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Two old wagon wheels near the wooden fence

Mankind's Greatest Inventions

The wheel dates from the 4th Century BC | Image: Shutterstock

From the wheel to the first use of pigment, many of mankind’s most influential innovations are impossible to trace. More recent inventions, like the printing press, the steam engine and the satellite are more easily credited. Regardless of where they originated, these inventions speak of who we are, where we are from and of course, where we are headed.


Since prehistoric times, humans have ground earth and minerals to create pigments. Early decorations show a simple earthy palette including ochre, umber, black and white. As time passed new pigments were discovered. Blue, the first so-called synthetic pigment, was discovered by the ancient Egyptians who are credited with advancing the total palette size two-fold. Principles of colour theory, guiding painters in their choices, are apparent as far back as the 15th century in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance artists and thinkers. The modern era has witnessed a bold approach to colour as further pigments - many artificially created - have become available. The works of artists like Vincent van Gogh are renowned for their vivid and creative use of colours.


Textile, including cloth and fabric of all types, has been produced since prehistoric times. Textiles are some of the most versatile items on Earth; they provide shelter and clothing, sails and containers, flags and even art. The endless usages of textiles are often dependent on the type of material used, whether it is extracted from animals, plants, minerals or more recently, synthetics - often made from petroleum. The adaptability of textiles is further enhanced by their use as a canvas for prints and decorations. Basic textiles can denote religious beliefs while originality can identify certain fashion designers and vice versa. Examples of printed textile from China have been discovered from as early as the 3rd century. Today, the options are endless.

The Wheel

Early evidence of the wheel - an invention that many of us will have not have gone without using for a single day in our entire lives - dates from the 4th millennium BC. It has proven impossible to credit a single culture with the actual invention of the wheel, as depictions of its use appear in artefacts of seemingly independent cultures across the globe. The earliest example is seen on a ceramic vase called the Bronocice pot, dated 3635-3370 BC, and unearthed in modern-day Poland in 1976. The vase depicts a four-wheeled vehicle pulled by a pair of animals. Over millennia the wheel has been refashioned by a variety of cultures; particularly notable additions include spokes, attributed to the Harappan civilization and the rubber tyre, attributed to an Irishman named John Boyd Dunlop. By 2015, over 1.7 billion tyres are expected to be sold across the globe. It's fair to say that the wheel may well roll to the top as the most popular invention of all time.


Aqueducts have been used to convey water from as early as the time of the ancient Egyptians and the Harappan Civilization. The word originates in Latin - aquae ductus, combining aqua (water) and ducere (to lead) - and indeed it was the Romans civil engineering expertise led to the construction of hundreds of aqueducts throughout their Empire - many of which still survive today. Exceptionally fine examples include France's Pont du Gard and Spain's Aqueduct of Segovia. Rome itself is home to eleven ancient aqueducts all of which supplied fresh water to the densely populated urban centres. Beyond delivering drinking water, aqueducts have been used for irrigation, transportation and flood control.

The Printing Press

Prior to 1455, books were primarily the objects of the wealthy and powerful, but with the invention of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, books and critically the information they contained, became accessible to a far wider population. The Chinese had invented a printing method involving engraved blocks to produce books as early as the 9th century, but the process was arduous and the result often poor. Gutenberg’s wooden press borrowed elements from the local Rhineland winepresses and involved movable individual characters of type made of metal alloy. It could quickly produce multiple texts at a high quality standard. The result was nothing less than revolutionary. The process invented by Gutenberg was so technically innovative that it remained relatively unchanged for four centuries. His printing process spread swiftly across Europe, with many presses constructed almost identical to his, and with it came a remarkable surge in learning. Gutenberg’s invention and the resulting democratisation of knowledge is considered by historians to have been critical to the Renaissance and led to the Scientific Revolution and the Reformation.

The Telescope

Historians disagree on who should be credited with the invention of the telescope, but the earliest patent on record was petitioned by a Dutch lens maker, Hans Lippershey, in 1608 for an optical telescope. Later that century, Isaac Newton successfully built a reflecting telescope and since then a great number of technological advancements have led to today's wide assortment of astronomical instruments ranging from radio to Gamma-ray telescopes. The best known telescope today is the Hubble Space Telescope which has been orbiting the Earth since 1990. It is as equally revered for the data it collects as for the popular images of the Cosmos it captures. The most remarkable of which is perhaps the shot of the Carina Nebula taken in 2010 and released on the telescope's 20th anniversary. The image shows the top of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas complete with jets of gas being fired off by infant stars. If you consider this a far cry from a 17th century spectacle shop - imagine what astronomy has for us over the next 400 years.


The most influential early vaccination involved a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy and an English physician named Edward Jenner in the 1770s. Jenner observed that milkmaids who suffered from cowpox, a far less dangerous disease, didn’t generally later suffer from smallpox. When milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, came to see him about the cowpox blisters on her hands he extracted some of the pus and used it to inoculate the son of his gardener. Once the boy was fully recovered from the ensuing fever, Jenner carried out a series of tests all of which resulted without infection. The results were nothing short of revolutionary. The 20th century saw vaccines for polio, developed by Jonas Salk, along with diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella. Today, vaccines have become routine in many countries - their impact immeasurable.


The invention of gunpowder is attributed to the Chinese and is thought to have been discovered in the search for a magical potion that, ironically, would provide eternal life. Dating as far back as the 9th century, it spread with the Mongol conquests led by Genghis Khan, quickly falling into the hands of the Arabs, Indians, and eventually Europeans. Ancient weapons employing gunpowder include an array of fearsome devices, from fire-bomb-tossing catapults used by the Mongols, to torpedoes, cannons and hand-held cannons used by the Arabs. Although the technology was quickly put to use for military purposes, it wasn't long before it was repurposed for further usages, from clearing mines to constructing canals in 17th century Europe.

Steam Engine

Steam powered engines date as far back as the ancient Greeks, but it wasn't until a series of significant advancements in the 18th and 19th centuries that their influence would reach boiling point. Successive advances made from 1698 to 1802 by Savery, Newcomen, Leupold, Smeaton, Watt, Trevithick and Evans led to steam engines becoming the dominant source of power at the turn of the 20th century. Powering pumps, spinning mules, power looms, and transportation on sea and land, steam engines literally generated the Industrial Revolution. One of the most profound shifts in the history of mankind, the Industrial Revolution marked the end of the agricultural-based economy for many societies, and introduced us to a life with machines.

The Satellite

Since the first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched into outer space by the Soviet Union in 1957, space programs in various countries have launched literally thousands of satellites. Used for both civilian and military purposes, these satellites orbit the Earth - not to mention the Sun and other planets - and provide a wide range of services from communication and observation to navigation and weather reporting. Our daily lives have become dependent on satellites for a number of communication purposes, most commonly for telephones and television which involve either an antenna or a satellite dish to capture the signal. Today large companies, like Google and Boeing, and government organizations, like the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, sponsor the development of highly advanced communications satellites - including the recently launched GeoEye-1 which contains a camera with enough power to zoom in, from over 400 miles away, on home plate at Yankee Stadium.