Great ideas can come from anywhere at any time. They have been born in caves, villages, workshops and laboratories, but their impact has reached far further than their humble origins, transforming the world in ways that the men and women who had them could scarcely have imagined.
For better or for worse, these great leaps in human ingenuity have created the world we live in today and it would now be hard to imagine life without them. From religion to writing, computing to antibiotics, here we look at the origins of some of the most transformative ideas, discoveries and inventions in human history.
The dawn of abstract thought
One of the things that sets humans apart in the animal kingdom is the capacity for abstract thought – the ability to imagine things that haven’t happened yet, or impossible things that will never happen. This faculty to think in the abstract underpins all of our major social institutions, from politics to economics and religion.
The first clear archaeological evidence we have of this great leap was found in 1939 in the remote Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany. Excavating a site from the Upper Paleolithic inhabited around 40,000 years ago, archaeologists found the fragments of an extraordinary ivory effigy. Half-human, half-animal, this lion man was the earliest proof that the people who made it could imagine the impossible, and perhaps even worship fantastical beings. If that interpretation is correct, the roots of every major religion in the world today can be found in that humble cave in southern Germany.
The invention of writing
As humans gradually began to make the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to settled agricultural societies, a radical shift in technology took place. With agriculture came harvests and as harvests grew these early farmers developed systems for storing and managing them. The city state of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia is one such settlement that grew out of increasing social complexity in the fourth millennium B.C.
Often called the world’s first city, it sprawled across 250 hectares and was dominated by temple-administrative complexes. It was here that the world’s first writing systems developed, with reeds and sharpened sticks being used to inscribe stock information into wet clay tablets. All written word – from Shakespeare’s sonnets to the Divan-e-Hafez to the email you sent this morning – has roots in agricultural accounting systems that sprang up in sites such as Uruk.
The development of the computer
We think of computers today as electronic machines with glass screens, but there’s a whole history of analogue computing that looked very different to the device you’re sat in front of today. The term ‘computer’ literally means something that helps calculate, and one of the most advanced early examples was the astrolabe.
This device was developed at various sites across the Islamic world from around the 6th century A.D, and by the 1400s they had become the primary tool for navigation in Europe as well. The astrolabe allowed astronomers and explorers to calculate the position of the sun and stars in relation to the equator and tropics, giving an accurate idea of distance and direction. Not only would the astrolabe lay the foundation for the far more complex computing machines that we know today, it also made great journeys across continents and oceans possible.
The explosion of printing
Knowledge really is power and before the invention of the movable type printing press, all the world’s knowledge was locked up in expensive books owned by the clergy and aristocracy. Around 1440, a goldsmith in the Holy Roman Imperial City of Mainz would change all that.
Johannes Gutenberg developed a system of movable metal type that could slot into a traditional screw press, making it possible to print multiple copies of a book at great speed. By the end of the 15th century, similar presses had spread across Western Europe, churning out as many as 20 million publications. Rather than being printed in the elite language of Latin, many of these presses operated in German, French or Dutch, with the explicit aim of speaking to the masses. It’s no surprise that today’s independent media – the press – continues to take its name from this most disruptive of technological innovations.
The theory of evolution
It’s rare to be able to enter the very room where one of history’s great ideas took form, but visitors to Down House in Kent, England, can do just that. It’s here that Charles Darwin lived for 40 years from 1842, and English Heritage has carefully restored the cluttered Victorian study where he developed the theory of evolution by natural selection.
As well as the books, filing cabinets, specimens and taxonomy charts used by the great scientist, you can find hints of his eccentric personality, such as the mirror he angled to spot unwanted visitors through the window as they approached the house, or the castors that he fitted onto all of his furniture so he could move them around his makeshift laboratory. It was here that Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species (1859), in which the scientist stated that all species have developed through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase an individual's ability to compete, survive and reproduce.
The discovery of radiation
Women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths today, but this situation is even worse when looking at the history of invention, where the contributions of women have quite literally been erased from the record. One notable exception is Marie Curie, the first woman to have won a Nobel Prize and still the only woman to have won it for two different disciplines (chemistry and physics).
Curie is often referred to as the ‘mother of modern physics’ and it was her pioneering work on radioactivity that ensured her place in the history of science, having discovered both polonium and radium n 1898. So little was known about radioactivity at the time that Curie carried out her work with almost no protection from the harmful rays, and her notebooks are so badly contaminated that they are still kept in lead-lined boxes at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
The introduction of the assembly line
Although gas-powered automobiles had been around since the mid-19th century at least, it’s the Ford Motor Company that is most often credited with bringing the invention to the masses. This is largely down to the introduction of the moving assembly line, which allowed a dramatic increase in productivity. Allegedly based on the ‘disassembly line’ used in abattoirs, where animal carcasses moved down a line of butchers who each removed a specific cut, Ford’s model applied the same thinking in reverse.
Introduced for the Ford Model T in 1913, the assembly line split the process of manufacturing a car into 45 steps, with one worker dedicated to each step. This specialization meant that each worker could become much faster at their task, reducing the production time of a car to 93 minutes (it had previously been over 12 hours). A reduction in time and costs paved the way for an explosion in car ownership among the American middle classes.
The production of antibiotics
Great scientific discoveries are usually due to meticulous research, but sometimes, luck can play a hand too. The discovery of the antibiotic penicillin actually came about due to a messy workbench. In 1928, the Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming noticed that bacteria wouldn't grow in some petri dishes that had been accidentally contaminated with the mold Penicillium notatum. Intrigued, he grew the mold in pure form and found that the resulting liquid would kill off most common strains of bacteria.
The mass production of penicillin is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives in World War II and who knows how many million since. Less than a century since its discovery however, there are already concerns that bacteria are becoming resistant to penicillin and other common antibiotics, with many scientists forecasting a looming health crisis.
The dawn of the world wide web
Few ideas have gone on to have as profound an impact on our modern lives as the internet. We now spend most of our waking hours gazing into some screen or other, and the web has shown extraordinary abilities to connect people as well as divide them. This transformative idea came from humble origins however, with the World Wide Web developed as a file-sharing system for scientists working at the CERN physical laboratory in Geneva.
Led by Tim Berners-Lee, this international team of researchers used a NeXT computer like the one shown below to devise the world’s first web browser back in 1990. In less than 30 years, we’ve gone from dial-up tones and desktops to smart phones and voice activated search. The internet has gone on to topple national governments, empower the economically marginalized, ignite regional uprisings, reunite long-lost friends, press the self-destruct button on the global economy, give a voice to the dispossessed and launched the Kardashians. All of this from an office filing system.