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Summaries Headlines. The new technology is expected But transferring Researchers looked at using This breakthrough allowed them to map Scientists report that they can manipulate the electronic properties of this super-thin Imagery like LiDAR can help researchers see through the tree cover, but subtle landforms can Researchers say that true, Innovations that are integral to the physical and operating infrastructure of the modern world.

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One panelist mentioned aqueducts. In our ranking, electricity was No. Air-conditioning is now having a similar effect in China, India, the Gulf states, and elsewhere.

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Innovations that enabled the Industrial Revolution and its successive waves of expanded material output. These include the steam engine 10 , industrial steelmaking 19 , and the refining and drilling of oil 35 and 39, respectively. A century ago, a comparable list would have had to include the use of coal, which does not appear here, although it is still the most widely used fuel for electric-power plants. This broad group includes the successive agricultural revolutions that now let the Earth support its billions of people: nitrogen fixation 11 , notably the Haber-Bosch process, about a century old, which made modern ammonia-based fertilizers possible and, by making more nitrogen available to plants, lifted a previously unbreakable limit on crop yields.

That same process led to modern explosives and the poison gas used during World War I. This group also includes the advances in medical knowledge and treatment that predate our current genomics revolution: No. A list made 50 years from now, or maybe only five, would undoubtedly emphasize the revolutionary potential of genomics, but as yet it did not make our cut. The life-extending category also includes the public-health measures that have advanced in parallel with improved medical treatment: sanitation systems 12 and refrigeration After penicillin, the highest-ranked item from this category was optical lenses , at No.

I am glad they were mentioned by several panelists, because their inclusion illustrates the underappreciated ripple effects of certain technologies. None of our panelists put it this way, but I have always believed that the adoption of corrective lenses amounted to the largest onetime IQ boost in human history, by expanding the pool of potentially literate people. A similar puzzle, according to Joel Mokyr, involves the delayed appearance of the wheelbarrow.

Innovations that allowed real-time communication beyond the range of a single human voice. Smoke signals, homing pigeons, and the semaphore telegraph all had very little bandwidth and were unreliable. The telegraph made it at least in principle possible for information to move at the speed of light, and thus vastly improved long-distance communications and hence command and control over much larger territories. Many years from now, perhaps people will regard the second half of the 20th century as the brief moment when broadcast TV could seem a dominant technology.

With its obvious-in-retrospect limitations, like one-way information flow rather than interactivity, and dependence on heavy hardware for best display, maybe TV was bound to be a transition to some other system more tailored to individual tastes.

A Dual Role

Or maybe our panelists were embarrassed to vote for it. Innovations in the physical movement of people and goods. Through the past years, the internal combustion engine 7 made possible the social, economic, political, and environmental effects brought on by the age of the automobile With variations in propulsion systems and later the emergence of jet-turbine engines , this same innovation made possible the airplane Why is the airplane ahead of the car? Presumably because automobile travel sped up the land journeys people had long made by other means, whereas the airplane made possible an entirely new form of human movement—and, perhaps as important, an unprecedented way of seeing and understanding the Earth.

Until the first, tentative balloon flights in the late s, human beings had never viewed the layout of their environment from an elevation higher than that of a treetop or a mountain. In the age of 20th-century powered flight, they could see for themselves the natural contours and man-made features they had approximated on maps. Starting in the s, the steam engine 10 enabled growth of the railroad—which, like the bicycle, presumably would have come near the top of a comparable survey a century ago.

But not everything could make the final cut! Also in this category are No. Organizational breakthroughs that provide the software for people working and living together in increasingly efficient and modern ways. Linda Sanford, a senior vice president for enterprise transformation at IBM, picked the Gregorian calendar 34 as her very first item, ahead of her second choice, paper. The importance of alphabetization 25 is easy to overlook until you consider the challenges of indexing, arraying, and retrieving knowledge that arise in non-alphabetic languages, notably Chinese.

Finally, and less prominently than we might have found in or —and less prominently than I initially expected—we have innovations in killing , including gunpowder 14 and nuclear fission The machine gun, which received only one nomination, would have dominated in this category years ago. Nor did anyone bring up drones, or chemical or biological weapons, or terrorism or guerrilla warfare. But on reflection, our panelists probably got it right. Except for the atomic bomb, breakthroughs in weaponry matter less than the culture and temperament of human conflict.

Any collection of 50 breakthroughs must exclude 50, more. What about GPS systems, on which so many forms of movement now depend, and which two panelists recommended? What about the concept of the number zero, as suggested by Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco?

The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

She did not rank her 25 items, but 18 of them showed up among the final 50; Michelle Alexopoulos, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, had 21, and Walter Isaacson had 25 of the 26 he submitted. In addition to coal, how can no one have mentioned paved roads? Or the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA? Landing on the moon? Or the mathematics of calculus, on which space flight and so much else depended?

General considerations

The more questions and discussions our ranking provokes, the more successful the endeavor will have been. We notice that innovation may be less personalized than we assume. Our Influential Americans survey was all about specific people who made a difference, though in some cases—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King—the difference they made was to persuade large groups to work toward a common end.

Computer precursors

In this survey, it is remarkable how few world-changing breakthroughs can be tied directly to a single, heroic, Nobel Prize—worthy innovator. We learn, finally, why technology breeds optimism, which may be the most significant part of this exercise. Popular culture often lionizes the stars of discovery and invention.

A century ago, this meant the Wright brothers, Edison, and the auto pioneers; in the Eisenhower years, Jonas Salk and Wernher von Braun; and in the past generation, first Bill Gates and then Steve Jobs. For each writer or thinker or government leader who has enthusiastically welcomed whatever changes technology might bring, there has been a counterpart warning of its dangers.

For our era, the major problems that technology has helped cause, and that faster innovation may or may not correct, are environmental, demographic, and socioeconomic. I found it notable that the technologists I spoke with volunteered lists of innovation-enhanced perils.

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Please stop to think about this: Outside of the sciences and technology, and apart from the legacies created in each family, humanity is struggling today for a sense of cumulative achievement. Music, architecture, literature, the fine arts—these and other manifestations of world culture continually change, without necessarily improving. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, versus whoever is the best-selling author in Moscow right now? The original, elegant Penn Station, versus its warehouse-like replacement? A central question for technologists is whether innovation in the material and productive realms can be sustained—or whether we might, on the contrary, already be entering another of the long, stagnant eras that have marked much of human history, including the ones after times of rapid advance.

The argument that a slowdown might happen, and that it would be harmful if it did, takes three main forms. The first is historical. Some societies have closed themselves off and stopped inventing altogether: notably China after its preeminence in the Ming era, and much of the Arab Islamic world starting just before the European Renaissance. By failing to move forward, they inevitably moved backward relative to their rivals and to the environmental and economic threats they faced.

If the social and intellectual climate for innovation sours, what has happened before can happen again. The second draws from the visible slowdown in the pace of solutions that technology offers to fundamental problems. Between and , life expectancy nearly doubled in the United States, thanks to the combined effects of antibiotics, immunization, and public-health measures. Since then, it has only crept up.

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Between and , improvements in cars, roads, airplanes, and even railroads made travel faster, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable. Since then, travel in the developed world has improved slowly at best.

Crop yields per acre doubled within a generation of the green revolution but have not doubled again. The third and broadest form of the argument is that a slowdown in, say, crop yields or travel time is part of a general pattern of what economists call diminishing marginal returns. The easy improvements are, quite naturally, the first to be made; whatever comes later is slower and harder. The most systematic recent presentation of this view has come from the economist Robert J. Everyone I spoke with was familiar with such cautionary analyses; none dismissed them out of hand.

But when pressed, every one of them said they expected the pace of useful innovation to speed up, not slow down. Another important aspect of computer engineering is software development. Computer software includes:. Most computer engineering jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in computer engineering. Many employers also require state certification as a professional engineer PE. A master's degree is often required for promotion to management, and ongoing education and training are needed to keep up with advances in technology.

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