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We have been inventing things for millions of years. But which is the best of them? Samantha Weinberg draws up criteria for the third in our series of Big Questions, and makes her choice ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

Nearly two thousand years ago, three elderly Chinese men sat in the gardens of Changle Palace, arguing about what was the greatest invention of all time.

“Tools made of rock,” said one, banging his fist on the delicate carved table.

“Paper,” said another, slamming the side of his hand.

“No, scissors!” cried the third, making chopping movements in the air. And so a game was invented.

This little tale is an invention too. We do not know exactly when Rock, Paper, Scissors was dreamed up, nor how, since in the time of Han there were fewer ways of recording the events of the day: no photographs (invented by Louis Daguerre in 1836), no sound recordings (the phonautograph was first used in 1857) and no reliable method of storing and passing on information (more of that later).

But the fact that the game existed then, and did not before, means that it is an invention. It may not be a contender for the greatest of all time, but rock, paper and scissors most certainly are. Inventions, for the purposes of this debate, are tangible—technologies and processes, rather than more nebulous things such as ideas, principles and imaginings. Children might feel that Father Christmas (first recorded in 1616) is the greatest invention of all time, but we are ruling him out.

Tools fashioned of rock, or stone, were probably the earliest inventions worthy of the name. First used in the Paleolithic Age, around 2.6m years ago, they mark an essential progression, from proto-human to human. With simple tools, fashioned by pummelling one piece of rock against another to produce a sharp edge, early man began to shape the world according to his needs, to build rudimentary shelters, to hunt and flay animals for food and clothing. Just about everything else followed from there. There is virtually nothing about the way we live today that would have been possible without those first stone tools.

But does longevity alone qualify stone tools for the crown? I’m not convinced; theirs was a long, slow grind to efficacy, and in most forms they’ve long been eclipsed. The blade, however—of which scissors are just a manifestation, albeit an ingenious one—has been in constant use since it was first invented at the start of the Ages of Metal, some 400,000 years ago. Think of knives, swords, spears, axes, the guillotine…uh-oh. Although we depend on the blade for much of what we now take for granted, from cutting up our food to making the electronics which crowd our daily life, there’s a little too much of the chop and slash about blades to make them my greatest of all time. 

So how about the third of our Chinese gents’ suggestions: paper? Invented by an imperial courtier named Ts’ai Lun in 105AD, it was deemed so precious and important that successive Chinese dynasties kept it secret for six centuries. Not something that the Dragons of today’s Den, with their greedy eyes and piles of cash, would be inclined to do.

It is thanks to paper that we know about its invention. The ability to keep a written record is the foundation of mass learning. While the alphabet was invented around 2,000BC (at the same time as another useful device, the umbrella), it wasn’t easy to pass around heavy stone tablets, or to manufacture and preserve papyrus scrolls in great numbers. The invention of paper led inexorably to books, the printing press, newspapers and magazines, to sacred texts, art, photography and music scores, handed down through generations. And yet, here we are at the dawn of what may, finally, become a paperless society. Paper may cover stone, but it is cut by scissors and burned by fire—another of the foundations of our society.

There are more. Tracing a line through time, you keep bumping into inventions that precipitate many others. Invention nearly always fulfils a need, but it is also an agent of change and how you measure that change depends on who you are and when you lived. Let’s move our game to 1820s London; three learned gentlemen are gathered at the new headquarters of the Royal Society, in Burlington House, scratching their wigs over what was the greatest invention of the previous century.

“ ’Tis surely the internal combustion engine [1794],” said one, “for ’tis changing the nature of transport. Men and goods can move great distances in the wink of an eye.”

“Nay! Consider vaccination [1796],” his friend responded. “Jenner’s work is saving lives.” 

“Aye, and what of the electrical motor?” said the third. “The implications of what young Faraday is doing today will light up the lives of our grandchildren.”

Three more worthy contenders. But change the cast again, and the suggestions will be different. Put women on the chairs, and we might vote for the contraceptive pill (Carl Djerassi, 1960) which, by handing us the responsibility for our own fertility, freed us to run our own lives. Blind people might point to Braille (1824), astronomers to the telescope (1609), miners to the safety lamp (1815). Around my kitchen table, the suggestions were diverse and revealing: the Xbox 360 (son, aged 11), the bridle (daughter, 9), and the iPad (father, 80). Or not so diverse in the case of the menfolk.

In December 1999, the writer and thinker Umberto Eco was asked to name his greatest inventions of the millennium. He plumped for four things: the stern-mounted rudder, without which, he said, “Columbus could not have sailed to America and the history of the millennium would have been rather different”, and, more important than the rudder even, beans, peas and lentils. Pulses, in my book, although important both for nutrition and genetics, cross the line from invention to discovery, so they’re out.

There is hardly any concrete thing in our world today that didn’t start off as an invention, from the fish hook (c. 35,000BC) to a particular favourite of mine, the ice-rink cleaning machine (1948). The difficulty comes in picking the greatest. How do you measure the wheel against the space shuttle? I am taking the greatest to mean the invention that has had the greatest impact on the most people in a relatively immediate sense; power equals energy over time. And for that, we don’t have to look very far back at all.

If I had been writing this article 22 years ago, it would have taken much longer. I would have had to traipse around libraries, wade through encyclopedias and newspaper cuttings, and bother a host of people with a stack of questions. Instead, I’ve been sitting at home, in front of a flickering fire (c. 1.4m BC), drinking tea (first recorded in the 10th century BC; teabags patented 1903), tapping at my laptop (1983), and distilling what I’ve found by trawling the world wide web.

In 1989, a youngish British physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, was trying to work out a way to share information with colleagues at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN (1954). They were already using the internet (1972), then a sort of scaled-up messaging facility that enabled files to be sent from one computer network to another. But Berners-Lee devised a way to store the pages in a central information bank, much like the great library of Alexandria (3rd century BC), only infinitely bigger.

Knowledge and information are in themselves of incalculable value, and sometimes danger, but the web is much, much more. Already this morning, I have performed all the vital functions of the home-worker: checked the weather forecast, bought a train ticket, played a game of Scrabble and sent a birthday message to a friend across the world. Thanks to the web, we can sit at home and be connected; we can work and be parents at the same time. I can share videos of my children with friends and family around the world, whether they like it or not, and send an article to a young scientist living in the Comoro Islands, halfway from Tanzania to Madagascar.

The web has transformed at least a dozen fields: education, news, book publishing, music, finance, networking, dating, charity donations, shopping, language-learning, cartography, medicine, hypochondria and the way we talk to friends. But above all it has fanned the movement for democratic change in countries whose inhabitants used to be hobbled by the fear that they were alone. The web enabled them to reach out, find support at home and abroad, and muster the courage to overthrow their tyrants. It helped them bring in the promise, at least, of a brighter dawn. Ask a young Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan to name the greatest invention, and they might well choose the world wide web.

Paper covers rock, rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, but the web trumps them all.

Samantha Weinberg is commissioning editor on Eureka, the monthly science magazine from the Times, and the author of "Pointing from the Grave".

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Picture: Russ Street