Of microscopes and men..

Over at The Guardian there’s a CiF post which is inviting suggestions as to what is the greatest human innovation? It’s been sparked by Spiked-online’s rolling discussion of the same – as detailed in this article. Personally I’m taken by the suggestion, from biologist Lewis Wolpert, of the microscope, but since Robert Hooke was one of Those [Royal Society] Guys that won’t be much of a surprise. My own suggestion is the telescope – as utilised by, but not invented by, Galileo Galilei.. amongst others.. Which shouldn’t be a surprise either. Although I know someone has a compelling argument for electricity.

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  • the Emerald Pimpernel

    Simple and one of the oldest innovations of man kind Speach, oral or written, from this simple innovation all other things have come

  • Aaron McDaid

    We wouldn’t have any thermometers, microscopes or telescopes if it wasn’t for humble glass.

  • SuperSoupy

    I’d go for simple as well. Paper?

  • merrie

    The bicycle is the greatest.

  • Pete Baker

    All perfectly good suggestions.. although I’m not entirely convinced.

    Language, or rather, communication intra-species I’d argue could be seen more as an inherent feature rather than a human innovation.

    As for the others.. a bit too simple perhaps.

    The innovation should probably be something without which much more would not have happened, or is itself irreplacable in considering the modern world.

    In the case of the telescope – No Galileo looking at the Moon and at Jupiter’s satellites. No views beyond the Earth nor, potentially, an understanding of the Earth’s place in the Cosmos.

  • White Paulhouse

    What about the “Action Pumpo” device as advertised on The Fast Show…..

    I’ll get me coat………

  • If it was not for this….what would you all be do

    Come on…..what would you be doing now….if it was not for the not so humble transistor…..

    Demonstrated in 1947 by Bardeen, Brattain and Schockley, a Nobel prize a few years later and now made by the billion on silicon wafers…..and it is now all pervasive and each and every one relying on the precise atomic position of a few atoms and the ballistic control of a few thousand electrons …..

  • Pete Baker

    Well, IIWNFT, the transistor has a valid claim.. but then, as Bodanis pointed out [see link in original point], so does the electro-magnet – it’s where his book begins.

    But do they have the wider impact on the scale of the telescope (and the observations made with it)?

  • SuperSoupy


    I can’t see how paper is easily dismissed. It meant easy dissemination of all knowledge. The reason all these individual inventions/discoveries managed to be retained instead of forgotten. The reason they could be built on to create further innovation.

    Without paper each discovery would have been lost to others.

    Each growing into another would never have happened without paper. Paper allowed the rest to happen.

  • Pete Baker


    I’m not dismissing paper.. but I think it is too simple an option for the greatest innovation.

    Paper, after all, replaced parchment which served the same basic function.

    And if your argument is based on the easy, and accurate, dissemination of information then the printing press would seem a better candidate.

    But, as I suggested, I find the communication argument too simple in general and absent of the ramifications of actively enabling further, more reaching, discoveries.

  • Roisin


  • If it was not for this….what would you all be do

    interestingly reductionist about electro-magnet – but without getting too techy – there is a hell of a lot to the transistor… or more exactly a complemintary oxide semiconductor field effect transitor – the complete physics thereof requires high level knowledge of electro-magnetic theory (Faraday, Maxwell etc) statistical mechanics (Boltzmann, Fermi, Dirac etc) and qauntum theory (Bohr, Heisenberg etc)….so not only underpinning society today and for at least next 25 years but at the apex of our scientific understanding.

    The simple things (pens etc) would have come along but the transistor requires true innovation – moving things on significantly

  • even bigger showoff

    “or more exactly a complemintary oxide semiconductor field effect transitor”

    metal oxide semiconductor, if you really must show off. besides bipolar were around before c/mos.

  • Pete Baker


    What can I say, I’m a sucker for a solution to a specific problem, direct observation, which led on, through that observation, to ideological shifts in understanding.. and which continues to do so.

    The transistor represents the opposite to me, shifts in understanding leading to developments in technology.. the electro-magnet, experimentation which led to further understanding/experimentation/understanding.

    But the telescope..

  • susan

    The last Finn Brothers cd was pretty great.

    Also, glass. As Aaron McDaid points out, without glass, no thermometers, microscopes, telescopes, and also no Bose-glass superconductors.

  • Pete Baker

    Glass was, however, first experienced as a natural material – obsidian.

    So it’s potentially questionable that it fits as an innovation per se.

    A magnifying lens.. perhaps.

  • If it was not for this….what would you all be do

    yeah-yeah yeah – slipped up in typing so metal raced by in mind but not on keys – arse! Too late a night for me

    But the CMOS is dominant….

  • If it was not for this….what would you all be do

    Pete – innovation to me is what you don’t agree with – e.g. the dyson vac. that is innovation – seeing a problem/issue and coming up with a new solution or paradigm shift… be assurred that is what CMOS has beeing doing relentlisly for 40 yrs and will need to come up new developments if you are all to get the computing you don’t know you need yet but will want in 10, 15, 20 + years…so to my view it is organically developing…for the devices of 2015/17 they don’t even have solutions devised yet….and single electron transistors and quantum computing is looming on horizon

    [nerds goto http://www.itrs.net – follow links to itrs reports etc…emerging research devices… pages and pages of techy guff]

  • Roisin

    The Alphabet, including the earliest versions like Hieroglyphics. Developing a form of written communication was fundamental. Surprised no-one has mentioned the wheel yet.

  • kensei

    “Come on…..what would you be doing now….if it was not for the not so humble transistor…..”

    Zing. I’m biased, like, but the transistor and it’s subsequent use in modern computers totally changed the modern world in almost every field imaginable.

    The computer has modeled wars and explosions. It has modeled the Human Genome. The Weather. Distant stars. The movement of the air over an athlete, or a car. Opened new avenues of creativity (not always for the better…). It has fundamentally changed how people, work, live and communicate. It is totally pervasive, and a decent, modern multicore PC, nevermind, say, the Playstation 3 (see what it did to the Folding@home stats) would have been considered a supercomputer in the mid 80’s. It is you of the most astounding pieces of engineering you’ll ever clap eyes on, and backed by mathematics discovered before it was even born.

    And the thing is, it’s still doing it.

  • Roisin

    Far too many computer geeks posting here methinks. Camera, telephone, radio, gramophone and TV were all far better inventions. So were the car and the airplane.

  • Harry Flashman


  • the Emerald Pimpernel


    Intra species comunication has been proved between other animals but put simply the ability to clearly disseminate information from one being to another is what all the rest has stemmmed from

    with out talking or writing no agriculture, no domesticated animals, no paper, no wheels, nomagnets, no transistors, no new innovations, no culture, no art … nothing

  • Roisin

    Christ, if we’re gonna have evolutionary things like speech we might as well throw in grunting. If we hadn’t learnt to grunt first, would we have ever formed the first grunts into words?

    And walking upright should be in there too. Would we have bothered to look at the stars at night and wonder about them if we’d spent all our time scurrying around on all fours looking at the ground for nuts and things.

    I despair sometimes, I really do. Some of you would be as well going back to grunting and walking on all fours, assuming you ever evolved from it in the first place.

    The loom, another great invention. Thank God for clothes, for it’s bad enough conjuring up mental images of some of the contributors here sitting typing at their keyboards fully dressed …

  • kensei

    “Camera, telephone, radio, gramophone and TV were all far better inventions. So were the car and the airplane.”

    The transistor and computers are in TV’s, cameras, Music Players, cars and aeroplanes these days. It wins by taking over everything else.

  • joeCanuck

    It’s the wheel of course.

  • susan

    Róisín, I reject some (but not all) of the implications of the term “computer geek.” I prefer the more inclusive “goddess of broadband.”

    Pete, it only took you seconds or minutes to think of the Obsidian Defense! Well-played. I suppose there’s serious grounds for the wheel, the lever, the pointed tip. Glass is still better looking, though.