What are the 50 greatest inventions since the wheel? If you ballpark the wheel’s innovation at 6,000 B.C., then what are the most significant discoveries that follow? A reasonable list should be agriculture-heavy, and in its “50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel” The Atlantic has eight selections that are directly related to agriculture.
The list, aimed at ranking innovations that have “done the most to shape the nature of modern life,” places some of the usual suspects in the Top 10: printing press, electricity, internal combustion engine, paper, Internet, and steam engine. Fair enough.
But at No. 11, the agriculture choices begin to roll out:
11. Nitrogen fixation, 1918: Fritz Haber wins a Nobel Prize for the ammonia-synthesis process “used to create a new class of fertilizers central to the green revolution.”
13. Refrigeration, 1850s: Food preservation, food safety and food transport took a monumental leap.
22. Green Revolution, mid-20th century: Fertilizer + plant breeding = profound changes in global food production. “Norman Borlaug, the agricultural economist who devised this approach, has been credited with saving more than 1 billion people from starvation.”
30. Moldboard plow, 18th century: Carved a new path for American agriculture — “the first plow that not only dug soil up but turned it over, allowing for the cultivation of harder ground.”
32. Cotton gin, 1793: Brought on the advent of King Cotton and transformed the South. Eli Whitney’s invention was a benchmark leap for agriculture and global economics.
33. Pasteurization, 1863: Germ theory brought to fruition — “… using heat to sterilize wine, beer, and milk is widely considered to be one of history’s most effective public-health interventions.”
38. Scientific plant breeding, 1920s: Gregor Mendel’s 1866 paper gives life to early 20th century discoveries that expose the vital mechanisms of plant breeding.
50. Combine harvester, 1930s: Mechanization brings profound changes to global food production.
Lists are tailor-made for controversy and no two people will agree on the 50 choices — or even the eight agriculture choices. Such lists are guaranteed to change in short time, but at least they force questions: Has peak innovation arrived?
It has not. The next benchmark discovery is coming; it’s only a waiting game.
For more, see What 4 agriculture objects made America?
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