American Heritage marked the twenty fifth anniversary of its magazine, Invention and Technology, with an engaging theme. The editors picked their top twenty five revolutionary inventions in the United States.
Before reviewing the top 25, let’s admit to the obvious. Editors compile lists with full awareness that no list will be definitive. Almost by definition, any educated reader will disagree with someone else’s assessment of the twenty five most revolutionary inventions.
Rather, lists are a contrivance, a device to generate a thoughtful discussion about a topic.
Well, so be it. The editors at Invention and Technology succeeded with me. I would like to offer some alternatives to their list, using an economic sensibility. Economics provides a perspective that differs from a technologists’ perspective, emphasizing new modes of production and improvements in human welfare, namely, the economic impact of invention.
More to the point, this essay will stress what is “missing ” from the list compiled by Invention and Technology. Among the missing are hybrid corn, McDonalds, the cellular phone, the commercial Internet, the assembly line, fast drying paint, the IBM System 360, the birth control pill, and PCR.
In addition, this essay ends with observations about the drawbacks to conceiving of invention too narrowly. I end with several honorable mentions for institutional inventions found uniquely in the US. These were performed at the FDA, within venture capital, and by the traitorous eight (pictured on the right).
I hope you will react to this essay. In other words, you should feel free to disagree, and respond with your own nominees for revolutionary inventions. (more…)