The age-old question, “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” has been debated for many years without any kind of consensus, so there’s probably not a perfect answer.

Rather, let’s select the five greatest inventions of all time.

First, though, let’s establish some criteria:

1. The number of people who use it or benefit from it.

2. Its impact on society. For example, does it save lives?

3. Its place on the historical timeline: Would this invention be possible without a previous invention?

We won’t consider developments such as fire, the wheel, the alphabet or the spoken language because these are considered to be discoveries rather than “inventions. Electricity could be classified as a discovery, too, but we include it in this column because of the subsequent electrical inventions that harnessed the power of electricity.

The top contenders, in no particular order, are:

• Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (invented in the mid-1400s)

• The discovery and use of electricity

• Indoor plumbing (early records place its origin between 2,500 and 1,700 B.C.)

• Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (1876)

• Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb (1879)

• Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin (1928)

• The mass-produced automobile

• Computers

• The Internet

Using a process of elimination, criteria No. 3 (its place on the historical timeline) eliminates the Internet because it would not exist without the discovery of electricity, the invention of the telephone and computers. Computers cannot be considered the most important invention of all time because they depend on electricity.

While the light bulb and the telephone have each been considered by many to be the greatest invention ever, neither one would have been invented without electricity. So these two get voted off the island for the same reason as computers and the Internet.

So what are the five most important inventions in history?

In my opinion, they are the printing press, electricity, indoor plumbing, the automobile and penicillin. These have all impacted millions of lives in a positive way, and none of them required the use of a previous invention.

Penicillin has saved millions of lives since Fleming discovered it by accident in 1928. It also plays a major role in treating illnesses such as pneumonia, rheumatic fever and scarlet fever. In addition, it was the foundation for discovering many other antibiotics that are used today.

Prior to the widespread use of indoor plumbing, many people died of dysentery, cholera and other sanitation-related diseases. There are no exact figures on the number of lives that have been lost due to a lack of indoor plumbing, but it’s been estimated to be in the millions worldwide. In terms of an invention’s impact on society and its ability to save lives, I believe indoor plumbing is even more important than penicillin.

Many of today’s major inventions would not have been possible if the inventors had not received a good education. Gutenberg’s printing press brought us movable type and type-written books in the mid-1400s, and is considered by many to be the greatest invention ever. Prior to the printing press, only the nobles and the wealthy had access to the kind of education that books afforded. Gutenberg made education available to the common man with the printing press, just as Henry Ford’s mass production of the automobile has changed the world in many ways. He made them available to the common man when he developed the concept of assembly line production.

We all know that electricity has led to the development of everything from street lamps, indoor lighting, refrigerators and other household appliances, radio and television, the power to run our homes and workplaces, telephones, computers and the Internet, just to name a few. Not much else needs to be said about the importance of this invention.

So in terms of an invention’s impact on society AND the number of people who have benefited from it, the five greatest inventions of all time, in my humble opinion, are the mass-produced automobile, penicillin, indoor plumbing, printing press and electricity.

Keep in mind that there are millions of people in underdeveloped countries who do not benefit from these inventions. Regardless of what you believe is the greatest invention of all time, there will be additional inventions in the future that will have people still debating this topic 100 years from now.

© 2009 Paul Niemann. This story is part of the Invention Mysteries series by author Paul Niemann. For more information, visit

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