Reader Roundtable: what's the greatest technology of all time?

Scholars & Rogues wants to know: what do you think is the greatest technology in human history?

Before you answer, what do we mean by “technology”? I think we all have sort of an operational idea in our heads of what we mean by the term, but if you’re like most people, odds are pretty good that you’ve never sat down and tried to articulate a real definition. A couple pretty smart thinkers had some thoughts on the subject that you might find helpful. Or challenging. Let’s see.

First, Arnold Pacey, a British scholar whose Culture of Technology helps us understand that technology is a lot more than just the machine itself, which Pacey calls the “restricted” sense of the term. The machine – the technical dimension, is only a part of the whole picture.

Have a look at this diagram:

The bottom point is what Pacey calls the “technical aspect,” which includes “knowledge, skill and technique; tools, machines, chemicals, liveware; resources, products, and wastes.” This lower third of the equation, the “restricted meaning,” is what most people – probably you included – mean when they use the term “technology.”

However, the “general meaning” incorporates the top two corners of the triangle, the “cultural aspect” and the “organizational aspect.” The cultural includes “goals, values and ethical codes, belief in progress, awareness and creativity.” The organizational signifies “economic and industrial activity, professional activity, users and consumers, trade unions.” Put another way, the cultural is what people think about it, how they use it, what they believe about it, and so on. The organizational has to do with official laws and policies governing its development and use.

Consider Pacey’s example of the snowmobile. It’s one machine, one technical apparatus. However, in some parts of the world it’s a recreational vehicle. In other places it’s used to hunt. In still others it’s a work vehicle (imagine that you’re working on an oil pipeline in the far north). And if you’re just west of where I live, in Colorado’s ski country, it can even be an emergency rescue device. These distinctions matter when talking about a machine and help explain the difference between technical and technological.

As for the organizational dimension, think about all the ways in official policies (governmental, corporate, etc.) dictate how devices are used – or even ban their use (or existence). Right now you’re using the Internet. In the early 1990s the government made some important decisions about the Net, decisions that spurred its development as a commercial, social, educational and entertainment technology. If the government had instead restricted its use for anything but, say, defense and intelligence gathering, we’d have a very different Internet today. That is, the Internet would be, wires and routers and protocols notwithstanding – a very different technology.

Next, let’s broaden our understanding just a bit more. In Technopoly, Neil Postman made clear that technologies aren’t always physical things. One example was education – broadly considered, education is a tool that humans developed to serve a purpose. (If we get just a little bit cynical, we might decide that education is a tool that can be used for a number of purposes, not all of them necessarily noble.)

So, with these things in mind, we here at Scholars & Rogues want to ask our readers: what do you believe is the greatest technology in human history?

Feel free to nominate, debate, argue, debunk, whatever.We look forward to hearing what you have to say.


Pacey, Arnold. The Culture of Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1983.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

45 replies »

  1. Tough call.

    The cynic in me wants to say figuring out how to make sharp pointy things for killing. Not that I think it’s great. Just that I think it’s had a great impact on every level.

    The idealist in me has to agree with the first comment.

    Although there’s the ancestor who noticed that the weird extra opposable finger might have its uses after all…

  2. Do you consider a self-organized clan a “technology”? If so, then everything else is an emergent property of the the idea of community. Then, language, agriculture, democracy, and mass communication/education.

  3. Well, Mike, let me ask you this. Is human community, in the way you think is at the core of your question, distinct from the communal function of other higher primates?

  4. Only in the sense that communal memory can be maintained and evolve. That’s what allows all the other emergent properties to occur. Higher primates have some language an group together for protection and sex. As do humans. But because the community memory in humans is passed on from generation to generation and can evolve fairly quickly, we get all the other emergent properties. So, perhaps, the real “technology” is a combination of language, communication, and communal memory.

  5. Fire. It allowed humans to survive winters in climates that would be too cold otherwise, to convert grains to bread and store grains safely and dryly in fire-hardened and waterproof pottery. Meat could be preserved by cooking and drying and smoking, and it carried fewer life-ending diseases when cooked. Wooden hunting weapons could be fire-hardened and, thus, made far more effective than non-hardened weapons. Wood could also be steamed and bent because of fire. Canoes could be hollowed out. Slash and burn agriculture enriched nomadic peoples.

    I could go on, but I’d say that fire is certainly near the top, if not number 1.

  6. The Thermos.

    It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold. How does it know? That’s amazing.

  7. I’m going with Brian on this one – because it allows all other technologies to be preserved and passed along, despite the limitations of human memory and the vicissitudes of history.

  8. For about the last 10,000 years or so, the greatest technology has got to be Fire. But i think fire may have been usurped by the invention of the Semi-Conductor – the backbone of the microprocessor revolution.

  9. Finger+brain+first marks=communication

    The best communication led to the printing press – the internet and much more of its day.

    Fire did not raise the level of human insight and subsequent learning in the same way as written communicaiton did. It is human insight that feeds all the greatest of achievements and a human armed with book learning and his/her own genius is far more potent than the bacteria cleansing agent that fire is.

    …besides steak tartare is tasty. 😉

    So I agree with Brian.

  10. Slammy:

    I think I’d choose domestication of plants over domestication of animals, if only because the rise of agriculture built enough food wealth to allow specialization which, in turn, led to pretty much all advances. But domestication of animals is certainly a good one to bring up.

    In defense of fire: I understand about writing and the alphabet, which allowed people to learn writing relatively easily, but I maintain that mankind would never have gotten that far if not for fire. I’d choose domestication of plants over writing, personally.

  11. Does “greatest” mean “most essential?” Or does it mean something else entirely? If we are (in theory) thinking creatures, and this is our defining characteristic as a species, then I still maintain that the process of coding thought into meaning-laden sound into shared visual symbols is the greatest technology we’ve developed so far. Recorded thought is a record of our essence.

  12. Ann,

    I guess I’m taking more of an historical approach. To me, “greatest” means “most essential to levels of civilization we’ve achieved today.” In that sense, I think Sam’s domestication idea has merit, and I think my fire idea has merit. Without either of those, we never would have gotten to the place where writing was invented.

    It’s certainly true that we couldn’t have achieved anything like what we have today without writing and, to a lesser degree, the alphabet (theoretically, we might have had something like universal literacy wtih a hieroglyphic approach). But there’s been substantial technological progress even in times when writing was lost, and two of the greatest literary works of all time, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are rooted in oral tradition.

    Really, we could equate mathematics with writing, but I doubt mathematics would have existed in any but the crudest form without writing.

  13. See, your greatest and my greatest are completely different. I’m not simply referring to the recording of history or literary works. The ability to share mutually understood meaning over time and distance certainly has my touchy-feely humanity aspect, but also makes possible commerce, trade, travel, verifiable contracts… in fact, any kind of binding exchange between and among disparate cultures and people. And more effective warcraft, unfortunately. And laws that don’t change according to the whims of one person.

    And mathematical symbology is really just a specific subset of written notation for a certain group of meanings. Numbers are alphabet. The three straight strokes which constitute the numeral “4” have no more direct link to its sound, and then to its understood meaning, than do the set of squiggles that we see as “cat…”

    So apart from its usefulness, I suppose my primary argument for “greatness” is that writing is unique to us. It’s a visible representation of our identity – creatures capable of layers of coded meaning, abstract ideas, future thinking, understood connections. Not the first or essential technology for survival, but the one which makes us the most… human.

  14. The Big Lie.

    It’s been overshadowing truth and common sense from time immemorial, causing wars, altering history, reshaping men’s minds and turning them to mush, and it is succeeding today just as it did in Machiavelli’s time.

  15. Ann,

    Point well taken and well made. I’m going to stick with fire, though. Writing was clearly very, very important (and I think i already said that mathematics required writing but maybe I wasn’t clear on that one), and you’re absolutely right, in my book, that the exchange of ideas and meaning brought about by writing was essential for who and what home sapiens is today.

    No argument there.

    On the other hand, I can point to societies that carried on commerce, international trade, and international travel on a broad scale without being literate, and I can certainly point to societies that were quite good at war without being literate.

    Writing is certainly unique to us but, then, so is the use of fire. So is agriculture. So is irrigation.

    But there’s no right answer here. I just take the historic view. Without fire and the ability to transport it and make it, civilization never advances to the point where anyone invents writing. Like agriculture, fire is fundamental, I think.

  16. I agree with JS on Fire, but that was a natural phenomenom. The greatest human invention was the wheel.


  17. Lithography. Responsible for popularizing the book, printed money, vinyl records AND cd’s. And the computer chip. Responsible for humanities leap of progress in the last half-millenia.
    If it’s complex but not lithoed it’s probably not cheap and not widespread.

  18. This is a difficult situation you put us in, Slammy, especially considering the accurate, but broad, definition of technology we’re using. It’s hard to argue against preconditional technologies like fire; without those developments higher developments are unlikely because there isn’t security, ease of life, etc. that allows for things like wheel making and writing.

    I’m going to go with a preconditional technology that i’d put in a tie with fire: horticulture. Recognizing and harnessing the life cycle of plants not only set the stage for a more sedentary way of life, but provided food security. I’m not suggesting agriculture or even domestication because one is simply an expansion of horticulture to larger scales and the other is not necessary…though is a logical outgrowth.

    Plants grow on their own, but there was a “moment” when our scientific mind recognized the processes involved and began experimenting. And horticulture probably preceded agriculture by thousands of years. We set agriculture’s date, roughly, with finding granaries…but by this point the technology was well developed. We’re never going to find early garden plots, similarly, we’re not even close to being done developing the technology we started on so long ago.

    Aside from that, i’ll agree with Peter. Lithography.

  19. One quick note, JS – there have been a very few cultures that developed mathematics without developing a written language. IIRC, the Incas were one of the few.

    When I initially thought about this I nearly put mathematics down, but ultimately decided on the alphabet.

  20. Thanks Brian. I didn’t know about the Incas. And I did overstate in another sense. IIRC, the earliest writing from Sumeria is pretty much accounting stuff. Simple stuff keeping track of number of sheep and like, I think.

  21. Jeff, with “fire” I think it’s less it’s physical context but it’s use. The valuable use of fire, dominating nature, that was the abstract technological advance they are talking about.

    However, I disagree that it was essential to keeping us a viable species. While it’s true that we made a significant leap, in terms of time, in our evolution by mastering fire, we were more able to keep our numbers up or increasing from the use of fire.. but it seems to me that the use of skins as clothing and the fact that a lot of animals eat raw meat kind of implies we’d have continued moving forward despite fire (when we found it).

    It’s also true that we’ve managed to integrate fire into our lives overall, but that also ties into our ability to use our environment to better our lives. We’re unique in the animal kingdom because of the scope of how we can do that. Hence, I don’t call that a technological advance, but an evolutionary one.

    Writing/communication is also very important to our comforts today, but it was also a very long term process that took a long time to be fully realized, or so it seems to me. Persistence of thought is a creation of sorts, so I can see that, more than fire, as being very beneficial.. but, again, the time factor seems lacking in terms of “greatest advancement”.

    For me, I see the ability to completely dominate nature as our greatest techonological advance, more narrowly the engine.. more specifically yet, internal combustion engines.

    We had the first internal combustion engine right around 1900.. 70 years later we were off the surface of our planet and visiting neighboring celestial bodies. We removed our dependance on animals (nature) to get work done, and our productivity moved forward exponentially. Without internal combustion, we’d not be able to support 6.5 billion people on the planet, we’d not have been able to move enough resources to build giant cities in less than a century, we’d not be able to tunnel under ground for miles upon miles to move water to where we need it..

    It just seems to me that the brute force we get from internal combustion has done more to move us further in the shortest amount of time than any other thing we’ve discoverd/invented/adapted.

  22. Stuck working outside in the rain today, i found myself ruminating on Dr. Slammy’s question. I came to the same conclusion as Savanster.

    Not every byproduct of the technology may have been/be “good”, but then again writing blessed us Mein Kampf, so we can’t discredit the engine because it has fooled our atmosphere or been put to use in machines of war.

  23. Savanster, I agree that the internal combustion engine was a very important development, but could not have been invented without the wheel, as all engines use a wheel as a component, or power a wheel for movement(on land). Wheels of some sort are found in almost every mechanical object whether they be gears, counterweights, or whatever.. Fulcrums and levers of all sort are pretty important in mans development also.

    Maybe the fact that we as humans were gifted with opposable thumbs made all of this technology easier to develop.


  24. I would argue that the “wheel” exists in nature, in any tubular object out there. Using trees as spools to roll heavy objects on, then cutting off slices and putting holes in them for axles.. a great technological adaptation of things found in the environment, no doubt.

    And I agree 100% that it was a very significant use of resources that allowed for the forward progress of man. But I doubt we went from no wheel to a totally different world in less than 40 years when it was first used.

    Just about everything we have in any technological sense is based on other technologies. That any given technology can’t exist without it’s foundations is a given, but it seems to me that we’re talking about what might have been the best synergy of combination, what rearranging of pieces of information made the largest impact in the shortest amount of time.

    Of course, it all depends on the underlying definition of “greatest”. We are all seemingly working from different base assumptions of what that means. Hence, we’re all agreeing that others are pointing out very important advances while advancing their own take on it.

    Come up with an unambiguous dictate for “greatest” and we’ll have a tighter realm of possibilities to work with, I think.

  25. Savanster,

    I see your point, but man had to figure out that a wheel reduced the coefficient of friction and allowed for a more effective transfer of work.

    I guess this question is worded that everyone will see it differently, the way one views life through their own individual prism. I’m really glad that everyone has a different view of the same set of facts, as that is what makes life interesting, advances humanity, makes markets work, and allows us o be individuals.


  26. I would say the “scientific method” which flourished in China (until bureaucracy crushed innovation) first and which only took root in Europe after Hellenic philosophy was discredited. Empiricism only carried mankind so far.

  27. RAC… That, implicitly, was the point of my choice of the printing press in northern Europe – and, in keeping with the article’s motief of Andminstrative, Cultural and Technical bases of true technology. Before that time, many empires (Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Mayan etc rose and, in the process, created tremendous advances in writing, math, mechanics, astronomy, agriculture, shipbuliding etc, but each fell and with their fall went the the ‘leading edges” of their advances that had to be discovered and developed anew by the next emergent empire.Why? Because their knowledge was contained in precious few hand-written texts that were held in their temples or few major libraries that lasted only as long as their political-military strength allowed and, then, were destroyed along with their empires. Their cultures dictated that the scholar travel to the library rather than the library contents travel to the scholar and that libraries were symbols of power that held “all knowledge” and thus, inadvertently, also became the targets for destruction by later conquering enemies. Mass production and wide distribution of ideas, with the European printing press, made it impossible for ideas and accomplishments to ever be “lost”, for long, again. There would be library- and book-burnings, but no one power was broad enough to destroy all copies everywhere – some were held and protected by their enemies on the extremes of empires only to be redistributed when “the heat was off”. That wide cheap dissemination also ushered in the reality of incremental improvement over generations from which the modern “scientific method” emerged as well as incremental improvements in all the sciences, techonologies, arts, literature, medicine etc. That is, with the moveable type-technology at hand, that spread thoughout the area of what is now Germany with its “administrative” base providing craftsmen, paper, ink, metal, and machines and the “cultural” motivation of the Reformation, which initially, split the medevial Christian world into two opposed power-halves with one half preaching that everyman should read the bible, on his own to decide his fate, mass production and mass distribution was, unlike all other cultures that preceded, the very first product of those eary presses which, in turn, put in place the precedent for wide and immediate dissemination of the ideas of Cupericus, Galeleo, Kepler, Newton, and down to present in physical science as well as all the other arts and sciences. When we say that we stand on the shoulders of thousands of giants that went before us, we are saying, implictily, that we are standing on the printed word, widely and cheaply distributed, of those thousands of giants that have gone before us. Sometimes things are too obvious and “common” to be noticed and the moveable-type printing press, as used in the western administrations and cultures, is one of those things.

  28. Riffing on RAC, has anyone read 1434? Menzies seems able to document Zheng He’s fleet being in Venice in that year – from both Chinese and Venetian sources – and that he gave the Venetians not only Chinese maps but also their encyclopedia. His point being to prove to the barbarians how advanced the Chinese were and give them maps so that they might find their way to China with tribute.

    All of a sudden, the minds of the Renaissance who had been writing dialogues and stories become avid star gazers and scientists. The Chinese system of right ascension and declination were adopted, along with star charts accurate enough to fix longitude without a clock. Menzies also finds just about every drawing done by Da Vinci in the works of previous Italians…in a line that goes right back to Italians who claimed to have hung out with the “learned Chinese” personally.

    And then there’s the maps which already showed the Americas, forwarded to the Portuguese by an Italian. Taken with Columbus’s contract making him viceroy of all discovered lands…and Columbus obviously wasn’t planning on claiming China for Spain…it makes for an interesting reconstruction of history.

    So maybe the greatest technological achievement of man was the Chinese.

  29. Given some of the people in this thread *cough* Jeff *cough*, I’m absolutely stunned that nobody is arguing for money and/or markets, or some variation thereof.

  30. I am not so sure there could be a #1, but i think the cathode ray tube has had quite an impact.

  31. Hey, what do you know? I’ve read both 1434 and 1421… unfortunately, Menzies has a couple of fascinating ideas based on junk (no pun intended) research. Not that it couldn’t have happened, and ancient man was probably doing things every day that would surprise the hell out of us, but Menzies extrapolates, hypothesizes and just plain makes up the majority of his argument. His primary sources aren’t, well, primary – the maps in particular. He ignores an impressive body of contemporary Chinese accounts of the voyages, including those of the explorer himself… and he keeps doing that “I have secret sources but I can’t tell you about them but boy would you be impressed” routine. It’s one thing to present a well-supported, rational reinterpretation of evidence (and awesome when someone does it, by the way); it’s another thing entirely to cherry-pick your way through history in support of a pet theory or two. I just couldn’t get past his sloppy methodology.

    And I’m adding alcoholic beverages, the electric thingie that makes my convertible top open and close by itself, and birth control to my personal greatest technologies list.

  32. Ann,

    I’ve never gone about trying to debunk either of Menzies’s books, though some ‘evidence’ he presents certainly made me shake my head. For example, his claim that because Asian plants are in the Americas, they must have been brought by his Chinese. Those plants have been in the Americas much longer than 600 years. In fact, indications are that people have been moving back and forth across the Pacific for at least 3500 years.

    I wouldn’t believe everything that Menzies says any more than i would believe everything that “standard” history says…i’m just not a very good believer. But now you’ve got me interested in the debunking process, so i’ll look it up.

  33. Lex, it was really the “secret sources” thing that set off my bullshit alarm; plus, when I started to look into it, the frenzied partisanship both for and against him. Ranting of any kind makes me deeply and uncomfortably suspicious of the thought processes involved.

    That said, Thor Heyerdahl was causing legitimate controversy until the day he died… but I have to love anyone who would keep launching himself across oceans on boats made of various kinds of sticks just to prove it could be done.

  34. There is an emerging consensus of favourites here. Fire, writing and horticulture.
    Control of fire has enabled the development of the motor car, which has produced one of the greatest changes in modern society. Also the Industrial Revolution, and maybe some other revolutions too.
    The telephone is the other major modern development. Perhaps this can be linked to language and now written text on the internet. To my mind these all stem from the ability to communicate in words and so to pass on sophisticated knowledge to the next generation. As someone pointed out this is what makes us human. It is the major difference between humans and other animals.
    ‘In the beginning was the word…’
    Is language technology, or God’s gift, or both?
    And then there was horticulture, and domestication of animals. No longer the Garden of Eden. The ability to muster armies. The nation state. Material wealth. Where would we be without it?
    Which one is the most powerful?
    Which one could even destroy us?
    Which one can save us?
    Which one do we need the most?
    If we are to survive.
    And if we are to survive, what sort of world do we want?
    A natural world?
    A technological world?
    Can the two coexist?
    Are we part of nature too?