Simple Inventions

Simplicity is often the hallmark of Invention. A list of several simple useful inventions:

Under what category would you put "Fired ceramics (e.g. pottery)" and "Glass"? These two revolutionized the world by allowing contamination-free storage.

Not nearly as much as sewers and crappers. They directly reduced the human exposure to an extremely toxic biological hazard.

(It took thousands of years to invent those, disproving the senile adage about necessity. Arrogance, convenience, curiosity, observation and accidents are the parents of invention.)

Actually, the early cities of Sumer, Egypt and the Indus Valley had basic sewerage almost from the start, without which a city of more than about twenty thousand people would have been impossible. The Minoan city of Knossos is thought to have even had a form of flush toilet. Roman sewer works were fairly elaborate, but failed due to lack of proper maintenance even before the Empire collapsed; after that, the development of sanitation stalled and even went backwards for centuries, such that (for example) the Grand Sewer of Paris - built in the late 13th century - was far less sophisticated than those that preceded it.

The real development of the late 19th century was the use of closed public sewers, and in making indoor plumbing inexpensive enough to become available to even the poorest neighborhoods. These were social innovations rather than technological ones - and they still have not reached some places today (e.g., Rio de Janiero).

Is the zipper really simple? See for a bit about the history of the zipper.

There are three types of simplicity.

  1. You can infer the essence of the invention from its existence (e.g., spinning thread).
  2. You can internalize the essence of the invention from any artifact which embodies it (e.g., zippers).
  3. Its essence is in you, already wholly internalized (e.g., language), it might not have any artifacts.

I've always been fascinated that the bow and arrow has been invented independently several times around the world. The end result is a very simple tool, but to come up with it seems like it would require some inspiration.

Conversely, the wheel and axle, which is the canonical example of an 'obvious' simple tool, appears to have only been invented once, somewhere in Asia Minor, and from there spread throughout Eurasia and Africa in at most a couple of centuries (and possibly in as short a time as three decades).

Other simple inventions have also been important such as:

And some of the most fundamental inventions in human history,

What's invention?

Of course, those are just from a dictionary and hence useless as a definition or explanation. To start off with, inventions aren't artifacts, they're concepts in human minds. Concepts which had to be discovered and learned by human beings and served a purpose. Note that learning doesn't require consciousness, volition or intention, hence neither does invention. In fact, intentional invention had to be invented at some point, unintentionally of course.

Invention includes new, learned behaviors. People routinely include things like types of literature, new rituals, or peculiar customs under the term, despite their being entirely non-tangible. The term invention includes non-tangible things, and doesn't exclude behaviors so long as they were previously unknown and developed through ingenuity or imagination.

Oh, and anyone who thinks that love, consciousness and other such things weren't invented, that they weren't learned by human beings, ought to refrain from littering this page and take it to the relevant pages. LoveIsNotAnInstinct explains otherwise for two of the most important, empathy and properly taking care of children (that ants feed their grubs doesn't mean people didn't have to learn not to commit casual infanticide). Anyone who simply ignores these pages to raise these questions on a page where they're irrelevant will be presumed to be trolling. Trolls will be deleted.

This page has now been backed up. Changes are all well and good, but null edits immediately after are a matter of concern.

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What's simple?

How are names and social hierarchies at all simple? The former develops in conjunction with language and perhaps some sense of self, which are distinctly non-trivial. Imposing the latter on an egalitarian group would require a total behavior change by just about everyone.

And while we're at it, ropes aren't that simple - at most people couldn't figure out how to recreate one just by seeing the end product, which is the case with all the initial examples. These lists could use some trimming.

How do you define simple? I propose that something is simple if just about anyone could recreate it given the requisite time and motivation. Wire for example is not simple; extrusion is a pretty advanced trick. And even the simplest telescope is beyond most people. Going by that criterion, cloth is simple and concrete isn't.

Cloth isn't simple, either. Do you know how to build a spinner, spin thread, build a loom, and weave cloth with it? (That's rhetorical; most people have no clue how to do any of those 4 steps.)

[I once tried to make my own cloth. The toughest bit was spinning the thread. It requires a lot of knowledge and skill.]

Given sufficient time and motivation, I could build a loom and weave cloth. But then I could probably also extrude wire. I'll take your word for it that most people couldn't.

But keep in mind that anything seems simple to someone who knows enough about it, and is intelligent enough to easily infer any missing details. Above, someone proposed defining "simple" as meaning "if just about anyone could recreate it given the requisite time and motivation", which possibly means that nothing at all is simple. ;-)

Safety pins, paper clips, and perhaps zippers are simple in a very real sense - they may have been difficult to come up with, but once you've seen one you know how they work and how to make them, though your technique may need some refinement. The same is true for things like compound pulleys and Archimedean screws. On the other hand, looking at cloth or mirrors doesn't give you much idea about how to recreate them. This is how I read the initial concept.

Except they aren't. I wouldn't be able to create a zipper, or a pin, or a paper clip, no matter how much time you gave me. The precision metalsmithing required would be way, WAY beyond me. Zippers are only "simple" in the same way that HelloWorld is simple.

I meant that paper clips are simple once you have the prerequisite technology, i.e. enough ability with metal to create wire. The two seem separate developments.

If you go by that criterion then every invention is simple. You just have to subdivide technology finely enough.

That's true. Simple is a relative notion - or, if you prefer, it refers to one of the steps and not to the final product. Isn't the same thing true for inventions, though? The concept of the paper clip doesn't really include that of making wire, it was a new idea about what could be done with wire.

Paper clips aren't simple! Everyone assumes that "familiar, and doesn't look complicated" means "simple to invent". Quite untrue. The familiar form of the paper clip we are so familiar with today took 2 decades to develop under intense competition between different companies. See

Most things seem simple in hindsight. "...the human race took centuries or millennia to see through the mist of difficulties and paradoxes which instructors now invite us to solve in a few minutes." (by Lancelot Hogben) -- dm

Simple doesn't mean easy to come up with. Paper clips may have required great ingenuity to create for the first time, but once somebody's seen one, they can recreate them with little difficulty. If you want, simplicity relates to how easy something is in hindsight.

[NOTHING is simple to come up with. I don't know of a single significant advance in human history that was simple in that sense.

And my response to the other author is that I agree that simplicity is relative. But in that case, complex inventions tend to be called 'designs' and we need a word to refer to inventions that require no pre-existing technology.]

The battery [electrolytic cell]. Oh sure, it's complicated now, but the basic principle was known to the Eyptians.

Canal lock gates are a good example of ElegantSimplicity.

Clay. Use it to build anything.

''I don't really think clay is an invention - which brings me to wonder is ingenious use of an already existing 'thing' an invention or just normal progression?

Rocks aren't an invention, but stone walls are. Clay isn't an invention, but pottery is. I think the author meant pottery.

I don't mean to be pedantic, but you can't use pottery to build anything either. Maybe they were referring to the discovery of the potential of clay rather than the invention of it (which still makes it a discovery and not an invention, like gravity I suppose, which is what I meant about pre-existing things above)

Inventions are merely those discoveries that have a function or purpose. A lever becomes an invention when first applied to a practical task.

"A man can starve in an apple orchard, if he doesn't know apples are edible." - paraphrased from RobertAntonWilson
The battery. Acid + two pieces of different metals = electricity. Even the Egyptians knew about it, without understanding it. Really? How did they observe it and did they make any use of it?

Nope, no use for it. Same with steam for the Greeks; a playtoy at best.

It's generally thought to have been used for electroplating.

Out of curiosity, do Greeks and Egyptians mean different things in this context? The dates given for the Baghdad battery fall within the time period that the Greeks controlled both Iraq and Egypt. Most of the steam power was used in such places. Were the Egyptian batteries also Hellenistic inventions, or do they come from an earlier time period? (For instance, certain tribes in Africa use a certain kind of root which they chew into a fibrous mass before using it to brush their teeth. The softened end of a small splinter was used in pre-industrial Japan.)
Also, the stirrup completely revolutionized war and allowed a devastating advantage, so much so that historians place the military significance/advantage of the stirrup higher than any other military invention at any time, including the atom bomb. Without a stirrup, you can't use a horse except for chariots, you can't use polearms/lances for offense, you can't be as mobile or flee, you can pursue while attacking a fleeing army, the lance renders their armor useless, and a mounted and charging knight was nearly impregnable to any ground-based attack, etc.

"I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, ... Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me." -- Leonard E. Read 1956

So I removed from the list.

Perhaps we could make 2 separate lists - simple to *produce*, once you know the trick; and simple to *use*, once someone has produced one for you. Things like "pencil" and "chipped-flint spear" and "wristwatches" go in the "simple to use" category (but not the other). Things like "alphabetic writing" and "overhand knots" and "batteries" and "crystal radio receiver" and "paper currency" go in the "simple to produce, once you know the trick" category (but not the other).

Straining to bring this back to our topic of software development patterns:

Programmers try to balance two things: making the source file of the program understandable enough to make it easy to make future changes (SpikeSolution, WhatIsRefactoring), vs making the running program understandable enough for the user to use it (UserInterfaceDesign).

Making things easier for the user usually makes the software more complex and harder to understand. The software to ask the user for the time and ip is simple, but the more complex code to implement NTP and DHCP makes the software easier to use.

Occasionally there are exceptions - a programmer has an epiphany, leading to simpler *and* easier-to-understand software with a better user interface.

-- DavidCary


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