Top 50 innovations that changed modern life

Printer and typesetter
Illustration depicting a 19th century printer and typesetter in a workshop, circa 1850. The printer stands at the press while the typesetter sits selecting types for composition.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Atlantic brought together 12 scientists, historians, entrepreneurs and engineers to nominate the 50 greatest innovations since the wheel for a recent cover story.

Edison lightbulbs
Christie's specialist in Mechanical Music, Laurence Fisher, places one of a collection of Edison electric lamps back in the box. The lot, a box containing 23 light bulbs, was used in the 1890 court case where Thomas Edison defended his patent for the invention.
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Spanning 6,000 years, the panel was able to agree on a number of innovations — the printing press, electricity and penicillin topped the list — but also came up with some unique additions.

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote the introduction to the list:

For instance, anesthesia (46), which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer (16 on our final list). In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn't exist? (Our panelist John Doerr, a well-known technology investor, said he worked his way through his own top 25 list using a similar set of "pairwise comparisons," asking which technology he would miss more.) I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction; I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn't pay for novocaine.

Fallows joins The Daily Circuit to discuss the list and what sparks innovation.

LEARN MORE: View the full list

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