Most technological innovation happens slowly, building over time. Most of the time, improvements happen gradually. Incremental change usually works with the status quo — not against it — and we tend to be none-the-wiser when it happens. Our lives improve almost invisibly like when we switched from CRT monitors to flat-screens.
Then you have disruptive technologies. They topple markets, change the standard of living, alter how wars are fought, and even displace governments. Where normal innovation is akin to easy listening soft rock, disruptive technology is more like death metal played through the world’s largest megaphone. Followed by smashing the megaphone with a guitar. And then lighting it on fire.
The phrase itself was recently coined in the early aughts but it isn’t a new phenomenon. It happens with far more regularity these days but you can trace disruptive innovations all the way back to the dawn of humankind. Spotify is a disruptive innovation. But so, too, were sailing ships that led to all kinds of transportation and shipping revolutions. So without any more preamble, here are the 15 most disruptive technologies of all time.
The reason Rome was such an amazing empire had less to do with their badass centurions and more to do with their advanced road system. With it, they could deploy their legions to anywhere in the empire with quick efficiency. But it wasn’t just the military that benefited. These roads also helped make trade and the carriage of communiqués far more effective. That allowed ideas to cross bigger distances more quickly than ever before. Defense, trade, and communication led to an explosion in art, culture, and the ability to create new technologies.
14. Home Appliances
There’s so much we take for granted at home these days. Refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, washer/dryers, and microwaves (not to mention Roombas) save us so much time. If our ancestors wanted to keep food around the best they could do was smoke or jar it. All clothing had to be hand washed instead of sticking it in the washing machine while you go grab something to eat. All these advancements had freed us from many chores around the house and had a significant impact in opening the workforce to women. No longer did we spend most of our day maintaining the places we live. That gave us more time to spend with another appliance: the broadcast television.
Speaking of which, the ability to send or broadcast messages changed the way we communicated around the world. Instead of waiting days, weeks, or months for information to arrive in the form of a letter, we could now do it in the blink of an eye. This had major ramifications for warfare, allowing generals to redeploy armies based on intelligence that could be radioed in. Global news could now be reported within hours instead of days or weeks. It also changed how families communicated. Moving from Europe to the colonies no longer meant you were basically cut off from each other.
12. The Printing Press
The ability to broadcast information still has nothing on the original printing press. Up until Gutenberg brought the printing press to Europe, all written copies had to be created by hand. And books were not easy to come by. But the printing press democratized information allowing new generations to build on the intellectual achievements of their ancestors. For the first time in history, most people didn’t need to rely on the broken-telephone like oral traditions of the past to pass on information.
11. Machine Guns
Gunpowder and cannons were already a huge disruption when it came to warfare. Melee weapons started to become a thing of the past but it was the machine gun that changed everything. When World War I happened the world was not ready for the sheer amount of carnage and death that the machine gun would bring. Think of it this way, for almost the entire four year period of the war, it was effectively a stalemate filled with slaughter. Both sides knew they could use guns to mow down their enemies but they didn’t know how to advance forward. Verdun was nicknamed the “meat grinder” due to loss of life on both the French and German side of the front. Doesn’t exactly sound like the noble idea of fighting for your country.
Where machine guns revolutionized death, vaccines revolutionized life. Before immunization thousands of infants, children, and adults died of diseases. The whooping cough, polio, and measles were far more common than they are now. In fact, these days doctors rarely see any of these diseases at all. Not only do vaccines protect those who have received, it but herd immunity protects those who are more susceptible or unvaccinated from a viral breakout. Before vaccination, you would be lucky to die of old age and were more likely to die of a disease. Thanks to them, you have way better odds of living a long, long life.
9. The Wheel
The wheel was one of the biggest technological disruptions in human history. Without it, everything else that followed could not have happened. It helped give rise to the bronze age and ushered in new forms of transportation by allowing the invention of the wagon. The wheel itself wasn’t as revolutionary as the idea behind it was. It allowed one type of motion (linear motion) to be converted into another (circular motion) or vice versa. Loads of technologies like pulleys, gyroscope, and turbines relied on the wheel as a base technology. Unlike most other technology, the concept of the wheel has remained virtually the same. Only the materials to make them have changed.
For all of human history, man had wanted to learn to fly. When we finally achieved it the world became a far more connected place. Weeks or months of travel have been reduced to mere hours. Packages can be delivered all over the world in just a day. Like many technologies on this list it also changed how wars are fought and won. The original idea was to use aircraft for reconnaissance in World War I. Ariel warfare was then adopted for strategic bombing and became one of the game changers in World War II. As the technology progressed it also opened up the final frontier of space to humanity.
7. The Steam Engine
Progress up until the industrial revolution had been based on one thing: manpower. To build anything you needed to hire laborers but that all changed when the steam engine came around. All of a sudden humanity had access to what seemed like an unlimited source of energy. The human resources bottleneck was removed. The steam engine reduced the costs of sea and land transportation and opened up whole new industries. It also led to the creation of the modern entrepreneur since access to human resources was replaced by access to capital as the major barrier in creating a new business.
Where the steam engine gave us access to power, the knowledge of how to harness electricity gave us the ability to distribute it far and wide. The inventions of things like alternating current and transformers had given us the ability to send power over great distances into our homes and businesses. Without this ability, we couldn’t power those home appliances up on our list, access the internet, or even heat some of our homes. The shift in generation went from expensive mechanization to instant, easy power that was accessible to the masses. Not a bad turnout after Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a lightning storm.
The wheel led to the foundation of modern civilization but farming led to civilization itself. Before agriculture, we were organized into nomadic hunter/gatherer tribes. Moving from place to place limited our ability to develop any technology or build any permanent homes. Tilling land allowed us to settle in one area but the creation of granaries also allowed us to store food. This helped prevent famine and increase life spans while also opening the door to cultural development and the creation of trading relationships. It is much easier to make stuff when you know you won’t be hungry tomorrow.
You now carry around more processing power in your pocket than NASA used on the Apollo missions to get to the moon. Sure, you use most of that processing power to watch videos of cats but it could calculate the trajectory of a rendezvous with our lunar neighbor. If you were so inclined. The microprocessor CPU made it possible to fit an entire room of computers into your laptop and helped kick-off the digital revolution. The size and cost of computers rapidly dwindled and turned them from specialty hobby projects to the mainstream fixtures of any household that they are today.
3. Written Language
The printing press was the first time information became democratized and available to the people but ancient written languages first established a way of storing and passing on information. To get a sense of how powerful this is, think of it this way: before we had language we had to physically show people anything we figured out. The only way to store it was in our own unreliable memories. But you couldn’t pass on any theoretical knowledge like how to count or even communicate any metaphorical ideas like the color blue. Stone tablets allowed us to record, communicate, and build upon what was in our minds to other people.
2. The Internet
Where written language marks the beginning of sharing information, the internet is the greatest tool in distributing it. As of 2010 Google’s Eric Schmidt declared we create more data every two days than we had in the history of the human race up until 2003. But the big advancements now are coming from computers talking to other computers. Machine learning is starting to pave the way to artificial intelligence which will change humanity so profoundly that we can’t even to begin to guess. Once we hit that singularity our entire culture will forever be changed. But that is a technological disruption that we haven’t crossed yet.
The ultimate technological disruption came when man learned to harness fire. Light, warmth, and security all came from this early discovery. The big revolution was actually the ability to cook food which made it easier and more efficient for our digestive system to absorb calories. In turn, that allowed us to increase our brain size and mental capacity over countless generations. Cooking made us smarter. Without the ability to cook food all of our great inventions, literary works, and even civilization itself would not be possible. Everything on this list owes a debt to us being able to throw some meat on the barbie.
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