The Greatest Inventions That Everybody Forgets Exist

Illustration for article titled The Greatest Inventions That Everybody Forgets Exist

Quick, what are the most important technologies in the world right now? If your first thought was something like the computer or cellphone, we get it. But the fact is that a lot of the most important inventions, the ones that underpin our lives, are largely invisible. Here are some of the most life-changing ones.


Top image: Inside Paris' Sewer Museum, which conducts walking tours of the sewage system tunnels beneath the city / ignis

Pulled from your responses to this post, asking for your picks for the most underrated technologies, these are just some of the most ignored (but utterly necessary) technologies that keep our lives up and running:



Refrigeration technology hasn't only changed the way we eat — it's also been huge for both medical treatment and scientific research:


Refrigeration. In any part of the world where electricity is consistently available, mass famines, formerly common, have become a thing of the past and food poisoning is no longer a major cause of death. If things keep progressing, that will be the case globally... and it isn't just for preserving food. Refrigeration increases the lifespan of all sorts of medication, stores biological samples for analysis, and even makes things like superconductors possible. I would put refrigeration on a par with fire in terms of how it has benefitted humanity.


An entire discussion focused on the importance, and effectiveness, of the largely invisible modern sewer system:


Sewers, hands down. Completely unseen by most but have radically changed the health outlook of every human being fortunate enough to live in area that possesses them. The ability to transport waste away from the population and treat it dramatically reduced the risk of lethal bacterial infections such as cholera or dysentery. It has made larger concentrations of humans possible and with it the ability to pool greater talent and expertise. As well as sheltering Ninja Turtles....


Was about to post plumbing, because having running water without the need to go to a well or stream, put it into containers, and carry it where it is needed is a major convenience. Having grown up with a septic system, I agree with your points on sewers - the health benefits are too easily taken for granted!


Yeah I wanted to distinguish between bringing water in, which is simpler technology, and taking waste away and treating not. Roman homes could have flowing water but waste was still pumped untreated into the Tiber. While its easy to remark on the pipes that provides us with hot water for a shower or cool drinking water, the sewers get a much less glamorous job.


I also think that most people don't appreciate just how vast and complicated modern sewage systems are, especially in places like New York where you are dealing with 1.3 billion gallons of waste water a day


The Roads

Both highways (and the materials that make them) are really pretty incredible, as these two commenters explained:

Terror and Love

The highway in itself is rather important. Modern society, our large cities, heck what we consider "small towns" wouldnt be possible without them.

The ability to distribute food through the arterials to feed our habitats is rather precarious. Modern society wouldnt be possible without our distribution ability. We'd be dependant on locally sourced goods.


Concrete. It has been used since civilization emerged, and barring some new techniques and additives, it's pretty much the same. Without it none of the infrastructure for modern cities would exist (sewers, subways, roads, foundations for skyscrapers, hell, even some buildings themselves).

And let's not forget about hydroelectric dams. Without concrete, much of the United States west wouldn't have water or electricity.

I'm not going to even go into China and it's prodigious use of the stuff.

Concrete is everywhere, but so invisible that people routinely ignore it, like air, or the amazing engineering of the modern toilet.



The technological innovations that go into making a simple T-shirt or even the most basic sweater are so improbable and incredible that they would be almost impossible to believe, if they weren't true:


Sewing machines and high speed mechanical looms. Help make clothing relatively inexpensive and vastly less time consuming.

And artificial fibers probably deserve to be on the list as well. Otherwise everything'd all be wool and linen.

Patrick Frawley

Textiles in general are the definition of taken for granted. Fibers woven in cross patterns to create strong, light, flexible, durable material for an endless variety of uses would be considered a massive scientific advance if it wasn't one of the oldest technologies in human culture. It's also one of the first things most of us connect with, being wrapped in blankets or towels and laid on sheets as newborns.


How about woven fabric? Textiles can be used for everything from lacy undies to sails to fine mesh filters to bandages to shelter to replacement blood vessels to machine parts etc etc. I have no idea what the world would look like without them.

Dances with Peeps

I would add an addendum for knitting. Knitting created a flexible, stretchy, often multi-layered fabric that moved with the body.


Clothing. It's so ubiquitous we don't think of it as technology, but it's one of the oldest we have, and it was essential to our success in colonizing the planet. With it we could survive the first winters, avoid hypothermia from rain and wind, burning our skin or overheating from tropical sun, walk longer on less-forgiving surfaces (jagged rocks, hot sand, and so on), and carry our culture with us in pockets and pouches.


Screws and Nails

And, finally, the most basic of tools, nails and screws, are actually some pretty impressive feats of engineering:


I'm going to go way back and say Machine Screws and the precision lathes required to make them. They were one of the unheralded keys to the industrial revolution. Without the ability to make precision threaded rod building engines and pipe fittings becomes exponentially more difficult. They also make it possible to have machines that can be easily dissembled and reassembled for maintenance.

Now we can buy them for pennies, but screws changed the world.


The humble nail. A simple yet indispensable piece of technology that has remained largely unchanged since pre-historic times.


Have your own additions to add to the list? Tell us about them now in the comments!

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An easily portable, nutritious meal. It really was a miracle food that made it possible to hunt, travel, explore further without fear of starvation.