We are talking about modern man here, but the inventions that have created today’s civilisation begin unimaginable ages ago, with the development of language. At some stage the grunts and squeaks which represent meaning, even to members of the animal kingdom, were refined into language by the imposition of grammar. The rules of grammar, that even today puzzle many people, were in the past much more elaborate than they are today. (This is particularly true of English and its Germanic forebears.) We must not, therefore, think of our distant ancestors as people of simple minds; they were not. Mankind had much to learn, but the potential was there.
The next invention was not writing or reading, but drawing. I include what might seem a relatively minor accomplishment because it was the necessary precursor to writing. In its earliest form the art of writing required pictograms, graphic representations of whole words, rather than the alphabet that we (although not the Chinese) now use to represent sounds rather than ideas. Another invention, that was the necessary preliminary to all scientific advance, was the concept of number. From the simple counting from one to five on the fingers of one hand, advanced ideas in arithmetic and geometry were already commonplace by the dawn of history.
The next step on the journey to modern humanity was the development of farming. Hunter gatherers still exist among primitive tribes, and this way of life holds back the members of the tribe from making further advances. This is simply a matter of time; hunting for food leaves little opportunity for more thoughtful activities. The development of something as basic as farming was a decisive advance towards modernity.
So far we have been concerned with pre-history. The next major invention I will deal with was gunpowder, which falls within historical times. It is attributed to Chinese alchemists in the 9th century. The invention of gunpowder produced fireworks, but was of little importance however, until the development of artillery in Europe made it a deadly device. Some guns may be used for hunting, but of all the inventions talked of so far, this one is overwhelmingly used for warfare. Hand to hand combat had been partly removed from the battlefield by the bow and arrow, but since the invention of the canon, most victims of war are killed by people whom they never see. Whether this can truly be called an advance in civilisation, it has certainly gone a long way towards the making of modern man.
The next invention that revolutionised the future of humanity was another Chinese development – printing; but again, like gunpowder, it needed refining in Europe, by the invention of movable type. Printing then made the dissemination of knowledge completely different from what it had been before. For example, it is doubtful if the Reformation could have happened without the spread of ideas, that was only possible through the printing press.
The discovery that the sun did not revolve around the earth might seem far removed from everyday life, but this not so. Astronomy, which did not originate with Galileo but took a huge stride forward with his heliocentric discovery, made navigation by the stars possible. Without celestial observation, travel to distant continents would have been far too perilous. Similarly the researches in physics which led Sir Isaac Newton to discover gravity and the diffraction of light made many practical advances possible.
A further development of the much earlier invention of farming came with the Agrarian Revolution. The term is not widely recognised, but it made the Industrial Revolution and everything that flowed from it possible. Such things as the enclosure of common land led to much hardship at the time, but without it the bulk of the population would have remained tied to the land. Farming was still very inefficient until the 18th century in England, and without such inventions as the seed drill and the rotation of crops, food would not have been available to the growing numbers of townspeople. The digging of the canals and the building of huge new cities was still all done by hand (with the help of the odd horse and cart), but the Industrial Revolution paved the way for machinery to take the strain.
The most remarkable new machine was the steam engine. At first the atmospheric engine was used for pumping out mines, but it was not log before James Watt’s steam engine was working looms, powering steam ships and, most important of all, driving railway engines. While all these practical improvements were being undertaken, other progressive people were studying subjects such as physics and chemistry. The early experiments in electricity did not immediately result in practical uses, but of all the features of modern life it is perhaps electricity which has had the most pervasive effects.
The chemists produced things rather more quickly. One was anaesthetics, of incomparable benefit to all of us by allowing the reduction of the pain associated with disease and its treatment. Photography has made the publication of accurate images routine. Advances were now occurring thick and fast. The introduction of telegraphy meant almost instant communication between places as far apart as America and India. Telegraphy was largely the province of the ruler classes, but wireless communication spread this ability throughout society. The first flight by a heavier than air flying machine was followed within a few years by Albert Einstein’s ground-breaking Theory of Relativity (and its more ominous innovation, the splitting of the atom). Antibiotics made previously fatal diseases easily treatable; many people (including me) owe their lives to this invention. It is almost as an afterthought that I mention the first computer and the development of the Internet.
When you consider the enormous strides that have been made in the last two hundred years the prospect of the next two hundred years is almost frightening. This is particularly so when you remember that the last one hundred years have witnessed two of the most destructive and widespread wars that humanity has experienced. I feel enormously fortunate to have lived at a time when rapid progress has also been, for me and most Europeans, a time of almost complete peace. In historic terms wars have devastated most generations. If such a period of peace can endure is doubtful; I am glad that I will not be around to see the future.