No, W is not on the list.
March 22, 2006 8:28 AM   Subscribe

The 20 Greatest Tools of All Time. As chosen by Forbes magazine.
posted by empath (97 comments total)
 
You have no idea how glad I am I didn't make that list.
posted by Plutor at 8:31 AM on March 22, 2006


Shit, you made that joke in the title.
posted by Plutor at 8:31 AM on March 22, 2006


Please note the distinct lack of the internet.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:32 AM on March 22, 2006


Damnit, my penis is not on that list either.
posted by daq at 8:33 AM on March 22, 2006


They wanted to make my dick number four, but it wouldn't grant them an interview.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:33 AM on March 22, 2006


...or the microchip. Give it another hundred years.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:34 AM on March 22, 2006


No bottle opener? Pheh.
posted by jonmc at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2006


No fire? Maybe it isn't a tool per se, though there isn't anything on there that could be used (directly) to make fire, either. Except the candle, maybe, but that's sort of putting the cart before the horse.
posted by jedicus at 8:37 AM on March 22, 2006


See, they should have combined 'eyeglasses' and 'telescope' into 'lens', which in addition to allowing 'microscope' to exist within that heading, would have opened up a spot for 'bottle opener'.

or daq and Mayor Curely's penises.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:39 AM on March 22, 2006


I'm glad someone on the site (David Ewalt) gave props to duct tape. The article was interesting. I knew it cured warts, but I didn't know it was lousy on ducts.
posted by kozad at 8:39 AM on March 22, 2006


This is just silly. Forbes is devoting several pages to explaining that knives are quite useful?

What's next month's issue? "The most useful scientific elements ever?" My money's on Oxygen, but Carbon's up there too.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:41 AM on March 22, 2006


You fool! What about Sodium?
posted by jonmc at 8:42 AM on March 22, 2006


How could the wheel not make the list?
posted by bashos_frog at 8:44 AM on March 22, 2006


Forbes. Capitalist Tool.
posted by three blind mice at 8:44 AM on March 22, 2006


Here is an interesting critique of the list.
posted by dfan at 8:47 AM on March 22, 2006


This is just silly. Forbes is devoting several pages to explaining that knives are quite useful?

It is silly, but at the same time, it's an interesting bit of perspective for people who always focus on the latest and greatest.
posted by empath at 8:48 AM on March 22, 2006


It's an interesting list to be sure. The category is broad enough and the list short enough that very difficult (or arbitrary) decisions must be made: the harness, but not the stirrup; the telescope (hurray!) but not the microscope); the scythe, but not the plow. That said, since we're all inevitably going to kvetch about stuff like this it might be interesting to see attempts at improving it from those who think it could be done better.
posted by Songdog at 8:49 AM on March 22, 2006


The cotton candy stick is pretty useful. Probably not top 20, but it's up there.
posted by jefbla at 8:50 AM on March 22, 2006


On finally clicking on it, good link, dfan.
posted by Songdog at 8:52 AM on March 22, 2006


How about the Wheel? Pretty useful tool.
posted by Windopaene at 8:52 AM on March 22, 2006


Where is the lever?
posted by ColdChef at 8:54 AM on March 22, 2006


The boat was snubbed. Shoes should have been included. And yeah, daq's penis.
posted by horsewithnoname at 8:54 AM on March 22, 2006


I was thinking that the loom might be a nice addition.
posted by Witty at 8:57 AM on March 22, 2006


I think the wheel falls under the broad category of machine rather than tool, as does the also incredibly useful inclined plane. Very simple machines, certainly, but not within the authors' definition of "tool". The lever? I'm not sure whether to consider that a tool or a machine. But I think it should have been included. I also wondered about the omission of the boat, the cart, the wagon, etc., but obviously vehicles were also deliberately excluded.
posted by Songdog at 8:58 AM on March 22, 2006


The telescope could definitely be scrapped for something else. Awesome, sure, but "most important"?
posted by danb at 9:00 AM on March 22, 2006


Their article on swords omits any mention of either Damascus steel, or Japanese forging techniques, probably two of the most significant developments in the field.
Interesting idea for an article, but crap implementation.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:00 AM on March 22, 2006


I saw the saw and I was all "the Saw!? Much more important is the Chisel and by extension the Plane and the Axe/Adze/Froe which are just Chisels with special handles" Then I saw the chisel was #20.

Good list all in all I think.
posted by Mitheral at 9:00 AM on March 22, 2006


If a lever isn't a tool I don't know what is and it is certainly more important than half of the things on the Forbes list. Of course criticizing someone else's list is just all too easy compared to coming up with a list which can withstand criticism.
posted by caddis at 9:04 AM on March 22, 2006


danb writes "telescope could definitely be scrapped for something else. Awesome, sure, but 'most important'?"

It makes sense, Astronomy made possible by the telescope is ultimately what has allowed people to throw off the yoke of many organized religions as government.
posted by Mitheral at 9:04 AM on March 22, 2006


Awesome, dfan.
posted by Plutor at 9:07 AM on March 22, 2006


For folks asking about the omission of levers, wheels, internets, fire, and the like:

"For our purposes, we decided to define a tool as a material device that provides an advantage in accomplishing a task. That eliminated things like language and software.

We decided to exclude the traditional list of "simple machines," which includes the lever, pulley, wheel and wedge, since most other tools employ some form of simple machine--a hammer is basically a lever, and an axe is essentially a wedge.

We tried where possible to limit the list to handheld or easily portable objects, eliminating most heavy machine tools, like hydraulic jacks.

We also decided to eliminate complex machines capable of essentially running themselves. That means things like cars, windmills and computer networks don't qualify."

posted by Bugbread at 9:07 AM on March 22, 2006


Please note the distinct lack of the internet.
posted by slimepuppy at 11:32 AM EST on March 22 [!]


Tool or toy? Do we know yet?
posted by caddis at 9:08 AM on March 22, 2006




I think this list would have been a lot better if they had not only consolidated glasses and the telescope into "lens" (as said before), but also knife, scythe and sword into "blade".
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:13 AM on March 22, 2006


Jonmc, I refuse to believe that a man such as yourself can't open a bottle with a lighter, counter top, another bottle, or any other sufficiently hard & right-angled item.

I also think opening a bottle with a lighter is an essential skill that everyone should learn - in college if nowhere else.
posted by flaterik at 9:13 AM on March 22, 2006


I'm with XQUZYPHYR. Did the writers at Forbes misbehave, and this is their punishment?
posted by aparrish at 9:14 AM on March 22, 2006


They say an axe is essentially a wedge and dismiss it, yet they list knife not once, but five times in various forms as they admit themselves. They also list the fish hook; I bet no one who compiled the list ever tried to feed themselves with fish caught with a hook, much less a village. The net has been around for thousands of years and would be a much more sensible inclusion. I am left with the feeling that this list was made by a bunch of editors who have very limited experience with actual tools. (Although I did see Donald Norman, whose work I generally admire, on the list of judges.)
posted by TedW at 9:17 AM on March 22, 2006


For opening bottles, the invention of the drawer handle rendered both the bottle opener and the lighter obsolete. Drawers were also a bitch to open before the invention of handles.
posted by horsewithnoname at 9:19 AM on March 22, 2006


They forgot the Dibbler, which my grandfather invented, consisting of a fork taped to the end of a stick.
posted by docpops at 9:20 AM on March 22, 2006


Fire, the Wheel, the Computer, and the Broken Treaty, are all notable in their abscence.
posted by stenseng at 9:21 AM on March 22, 2006


Indeed caddis, indeed.

But as many have pointed out, the tools on the list have their recreational purposes also. Mostly involving opening bottles.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:22 AM on March 22, 2006


I definitely think the hammer and the net (fishing, not inter) should be on there somewhere.
posted by empath at 9:25 AM on March 22, 2006


dfan writes "Here is an interesting critique of the list"

That is a good read, the lack of the bag is quite the oversight. I think he is right on when he says knife=sword but way off base on the knife=chisel and knife = scythe argument. Yes knives, chisels and scythes are all sharp things but both scythes and chisels allow you to perform tasks that are impossible with a knife, it's not just a matter of scale.

Also he makes a good arguement for rope though it may not be considered a tool by the Forbes definition for this list.
posted by Mitheral at 9:26 AM on March 22, 2006


They have the knife, but I nominate the fork. Invented by the ancient Greeks but in common use in Europe until the middle ages, it did more than anything to bring civility to the dining table. Without which, we could not do lunch. Without the fork there would be more wars, because the fork enables diplomacy to happen by creating table manners and putting a value on etiquette and conversation. The fork transformed eating into gastronomy. The fork led directly to French Cuisine and Julia Child. Without the fork, there would be McDonald's, but not the Four Seasons or Troisgras. Without the fork, we might all be eating with chopsticks.
posted by beagle at 9:26 AM on March 22, 2006


Without the fork, we might all be eating with chopsticks.

That might be better... the knives stay in the kitchen and away from the table.
posted by rxrfrx at 9:31 AM on March 22, 2006


Tool is the greatest tool.
posted by zonkout at 9:33 AM on March 22, 2006


rxrfrx: Are there really a huge amount of casualties from dining table knife incidents?

Anyway, there's nothing about the fork that precludes cooking food in bite-sized pieces.
posted by empath at 9:34 AM on March 22, 2006


I thought surely the "wingman" would have made the list.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:35 AM on March 22, 2006


Anyway, there's nothing about the fork that precludes cooking food in bite-sized pieces.

Difficult without the knife.
posted by Songdog at 9:39 AM on March 22, 2006


stenseng : "Fire, the Wheel, the Computer, and the Broken Treaty, are all notable in their abscence."

Also notable are the comments above in this thread which point out why those are absent.
posted by Bugbread at 9:42 AM on March 22, 2006


GOD DAMN THEM, THE AUGER SHALL RISE AGAIN
posted by baphomet at 9:43 AM on March 22, 2006


I suppose language is just a virus.
posted by tzelig at 9:45 AM on March 22, 2006


dfan's link leads to a more interesting list. Thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 9:47 AM on March 22, 2006


Because nothing says "we know about tools" quite like a magazine for rich executive bastards.

Tools on tools.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:47 AM on March 22, 2006


String (and by extension, rope, cable etc.)?

Maybe I'm being obtuse here, but the idea of an object of arbitrary length, that you can use to measure, to mark out arcs and circles, as a fastener (by tying knots) etc. might be worth considering.
posted by pax digita at 9:48 AM on March 22, 2006


The Basher. Haven't these folks ever watched 2001?

posted by jfuller at 9:49 AM on March 22, 2006


From dfan's link: "I was speechless at the inclusion of the corkscrew in a list of essential tools that omits both bottles and corks, reduced to incoherent spluttering. The best I could do was mutter "insane"."
posted by OmieWise at 9:50 AM on March 22, 2006


Flint. Anybody?
posted by furtive at 9:50 AM on March 22, 2006


The auger is dangerous and unreliable, even for William Dafoe.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:51 AM on March 22, 2006


No plow? No lateen sail, or lydian stater? This list is a joke.
posted by wfrgms at 9:59 AM on March 22, 2006


Even within a strict application of their own criteria, how can they not include the plough?.
posted by normy at 10:01 AM on March 22, 2006


Omission of the plow is lunacy. And no, it's not implied by "knife". It should not only be there, but in terms of its effect on civilization, it should be number 1 or 2.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:03 AM on March 22, 2006


On preview: hi normy.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:03 AM on March 22, 2006


Swiss Army Knife, anyone?
posted by kozad at 10:03 AM on March 22, 2006


No iPod? No juicer? No George Foreman "Cut-the-fat" Grill? What sort of world are these people living in?
posted by blue_beetle at 10:10 AM on March 22, 2006


Related: November 2005 MetaFilter thread on the world's most underrated inventions.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:11 AM on March 22, 2006


No bow and arrow?
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 10:21 AM on March 22, 2006


A tool can be great far beyond its simple utility:



More on this ebony and ivory beauty from 1876
posted by spock at 10:24 AM on March 22, 2006


the ladder?
posted by banshee at 10:37 AM on March 22, 2006


No plow?

My thoughts exactly. The plow is why we have cilivization -- it made it possible to free up a large percentange of humanity from creating/finding food.

The problem with hunt/gather is everyone has to do it, all the time, which means no time for anything else. Ten guys with a plow can feed a hundred, which means you now have 90 guys to be soldiers, scientists, priests, webmasters, etc.
posted by eriko at 10:56 AM on March 22, 2006


What use the mentioning of metal tools, yet not the smelter or the furnace oven?
posted by ijsbrand at 11:17 AM on March 22, 2006


ijsbrand : "What use the mentioning of metal tools, yet not the smelter or the furnace oven?"

The article: "We tried where possible to limit the list to handheld or easily portable objects, eliminating most heavy machine tools, like hydraulic jacks."

Geeze, I'm starting to feel like I'm on Slashdot. Folks, if you wonder why something is missing, either read this, or read through the whole article.
posted by Bugbread at 11:20 AM on March 22, 2006


eriko: The problem with hunt/gather is everyone has to do it, all the time, which means no time for anything else.

Most of what I've read on hunter-gatherer groups claims that if the population density is relatively low, basic nutrition is not that much work. Cultivation however is necessary for higher population densities.

However, they admit that inventions were chosen to be representative of entire classes of inventions. (Hence the abbacus as a precursor to other counting tools.) So I'm wondering of scythe was chosen as proxy for agricultural implements. (The scythe as a neolithic invention came before the plow btw.)

I would combine knife and sword to make room for the spear, including the bayonet. The spear was the most effective military and hunting weapon in history until the development of the modern rifle.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:26 AM on March 22, 2006


it [the plow] made it possible to free up a large percentange of humanity from creating/finding food.

It also led to the pioneering use of animal labor -- possibly the first significant example of humanity exploiting an energy source other than his own muscle power to produce work.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:31 AM on March 22, 2006


KirkJobSluder writes "I would combine knife and sword to make room for the spear, including the bayonet. The spear was the most effective military and hunting weapon in history until the development of the modern rifle."

Uh, what about the longbow? Remember Agincourt!
posted by OmieWise at 11:31 AM on March 22, 2006


The longbow was on the long list (33 tools) which was pared down to 20.
posted by Bugbread at 11:47 AM on March 22, 2006


Yeah, I know, [and as an aside, I disagree with the guy who wrote about the long list, it isn't the bow that would make the list, but the longbow] I was asking why KJS thought the spear was more revolutionary than the longbow, or alternately, why the longbow doesn't assume the place of the rifle in his statement.
posted by OmieWise at 11:49 AM on March 22, 2006


I had a history class in college that was premised on the idea that the stirrup was the start of everything good, and everything bad, in the world. (Or at least that it started the industrial revolution).
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:53 AM on March 22, 2006


A good start, but I'm feeling no love for the Angle Grinder.
posted by SteelyDuran at 12:04 PM on March 22, 2006


fascinating, spock.

/kirk
posted by bashos_frog at 12:11 PM on March 22, 2006


Uh, what about the longbow? Remember Agincourt!

The role of longbows at Agincourt is a matter of much debate. But I'll just point out that a standard practice for the use of archers is to plant a row of spikes in front of them to blunt any charge by mounted horses. The failure to prepare a defensive barrier led to the decimation of the longbow corps at the Battle of Patay. Longbowmen alone did not hold or take the field of battle.

You also have to think about the context of history. The lonbow was a critical part of the English arsenal for 200 years. Meanwhile, you have 25,000 years before Agincourt and a few centuries after in which the spear was a critical military and hunting weapon in almost every human culture. Even with gunpowder the bayonet was as deadly as the musketball.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:43 PM on March 22, 2006


I'm glad to see pot made the list. Ah, pot...
posted by stinkycheese at 12:45 PM on March 22, 2006


How could they omit the Flowbee?
posted by Bonzai at 12:47 PM on March 22, 2006


In the results of the "Vote" on which tools one uses in work. 16% named email (spammers?), 18% named software (code monkeys?) and 2% named gun (if you don't have a computer, you have to make a living somehow)
posted by Cranberry at 12:51 PM on March 22, 2006


Plow is mentioned in the harness article, so I assume they're using the harness to stand for the product of all domesticated animals
posted by empath at 12:53 PM on March 22, 2006


Better late than never:

My dick is so big, it wouldn't fit on the list.
posted by davejay at 1:04 PM on March 22, 2006


Forbes always seemed like a bit of a tool.

I too think the axe was overlooked (blade + wedge). More important than the sword anyway.

/My dick would have been on the list but it generally does more harm than good. Someone called my name the other day and I turned around too fast. Derailed a train.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:45 PM on March 22, 2006


danb writes "telescope could definitely be scrapped for something else. Awesome, sure, but 'most important'?"

It makes sense, Astronomy made possible by the telescope is ultimately what has allowed people to throw off the yoke of many organized religions as government.
posted by Mitheral at 9:04 AM PST on March 22 [!]


Now, I love astronomy and Copernicus and Tycho Brahe and Kepler and the telescope man himself, Galileo (lovely moon pictures) -- but the historian in me just has to go, umm, sorry, but no. That's stretching causation too far.

The separation of church and state in Europe (which notably has not ever happened in Britain) is a long and complicated process, and as far as I know has more to do with the French Revolution than Galileo or heliocentrism. In Britain, religious toleration came about very slowly through the seveenth to nineteenth centuries (and not without many snags). And of course, in the United States, the separation of church and state didn't come from wide-spread agnosticism or atheism, but the desire for religious toleration for a variety of (often very devout) religions.

Now, if you connect observational science to Enlightenment thought to Deism to Atheism, maybe there is a tenuous connection. But at the same time, astronomy was a huge part of seventeenth century Catholic science and they built their cathedrals to make astronomical observations.
posted by jb at 1:48 PM on March 22, 2006


OmnieWise: Yeah, I know, [and as an aside, I disagree with the guy who wrote about the long list, it isn't the bow that would make the list, but the longbow] I was asking why KJS thought the spear was more revolutionary than the longbow, or alternately, why the longbow doesn't assume the place of the rifle in his statement.

Well, I didn't say anything about rifles. Nor did I say anything about "revolutionary." My reasons for preferring the spear over the sword is because:
1: longer history and pre-history.
2: use as a standard military and hunting weapon in a wide variety of human cultures.
3: wider distribution compared to swords among both military and civilian populations.

The longbow proper in my opinion fails on at least two points, limited to 400 years in Northwest Europe. If you want to talk about archery you might as well include the Mongols, Arabs and Chinese who made decisive use of archery in a wide variety of military conflicts. And still I'd point out that at least the Chinese and Arabs had spearmen as a major part of their infantry forces. And if you point to Agincourt again, I'll point out that Agincourt still came down to English footsoldiers holding the line against an ill-considered and disorganized charge over bad ground. (A charge that still pushed English forces back by yards.)

My feeling is that if we are going to make a list that includes such items of neolithic antiquity as needles, pots, knives and the scythe, that the spear is certainly worthy of consideration as an alternative to the bronze-age sword.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:52 PM on March 22, 2006


yeah, the plow is missing

and the bicycle
posted by Substrata at 2:24 PM on March 22, 2006


Just another recommendation to read dfan's link (which would actually have made a better post, since it contains the list along with excellent discussion). Here's a bit from it:

The Forbes list has some restrictions. "Tools" must be simple, portable physical implements. Fundamental machines are omitted; most notably, this excludes "the lever" and "the wheel". (The invention of real importance there is not the wheel, but the axle. But that's another article for another time.) Inventions like fire, glassblowing, the computer, gunpowder, the windmill, and written language are ruled out, not because they are unimportant, but because they are not "tools" in the sense of being fairly simple, portable physical implements. They belong on some list, but not this one. (That didn't stop Don Norman from writing a ponderous and obvious essay about how the Forbes list was the wrong list to make. I know Don Norman has his fans, but I've never understood why.)
posted by languagehat at 2:25 PM on March 22, 2006


Frankly, I think I'll go with a forge and a mill, so I can actually make some of these tools.
posted by insomnia_lj at 2:29 PM on March 22, 2006


In the end, the most important tool will be whatever best kills C.H.U.D.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:45 PM on March 22, 2006


[The plow] also led to the pioneering use of animal labor -- possibly the first significant example of humanity exploiting an energy source other than his own muscle power to produce work.

I think they were trying to imply the plow via the harness. Exactly why they wouldn't want to feature the plow, I don't know.

I'm guessing the presence of the knife in the opening graphic is actually misdirection; Forbes will instead hand the honor of Most Useful Tool to the Stupid Javascript Slideshow You Can't Turn Off Permanently.
posted by chrominance at 5:13 PM on March 22, 2006


I thought surely the "wingman" would have made the list.
Wingman no, bagman yes.
posted by Joeforking at 8:43 PM on March 22, 2006


Personally, i'm glad to see the knife so well (over) represented. i've been preaching it's importance for years. (pretty much ever since i've been told that carrying one makes me a Bad Guy).

Still, i agree with others that maybe there should have been some consolidation with regard to bladed devices.
posted by quin at 3:22 AM on March 23, 2006


"Honey, I've got a tool that'll fix anything." -- Joe Theismann in Cannonball Run II.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:07 AM on March 23, 2006


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