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Ask Slashdot: What Was The Greatest Era Of Innovation? (nytimes.com) 177

speedplane writes: The New York Times is running a story on innovation over the past 150 years. [The story starts at the end of the American Civil War with the newly completed transcontinental railway in the 1870s. Then it highlights the profoundly different lifestyle of the 1920s, the end of 'The Great War' and the beginning of the Great Depression. By the 1970s, many of the transportation and communication changes from the 20s became fundamental parts of daily life. The story ends in 2016, an era in which human life has changed the most in the last 46 years.]

We're in the golden age of innovation, an era in which digital technology is transforming the underpinnings of human existence. Or so a techno-optimist might argue. We're in a depressing era in which innovation has slowed and living standards are barely rising. That's what some skeptical economists believe. The truth is, this isn't a debate that can be settled objectively.

What do slashdotters think is the greatest era of innovation?


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Ask Slashdot: What Was The Greatest Era Of Innovation?

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  • Humanity had reached a point of superior self satisfaction that God destroyed their civilization to dust. I would dare say there have been many 'era's of great innovation but keeping in the modern times I would say from 1850-1950.
    • PS. Screw the ny times. Walled garden POS. I democratically reject your republic.
    • The truly greatest era of innovation was when a human picked up something and defended itself from a predator, successfully; then thought, "I will try this again."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 13, 2016 @07:44PM (#52109035)

    Oh, oh, I know this one!

    3500 BC was the greatest era of invention.

    Why 3500 BC, you ask?

    The (approximate, of course) invention of beer.

    Go ahead, tell me of a greater one. Can't, can ya?

    • by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @09:16PM (#52109489) Homepage Journal

      3500 BC was the greatest era of invention. Why 3500 BC, you ask? The (approximate, of course) invention of beer. Go ahead, tell me of a greater one. Can't, can ya?

      People will no doubt laugh at this, but it's actually a good observation (though we should include wine in the list). The reason is simple: We humans need to ingest a fair amount of water each day to stay healthy. But historically, water itself has been rather dangerous stuff. Consider all the other people and animals upstream who have been using it for both bathing and disposing of waste of various sorts. Do you want to drink that water? Not if you want a long, healthy life.

      Part of the year, our ancestors could get some of the needed water by consuming fruits, which are high in water. But they mostly don't keep very well, and they spoil. Fermented juices have their sugars partly converted to ethanol, which is toxic to most of the spoilage micro-organisms, so the resulting wine or beer is much less likely to spoil. (If it does, the result is often vinegar, which is another way of preserving the juice in a way that's safe for humans to consume).

      It's pretty well understood among historians, anthropologists, etc., that fermentation processes were a significant part of our ancestors' development into a long-lived species that eventually dominated much of the planet. Yes, it's fun to get drunk, and to joke about getting drunk. And some other animals can get drunk, since ripe fruits often contain around 1% ethanol. (I've read some funny stories about groups of elephants getting a bit tipsy from the consumption of ripe fruit. Imagine a crowd of drunk elephants partying in your neighborhood. ;-) But the fact is that ethanol-laced liquids are historically an important part of our history, because ethanol provided a way to make those liquids safe to drink.

      There was a fun study some time back, in which some researchers traveled around the world, stopping in various eateries, ordering food, and taking it back to their hotel room to feed to the lab equipment they'd brought along. They were testing it for safety (and ate the food that passed their tests ;-). Their main summary of their results was that, if you want a simple rule for ordering something safe to drink, no matter where you are, order beer. They didn't always like the beer everywhere, but their tests never found beer that was unsafe for human consumption. Wine was in second place, but they did find contaminated wine in a few places.

      The explanation seems to be that, as anyone who has tried brewing beer knows, you have to be really careful about cleanliness during the brewing, or you get an awful-smelling glop that nobody will drink. With wine, the process seems easy, and you can get good-smelling wine by just letting the fruit juice (with perhaps added yeast) ferment, but sometimes the result has contaminants that aren't obvious. But with beer, this doesn't work; you have to boil it all to sterilize it, add a yeast culture, make sure that stuff floating in the air can't get into the containers, or everyone will know that you've failed the instant they sniff it. So beer probably is the most significant brewing achievement in human history.

      • But historically, water itself has been rather dangerous stuff. Consider all the other people and animals upstream who have been using it for both bathing and disposing of waste of various sorts. Do you want to drink that water? Not if you want a long, healthy life.

        Plus, fish fuck in that water. That's why I stick to beer and brown liquor for my hydration needs.

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        Just one comment/correction, for the most part people did not drink beer/wine as a substitute for water, they drank a heavily watered down version with the alcohol working as a disinfectant. I don't think even the small elite that could afford it drank the "real deal" all the time, because of the intoxicating and dehydrating effects. That would typically be for celebrations and ceremonies and other festive events. So having decent water to begin with was very important, whether it came from wells, rainwater

      • Don't forget Pizza....

        Personally, my vote is for the Internet age. Love it or hate it, it provides a bridge for interaction with far-off loved ones, different cultures, and has huge implications for education. Yes, there are negatives, much like there are negatives to beer (specifically consuming too much).

        Plus, it was built largely on Beer and Pizza, so you know that it HAS to be important... (grin)

      • because ethanol provided a way to make those liquids safe to drink

        Same for tea, being made with boiling water.

        • by jc42 ( 318812 )
          Yup, and I've used the same explanation for why I'd prefer coffee to plain water. Water is just boring; adding a bit of flavor (with or without the mild stimulation of the caffeine) makes it more palatable. Any tasty plant material will work. I've also run across the same explanation for why soups of various kinds are so common in most of the world. They have fewer nutrients than their ingredient, so why not just heat up and eat the meats and veggies? Well, you need a good amount of water in your diet, a
  • 1870s to 1970s (Score:4, Interesting)

    by QuantumLeaper ( 607189 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @07:53PM (#52109073) Journal
    My grandmother lived in a time where she saw the invention of the Horseless carriage to man landing on the moon. Thing I have seen man land on the moon, but what have we done since then? That would top that?
    • It's not fair to compare a 100 year period to a 46 year period. (the time "since then") I strongly suspect the period from 1970 to 2070 will see changes your grandmother wouldn't dream possible even after seeing all that. Driverless cars, brain integrated internet access, thought controlled devices, strong AI, a global end to poverty-related suffering and an active, healthy Mars colony aren't any real stretch of imagination for the next 50 years.
      • It's not fair to compare a 100 year period to a 46 year period.

        No problem, we can compare a 50 year period. My grandfather would express a similar sentiment but he would use a starting point of the WW1 era airplanes he saw as a child that were little more than "kites with engines", made of wood and cloth, to the Apollo 11 moon landing as an endpoint. So if you want 46 years then we can go to a little past WW1, 1923. I think the aircraft nearly all people would see in the sky would still be the wood and cloth type, although I think a metal skinned monoplane first flew n

      • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

        a global end to poverty-related suffering

        There's far too much profit [wbur.org] in poverty [theguardian.com] for that to happen.

    • what have we done since then?

      Eradicated smallpox. Not as sexy as landing on the moon but certainly as difficult, more practical, and probably more dangerous.

      Trivia: I will never forget the moon landing, mum let me have the day off school to watch it at home, I was so enthralled by the broadcast that I accidently sat on a plate of spaghetti.

      • by U2xhc2hkb3QgU3Vja3M ( 4212163 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @09:05PM (#52109441)

        Trivia: I will never forget the moon landing, mum let me have the day off school to watch it at home, I was so enthralled by the broadcast that I accidently sat on a plate of spaghetti.

        One small sitting for the boy, one giant mess for the mom.

      • Re:1870s to 1970s (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Evtim ( 1022085 ) on Saturday May 14, 2016 @01:52AM (#52110399)

        Maybe not sexy but certainly recognized by the whole world. I just read the story of Edward Jenner [1749-1823] - the father of vaccination, in the excellent "Book of the dead" from the QI guys. When the world started using his approach and saw the results this humble, great human, who disliked the fame and never tried to capitalize on it, who kept on working quietly to the rest of his days was hailed, respected and adored perhaps more than any other human in history [apart from religious figures, I guess].

        British MP said that every foreigner - commoner, diplomat or dignitary he meets first asks him how is Jenner doing...Jefferson was ecstatic and highly complimentary...Jenner was presented to and awarded honors by the most powerful rulers in the world from US to Russia and more or less everyone else...even Napoleon released two captured Brits because Edward wrote him a letter [one of the captives was a relative of him]; Napoleon exclaimed "Ah, Jenner, I can refuse him nothing"

        The day that we should always remember is 14th May 1796 [hey, today is the 220 anniversary, that's great!!!] - on this day he took discharge from the hand of a milkmaid who had cowpox and used it to immunize 8 year old boy who acquired then complete immunity to smallpox. No-one knows what happened to the milkmaid [Sarah Nelmes] but the hide of her cow Blossom is still in St George hospital...

        Edward Jenner - what a man!

        • Not to denigrate Jenner -- who deserves loads of credit. But innoculation with cowpox or a mild form of smallpox was commonly practiced in the American colonies in the 1770s. In point of fact after an early period where the practice of innoculation was forbidden by George Washington, recruits to the Continental army were deliberately infected with a mild strain of smallpox upon enlistment. http://www.mountvernon.org/dig... [mountvernon.org]

      • "accidently sat on a plate of spaghetti"...BEHOLD, a truly religious experience. As Man walked on the Moon, you were touched by His Noodly Appendage.
    • We used a rocket crane to land a nuclear-powered robot the size of a Buick on the surface of Mars.

    • You're talking about technological greatness, in a discussion about Innovation. Yeah landing on a moon and getting a horseless cart is a great achievement, but in terms of innovation I don't think it comes close to the invention of electricity in the preceding generation, or the invention of the train.

  • by RyanFenton ( 230700 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @07:55PM (#52109089)

    Let's see...
    What is, THE FUTURE, Alex?

    I'm thinking innovation scales with population, available tools, recorded experience, and accessible resources - all of which are still increasing.

    In fact, almost every measurable aspect of human life is actually improving over time so far.

    Combine the increasing effects of the Flynn effect, drastically reduced violence over time, automation, increased health standards, and I can't see how the immediate future won't continue the increase in innovation over time.

    Not that this is news of course. It's so not news, that you barely even hear of it - and why it's actually so hard for many folks who don't pay attention to science and statistics to even believe. To most folks, the only science news they hear about the future is climate change and extiction rates - both of which are true, but are NOWHERE near a complete picture that science shows us. We've got a lot to fix, but compared to vast stretches of planetary history where single populations explode and take over the biological landscape, we're doing amazing.

    Which is also why the future of innovation is important.

    Ryan Fenton

    • Personally I am afraid that once the rich get their solar charging flying death robots and wholly robotized economy theyre gonna off all the serfs who just became irredeemably worthless as anything but fertilizer due to human labour in general becoming obsolete.

      Why bother keeping sheep around if they can't grow wool anymore?
      • Personally I am afraid that once the rich get their solar charging flying death robots and wholly robotized economy theyre gonna off all the serfs who just became irredeemably worthless as anything but fertilizer due to human labour in general becoming obsolete.

        Why bother keeping sheep around if they can't grow wool anymore?

        Solar charged flying death robots are actually pretty easy to defeat with 99-to-1 odds in your favor. How? Throw crap at them. Or mud. And if there's one thing that us descendants of

  • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @07:55PM (#52109091)
    The world went from the horse and buggy age to the jet/atomic age in 30 years. Huge innovations in electronics, transportation, medicine, everything, in one generation.
    • Pah. Horseless schmoreseless. Compare that to the last 30.

      We've:
      Taken things that already exist and done them with a computer.
      Taken things that already exist and done them over the internet.
      Taken things that already exist and done them on a phone.

  • WWI and WWII (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Morpeth ( 577066 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @08:00PM (#52109121)

    Sad but I think true. The burst in technological, medical and scientific discovery during huge conflicts has been pretty remarkable. Humans, we are a strange beast.

    • Sad but I think true. The burst in technological, medical and scientific discovery during huge conflicts has been pretty remarkable. Humans, we are a strange beast.

      Don't forget the Cold War. Its why we had a space program.

    • "WAR! What is it good for?" my answer..."technological innovation!"
  • Ask Slashdot: What Was The Greatest Era Of Innovation?

    Whatever obscure era anyone is unlikely to suggest so I can appear smarter than everyone else.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @08:15PM (#52109203) Homepage

    Sorry, but you could live quite okay in 1980 without the PC, Internet, cell phones and whatnot. Go back and consider what life was like before you had phones, TV, cars, electricity and so on and you'll find many aspects of life sucked or was incredibly inconvenient. If I compare computer games made in 1985, 1995, 2005 and 2015 what will be the biggest difference? The first decade, of course. Cassette/LP to CD was a much bigger leap than CD to MP3/AAC, VHS to DVD was bigger than DVD to BluRay and so on. No internet to dial-up was bigger than dial-up to fiber. It's nice that we make things even better and more efficient and convenient, but there's a diminishing return. Which is not to say I feel we're done and won't make much more progress, but for the most part we're swapping out something that worked quite okay already for something better.

    • by arcade ( 16638 )

      Oh Kjella, how I disagree with you!

      The leap from LP -> Cassette -> CD -> Music DVD -> Music BlueRay/whatever are much smaller than the leap from [Physical media] -> [small convenient files]

      You can argue that the CD was digital and didn't require special ripping, you could just read the bits of'em and then play them from a computer. Except most computers didn't have 600MB drives in the 80s when the CDs started appearing. Those weren't common until around the mid 90s. And who would want to u

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @08:29PM (#52109283)

    A surge of innovation occurs when sociopolitical conditions, infrastructure, education and sources of wealth mesh in just the right way. Victorian Europe was one such time, when Britain, French and Germany blasted into the industrial age by feeding on each other's inventions. The US from 1865 to 1914 and 1942 to 1970 is another example. In these cases, war pushed technological development which nourished a generation of peace and civilian development to follow. Right now, it's China. Will India be next?

  • Of course everything builds on everything else but I have to think the biggest period of innovation has to be the mid 1800s when we started learning how to harness electricity and develop higher speed communications (telegraph, telephone, radio) up to around the 1950's when transistors and digital computers were developed.

  • Specifically, Intel and the invention and development of the microprocessor. Pretty much our entire world is now built upon that keystone.

  • It changed how people bought, stored and prepared food.

    • toilet paper beats that, I'm telling you.

      Although to be honest, the one thing I can't figure out how to do without in case of the fall of civilization, are toenail clippers. I don't think people used knives to clip them.
      • by jc42 ( 318812 )

        ... the one thing I can't figure out how to do without in case of the fall of civilization, are toenail clippers. I don't think people used knives to clip them.

        Actually, if you have a good whetstone (and know how to use it), you'll find that a small knife works just fine for trimming nails, both finger and toe. I've used my Swiss Army knife's small blade for just that purpose a few times while on vacation without a nail clipper. The small knife blade actually works better than the small scissors that are part of the package. You do need to be a bit careful, of course.

      • by Whibla ( 210729 )

        What's wrong with your teeth?

  • The innovation during industrial revolution changed workers' lives, from agricultural work to industrial work. That was not more pleasant job, but since it produced a lot, workers got access to new goods and life standard. Further innovation reduced industrial work and increased less harsh office jobs.

    Now innovation is killing jobs while concentrating wealth. We still innovate, but innovation is less able to improve people's lives.

  • 1900 to 1946:
    Radio
    Television
    telephone
    antibiotics
    Women suffrage
    domestic refrigerators
    automobile
    air travel
    electricity distribution networks

    What we got in the 1970 to 2016 period is really cool, but it's just toys compared to the changes the first half of the 20th century brought us.

  • by kilodelta ( 843627 ) on Friday May 13, 2016 @09:38PM (#52109555) Homepage
    I'd have to say the invention of the transistor was the most transformative thing to happen to society. Prior we had vacuum tubes sure but they were power hungry devices that made portable electronics impossible.

    The transistor changed everything. It also allowed the device on which I'm posting to come about. A device admittedly a bit dated already but still enough to allow me to multi-task, listening to music, watching video, etc. And to continue the line of thoughts - the computer has invaded every aspect of life itself. All because of the invention of the transistor.
  • 13.7 Billion years ago.

  • ..now.

  • I refuse to believe that the best is behind us.
  • Seeing that I could probably patent wiping my ass and successfully defend it in a East Texas court, we can now ignore patent counts as even the vaguest measure of innovation. All they now measure is the number of strip mall lawyers who want to extort from anyone who even vaguely approaches innovation.

    I would measure innovation as something where a previous generation of maintenance people would not understand the new technology. A car mechanic from 1950 would have little problem working on a modern day ga
    • Obviously relativity would blow the mind of a physist of 1950.

      Aside from the fact that the expression didn't come into common use until about 20 years later, it sure would--he'd think you were a generation behind.

      (The concept of "relativity" as used in modern physics dates from 1906.)

  • Historians will look back on our last four and next few generations and marvel at what we've accomplished.
  • That's when the innovation that allowed humanity to make a 5,000 year leap in progress in just around 200 years occurred.

    When the idea that the people granted limited power/permission to their government instead of the reverse became a founding principle of a nation. After that occurred humanity went from sails, horses, and carriages to jets, computers, and moon landings in just over 200 years.

    Strat

  • 2020, when AI computers capable of real thoughts, with IQ greater than what humans can perform, start to appear. Then it won't take long for human beings to be completely overwhelmed.
      • There are always clever people to teach us what we cannot do. Fortunately some even more clever and intuitive people find innovative and revolutionary ways to achieve what we were told is impossible to do.

        • That's not a very sophisticated argument. You probably didn't even read my link.
          • That's not a very sophisticated argument

            Agreed.

            You probably didn't even read my link.

            Read it quickly, and did it again just now. Interesting and documented article, thank you. However sticking to the brain structure, understanding what we don't understand off of it, evaluating its complexity (keeping CS complexity in mind), and, in brief, summarizing why the brain is way above nowadays computers / algorithms (which structure depends deeply upon what the hardware is capable of doing/being programmed) capacities is saying - besides being a valuable observation - "we cannot copy the bra

            • But in a way this article proves my point: to achieve human IQ, some people will be interested in copying/mimicking the brain functioning - which is considered impossible today - and say: can't do. Some other people will be interested in achieving a high IQ through completely new different/innovative/revolutionary methods.

              None of which has anything to do with your 2020 projection, and that is the point.
              Sure it may happen in 2020, or 2120 or 2220. There is no reason whatsoever to pick one of those dates over any other.

  • 500k BCE: 1st hominid catches on fire while dancing.
    1931: Electric guitar invented.
    1997: Zenith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    2016: The End: Clinton, Trump, Radiohead.

  • ...when western civilization collectively pulled its head out of its ass from the superstitious dark ages and entered the age of reason.
  • Early 20th C (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tsotha ( 720379 ) on Saturday May 14, 2016 @12:28AM (#52110217)

    My grandfather didn't see a car until he was full grown, and before he died we had transistors, nuclear weapons, antibiotics, and had landed a man on the moon. It's not even close. People in the 1950s and 1960s thought we'd have ray guns and FTL ships by now because they were projecting from the state of innovation in their time.

  • We're jaded (Score:5, Insightful)

    by grasshoppa ( 657393 ) <skennedy@COLAtpno-co.org minus caffeine> on Saturday May 14, 2016 @01:01AM (#52110297) Homepage

    Obviously we're jaded; were we not, we'd recognize that since the advent of the internet, our ability to share data has revolutionized the world and our own capabilities. There is no real end to this in sight.

    Our greatest days are in front of us, not behind, as people truly begin to leverage the communication capabilities of the internet.

  • ...on how you rate the innovations from the various eras.
    The development from mass starvation to beinga ble to feed the polulation is obviously more important to most people than the iPhone.
    So the question cannot really be answered, as each era haas had its innovations which were really important at the time, while may seem trivial now.
    It is also important to note that most innovations depend on previous innovations, so you rate one innovation without knowing what it is based on.
  • - big jump in 1850s with railroads and modern corporation - last new machines jets, rockets, atomics, tvs, computers by 1950s. They've only changed in degree since then. - the worldwide internet and mobile computer came late 1990s and early 2000s -
  • This article says an era is 50 years. Others mention broad periods like the stone age. I suggest an era is length of direct eyewitness: your grandfathers stories of his grandfather's life compared to your life. For the vast amount of human history, there'd be nearly no change during these five generations.
  • Everyone knows the history of the US is obscenely distorted by racist spin on the contributions of disadvantaged minorities such as George Washington Carver. But no one, till now, has revealed the truth behind the real founders of Silicon Valley and why all those Spoiled American Boomer Engineers who are flying their planes into IRS buildings and the like have only themselves to blame for the great need for more immigration to save the US economy.

    Read on for the revised history of Silicon Valley

    FAIRCHILD 5

  • Look at what happened in this period:

    1. The rapid expansion of railroads worldwide.
    2. The development of electricity (both DC and AC).
    3. The development of the automobile.
    4. The development of the telegraph and eventually telephone.
    5. The development of radio.

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