Britannica list includes everything from the printing press to the invented light bulb
Disposable diapers and Post-It Notes stand shoulder to shoulder with the printing press and telescope in the pantheon of great inventions, in to a new feature from the editors at Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"Encyclopaedia Britannica's Greatest Inventions," from the company's 2003 almanac, lists 325 innovations that have had profound effects on human life for better or worse. In addition to the usual suspects, such as the automobile and the light bulb, it includes many ordinary staples of modern life, such as the rubber band, Scotch tape, and frozen foods.
The reason for including such quotidian items is their far-reaching impact on society, says Charles Trumbull, editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Almanac 2003. "In school we learn about the epoch-making inventions--the telephone, the steam engine and the airplane," says Trumbull. "They're important, of course, but what about all the other items we use every day, like e-mail, coat hangers and mirrors? These things didn't just fall from the sky. Someone had to invent them."
The list, which is arranged alphabetically and does not rank items in order of significance, recognizes many previously unsung inventors whose work has left its mark on everyday life. One is Marion Donovan, who developed the disposable diaper in 1950. Denied glory, perhaps because of her invention's indelicate function, Donovan made the Britannica list because her handiwork has been such a boon to parents.
While the majority of inventions are from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, some are surprisingly older. Vending machines, Britannica reports, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia created the first boomerang 15,000 years ago. Carbonated soft drinks have been around since 1772 and the flush toilet since 1591.
The recent history of invention reveals a noteworthy trend: the decline of the solitary inventor in favor of organized research-and-development efforts today. As a result, many 20th-century inventions are attributed not to individuals but to corporations, including the camcorder (Sony), the metal beverage can (American Can Co.), Viagra (Pfizer) and the laptop computer (Radio Shack).
"Great" is not the same thing as "good" in Britannica's lexicon: the list contains some of the human imagination's more dubious bequests, such as the guillotine, the atom bomb, and the slot machine.
And clearly the editors are bent on mischief by including such objects of popular derision as AstroTurf and Muzak. But because this is Encyclopaedia Britannica, even such playfulness has its educational purpose, for as Trumbull explains, "The measure of an invention is its utility. AstroTurf may not win any awards for aesthetics, but try playing baseball indoors without it."
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