There’s not much point writing a story on the best inventions of 2020 (or any other year), without noting that what one person finds remarkable, another finds useless. Depending on your interests and priorities, a levitating lightbulb can be a must-have or just another item to put on the ‘gimmicks-I-don’t-need’ list. In the First World, that list is long.
You can make you own list by checking out Time’s top 100 inventions of 2020 here.
Time highlights inventions that are “making the world better, smarter and even a bit more fun” and evaluates contenders on “originality, creativity, effectiveness, ambition and impact”.
We assessed Time’s list according to our own criteria: is the invention really necessary? Does it help people or the world? We considered the rest as just stuff you’re likely to throw out alongside your underused stationary bike when you clear out your garage.
Here are three 2020 inventions that caught our eye.
Technology that assists nature. Bees are vital to the ecosystem and under threat from habitat loss, climate change and pesticides. The Beehome uses precision robotics, computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to respond automatically to parasites and temperature changes to help bees thrive, all for $15 a month.
“A modular system of specially engineered solar panels that can be walked and driven upon”, Solar Roadways contain LED lights to show road markings but can generate electricity, consist of replaceable panels, contain heating elements to prevent snow and ice accumulation, can communicate with each other and support heavy vehicles with the traction of asphalt.
Of course, the pandemic gets a say in this list. The Virti training platform places workers into high-stress virtual reality scenarios, where they practise responding and receive feedback. Time reports that Virti’s COVID-19 modules taught frontline workers how to wear personal protective equipment, administer treatment and ventilate patients. “A company study found that Virti’s VR-based approach boosted knowledge retention by 230 per cent compared with typical training.”
To put this year’s list in perspective, try on the Popular Mechanics (PM) list of the best 66 inventions of the past 66 years. They start with the microwave oven, in 1955, which originated when a candy bar melted in the pocket of a worker standing in front of a magnetron (the power tube of a radar). PM’s latest addition, in 2019? The massive Elekto Dumper, an electric-powered nine-metre long, four-metre high dump truck designed for mining loads, which produces a surplus of 200 kilowatt-hours of energy per year while saving between 11,000 and 22,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
In 2013, The Atlantic assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology to assess the 50 innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life since widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6000 years ago. Here are the top 10.
1. The printing press, 1430s
The printing press was nominated by 10 of their 12 panellists, five of whom ranked it in their top three. One described its invention as the turning point at which “knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own”.
2. Electricity, late 19th century
Electricity enabled widespread light for the first time and led to seven of the other top 50 innovations, including No. 4.
3. Penicillin, 1928
Accidentally discovered in 1928, it enabled antibiotics to transform healthcare after World War II, defeating formerly deadly diseases.
4. Semiconductor electronics, mid-20th century
The Atlantic calls it the “physical foundation of the virtual world”. Which is much of our actual world these days.
5. Optical lenses, 13th century
The invention of eyeglasses “dramatically raised the collective human IQ, and eventually led to the creation of the microscope and the telescope”.
6. Paper, second century
The transfer of images was “economically unaffordable” until the advent of this now ubiquitous item.
7. The internal combustion engine, late 19th century
“Turned air and fuel into power, eventually replacing the steam engine (No. 10).” Brought long distance travel within the capacity of the individual, transforming road systems, nations and the ecosystem.
8. Vaccination, 1796
Little wonder it took a long time to uncover the revolutionary idea that making someone sick could prevent further sickness. British doctor Edward Jenner used the cowpox virus to protect against smallpox in 1796, but Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine in 1885 finally convinced authorities the concept was indispensable.
9. The internet, 1960s
It was a long time emerging from academic back channels, but when it did it became the “infrastructure of the digital age”.
10. The steam engine, 1712
By enabling train travel, it literally expanded how far the average human could go in a lifetime. Powered the factories, trains, and ships that drove the Industrial Revolution.
Which 2020 inventions will have the greatest impact? What do you say are the greatest inventions of all time?
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