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

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