The lists are in. Now we know what the experts, and regular folks alike, think were the greatest this, that, and the other of the year, century and millennium. My favorite so far has been Time magazine's choice of Albert Einstein as the person of the century. I'm elated that this honor celebrated intelligence and went to a person of ideas rather than some politician, athlete, ham actor, or fat cat businessman. Bill Gates was probably the choice of many, but he's decidedly a man of the moment, perhaps the richest man of the moment. But Gates so far has not wielded nearly so much influence as David Sarnoff, whose company RCA was a dominant force not only in technology but in entertainment, information, and popular culture as well. Now RCA is just a brand name controlled by a French conglomerate.
The list that I found most intriguing was one published in Popular Science, as a sidebar to the "Letters" column of the December issue. To follow up to the yearlong feature on the 100 greatest inventions of the millennium, the editors compiled a ranking of the most popular suggestions from their readers. From bottom to top, it reads: television, the internet, the microchip, the telephone, the automobile, the printing press, the light bulb, indoor plumbing, the personal computer, and electricity, which makes six of the foregoing nine possible.
Bear in mind that the small sample of readers is highly self-selected. They represent subscribers to a magazine devoted to science and technology news, who have and use personal computers with Internet access and chose to participate. So we're probably looking at the opinions of a tiny band of technogeeks.
That perhaps explains the propensity for electronic, telecommunication, and media technologies (seven of the ten) on the list. But I'm not sure how the skewed sample alone explains the absence of any technologies related to agriculture, health care, architecture, manufacturing, or energy. Also transportation and general human comfort got only honorable mention. Surely the airplane and air conditioning have substantial impact on our daily lives. After all, E-Commerce couldn't exist if FedEx doesn't deliver or if the server overheats.
Another remarkable fact about the Popular Science readers' poll is that, despite the appearance that it celebrates contemporary cutting edge innovations, it really is old fashioned. Of the top seven inventions, five are creations of the nineteenth century. One, the printing press, dates from the fifteenth, if you're Eurocentric that is. If, however, you believe that the Chinese can come up with an occasional flash of brilliance without stealing secrets from US laboratories, then the technology is more than nine hundred years old.
As a final note, let me put this list in a human context. More than two-thirds of the world's population has no access to telephones, and only half have electricity. I have no figures on automobile, printing press, or indoor plumbing diffusion, but I guess that those numbers are low as well. So at the turn of the third millennium, most of the people on earth have yet to experience practically all of these ten greatest inventions. To me, that's a sobering thought. To the technogeeks who composed the list, it's probably a heckuva marketing opportunity.