1999 : WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEA

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Professor of Physics, Institute for Advanced Study; Author, Many Colored Glass; The Scientist as Rebel
Professor of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton

This is a good question. My suggestion is not original. I don't remember who gave me the idea, but it was probably Lynn White, with Murray Gell-Mann as intermediary.

The most important invention of the last two thousand years was hay. In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay. Civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later to Moscow and New York.