Great Britain

The Top 10: Underappreciated Innovations

John Peters proposed a list of things that have transformed life but often get overlooked. He started off with barcodes and shipping containers, but containers are a well-appreciated innovation: there is at least one book and a podcast about them. So I tried to keep it really obscure. 

1. Anaesthetic. We are literally oblivious to it. Nominated by John Peters and Chris Faux. 

2. Barcodes. Ping. Done. John Peters’ original nomination.

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3. Buttons. Thanks to John Fuchs. 

4. Data centres. Huge warehouses filled with thousands of computer servers. “People do not appreciate the near-instantaneous retrieval times for any piece of information is due to this infrastructure rendered invisible in the ‘cloud’,” said Paul T Horgan. 

5. Domestication of wheat. Changed everything about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to CrookedSt. Similarly, the plough, at least 6,000 years ago. 

6. Pallets. Those wooden bases that make moving goods easy: I know, as a former fork-lift truck driver. Thanks to someone called the Socialist Republic of Wrexham, and Steffan John. 

7. Plastic. Now public enemy number one, but it made the near-universal luxuries of modern life possible. One of several ideas from Tim Harford’s BBC podcast: “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”, nominated by Tom Joyce. 

8. RFID. Radiofrequency identification, the basis of contactless technology. Another from Tim Harford, so not totally overlooked, but definitely obscure.   

9. Stairs. Stewart Slater nominated the lift, without which high-rise buildings would not be possible, but I think the staircase is even more revolutionary. 

10. Trap. An S- or U-bend in waste pipes, invented in 1775, that makes a flushing toilet and hygienic sewage systems possible. 

An honourable mention for Ed Rogers, who nominated Braille, once described by David Clarke of the Royal National Institute of Blind People as “the liberation”. 

Several nominations fell into the shipping container category: transformational but in fact widely appreciated. Wheels on suitcases (nominated by Robert Harris: it’s true that the intermediate technology of lockable trolleys at stations and airports lasted an inexplicably long time); transistors; batteries; contraceptive pill; paper. 

Next week: Songs with months in the title.

Coming soon: Words that began as mistakes, such as syllabus – a misreading of Latin sittybas, from Greek sittuba - title slip, label.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to [email protected]