A Look Back

Inventions that changed our world.
illustration by Tony Healey
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


We should never conflate being an inventor with being an entrepreneur – after all, how many brilliant ideas have each of us had and done nothing about? That said, invention is the mother of entrepreneurship. With that in mind, let’s consider some of history’s greatest inventions.

It’s a cliché to start with the wheel, but where else to begin? The common wisdom is that the wheel was invented around 4000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Equally important to the advance of early civilization was the invention – or at least mastery – of fire. This apparently took place in Africa around 1.4 million years ago.

A few millennia later, these advancements combined to produce the combustion engine and hence the automobile, paving, traffic jams and smog … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Another key early invention was human language, thought to have emerged in several cultures about 100,000 years ago. This greatly enhanced the ability of early mankind to collaborate on food and shelter, and is considered critical to our ascent to the top of the evolutionary ladder. About 99,999 years ago, early mankind discovered arguing about food and shelter, not to mention everything else under the sun, which nearly kicked that ladder out from under our species.

Linguists estimate that today approximately 5,000 languages are spoken worldwide (about one-third of them in Africa alone), yet amazingly, you cannot get accurate directions from a stranger standing on the corner in any one of them.

In a similar vein, the first evidence for the use of numbers and counting shows up in central Africa no more than 20,000 years ago. As this skill was further developed, it led to the development of architecture, trade, taxes, and speed limits and speeding tickets (see combustion engine, above).

While music is older than math (and a lot more fun), with the oldest-known musical instrument dating from approximately 35,000 B.C., the spread of numbers accelerated the advancement and complexity of music. Written music would not be possible without numbers.

Two other major major civilizing inventions were wine, which shows up in multiple global locations between 7000 and 6000 B.C.; and beer, which seems first to appear among the Egyptians in approximately 5000 B.C. Over the eons, alcohol has had substantial impacts on both war and peace, as well as the propagation of our species. This lineage can be followed to the invention of craft brewing in the United States in the mid-1970s, which many experts consider to be the greatest advance in American culture in the last half of the 20th century.

Moving to more recent times, gunpowder was invented in the late 9th century in China. While the downsides of war and violence are obvious, July 4th celebrations would be a lot less celebratory without gunpowder. And ultimately, satellites, space travel and the GPS giving you bad directions in your car evolved from it (see combustion engines and language, above).

Few inventions since the wheel have had a greater global impact than the steam engine. Various sources credit various inventors with this discovery; the general time frame is the late 1500s, with the first industrial applications showing up in the late 1600s. The industrial revolution followed a couple centuries later, fundamentally creating the modern world in all its glory and disasters.

As an example of the difference between inventors and entrepreneurs, Benjamin Franklin supposedly “discovered” electricity, though in reality he simply established the connection between electricity and lightning. Researchers in Europe began identifying and understanding electricity starting around 1600. However, it wasn’t until more entrepreneurial inventors in the 19th century began harnessing this natural force for a variety of devices – and marketing them successfully – that electricity became an economic force as well.

Electricity of course led to lights, new forms of power, television, computers, the internet, and the Information Age (along with the Misinformation Age).

A key lesson here is that inventions seem often to have both positive and negative consequences. That is on all of us. A more modest invention is the hammer – and you can use a hammer to build a house or to kill someone. Inventions as a rule are inherently neutral; what humanity does with them determines whether they benefit and/or damage mankind.