There's an old joke about a group of friends debating the world's greatest invention:
"The greatest invention of all time is the Thermos bottle," one man says.
"Why is that?" one of his friends asks.
"Well," says the man, "when you put something hot in it, it stays hot. And when you put something cold in it, it stays cold."
"Yeah," says the friend, "so what?"
"Think about it, " says the man. "That little bottle -- how does it know?"
The Gallup Poll has twice asked Americans -- in 1947 and again in 2005 -- what they think is the greatest invention ever made. The Thermos didn't show up either time. But in both surveys taken nearly six decades apart, the same response -- electricity, electric light, or electrical appliances -- is named most frequently. Twenty-nine percent of Americans thought this was the greatest invention in 1947*, and 21% think so in 2005**.
The atomic bomb was second on the list of greatest inventions in 1947, at 17% -- not too surprising because memories of World War II were still fresh in the nation's consciousness. However, the atom bomb topped the list when Americans were asked if there were inventions they wish had never been made. In an August 1945 Gallup Poll conducted immediately after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 85% of Americans said they approved doing so. A recent Gallup Poll finds 57% of Americans still approve of this decision 60 years later (see "Majority Supports Use of Atomic Bomb on Japan in WWII" in Related Items).
Twelve percent of Americans felt the radio was the greatest invention in 1947, at a time when television ownership was quite limited and radio remained the primary source of home entertainment for the public. Six percent of Americans each named the airplane and the wheel, and 4% each named the telephone and the automobile.
Advances in technology and wealth in the last six decades are evident in the update of the greatest invention question. The automobile has moved up the list of greatest inventions -- 13% mention it today, compared with 4% in 1947. Computers were in their infant stages in 1947, but now 11% of Americans say computers are the greatest invention. The wheel (7%), the telephone (6%), and the printing press (2%) all carried over from the 1947 list to the 2005 list. The Internet (3%) and medical advances (2%) make the list this year. Radio and the atom bomb are now mentioned by less than one-half of 1% of respondents.
Inquisitiveness and ingenuity have been hallmarks of humankind from its earliest beginnings; from flint tools to the Internet, humans are constantly discovering ways to do things faster and better. In another 60 years, which of today's cutting-edge inventions will still be deemed great, and which will seem amusingly quaint? Whatever other changes occur, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and other electrical pioneers can take comfort in the notion that our need for power is only likely to grow.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 2,791 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted in January 1947. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,002 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 6-8, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.