Toward the end of the twentieth century we saw countless inventories of inventions and achievements—the top twenty scientific breakthroughs of the millenium, the fifty most important people of the century, and so on. I am of two minds when I look at such lists. On the one hand, they rightly celebrate and draw our attention to much good that has been done. On the other hand, as we noted in Chapter 4, a vast portion of real accomplishment goes on below our level of perception. That point recurs in Chapter 14. So much of the creativity that defines us as people is inevitably left off such lists. It would be a futile exercise to correctly identify any definitive list of the most influential machines of all time. Yet some inventions really are landmarks. I have selected from among the first year’s Engines of Our Ingenuity radio programs a set of starting points that strongly propagate forward in time. Some might be obvious choices; others might not. But each can rightly be called a landmark because it sits squarely on some major highway of subsequent development. There is, of course, only one place to begin such a list, and that is with the great progenitor of machines—the first machine most people will name. We begin with the wheel, which has become such a universal and familiar icon of our technological world that we forget the enormous conceptual leap it embodied. The wheel was almost surely invented somewhere within the borders of present-day Iran or Iraq, five and a half millennia ago. That in itself is surprising because it happened so late in human history. The wheel was also confined within Europe and Asia for a long time. Wheels were hardly seen in the American hemisphere until European settlers began bringing them into regular use in the sixteenth century. There is evidence that the eleventh-century inhabitants of what we now call Mexico had the concept, but we have no evidence of its general use. Of course, you and I have lived our entire lives with a hundred thousand different forms of the wheel.
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