Humans just can't stop inventing


A timeline of inventions from the last 2.6 million years

2.6 million years BC

Stone tools began being used. The oldest have been found in Ethiopia. Their invention was an enormous breakthrough for early humans – in this case, perhaps Homo habilis, which had half our brain size size and which may not even be a direct ancestor of ours but a separate human species. Either way, using sharpened stones as tools was a remarkable leap forward.

400,000 BC

Spears came into being. Before modern humans evolved, our earlier ancestors had already got the point and were making wooden hunting spears in central Europe. Spears were probably invented earlier than that, though, as most ancient wooden tools rotted long before archaeologists arrived. Some chimps and orang-utans have been seen using spears.

18,000 BC

There was pottery in Europe, and later in China and Japan. While it may sound like a dull invention early baked clay pottery was revolutionary. Because remnants have survived through the millennia, pots can tell archaeologists a lot about how ancient societies: their religious beliefs, diet, art and daily life. And where there are pots, people tended to have settled down, giving us an idea of the development of communities.

3,500 BC

Historians are not sure when or where exactly the first vehicles with wheels emerged but once the wheel was invented it spread relatively quickly by the standards of the time. It meant that many other inventions could emerge, such as the cog, water wheel, spinning wheel and, eventually, even airplane propellers.


The printing press was invented. There were books before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention but from here on in they became much easier and cheaper to produce which ranks it as one of the most revolutionary moments in human history. Information could be spread quickly, which helped boost scientific research, spread political ideas and eventually moved stories from the spoken word into print.


Three people have been credited with inventing the telescope – but Italian scientist Galileo is most readily associated with it. The telescope was a small device that gave us a big perspective on our place in the solar system, galaxy and ultimately the universe. We have used it to see back to almost the beginning of time and to explore the universe without leaving Earth. Have a look at to see astounding images taken by the Hubble space telescope.


The steam engine came into its own. For about 2,000 years, there were rudimentary steam-powered machines but the improvements brought to it by James Watt were important enough to bring machines into factories and to trigger the Industrial Revolution as well as a revolution in transport. It led to a massive change in how Europeans lived and worked and has been called the biggest step forward in civilisation since the domestication of animals.


The computer wasn’t actually built at this time but an Englishman called Charles Babbage designed a “difference engine” as a way of doing maths mechanically. He never actually completed the cog-heavy device, and it would have been almost 2.5 metres tall and weighed 15 tons, but it is considered the first step on the road to the modern computer. It was eventually built in 1991 (you can see it at


The first words spoken by the telephone’s first caller Alexander Graham Bell were, “Mr Watson come here, I want to see you”. Although plenty of others claimed to have invented the phone, the basic unit – with a “liquid transmitter” a diaphragm vibrated, causing a needle to vibrate in water – brought with it the incredible idea that people in separate countries could talk to each other, something we take for granted today.


The airplane got off the ground. There had been successful non-powered flights (the hot-air balloon was around for over a century before the plane) but there had been many fatal attempts at flight based on flapping wings and other ideas. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to get a machine off the ground. Planes fly through a combination of thrust (engines) and lift (wings that are shaped to force air downwards to lift the aircraft).


In 1925, a Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird, demonstrated the first functional television but, although we take it for granted, it was the end result of advances in X-rays, radio and physics. His original design was soon overtaken by another TV which scanned an image with an electron beam and converted it into electronic signals for transmission.


The laser was a result of years of developement – and there are arguments over who actually invented it. The laser’s name is a (sort of) handy way of knowing how it actually works: its an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. Without it, there would be no DVD players, and it is used in surgery, industrial cutting, telescopes, but not – despite lots of attempts – as weapons.


The internet was originally a American government project but this network of computers would eventually spread across millions of computers and billions of users. It’s hard to imagine that the internet only became popular in the mid 1990s. What ever did people do before that? We should Google it to find out.


The iPod is not quite on a par with the wheel or the internet, but the idea of being able to carry your entire music collection (and some films and pictures) in your pocket changed the way people listened to music and paved the way for the idea of having a music player, phone, book reader, games console and all-round timewaster in one tiny device. It uses MP3 files – in which the music is converted into digital format and compressed to fit onto a hard drive.


50 megatons:The most powerful nuclear weapon ever, Tsar Bomba, was almost 4,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb

3000BC:Invention of ice skates (in Scandinavia of course)

589:The Chinese invent toilet paper (the Vikings who arrived in Ireland used moss)

2.507 petaFLOPS: 

** The dental drill was invented well before you would imagine. This useful, if not world-changing, invention emerged in 7000BC the Indus Valley, near modern India and is a reminder that many seemingly modern inventions have very ancient roots.

** The flush toilet has often been credited to a gentleman by the name of Thomas Crapper in the 1800s. In fact, he just popularised the idea and the flush toilet had been around for many centuries.

The Indus Valley civilisation had very advanced private facilities as far back as 2600BC, with toilets made of brick with coal seats and a sophisticated drainage system.

** In 1998 Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the search engine Google. While it wasn’t a new invention as such, it used new methods in order to be more accurate that previous search engines, which grabbed pages based on the number of times a word appeared on it. Google assesses its authority based on how much it’s linked to and this has made it the most popular search engine – so much so that “google” has become a verb. It needs a million computer servers across the world which deal with one billion search requests every day.

It has also scanned 15 million books (at a rate of 1,000 pages an hour). Its European headquarters are in Dublin.