. I want a ranking of of all things. Like an encyclopedia sorted by quality.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:44 PM on January 9 [19 favorites]

Clothing is not on the list. Why is clothing not on the list. It's fucking cold outside and clothing is not on the list. Jesus Christ, Matt Novak, it's January, put clothes on the damned list.
posted by ragtag at 6:45 PM on January 9 [9 favorites]

The electric motor, the AC generator, the remote control (no love for Tesla), eyeglasses, the plow, paper (I could go on). This person didn't research this list very well.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:46 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

Feminine hygiene products are still often overlooked when it comes to serving the needs of low income people and those in disaster areas, but that’s only because we live in a very backwards and broken society that should be destroyed.

I like your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by medusa at 7:02 PM on January 9 [16 favorites]

Incidentally, Wikipedia has an utterly amazing timeline of historic inventions which, like the linked article, is a controversial list of technologies, but is surprising in fascinating (rather than upsetting) ways.

For example, did you know boats predate clothing by hundreds of thousands of years? (Maybe because we didn't hit an ice age yet?)
posted by ragtag at 7:03 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Paper should be #1.

Also missing are soap, tampons, water purification, grain harvesting tools like the scythe, bicycles, synthetic fertilizer.
posted by medusa at 7:12 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Also, I love reading an article that knows what technology is. I am constantly annoyed that people use technology to mean electronic gadgets. I want to see an article on the front page of a newspaper tech section about solar ovens! Or new kinds of fertilizer!
posted by medusa at 7:14 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Wouldn't any ranking of technology have to depend on what version of Civ you're playing?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:19 PM on January 9 [11 favorites]

But what about blockchain??
posted by dphiffer at 7:20 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Beer. Seriously, beer. Quite probably the fruit of the tree of knowledge because you use beer to make bread, and then you get agriculture which is the foundation of the Anthropocene terraforming project running amok. So seriously, beer.

John Barleycorn must die.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 7:22 PM on January 9 [15 favorites]

Spinning wheel? LOL we were making thread, yarn and string long before the invention of that thing, using a faster and handier bit of technology known as a spindle. All the spinning wheel did was trap women in their homes instead of leaving them with a convenient and cheap device that could be carried in a pocket and used anywhere. (Which it was, because women spun ceaselessly for millennia, so folks could have things like clothing, blankets, and boat sails.)
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 7:25 PM on January 9 [14 favorites]

So good to finally see a list that no one could possibly disagree with.

Almost. Swap the fork and the cotton gin and we’re golden.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:34 PM on January 9

Nothing for writing?
posted by kenko at 7:38 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Alphabets? Syllabaries? Abjads? Etc.? Kind of important!
posted by kenko at 7:39 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

No loom, either?
posted by kenko at 7:40 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Amazing that there are multiple kinds of guns on the list but no kind of loom. Not even ("even" from gizmodo's perspective) the Jacquard loom.
posted by kenko at 7:42 PM on January 9 [12 favorites]

Clothing is not on the list. Why is clothing not on the list

A different job in the non-profit world ago, I wound up having a lot to do with technology and leading some projects to update the technology in use. And I started doing some reading on the idea of "technology" itself as part of it, because I wanted to really dig into what we meant by it. And I came across a definition of technology that I still remember, which is "everything that doesn't quite work yet", with the person making the point that we are surrounded by technology constantly but we rarely think of most of the stuff around us as such, because it's stuff we've been doing so long and is so generally reliable, we no longer think of it as technology. It isn't necessarily a great definition and there's problems with the idea, because if you give most people enough time to really think on it, they will start picking things that have been around forever, but even so, we will overlook some obvious things. So, yeah - clothing. A technology, to be sure, but something most everyone would overlook when thinking about this idea of "most important" because it doesn't feel like something that changed the world or the course of human history, even though without it...well, hard to imagine life without it, isn't it?

Anyways, I'm not going to quibble with the list, I'm just really pleased to see the printing press on it; I once was with a group of friends back in my university days (pre-internet ubiquity) where we had a debate on the question of most important/influential technologies. And given that it was a group of military history buffs, D&D players, and male nerds, the stuff picked was about what you would expect - "stirrups" and "forging steel" and "gunpowder" and so forth. They came to me and I said "printing press" and everyone was momentarily taken aback. So, that's just my personal little thing. (I wish I had been exposed to Ursula K. Le Guin at that point, because I would have expounded on the "carrier bag" idea).
posted by nubs at 7:42 PM on January 9 [10 favorites]

I would like to put in a good word for sliced bread.
posted by What is E. T. short for? at 7:47 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]

Counterpoint: Spinning wheels are a key improvement in workplace safety; it’s hard to have a stable yarn-based economy when every time a woman pricks her finger on a spindle, she falls asleep for a century.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:48 PM on January 9 [19 favorites]

VCR ranked above scalpel? I’ll st back here and watch you take out your burst appendix with a Betamax cassette.
posted by not_the_water at 7:52 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all this stuff.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:58 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Give me a listicle long enough and I can move the Earth.
posted by thelonius at 7:59 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

They came to me and I said "printing press" and everyone was momentarily taken aback.

Lever etc - simple machines.
Rope/yarn/thread - making thicker fiber out of small fibers.
Dye, including paint and ink.

(Human lifespan increased greatly when stew/soup was invented - people who'd lost their teeth no had to grind every bit of food by hand; people who were sick could still eat.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:00 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]

It doesn't even have gourds or clay pots.

I'm pretty sure that these were fundamental and important technologies in early human civilizations. They remain important today, even.
posted by thelonius at 8:01 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Lever etc - simple machines.

But the screw is there, oddly enough, and I am told that it is basically an inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder
posted by thelonius at 8:01 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I don't doubt that clothing was omitted because of gender-based deprecation. Novak seems to be a good guy in this regard, so I'm sure he never consciously said to himself that clothing wasn't a technology. But for years beyond counting, it hasn't been considered a technology because women did it. How could we have left Africa and survived an Ice Age in Eurasia without fitted garments and shoes? We couldn't. Whether we should have is, of course, another question entirely.

The picture of the cars parked at the beach in the 1920s made me realize something I never really considered -- there was a time after cars were common but before parking protocols. The cars are just massed there like cows in a pen.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:02 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]

I’ll sit back here and watch you take out your burst appendix with a Betamax cassette.

That was a pretty good David Cronenberg movie.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:08 PM on January 9 [14 favorites]

Anesthesia is higher than the microwave? I disagree on behalf of all of my dental work.

Also, I have no idea where the guillotine is on there at all. A good old headsman does the job just fine.
posted by greermahoney at 8:15 PM on January 9

Screws got screwed.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:19 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

I wouldn’t have picked #1 if left to my own devices, but upon seeing it, it’s hard to disagree.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:32 PM on January 9

Very odd variation in level of technology, and I don’t mean “ancient vs. modern,” I mean “general vs. ridiculously specific.” So we have “anesthesia” and “MP3.”

It’s like a listicle of “Ten Most Important Foods” and it’s
10. Cheezits
9. Toast
8. Italian food
7. 2 percent milk
6. Pies and cakes
5. Sugar cubes
4. Brown sugar
3. Meat
2. Shiitake mushrooms
1. Eels

I gave up before finding examples that contained other examples because I got irritated. Maybe there weren’t any and I expect too much of the humble listicle.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:44 PM on January 9 [20 favorites]

That’s a weird diss for corn, which was one of the best things ever invented in the americas, and it’s not precolumbian mesoamericans’ fault that Earl Butts fucked it up for everyone.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:01 PM on January 9

Also, I love reading an article that knows what technology is. I am constantly annoyed that people use technology to mean electronic gadgets. I want to see an article on the front page of a newspaper tech section about solar

It's weird though that technology can be so widely defined that it ends up being everything. And the transistor is a weird one - I guess it's technology but by themselves they don't do anything. You buy a milling machine for a purpose, but you only buy a transistor to make something else. It's both one of the keys to everything you consider modern while being nothing at all. It ranks below the screw and the wedge imo.

Overall this is a weird article. It's clearly not really a ranking and the specific items seem chosen at random.
posted by GuyZero at 9:44 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the whole thing is a comment-generating troll, no?

Space Shuttle just above concrete? Come on...
posted by pompomtom at 2:24 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]

92. Microphone

... 91. David Bowie
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:03 AM on January 10

Not sure why screw is #99 since it (or possibly rivets) is required to efficiently manufacture at least half the things ahead of it. Machining in general is essential for the majority of this list... but not seeing the lathe on there.... (Wood or metal lathe.)

Why is HDTV separate from TV? It's just TV at higher resolution, designed for non-tube matrix displays?

I love that "Ball" is on there, at quite high up at #51. Fun and play are underrated in our technology and work obsessed culture.

Am I weird to think that the "plow" as a breakthrough invention is overrated in stuff like this? Pretty strong opinion I guess, and it's essential technology, but it seems like a natural thing to try after people started using draft animals for pulling. Just an idle thought I guess.
posted by thefool at 3:59 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

I found myself without a vehicle the past few days, so just walked to town and home a few times. (3 1/4 miles) I realized this is how most people got around more than 100 years ago. Starting there, technology that would have helped in this scale transport immensely are: Shoes/boots (leather); Clothing; Basketry and textiles to make bags etc.... (I forgot a bag once and had to carry my groceries and library books in my pockets and hands).... then animal husbandry, metal working to make tools, and woodworking and wheelwright's knowledge. Then if I had a large load, I could pull a wagon with oxen. (And civic organization to get roads made. Reading records of when my part of the US was being settled by incoming non-native people, who's job it was to lay out and make roads was a major topic of discussion.)
posted by thefool at 4:13 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

One definition of technology from anthropology is cultural knowledge intentionally applied to some sort of problem. So the transistor qualifies. Knowledge = 20th century quantum physics and chemistry; problem = build a better switch. So does spinning although the knowledge behind both the spindle and spinning wheel was probably less formal and more qualitative understandings of textiles and angular momentum.

What isn't a technology? Art is likely something different because art doesn't really depend on a clearly defined problem, and sometimes is done just for the pleasure of it. Language I'd argue isn't inherently a technology because so much of it is unintentional or improvised, although you can build a technology around language (the press release for example.)
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 4:44 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

What an odd list. Many items are better considered as subsets of other items. It's often a bit like having both M&Ms and red M&Ms as separate items.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:08 AM on January 10

What an odd list.

Dishwashers, but not toilets. Which would you prefer not to have?
posted by The Bellman at 5:22 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]

Last year Atlas Obscura did a March Madness-style bracket of "overlooked inventions" called Mundane Madness. Here's what won.

Probably my favorite listicle-nonsense bracket yet.
posted by cage and aquarium at 5:28 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

For example, did you know boats predate clothing by hundreds of thousands of years? (Maybe because we didn't hit an ice age yet?)

The boats number seems extremely suspect. The range given is 900kya-40kya, which basically translates to "Who the fuck knows when this happened?" and the citation on the 900kya number doesn't actually mention boats at all. It points out that there might have been hominids living on an island that would have required crossing 11 miles of open water to get to. 11 miles is a long swim, but far from an impossibly long swim. It's about half the length of a swim across the British Channel, and in a much warmer climate.
posted by firechicago at 5:29 AM on January 10

Whoever came up with the list loves killing people more than they like agriculture. Selective breeding, anyone? Crop rotation? Hydrology? But nooo... guns, nooses, guillotines, and the aye-tawmic bawm. Only one country could have produced this list.

But it's missing the biggest breakthrough in technology of all time: at number one, the listicle.
posted by Devonian at 6:22 AM on January 10

The list won me over with the text for #92, the microphone. I won't spoil it here, but that entry is just about the most Metafilter thing ever.
posted by martin q blank at 6:25 AM on January 10

"If you ask a hundred historians what the most important invention is, a vast majority would no doubt put the wheel in their top ten."

Can we see that article instead? The one where you poll 100 historians?
posted by Pyry at 8:35 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]

Paper should be #1.

But can you not also write works on stone? (That is to say, writing itself trumps the medium. Mind you, paper does have myriad other uses, so fair enough for that.)
posted by BWA at 8:49 AM on January 10

Some famous historian years ago rated most influential inventions. For him the stirrup was number one. Not the saddle as on this list. Why? It allowed the rider to wear armor. It let the rider stand to shoot arrows, wave sword, throw spear (all on the list).

It’s interesting that the number one item on this list was only used twice. I guess just existing is useful too?
posted by njohnson23 at 9:04 AM on January 10

I’ve always gone the Umberto Eco route with most important inventions, bean cultivation allowing a cheap and predictable protein supply.
posted by The Whelk at 9:35 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]

I wonder if they saw the History of the World in 100 Objects, a BBC/British Museum project. No claim to ranking them, but using each as illustrative of something important, which is a much better approach unless you're building an actual cladistic tree.
posted by Devonian at 2:53 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Optical quality glass would be very high up my list.

Beer. Seriously, beer.

Fermentation, and the related technology of distillation, which is a critical component of much research and industrial chemistry (including in medicine, if for no other reason than alcohol above about 30% strength being one of the best all-purpose disinfectants).

Nothing for writing?

Alphabets? Syllabaries? Abjads? Etc.? Kind of important!

The most important tech of all.
posted by Pouteria at 4:39 PM on January 10

Bridges not on the list? Boats that are not dependent on the wind? What about the invention of mining? Smelting? Neither rubber not plastics? What about knots? Kilns? Ceramics? Salt production? I can understand not have roads on the list; they sprang up spontaneously and you can't call it road improvement technology when someone who just stubbed their toe heaves the offending rock off the path. But what about cooking? Forceps? Basketry? Cairns and sleepers? Tanning? Calendars?

Ima thinking the author chose the stuff for this list according to what pictures he had access to when he checked a file folder on his computer labeled Technology.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:24 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]

The scalpel but not bandaging? What about grinding???
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:36 PM on January 10

Now I wonder... Who figured out sieves?
posted by droplet at 9:55 PM on January 10

Now I wonder... Who figured out sieves?

I think you kind of get one for free whenever you weave a basket, don’t you? Much of invention is someone noticing that an existing thing has an interesting but unexpected property, and varying it to enhance the desirable trait. This is sort of how evolution works too, but the “someone noticing” part is handled in a ridiculously distributed and heartless fashion.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:58 AM on January 11

Coincidentally I've just started reading How to Invent Everything and so far the first three things to invent have been language, writing and useful numbers.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:32 AM on January 11

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