Flushing out the greatest invention

The Top 100 list of gadgets, gizmos and devices that changed our lives is headed by an item first used by the ancient Chinese. By William Hartston

Which has had more impact on humanity: the bicycle or the telephone? Is Velcro more significant than soap? Such crucial questions have at last been answered by a survey in Focus magazine, in which more than 1,000 researchers, science writers and members of the public were asked to compile their lists of the most important inventions in history.

The final Top 100, however, is a curious mixture of Inventions that Changed the World (fire, the wheel and steam power come in at numbers 4, 5 and 31 respectively) and Inventions that Enhanced the Kitchen (the fridge, the microwave and Teflon at 27, 37 and 70). Disposable nappies (in 95th place) would probably have earned more votes had it not been for contraception (in 12th). Computers, in second place, have pushed the printing press down to third, but the overall winner, perhaps surprisingly, is "the toilet system".

Now there can be little doubt that proper sewage systems, drainage and soft lavatory paper have been responsible for greater improvements in the quality of life than anything else one can name, but describing "the toilet system" as a single invention suggests that the entire survey may have been out of, as well as in, Focus. The Chinese had some sort of primitive flush lavatory around 4,000 years ago; the first modern water closet was invented by Sir John Harington in 1596; yet could anyone have considered the toilet system worthy of first place in the roll of man's ingenuity before Mr A Ashwell of Herne Hill patented the Vacant/Engaged sign in 1883?

The list taken as a whole displays some disturbing priorities. The widget (30) and carbonated drink (90) appear to show a preoccupation with fizzy drinks, yet champagne is totally absent. Surely Dom Perignon's invention of the cork, which considerably aided the secondary fermentation needed to produce the fizz in bubbly, was worth a mention. And while we're on the subject of drinks, how can instant coffee squeeze in at 100 while teabags are totally absent?

There is no arguing with Da Vinci's genius in inventing scissors (72), but we see no mention of Isaac Newton's greatest contribution of all: the cat flap. And can anyone really claim that the brassiere (88) has done more for civilisation than the wet T-shirt?

Taken altogether, this compilation of the "100 Greatest Inventions" is disturbing if it is seen as the best achievements of mankind. Are nuclear weapons (32), Post-it notes (68) and roller-coasters (69) really our finest moments?

Perhaps, though, our criticism should be directed at the lack of imagination of the compilers. They have, after all, missed the most useful invention of all: the list. Where would we journalists be without it?n

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Turner performing at 93 Feet East
musicReview: 93 Feet East, London
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Extras
indybest
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Content Manager

    £26000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Content Manager is re...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior .Net Application Developer

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

    £14000 - £17500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will b...

    Recruitment Genius: Continuous Improvement Manager

    £41500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee