Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, has posed a fascinating question on his blog: “What is the most underrated innovation of the last 100 years?”
Cowen suggests four candidates: Alan Turing’s insights into computation; the chemical fixation of nitrogen from the air for use in fertilizer; what he loosely calls “various developments in electrical engineering, including better transformers;” and more recently, Amazon’s warehousing and shipping practices, which Cowen thinks will mean the “death of much of retail.”
You may wonder at transformers—I sure did—what great developments have there been since the year 1912? But he's absolutely right that electrical engineering is rife with big-but-obscure developments, and that nitrogen fixation doesn't get nearly enough respect. How many reasonably educated people realize that half the nitrogen in their bodies was extracted from the air by means of the Haber process?
Commenters on the blog have suggested plastics, the Pill, air conditioning, shipping containers and the flush toilet. I beg to differ on the last item: it’s rather more than 100 years old. At the ruins of the royal palace at Knossos, in Crete, I once saw a flushable toilet dating back some 3800 years (and to my great disappointment, I was not allowed to pose on it for a snapshot). Wikipedia notes still older examples in India—and, interestingly, in one of Queen Elizabeth I’s palaces. She apparently refused to use it because it made too much noise.
I thought it would be easy to add to the list, but then I did some research and discovered just how many seemingly modern inventions actually predate 1912. Spread-spectrum radio transmissions? Described in a German book in 1907. Multiplexing? Developed by Edison in the 1870s. Parallel computing? Outlined in an 1842 description of Charles Babbages' plan for an Analytic Engine.
Here, then, are my contributions: the doping of semiconductors; the magnetron (the heart of radar sets and microwave ovens); kitty litter, which turned cats into the Number One pet; and photo retouching. All these things changed our world—and by more than most people admit.