My Top 10 Innovations of All Time

by Braden Kelley

My Top 10 Innovations of All Time

Accelerating Innovation Requires Accelerating Knowledge and Insight

Okay, I admit it, I came across the History Channel’s series Ancient Aliens recently and I’m intrigued, mostly because it is fascinating (and frightening) to me how long it takes to develop true knowledge and insight, but how quickly it can be lost.

Leaving the whole ancient astronaut theory thing out of it, it is obvious looking at the historical record that throughout history, civilizations around the world (more than once) have developed advanced scientific understanding only to have their civilization (and its knowledge) destroyed by a natural catastrophe or fade away for some other reason. At the same time, another thing that is clear as we look across our history as a species is that there are certain periods of time during which innovation accelerates and often this increase in the velocity of innovation is linked to an increase in the velocity of knowledge and insight sharing.

The Renaissance coincided with the arrival of paper in Europe, culminating with paper making its way to Germany in 1400 AD and inspiring the development of the printing press in 1450, which then accelerated the spread of books, magazines, and newspapers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Age of Enlightenment coincided with early semi-public libraries that were only available to a learned few, but those few were inspired to create important and transformative thought in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The 19th century was a golden age of invention and innovation, ushering in the era of modern medicine, and technologies like the telegraph and the telephone which enabled information, knowledge and insight to finally travel faster than the horse.

The modern public library, as we now know it, came into its own in the the United Kingdom in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century (thanks to Andrew Carnegie) and new communications technologies like radio and television brought information and knowledge to the illiterate and enabled people to see and hear things they would never have imagined before.

And by the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, human beings had gained the ability to learn from each other no matter where they live in the world, in real time, in words, pictures, and now even through the sharing of videos sharing knowledge and insight, and even by showing people how to do things.

Innovation Acceleration Requires Knowledge Sharing AccelerationIt is my contention that the pace of innovation accelerates when the speed of knowledge sharing accelerates, that knowledge acceleration leads to innovation acceleration. As we have developed more efficient ways of accelerating the pace of knowledge sharing, our pace of innovation has sped up.

It is shocking to think that if you go back only two hundred years as a species we had no idea how disease was transmitted, couldn’t send a message from one side of an ocean to another without using a ship, and that most human beings on this planet would not travel farther than 50 miles from the place of their birth during their lifetime.

Now we can travel to outer space, levitate objects using sound or magnetism, create life, destroy whole cities in an instant, build things smaller than the width of a human hair, and do some other things that even twenty years ago would have seemed impossible.

We are inventing and innovating today at an astonishing rate, and for companies or nations that want to outpace their competition, they should be laser-focused on accelerating the pace of knowledge sharing if they are intent on being faster and more efficient than their competition at innovation. But it isn’t even the speed of knowledge or information sharing that is the holy grail, it is the speed of insight sharing that leads to faster and more efficient innovation, and many organizations mistakenly restrict access to the voice of the customer. And when you cut off your employees from your customers, how can you expect to get anything but inventions instead of innovations?

Braden Kelley Insight Creation Methodology

It is because of these important linkages that I believe the below ten items are the Top 10 Innovations of All Time:

  1. Paper (105AD – Europe 10th century – Germany 1400)
  2. Printing Press (1450)
  3. Telegraph (1837)
  4. Telephone (1876)
  5. Modern Public Library (1850-1945 depending on country)
  6. Commercial Radio (1920)
  7. Commercial Television (1936 UK, 1948 US)
  8. World Wide Web (1991)
  9. Wikipedia (2001)
  10. YouTube (2005)

Caution – We May be Becoming Too Reliant on Technology

But there is a cautionary tale contained in this list and the Ancient Aliens reference at the beginning. You will notice that this list is increasingly dependent on technology – especially the existence of electricity.

What would happen if there was a major natural catastrophe (flood, famine, major volcanic eruption or meteor strike, giant solar flare) and for some reason all of our electrical devices ceased to function?

How much of our accumulated knowledge and technology would we lose?

Despite the growing decline of print and rising usage of digital media, the book has one major advantage, it doesn’t require power to operate. Stone tablets don’t decay as fast as paper.

Should we as a society be transcribing our most important knowledge onto something that could survive a major catastrophe (including the potential loss of electricity for an extended period of months or years), so that we as a species don’t have to start over again as we obviously have had to do in the distant past?

Technology is wonderful and allows us to do many amazing things but we should be careful about becoming too reliant on it, or we risk potentially losing the knowledge that allowed us to create it in the first place.

Just a thought…

And if you are intent on accelerating the sharing of knowledge, information, insight and innovation in your company or country, let me know, I could help with that.

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is currently advising an early-stage fashion startup making jewelry for your hair and is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.

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  1. Without the wheel, neither knowledge nor anything else gets moved very far.

    • While the wheel certainly was incredibly important to transportation and allowing people to move things more easily, no man is an island, and even the wheel would have required more than one person to gather data on the performance of different shapes and materials, turn that data into information, knowledge and the insight that ultimately led to a circle as the most effient shape.

      And so it is that sharing of knowledge and insight that has led to the wheel and every other important innovation that didn’t make my list. 🙂


  2. Very interesting take. I think it ignores the role of transportation innovations in creating initial insights leading to a desire to share and build on knowledge; that lineage is as critical. Similarly it seems facile to ignore electricity given its foundational role.

    Unclear as to why Youtube in particular rates at all, as opposed to, say the innovation of “video sharing.” Or is Youtube included more because of the popularization of casual reuse of intellectual property which they pursued as a deliberate business strategy, which in turn has (perhaps/arguably) critically fueled important questions over IP use and ownership now? (As opposed to, say, the failed Napster attempt)

    • The importance of electricity was highlighted in the article after the Top 10 list. No doubt electricity is incredibly important, but its development and implementation was incredibly social.

      Transportation (or travel) no doubt is a source of inspiration and facilitates enhanced collaboration, but it inspires an individual and without knowledge and insight sharing not much will come of it by itself. Also, again most of the transportation advances have come as a result of knowledge and insight sharing – this is yet another reason why I chose this theme for the Top 10 and my thesis that it is the speed of knowledge and insight sharing that has the most potential to determine the speed of innovation.

      Finally YouTube made the list because it is more than the invention of video sharing, but is a real innovation in that it delivers value above every existing alternative in a number of different ways including embedding (knowledge and insight sharing happens both on and off site), ubiquity (when someone is looking to see how something is done they have a place they know to check first) which leads many knowledge and insight creators to share in this central repository, and simply because of the sheer volume of acceleration incidents it has created in everything from surfing and dance to science and education.

      All the best,


  3. A list of great innovations without air conditioning is incomplete. Air conditioning has been a world-changing innovation bringing heretofore nearly unlivable and unworkable cities into the world community.

    • Air conditioning is no doubt a great invention, allowing places like Dubai to burst onto the world scene, and for all those server farms powering the internet to stay cool. But again, without knowledge sharing the Romans couldn’t have learned from the Egyptians, and onto Gorrie and Carrier of more modern times (though rumor has it that we might have had modern air conditioning 50 years earlier if not for a smear campaign mounted in the USA by the “Ice King”.

      So ‘mis’information sharing also has its own impact on innovation acceleration.


  4. I think the Internet and the airplane are the two greatest inventions.

  5. I’m on the same page regarding knowledge circulation as the cornerstone of innovation!
    In term of inventions related to information, which is closely linked to knowledge, I’m a fan of :
    – Turing machine, 1936, as the foundation of computer science
    – Linux by Linus Torvalds, 1991, as the foundation of Open Source and collaborative innovation

  6. Peter Toft Jølving

    I agree that we are incredibly dependent on electricity to maintain our knowledge-sharing capabilities, but I do not see any threat posed by it.
    The reason for this is simple: Unlike most of the early civilizations that succumbed to various environmental factors, our knowledge is now duplicated across the entire globe. Even if Europe and most of Asia, or the entire Americas disappeared overnight, the setback to global technology would be negligible.
    I’m having a hard time imagining a scenario in which knowledge on how to build and maintain our digital infrastructure is lost, to an extent that we, as a species, would be unable to rebuild it.

    Back to the main point, I like your observation that knowledge-sharing and innovation is closely related. It certainly makes you wonder what the next leap in knowledge-sharing will be and what it will entail.


    • The spread of technology and electricity around the globe definitely helps Peter, but would it hurt to take a few precautions?

      Solar flare, super volcano, and meteor strike are some of the few that would affect the whole planet at once.

      Imagine if you got off a plane in the middle of nowhere with only the clothes on your back and then the plane left. How many technologies could you recreate?

      There is a lovely documentary about one man’s quest to build a toaster – from scratch – and it does a great job of highlighting how much we take for granted, how easy building a toaster seems from the outset (but how impossible it proves) all because of the incredibly interconnected nature of the supply chains for anything you might want to build.

      I too am very interested to see what next leap in knowledge and insight sharing will be, but in reality we have so many tools now that we could accelerate innovation greatly just by actually using the tools we already have. I have some theories though on what the next leaps will be.

      Thanks for the comment!


  7. Terrific topic!

    I to must argue with the 10 selections, but with reservation. The harnessing of electricity,the wheel, steel, are a few innovations that, without having been invented, would pretty much collapse the list above.

    Knowledge-sharing and innovation that created the list above, started around conversations I suspect, that may have been illuminated by candles and camp fires.

    I enjoyed the article.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Jefferson. Because innovation is a team sport, innovation doesn’t occur without knowledge sharing and from standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before.

      For more on innovation as a team sport, see my Nine Innovation Roles:

      For which I crowdsourced a design for a card deck to facilitate group exercises and team learning around the roles we all play and how to build more efficient and effective innovation teams. Soon, because I believe in the power of the Nine Innovation Roles and want to help increase the dialogue, I will be making my design for these cards available to print at cost with the printer I use, or one of your own choosing.

      The only innovation that probably hasn’t come from collaborative efforts and knowledge sharing is probably fire. Which most cultures believe was a gift from the gods (or stolen from them). For whatever that’s worth.


  8. Being, “The Square Wheels Guy,” I would have to vote for the wheel but wonder what life would be like if we were not able to invent ways of dealing with fire, since that probably change all things about our society.

    Airplanes and flying gave us TSA, too.

    And where would we be without gun powder. (Yeah, that becomes a really interesting discussion).

    The discovery of metals (initially copper but then iron and then steel) certainly changed how things are done.

    BUT, as you allude, our discovery BY the Ancient Aliens is probably the biggest one. Check out Gobekli Tepe to see a fabulous example of stone artwork and a monument to (something) that is 6000 years older than Stonehenge or the Sumarian invention of written language. (Oops, there is another one…)

    Braden, you are a brave guy for putting up such a list of 10. And even braver to start with an anchor point of Ancient Aliens! But what the heck and why not.


    • Thanks Scott.

      I’m not sure what I think of the whole ancient alien hypothesis. Being a skeptic, I’m both skeptical of their hypothesis and of the anthropological one. 😉

      Doesn’t help that we’re not able to accurately date things.

      And Gobekli Tepe is yet another great example of things being impossible until – well they’re possible. Our ‘truth’ is constantly evolving, which is very exciting. Given that the pace of discovery and innovation is accelerating, will we reach the ‘singularity’ in our lifetimes? Is Gobekli Tepe a temple or a zoo with elevated walkways where people walked above the animal enclosures, or was it something else all together? Will we live long enough to see some of these mysteries explained?

      I don’t know, but we are fortunate to live in exciting, fascinating, and ‘magical’ times.

      Keep searching everyone (and sharing knowledge and insight)!


  9. Interesting that you chose Wikipedia over Google.

    Can I ask why?

    • There were many great search engines before Google including AltaVista, and many other great ones now including Bing.

      Google is a search engine. Even Wikipedia has a search engine. A search engine in and of itself doesn’t accelerate knowledge sharing as much as knowledge centers like Wikipedia and YouTube.

      Wikipedia and YouTube have provided important platforms for collecting and sharing treasure troves of knowledge.


  10. I would have added the invention of the transistor in 1947.
    All of our modern technology would be impossible without that little device.
    No computers, no internet, no cell phones etc.

    • Hello Steve,

      Yes the transistor was an incredibly important invention. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, but it flowered out of a cornucopia of knowledge sharing that existed at that time (like most other great inventions that have accelerated our pace of innovation) and by building on advances in several other areas that the sharing enabled the creators to be aware of.


  11. You’ve missed something that many others also overlook- population. For instance, should a meteor or plague drastically cut the world population, it all goes away and won’t return. Without the people to run the world shipping, there is no oil, and without oil, there’s no food. Raw materials needed for even basic things will be unavailable. If electricity is cut off for years, it won’t come back. The plants need electricity to start, and they need electricity to keep them in a condition to restart (even wind and solar need it to start). This doesn’t even take into account the upkeep on the electrical infrastructure that would fall by the wayside in the event of a catastrophe.
    Once it’s gone, it won’t come back in several lifetimes. So I would put population at 5 or 6, and drop Wiki.

    • Hello Rusty,

      Your point about population is an interesting one, but population is not an innovation. In fact, we are in need of population control now more than ever as our numbers are growing to levels that are outstripping food and water supplies in different areas.

      And I think that if there was a drastic reduction in population that we would as a species migrate to the places where we had the best chances of surviving and then maintain the infrastructure there (if possible), but we are all so interconnected and if we lacked electricity, a great deal of knowledge would be at least temporarily lost unless we find ways to preserve it and consider building certain core life sustaining technologies in ways that can operate without electricity. There are however many examples of things that used to be able to work without electricity that are being digitized and as a result, no longer electricity-independent.


  12. Excellent article and reasoning! My additions are: the personal automobile, and the Constitution of the United States. The combination of the free enterprise economic system and a free market in religious morality has given us unparalleled prosperity and distribution of that prosperity, both of which have stimulated innovation.
    God bless.

    • Thank you for your comment Robert.

      All very important items.

      Religion and government provide interesting tensions that both encourage and restrict innovation.


  13. An interesting and thought proving article. How about education (schools/colleges etc) as an important innovation, surely this should rate above public libraries in developing knowledge sharing?

  14. Very good post; it really revealed a new dimension to my “triangulation” theory in business. The only thing I don’t really agree with you on were your YouTube and Wikipedia choices for Top 10 all-time innovations. I would of chose Electricity and Phonograph, or even Telescope.

    • The knowledge of electricity, phonograph and even telescope were all accelerated by knowledge of what others had done before and what they were doing at the time, so it is still my contention that accelerations in knowledge sharing drive most inventions and eventual innovations.

      On the Wikipedia and YouTube front, unprompted a very smart teen last night named them as two incredibly important innovations to improve knowledge sharing, from which many examples sprouted of how various people had learned or learned to do things from those two incredibly important knowledge acceleration sites.

      Their power to democratize knowledge and accelerate master and understanding of building blocks are why they made the list.

      My favorite personal example is that I learned how to repair my own vacuum cleaner by watching a YouTube video and so I didn’t have to find a repairman.


  15. Peg Gillard (@gracinginfinity)

    This is great! What innovation I wish would accelerate faster is the Innovative Design and Transformation of 21st Century Education! How do we morph our current outdated educational system into the amazing system it CAN be, personalized to students’ needs and community needs as well as extending education to an entire population, not just kids? Just some food for thought. I’ve been chewing on this for awhile.
    Peg Gillard

  16. This is utter nonsense, pandering to some populist idea that the ability to share information in every way possible makes up the entire scope of human innovation. It’s symptomatic of a diseased society, paralysed by its inability to trade on anything tangible. We trade on information and capital, we pass imaginary numbers around the elite to keep the polarization of wealth steady as a steam train. Of course, far less important inventions like Electricity, the wheel, the compass, or even penicilin don’t deserve a mention. No, not at all. But youtube – the website that gave sweaty and confused teenage minds the anonymity to express their bigoted views whilst watching monkey’s **** eachother! Yeah great job…

    • Love the passion Patrick!

      Thank you for the comment.

      I think the point was not that other innovations and inventions aren’t important, but that innovation isn’t a solo endeavor, it requires collaboration, teamwork, and the sharing of information.

      Without effective ways of consuming new information and sharing new information, innovation cannot and will not occur.

      No matter how much we hold up innovation heroes and pretend that they were solely responsible for an achievement to fool our reptile brains, the fact is that Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs, etc. had whole teams of people working together to make the innovations happen that they get credit for.

      Keep innovating!

      All the best,


  17. I am working on a project differentiating invention from innovation. I enjoyed reading this article, but feel like it uses the words synonymously. How would you differentiate between the two, and could you separate your findings, or do you feel they belong together?

    • Hello Robert,

      I tried to draw a clear distinction between invention and innovation here. Not all inventions become innovations, but all innovations include some component of invention. Maybe my definition of innovation will help:

      “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing alternative.”

      All the best,


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