- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (January 12, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 068485998X
- ISBN-13: 978-0684859989
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #526,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years Hardcover – January 12, 2000
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What's the greatest human invention of the last two millennia? The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years grew out of a Web-site project called Edge (www.edge.org), wherein the invited intelligentsia recorded their deep thoughts on a variety of topics. In 1998, editor John Brockman asked them to choose the creation that most shaped our world since year 1. For this book, Brockman picked a hundred of the most compelling entries from intellectual celebrities like Stewart Brand, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Murray Gell-Mann.
The printing press received a number of votes, as did the computer and television. Other entries were more eclectic: organized science, the contraceptive pill, the gun, or even hay. Chairs and stairs. Anesthesia. Cities. Each invention is justified by a short essay, some of which read like... well, Web-site prose. Also, a glaring sexism flaws the book--Brockman chose fewer than 10 women's submissions. Nevertheless, Greatest Inventions is a worthy addition to your millennial reading list, and lots of fun besides. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Physicist Freeman Dyson says it's hay; biologist Brian C. Goodwin nominates the printing press; and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier suggests that it's the human ego. Whether or not readers agree with any of the more than 100 contributors to this nifty volume about the greatest invention of the past two millennia, anyone who cracks open the book's covers is in for an intellectual treat. Brockman, perhaps best known as an agent for science writers but also as the author or editor of several books (Digerati, etc.), here presents, with additions and changes, writings on that subject posted on his Web site, Edge (www.edge.org), by a host of inspired minds (though perhaps not, as the jacket crows, "today's leading thinkers"; there's a paucity of artists and religious professionals represented, for example). The contributions, which run from a couple of sentences to several pages, are grouped into "How We Live" and "How We Think." Though there appears to be some chronological ordering within each section, the essays are also arranged to illuminate one another. Some are obvious--three thinkers in a row nominate calculus--while others are startling for their unexpectedness (social commentator Douglas Rushkoff suggests the eraser, which lets us "fix" our mistakes) or their ingenuity (theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey names reading glasses, which "have effectively doubled the working life of anyone who reads or does fine work--and have prevented the world from being ruled by people under forty." Together, the essays challenge and delight, offering flash after flash of insight. Brockman's own suggestion is our "Distributed Networked Intelligence"--"the collective, externalized mind," of which this at once amiable and arresting book is a notable manifestation. (Jan.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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No, somehow "sliced bread" didn't make it into this list. Instead, the first half of the book talks about material inventions such as the printing press, electric motors, telecommunications, the plow, the static electricity machine, the caravel, hay, clocks, the atomic bomb and the Internet. The second half deals with ideas such as marketing, calculus, the scientific method, secularism, the scientific method, the clock, economic man and other ideas that change the way we think.
It's done with humor on occasion, as in the nomination of the thermos bottle which ". . . keeps cold things cold and hot things hot. But, how does it know?" In each case, the relevant invention is briefly described and its material and intellectual impact is explained. One of the greatest American inventions of all times is overlooked, the invention of "the list" -- such as the book itself. Americans love to make lists such as "the greatest inventions of the past 2,000 years" and the "best 100 books of the century" and the "best home run hitter in baseball." You name it, there's an American list for it.
That's part of the fun of the book. Other readers will undoubtedly come up with their own omissions -- this book was compiled by nonimations from about 100 prominent scientists and thinkers. In itself, that suggests another distinctly American invention -- the one-upmanship of the expert by the average person. It's part of the social fabric of the United States; when Jeff Bezos came up with a list of 20 possible business ventures using the Internet, his employer at the time ranked selling books at the bottom of the list. So, Bezos went out and invented Amazon dot com -- a typical American approach to the experts who says something is impossible, impractical or irrelevant.
One of the fun things to consider is that this book had its origins on the Internet, at Edge.org, and a discussion among scientists and thinkers. Yet, here it is in the form of movable type used to place ink on paper -- which, one of the contributors, is a technology that dates at least to the Minorans of 1,700 BC. That's the nature of ideas; you spend all of your time inventing something, then people use it for some entirely different purpose.
Think of poor old Thomas Edison, who invented a practical means of recording sound and then expected it would be used to record the last words of dying people, or to enable clocks to announce the time, or to teach spelling to children. Instead, to Edison's disgust, it was used to record music! Can you imagine? With a band on every corner, musicians in every bar and theatre, someone came up with the idea of using the phonograph to record music.
That's what makes this book fun, enlightening, well worth reading and quite relevant to own. It will do two things for every reader: first, it will show how our world came to be, and second, it will prompt many readers to ask, "Why didn't they include . . . ?" Brockman compiled a wonderful list, and he also left out a wonderful list. That's the beauty of America (which he overlooks), no matter how good your product, someone is always able to come up with a new and unexpected way of using it. END
A quick sampling: Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and corporate strategist; John Maddox, physicist and editor emeritus of Nature magazine; Marvin Minsky, mathematician and founder of MIT's AI Lab; John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American; Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate and director emeritus of Fermi Nation Accelerator Laboratory; and Michael Nesmith, business person.
This impressive list is weighted toward the scientific and medical arts with a goodly sampling of science journalists. Bet you didn't know that Michael Nesmith, past member of the Monkeys singing group, was a high status "intellect", did you? He's a member. There's also some guy named Jeff Bezos in it.....
In the year 2000, there was an over abundant inventory of TV shows, magazine articles and coffee shop conversations devoted to nominating the greatest events and innovations of the last century. For the bold, the debate was expanded to the last two thousand years. Suggestions varied since what constitutes greatness depends on view point. Many took up the challenge which generated this volume. It demonstrates once again that there's nothing like a good argument with famous names to sell books.
The book is divided into comments (and BIOS) on "How We Live . . . ", observations on the nominated innovation's impact on the physical world, the printing press, classical music and "How We Think . . .", innovations that changed our perception of the universe, self government, calculus. While all your favorites are there, the printing press, the contraceptive pill, the atomic bomb, other more esoteric and conceptual are also included. For example "free will" is listed as a profound conceptual innovation. However, the recommender closes his nomination by saying that it is actually a "glorious, absolutely necessary illusion."
Arguments on why the nominations are so important are brief and facile in most cases and without much richness of description. One Princeton professor of physics did nominate hay (as in, "bales of...") and connected it, via the horse, to the rise of urban civilization and the great cities. An interesting concept if quite a historical leap. Remember, these were emails to the editors, not thoughtful discussions.
There is an afterword is by the Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond. It is the only section of the book that appears truly thoughtful. Which, of course, is classic Diamond. Unless you need a tiny coffee table book to impress your friends or your guest bathroom needs its magazines replaced, look elsewhere your millennium insight...
Many of the famous contributors make weak arguments based on blatantly false readings of history and astounding ignorance of science.
It is difficult to accept, for example, that the Thermos Bottle is one of the greatest accomplishments of this era. One sage justifies this choice on the basis of an old joke; to ice the cake, a nobel-prize-winning physicist simply concurs with, essentially, "me too".
The editor demanded no thoughtfulness of his correspondents, and mostly received none.
I purchased this volume hoping to learn the origins of inventions, inventors, and inventiveness. Luckily, hope is eternal.