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85 Big Ideas that Changed the World 524

Posted by michael
from the mass-spectrometer dept.
ccnull writes "Forbes just put out its well thought-out list of 85 breakthroughs since 1917 (sneakers) that have revolutionized the way we live. This is interesting on a number of levels -- crazy trivia (the microprocessor and the answering machine invented in the same year!?), a reminder of the past (the modem: 1962), and a frightening realization that not much of interest has come out of the last 10 years (a whopping 4 of the 85 ideas). Easily digestible and worth discussing."
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85 Big Ideas that Changed the World

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  • Recent Ideas (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SpamJunkie (557825) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:19PM (#4930902)
    The reason that our more recent ideas aren't on the list is because we don't know which are the good ones yet. Hindsight is needed to appreciate what we've been doing.
    • Re:Recent Ideas (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nedwidek (98930) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:24PM (#4930950)
      The best example (from the list) of this is 1947 Cell Phone. How long did it take for that to revolutionize the world?
      • by Guitarzan (57028)
        These people had been to movie theaters before...didn't they know how terrible of an idea a cell phone is?
        • Etiquette (Score:3, Interesting)

          by dark-nl (568618)
          I live in Helsinki, close to the Nokia headquarters. When I go to a movie theater, I can reasonably assume that every member of the audience has a cell phone. But I've never heard one ring during a movie.

          It's a matter of education and etiquette. People learned to scoop their doggie poo; they will learn how to use cell phones.

    • Exactly (Score:3, Interesting)

      by JoeBuck (7947)

      Don't forget that the folks at Ma Bell saw little use for the transistor, so they licensed it cheap to Sony and other Japanese companies, who proceeded to get rich selling transistor radios. Anyone making a list in, say, 1955, might well have left the 1947 invention of the transistor off.

      Also, some of Forbes' choices are strange: tetraethyl lead? This did not "change the way we live".

      • tetraethyl lead (Score:2, Informative)

        by misfit13b (572861)
        tetraethyl lead? This did not "change the way we live".

        Sure it did! It "lead" the way for all of those "Unleaded Fuel Only" stickers that almost all of us have on our dashboards. I dunno about you, but I sure sleep better at night knowing that's there.

        ;^)

      • Tetraethyl lead (Score:5, Interesting)

        by smagoun (546733) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:44PM (#4931121) Homepage
        Believe it or not, tetraethyl lead did change the way you live - it's just that the change probably happened before you were born, so you don't notice it. Tetraethyl lead was used as a additive to gasoline; it prevented internal combustion engines from "knocking." Knock is otherwise known as detonation or "abnormal combustion." It is one of the main limiting factors when trying to tune gasoline engines for maximum performance, efficiency, etc. Knock also severly degrades reliability and longevity of these engines.

        The discovery that tetraethyl lead could prevent knock was huge leap forward; it was a huge boost to the automotive industry, since it allowed manufacturers to build safer/more reliable/more powerful/etc engines.

        These days all we hear about are the health risks of tetraethyl lead (it's toxic as hell), but back in the early 1900's it was seen as a tremendous leap forward. Without it, cars, airplanes, etc would be very different today.

        • Re:Tetraethyl lead (Score:3, Informative)

          by dhogaza (64507)
          A major motivation was to improve gas mileage. By allowing for higher compression, more efficient engines gas mileage was improved by something like 30%.

          Today gas is so cheap and our standard of living so high that most people aren't terribly concerned about the amount of money they spend on gasoline.

          This wasn't true in the early days of the automobile and the significant boost in mileage and the corresponding lowering of the cost of operating a car was considered important.
          .
        • Re:Tetraethyl lead (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Reductionist (523541)
          Regarding the "knock" argument, ethyl alcohol was widely known in the 20s to be a safe alternative to tetraethyl alcohol, though it cost a bit more. There's also a myth that leaded gasoline was easier on valves but in fact the opposite is true and only through the introduction of chemical "scavengers" into the fuel which swept the lead out the back of the tailpipe were they able to eliminate this problem.

          Folks this is nothing more than a classic cost/benefit analysis made by the automobile and petroleum companies back in the 1920s. They chose profits at the expense of public healthand the environment. They got away with it for nearly 50 years until the early 70s when the scientific evidence against leaded gasoline was too overwhelming to ignore.

          From http://www.mindfully.org/Pesticide/Lead-History.ht m#cars

          While they were busy glossing over its perilous shortcomings for the public health, tetraethyl lead's boosters almost forgot that their "gift of God" posed some serious problems for cars. Instead of benefitting, engines were getting destroyed by lead deposits. GM researchers had noted this early in TEL's life, but Charles Kettering was anxious to get the new product to market. Problems, he argued, could be worked out with real-life experience to guide them. But necessary changes were slow in coming.

          In May 1926, three years after leaded fuel went on sale, GM's Alfred Sloan wrote Ethyl's new president, Earle Webb, to express concern that valve corrosion with Ethyl gas was so bad after 2,000-3,000 miles that it rendered cars "inoperative." Rather late in the day, one would have thought, he urged further development of the product. Referring to Ethyl's decision to re-enter the market, he wrote, "Now that we are back in again and are considering pushing the sale [of Ethyl] to the utmost, I think we ought to be concerned with this question."

          So the additive that Standard, GM, Du Pont and the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation defended so vigorously before the Surgeon General and the nation wasn't even any good yet--it junked people's second-largest investment, after their homes. Incredibly, in spite of the near-magical claims being made for TEL, GM's own car divisions were at this very time bitterly resisting engine modifications to take advantage of it. In fact, GM's Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Oakland and Cadillac divisions would not recommend it to their customers until 1927, when they circulated bulletins to their dealers calling on them to withdraw any objections to leaded fuel. This was six years after TEL's invention and a full year and a half after a fractious national debate on TEL at the high-profile Public Health Service conference in Washington. Tellingly, support for TEL was forever lacking in the Society of Automotive Engineers Journal, the automotive engineering community's leading organ.

          The damaging effects to which Sloan referred necessitated the introduction of chemical "scavengers," which would cause the residue of the spent ethyl fluid to leave the engine along with the car's exhaust gases, thus preventing lead buildup. After a little trial-and-error experimentation proved the destructiveness of chlorine, ethylene dibromide (EDB), a byproduct of bromine invented by Dow Chemical in the twenties, was selected as the scavenger of choice.

          Proving the old maxim that you only make things worse when you tell a lie, Ethyl's adoption of EDB and its widespread use have created several waves of secondary environmental disaster. In more recent times, EDB combustion has been linked to halogenated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans in exhaust, believed to be cancer risks. Also, when EDB is burned in the engine, it creates methyl bromide, which as a component of automobile exhaust the World Meteorological Organization has termed one of "three potentially major sources of atmospheric methyl bromide," which harms the ozone layer.

          With the eventual demise of the US market for leaded fuel written on the wall, Ethyl had to find a new market for its lead scavenger EDB, and in 1972 it did--as a pesticide. Twelve years later, EDB would be banned by the EPA in this application following a 1974 finding that it was a powerful cancer-causing agent in animals; a 1977 finding of "strong evidence" that it caused cancer in humans; and a 1981 determination that it was "a potent mutagen"--a carcinogen with especially damaging consequences for human reproductive systems, powerful enough that it should be removed immediately from the food chain. This was bad news, as the United States was by now putting 20 million pounds of EDB into its soils annually, and it had begun to show up in cake mixes and cereal. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would also act to restrict EDB exposure, and the EPA would cite its reduction in the atmosphere as an additional benefit of the leaded gasoline phaseout.

          Today the mechanical benefits of unleaded gasoline are obvious. Ever wonder why your new car goes longer than your old one between spark-plug changes? Or why exhaust systems last longer? Or why oil changes don't need to be as frequent? Try unleaded fuel. In a report delivered to the Society of Automotive Engineers, lead-free fuel was shown to significantly reduce engine rusting, piston-ring wear and sludge and varnish deposits, as well as to reduce camshaft wear. In 1985 an EPA report concluded that reduced lead levels reduced piston-ring and cylinder-bore wear, preventing engine failure and improving fuel economy. Estimated maintenance savings exceeded the maintenance costs associated with recession of exhaust valves, which is caused by the use of unleaded gasoline.

          Gary Smith, an English Ford engineer working in the area of fuel economy and quality/vehicle/environmental engineering, told The Nation: "The higher the lead content, the more it messes the engine oil up, and we wanted to get longer intervals between engine oil changes, so that's a negative for lead as well.... [The scavengers used in leaded gasoline] or combustion of anything with chlorine or bromine will make hydrochloric and hydrobromic acid, so the actual muffler systems get corroded. They end up on--and affect--the spark plugs. Because we're trying to keep warranty costs down and [lower] costs for customers, we found ourselves going away from lead."
      • Re:Exactly (Score:4, Informative)

        by WolfWithoutAClause (162946) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:50PM (#4931184) Homepage
        No it really did. Without that car engines run rough as hell; these days we know more ways to avoid premature ignition, but back in those days, there was only one, and he found it.

        Without this, motor cars wouldn't have been practical. And frankly the replacements don't work as well- lead protects valve seats far, far better.

        • The still-prevalent myth that lead was good for engines was one of their big PR coups. Why do you think engines last so much longer now than when we used to put leaded fuel in them?

          The other myth is that there were no good alternatives. In fact alcohol worked as well then as now. (It just wasn't patentable.)

          They managed to suppress the evidence for just how toxic was the lead they were scattering around for many decades. The suppression was deliberate and criminally fraudulent.

          Leaded gasoline was a disaster and a crime on a scale similar to the asbestos deception of the same era, but one that has still not been prosecuted, largely for political reasons. It is almost a miracle that leaded gas got banned at all. The ban certainly wouldn't happen in today's political climate, even though lead was killing a World Trade Center's worth of Americans every week. Killing Americans is a corporate privilege.

        • Re:Exactly (Score:3, Funny)

          by evilviper (135110)
          these days we know more ways to avoid premature ignition

          Uhh... think about baseball?
      • Re:Exactly (Score:3, Interesting)

        by JesseL (107722)
        For an excellent explaination of the value (including tripling the power of aircraft engines from 1935-45) of high octane fuel read this [cycleworld.com].
    • Ya - in the not too distant future we'll all look back fondly of the days of the DMCA, RIAA and MPAA and realize that those, along with the advent of real copy protection on CDs and other Digital Media - are by far the best and most innovative ideas ever concocted by the human race.... or maybe not.
    • Re:Recent Ideas (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Chiasmus_ (171285) <ayatollah_hyperbole AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday December 20, 2002 @03:20PM (#4931466) Journal
      The reason that our more recent ideas aren't on the list is because we don't know which are the good ones yet. Hindsight is needed to appreciate what we've been doing.

      Case in point: the article talks about The Modem: 1962. You really think a list compiled in 1972 would include that?

      It really does make me wonder about the galaxy of technology that has already been invented, has a functional prototype, and which no member of the public will ever see until the year 2045. If you had the means to seek out all that stuff, you'd probably find that our society is 50 years more advanced than it appears.

      For example, some of what I've read has indicated that recent revolutions in turbine technology (within the last 3 years) make it possible to run the world's power grid entirely with windmills on farms and hydroelectric power. How long do you think it'll take that innovation to become significant to our lives?
    • by The Famous Druid (89404) on Friday December 20, 2002 @05:22PM (#4932262)
      The real reason you have to wait a few years before listing it, is that you need to let peoples memories fade a bit before you can claim it was an American invention.

      Looking through the list, the inventions fall into 4 categories.

      1. American inventions, where their origin is made clear. They're quite careful to always list where the inventions came from, along the lines of "(asian/eastern european name) of the University of (somewhere in America)"
      2.Foreign inventions, where no mention of their inventors nationality is made. Fleming, the inventor of penicillin is one example.
      3. Foreign inventions that are credited to Americans who came along later. Television and computers are two examples.
      4. Foreign inventions that are credited to their actual inventors, and nationality acknowledged. I counted 3.

      What is it with Americans?
      Why do you feed the need to claim the credit for everything?

  • They left out the filter that automatically removes posts that begin with:

    "In Soviet Russia.."
  • by ites (600337) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:20PM (#4930906) Journal
    So am I the only one who is not surprised that the last ten years (supposedly the biggest technology boom in human history) have actually shown less progress than usual?
    • tge problems we are solving this decade are muc larger and much more fundamental than in the past. Decoding and understanding the humen genome, and all the complexities of interacting proteins, etc.. is a huge and daunting task. But the rewards will be so large, that all of themedical breakthroughs thus far throughout medical history will be but a grain of sand on a beach trillions. And I dont think I exagerate. Give this decade some time.

      We might be making crappier toasters than in 1958. But we sure know how to be more efficient in making bad ones.

  • This is a list of ideas/inventions that revolutionized, correct. It is hard to revolutionize within ten years. Our total knowledge is doubling every 4 years or so. (Kinda like that other famous law, mr M>) Give this decade some time. There are lots going on. And we are working on larger more difficult problems than ever before.
    • In addition, during the last 20 years, we've made some astonishing progress in scientific knowledge. In a sense, I feel that this progress is outpacing our culture's ability to "digest" it. Although it seems like applications of new knowledge are quickly applied, in most cases it's not always cost-effective for a great many people. And sometimes this technology has consequences that stand in the way of quick adoption once the technology does become affordable.

      Just rambling... some food for thought
  • by Ouroboro (10725) <[moc.oohay] [ta] [tyoh_noraa]> on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:22PM (#4930930) Homepage Journal

    and a frightening realization that not much of interest has come out of the last 10 years (a whopping 4 of the 85 ideas).

    It may be a little early to write off the last 10 years. Let's wait another 10 years before we decide that only 4 things from the last 10 years are significant enought to change the world

  • . . . a frightening realization that not much of interest has come out of the last 10 years (a whopping 4 of the 85 ideas).

    I seriously doubt that a similar list, composed in 1927, would include sneakers. No doubt there are dozens of inventions from the past 10 years that will be cherished 75 years from now.

    BTW, I saw Steve Forbes speak on this topic on FOX News a week or 2 ago, did not read this article but remember the discussion.

  • mmm.... errr... a...

    Thumbnail galleries?

  • what? (Score:5, Funny)

    by tps12 (105590) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:24PM (#4930949) Homepage Journal
    No Segway?
  • and a frightening realization that not much of interest has come out of the last 10 years (a whopping 4 of the 85 ideas).

    Of course you should always keep in mind that rarely when something new comes around does it appear "world changing" right from the get-go. When they invented the microchip, did they envision a world of millions of interconnected computers where any ol' yahoo(tm) would be able to post his views for millions of people to view? It is often the later uses of something that you can't even forsee that change the world.

  • by sterno (16320) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:28PM (#4930979) Homepage
    The thing is that we don't have the perspective of history to indicate to us what will have long term relevance. I mean they listed Viagra on there. VIAGRA? I'm sorry, but the ability for an old man to get an erection is not one of the greatest innovations of the last 85 years.

    One thing I didn't see on the list was nanotechnology, which is going to hugely impact the future. We're only seeing it in limited ways so far, but 10 or 20 years from now it's going to revolutionize a lot of things. Also, one thing I noticed was that, while a number of inventions like fiber optics were created some time ago, it's only recently that the implementations have borne practical fruit.
    • Yes, but it is of interest to the owner of the magazine, and since it's privately owned, Mr. Forbes gets to decide what he does with his Capitalist Tool.
      • Yes, but it is of interest to the owner of the magazine, and since it's privately owned, Mr. Forbes gets to decide what he does with his Capitalist Tool.

        Oh man, I didn't need to picture his "Capitalist Tool." Now I'm going to have nightmares for a week.

    • VIAGRA? I'm sorry, but the ability for an old man to get an erection is not one of the greatest innovations of the last 85 years.

      Depends. If you happen to be an 85 year old man who can't get an erection then it's one hell of an invention. Probably beats the internet all to hell.

      Now we just need a pill that makes old men attractive to their wives again. :)
    • by donutello (88309) on Friday December 20, 2002 @03:03PM (#4931308) Homepage
      I have to disagree with you on that. Sex is a huge tool for personal gratification to us as humans. As such, the ability to have sex is a huge component of the quality of life.

      Given that over half the human population in this country is over 40, something that enables them to gratify themselves is a great innovation. You might not appreciate it now but you will when you are older.
  • Spandex (Score:4, Funny)

    by Unknown Poltroon (31628) <unknown_poltroon1sp@myahoo.com> on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:28PM (#4930980)
    Why isn't spandex on the list???? The person who invented that should get a few medals. Why, women actually WEAR the skintight stuff. Bless you, Mr. spandex.
  • Creating a list that people will be interested in, and putting each item on one page, so that everybody who visits your site is views (items on list)*(ads per page) banner ads.

  • by upstateguy (90019) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:29PM (#4930992)
    Forbes lists their top 85 *business* breakthroughs...which slants things so that sheetrock is listed whereas the theory of relativity is not.

    • by micromoog (206608) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:57PM (#4931251)
      Sheetrock has had a far greater impact on the world than the theory of relativity, regardless of its comparative simplicity.
  • Yeah, but (Score:2, Informative)

    by Geaus (317244)
    New ideas are born out of necessity. The transistor was invented because vacuum tubes weren't going to cut it at any level with computers. They simply werent fast enough or reliable enough. So the transistor comes along and its one of the best inventions of the 20th century.

    However we have been improving on this, and other ideas, for the last half century. Miniturization may not be a new idea or invention, but the continued process of improving an idea is just as important as the first step. Moores Law is starting to run out with computer chips, you can expect the search for quantum computing to become all the more critical when it does.

    We haven't had many new ideas lately, maybe just because we are still working on the old ones?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:31PM (#4931015)
    In 20 years we may look back and decide that the free software movement represented a landmark shift in the way people view software, licensing and IP issues.
  • I'm not trying to imply that "everything has been invented", but I think it's reasonable to argue that the "easy" technological advances have happened.

    The things that are left take either much more sophisticated science, or sophisticated materials, and therefore have longer development times.

    If you were to graph true innovation (NOT incremental) innovation vs. time I think that the curve is starting to flatten out. We're starting to bump into fundamental physical limitations on a lot of things: IC devices which are subject to quantum effects, the earth's gravity well wrt space travel, high T superconductors.

    There's still plenty of room for invention (!), but the time and effort between true invention is becoming greater.

  • by m_smitty (635490) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:33PM (#4931031)
    Umm... I didn't see the female thong on the list.
  • by Znonymous Coward (615009) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:34PM (#4931043) Journal
    #86 - The Beowulf cluster.
    #87 - The first post robot.
    #88 - The last post robot.
    #89 - Underpants gnomes (Phase 1, 2, 3, etc).
    #90 - Microsoft Tablet PC.
    #91 - Microsoft .Net

  • For the record, this is a list of 85 business breakthroughs. People forget, especially in the gadget happy world of Slashdot, that some of the great historical inventions and innovations are theoretical and intellectual and first exist in the realm of ideas and aren't clearly profitable or worth, by objective measures, an investment of money. Forbes wants you to think about breakthrough because they have the potential to make profit, which is good because it spurs innovation. But there are other reasons to try to innovate and revolutionize that are outside of the world of consumer culture.

    Fight the national One-strike law for public housing residents [viewfromtheground.com]

  • That they'd left out one of the most significant advancements in the history of mankind...but they didn't

    Viagra is on the list, whew!
  • Add to the list... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kitzilla (266382) <paperfrog&gmail,com> on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:36PM (#4931056) Homepage Journal
    ..."fast, free" website registration. Like the one Forbes used to run me off before reading the article.

    Bet it didn't list microwave popcorn, did it? Now THAT is progress we can all get behind!
  • by damieng (230610) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:38PM (#4931078) Homepage Journal

    "Thomas Midgely adds lead to gasoline to stop power-draining knocking."

    As if burning fuel wasn't bad enough already add a toxic metal to it to really juice things up. It's already banned in many countries including the USA and UK.

    This site [uh.edu] has further commentary and also covers his discovery of Freons that later helped damage the ozone layer including how his final invention killed him.

    Surely the whole idea of such an article is to choose the inventions with the benefit of hindsight.

  • I find myself noticing the years most of these inventors had died. Their inventions and discoveries are astounding, but I was alive when a lot of them died and I can't even remember any news or information about these people when they died.

    Almost if any announcements of such were simply a segue from national news to sports. Easy to forget.
  • by jonadab (583620) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:47PM (#4931154) Homepage Journal
    Did you see that? 1968, Douglas Engelbart demonstrates computer
    windows and a wooden stylus he calls a mouse. 1968. Can you say
    "Microsoft vs Lindows trademark lawsuit"? How about 1968, can you
    say that? (I knew the concept was old, but I didn't know it was
    that old.)

    > To a packed house at a computer conference in San Francisco,
    > Stanford Research Institute's Douglas Engelbart made a dramatic
    > presentation that included first-time demonstrations of onscreen
    > "windows," teleconferencing and a wooden stylus device he called
    > a "mouse." Engelbart didn't see much value in the peripheral, and
    > neither did Stanford Research, which owned the patent and later
    > licensed it to companies like Apple Computer for a $45,000
    > one-time fee. Two decades later, Engelbart's in-vention was the
    > PC standard.
  • RJ-What? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by infinite9 (319274) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:48PM (#4931160)
    Anyone else notice how the ethernet slide has a picture of an rj-11?
  • Electing George W. Bush?

    Oh, you meant for the better...
  • No mention of Microsoft.
  • <rant>
    What they should have put on the list is the !@#!~ scrollbar! Why the hell did they put only one invention per page?!?!?
    </rant>

    Other than that, not a bad article....
  • Mozilla 1.3 users (Score:3, Informative)

    by mao che minh (611166) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:49PM (#4931177) Journal
    For the slide show on the Forbes web page, you have to hit "next" like 3 or 4 times until it starts showing up. In other words, it does work.
  • The list's a little silly, but whatever. Steve Forbes's comments [forbes.com], however, are a good dose of absurdist techno-capitalist babble.

    Exempli Gratia:

    Ray Kroc, for instance, didn't invent the fast-food phenomenon back in the 1950s. But when he saw the facility run by the McDonald brothers, he quickly grasped--as they did not--the awesomely exciting implications of their techniques in a business that was notorious for failure. The idea of creating a chain of thousands of similar restaurants that spanned the globe was, before Kroc's vision, utterly preposterous.

    Alternate reading -- Ray Kroc, shrewd businessman, stumbles upon small very profitable business. He proceeds to buy their franchising rights, eventually purchasing the business and taking legal control over the use of their own name, and makes a fortune. McDonald brothers are left in the dust.

    Yet all too many academics, politicos, bureaucrats and even businesspeople don't understand that risk-taking is the wellspring of our progress.

    Sure, Steve, because we know that none of the great innovations of the twentieth century have involved financial or institutional support from governments, universities, or big business. All garage tinkerers...

    But the most potent fiscal incentive is reducing marginal tax rates--i.e., the tax you pay on each additional dollar you earn.

    Ah yes, the Steve Forbes innovation. Surprised that wasn't number #86 on the list.

    Trial lawyers have progressed too far in diffusing the stark difference between fraud and honest business mistakes.

    Yeah, like the Ford Pinto. Just an honest business mistake...

    The fundamental concept of limited liability--you can't lose more money than the amount you invested in an entity--is being eroded.

    Fun fact -- our founding fathers viewed limited liability corporations with some concern. As a result, such corporations could only be chartered by state legislatures, and had to be renewed every few years. If a corporation didn't seem to be serving the public well, state legislatures would often decharter it.

    Corporate directors with M.B.A.s and considerable experience in running businesses have been discovering that in the eyes of the Securities & Exchange Commission they are not qualified to sit on audit committees, because they are not certified public accountants.

    Perhaps that could be because spending a few years learning management culture at Harvard doesn't qualify you to thoroughly analyze corporate finances.

    Democratic capitalism is moral.

    Democratic capitalism? Is that something like military intelligence?

    You won't long succeed in business if you don't serve the needs or wants of others.

    Yeah, that's why Ken Lay did so poorly...
  • Don't great ideas normally take a bit of time before they are considered great ideas by the masses and history.

    The true test it seems will be in 30 years to see how these last 20 years stand when compared to others.

  • by jlazzaro74 (613844) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:51PM (#4931191)
    If you like this sort of thing, check out James Burke's "Connections", "Connections2", and "The Day the Universe Changed". They show just how closely related and interdependent histories greatest inventions are. They should be considered mandatory viewing for any geek.
  • Forbes both characterizes Unix and C (1972) as "the original computer operating system and language," but also has FORTRAN (mid to late 50s) in its list of 85 big ideas--so not only are they wrong (Unix isn't even the first multitasking OS or the first OS written in a high-level language--we'll grant C high-level status in this context), they contradict themselves.
  • by cribcage (205308) on Friday December 20, 2002 @02:54PM (#4931217) Homepage Journal
    Two things to consider:

    1.) As other posters have written: Hindsight is needed to appreciate breakthroughs which "change...lives in a profound way." If there have been any such breakthroughs, recently (no, I'm not suggesting that Segway will qualify), they haven't yet had time to be fairly judged.

    2.) I think it's also worth considering that recent years, more than the past, have seen our "technological progress" move more toward improving existing tools rather than inventing new ones. The obvious example is the internet -- now that its infrastructure is present, and it has been adopted into a large percentage of homes and businesses, we're seeing real and profound development occur. Amazon, eBay, Bibliofind -- hell, even pr0n -- aren't "inventions," per se, but they certainly represent new developments which I suspect may be seen as quite impactful.

    Also, the past ten or fifteen years have seen a progressive slide in our economy from product-oriented business to service-oriented business. Maybe it is true that we're not pumping out wold-changing inventions (the Foreman grill and the Popeil pasta maker aside) at the same rate we were a century ago; but I think that it has to be acknowledged that we are also offering (and consuming) services which didn't exist in the past. It's worth considering whether the rate of decline in our production of "inventions" is perhaps matched by our rate of growth in providing "services."

    Finally, although I think the above is more relevant, there's the obligatory shot at the Clinton generation: One of the notions held by that generation, I think, is the idea of "quick profit" -- and specifically, that it's quicker, cheaper and generally more efficient to improve upon an existing product, rather than produce something entirely new. I think that generation, as compared to the economic drivers of the 1940s, have been more interested in taking charge of what's around them than developing anew. So if we're seeing less inventions and more "version 2.4"...well, I'm not surprised.

    crib
  • by parlyboy (603457) on Friday December 20, 2002 @03:00PM (#4931278)
    ...the New York Times ran a front-page article listing the "most important inventions" of the previous 100 years.

    Number one on that list? Not the steam engine or the telegraph, the cotton gin or the McCormick reaper, or even newcomers like electric lights and the telephone. According to the New York Times, the most important invention of the previous century was chemical "frictionless" matches.

    I suppose this decision makes a little more sense in a world where most homes and businesses are still heated by coal and lit by kerosene. (And yes, I know it is a bitch to light things with flint and steel.) But I wonder how much of this article will be considered laughable or just plain stupid in 100 years.

    --Gondwanaland for Gondwanans!--

  • Forbes discovery of using a "slide show" to cram 85 ads down a single users throat in a single "story".
  • by Cinabrium (571473) on Friday December 20, 2002 @03:06PM (#4931340)
    In a first read, I have found:

    • A gross historical mistake, seen on the Forbes' slideshow:

      1954 -- Telstar The first commercial communications satellite is launched
      ... Three full years before the launch of the first Sputnik (as everybody knows, the first satellite).
    • A confusing approach: sometimes the "idea" is seen as the first theorethical approach to the problem (as cellphones) and sometimes as the first practical technology (videotape decks).
    • An many ommisions: if satellites are in fact a bright idea... shouldn't Forbes quote Arthur Clarke's invention of the geosynchronous satellite?? (Wireless World, August 1945)

    Oh, well! If History is taught in the U.S. as Forbes' "historians" show it, no wonder why Americans are so unaware of the world's reality.

  • Tetraethyl Lead was a TERRIBLE idea - the only reason it was chosen over grain alcohol was that tetraethyl lead could be patented and marketed, whereas grain alcohol could not.

    Perhaps it was a great business innovation, but a lousy scientific innovation.
  • start here (Score:4, Informative)

    by e40 (448424) on Friday December 20, 2002 @03:36PM (#4931602) Journal
    this [forbes.com] is better than the link given.
  • by ynotds (318243) on Friday December 20, 2002 @10:00PM (#4934025) Homepage Journal
    I live and love IT, but really, it seemed near half the list was some or other minor step in the march of IT towards world domination, with some side bets on medicine, motor cars and financial instruments.

    From memory, food got three mentions (frozen, micorwaved and fast/franchised) and construction two (tract housing and Gyprock).

    What about glass skinned skyscrapers? If you used the approach they used to IT, I'm sure there could be several more discrete innovations which have made our modern CBDs possible.

    But beyond that, and even more essentially American (at least before the rise of China in the last decade) is the interconnected web of manufacturing industry where things like JIT and TQM, of even, in its day, the humble fax, have made a huge difference.

    I dunno what I can do but chuckle when a publication like Forbes starts to see the whole world as an IT application. WIRED I can imagine.

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