When it comes time for us to list the greatest invention of all times, we’ve got a tough job. People have been inventing stuff since Hector was a pup. Which immediately raises the question: who was Hector, in the first place? If he is or was a dog, he must be getting pretty old by now. Have you ever met a dog named Hector? Nor have I. In fact, I don’t recall ever meeting a human named Hector.
Some experts say the wheel is humankind’s most important invention. Without the wheel the Roman chariot would never have come along, followed by MGM movies about chariot races starring Charlton Heston, which would have been a big loss for all of us.
Let’s say that the wheel was invented in 7200 B.C. Well, if humans are so blamed smart and creative, how come it took us until about 1990 A.D. to put wheels on suitcases? I recently read that adding wheels to luggage cost the jobs of millions of hotel porters worldwide. Today we don’t need a bellman, or bellwoman, to lug our luggage up to our room, open the door, turn on the lights, check the air conditioning, and then stand there waiting for us to hand over a tip. Instead we get to figure out how to open the door ourselves, using a piece of plastic instead of a key, and hoping we’ve got the correct end of the plastic inserted in the tiny slot that serves as a keyhole, or at least used to back when Cal Coolidge was president.
Human speech was an important invention, or development. Before words came along, we communicated in grunts. “Ugga ugga boo ugga” meant “Oona, there’s a dinosaur at the cave entrance. Could you see what he wants?” Today many husbands still talk in grunts, especially in January during NFL playoffs. “Harry, dear, have you noticed that the sofa is on fire?” “Ronk ulla morf!” is her husband’s reply, at least when the quarterback gets sacked for the seventh time.
After understandable speech came along, printing was sure to follow. Around 4000 B.C. a couple of Sumerians were horsing around with wet clay tablets, and discovered that if they took a blunt reed and pressed it into the clay it would form a picture. One man drew two round circles and put a smiling face above them. He said, “I have just drawn Ninbanda!” That was the name of the local bosomy queen. His buddy agreed. They made some more clay tablets, and proceeded to invent the earliest form of writing, to be known as cuneiform. “Cuneiform” means wedge-shaped, because the blunt reeds made wedgy impressions. (Are you getting all this? If not, let me know and I will instead write sixteen consecutive columns about the federal budget, which should teach us all a lesson.)
Several thousand years later someone invented moveable type and the printing press. This allowed mass publishing of Martin Luther’s objections to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. This led to the Protestant Reformation, which in turn gave us Southern Baptists, the Mormon Church and Mitt Romney. The moral: be careful what you invent, buster.
The spear, the crossbow, gunpowder, the drone and the atomic bomb have all been vital to the development of civilization. Before they came along, men (and some women) just sat and grumbled about their enemies. “I hate that guy. I wish I could smack him one.” Weapons of war allowed people to express their hostility. Warfare cost money, so we invented taxes. To authorize taxes, we needed politicians, parliament and congresses. Do you see the logic in all this? It’s why Newt Gingrich’s family coat of arms features a spear, a cudgel and a Thompson submachine gun.
In the 6th century A.D. the Chinese invented toilet paper. The end result (no pun intended) is those disgusting Charmin TV ads showing bears hoping they’re “clean” enough to pass inspection.
The telephone was a major invention. It encouraged people to talk to one another, even when they had little of consequence to say. The cellphone further advanced mindless chatting, and eliminated the likelihood that people might spend time thinking rather than talking. Today, with our handheld computers, iPads, Androids, etc., we seldom talk. Instead we email, text, Twitter, Gabble and Natter, often while operating a motor vehicle or giving birth to triplets.
An invention humankind is dying for (literally) is a device that will eliminate or severely reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s smokestacks. But before that happens, we’ll need another major advance: a majority of people who will choose good sense rather than money, power and comfort.
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.