The 10 Inventions that Changed the World

The U.S. librarian of Congress ranks history's most important innovations.

This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Thomas Edison liked to say that he never failed. He succeeded every now and again with an invention that would change the world. The rest of the time, he tried thousands of other things with only one fault—that they would never work.

That’s the sort of spirit and tenacity that leads to progress, says Carla Hayden, the U.S. librarian of Congress. The library keeps archives of many of America’s copyrights and blueprints, so National Geographic asked Hayden to list what she considers 10 of the most meaningful advances in history—the inventions and innovations responsible for the trappings of modern life.

Ranking innovations is more art than science. Can you really compare a camera to an airplane? But while progress is incremental, it’s also exponential; it builds on itself. The printing press allowed literacy to spread and thinkers to share ideas and, thus, invent more things.

Modern inventions tend more toward improving than transforming: an app that connects the world in a better way, planes that fly farther, faster. But there’s still room, every so often, for dramatic advances like, say, 3-D printing or the Internet. “There will be more great leaps,” says Hayden. “We have a momentum and acceleration I think we can all feel.”

Top 10 innovations

  1. Printing press
  2. Light bulb
  3. Airplane
  4. Personal computer
  5. Vaccines
  6. Automobile
  7. Clock
  8. Telephone
  9. Refrigeration
  10. Camera