Many of the objects that we overlook or take for granted have had an extraordinary role to play in human history. From concrete to the cathode ray tube: yesterday’s breakthrough discovery often becomes tomorrow’s trash.

Photography Guy Van Laere

Additional research Hettie Judah


“For over one billion people in the developing world, glasses are a distant dream. Access to eyecare is almost non-existent in sub-Saharan Africa, and highly restricted in other parts of the developing world. It is beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of the world’s growing urban poor. A lack of proper eyesight has direct effects for those affected by it; a reduction in productivity at work, a closing-off of new opportunities, a reduction in quality of life, a possible deterioration in general health and possibly preventable blindness. The greatest barrier to effective treatment is a lack of trained optometrists – many developing nations have as few as one optometrist for every million people. A lack of dedicated facilities and equipment also limits access to eyecare. Compounding this issue, the cost of traditional eyewear is prohibitive for the many people surviving on less than a dollar per day. Global Vision 2020 aims to tackle the vast issue of vision correction globally through the dissemination of self-adjustable eyeglasses through the use of existing aid/development organization distribution networks throughout the developing world.”


“It all depends on how you define important, of course. But to my mind the most important invention is telecommunications technology: the telegraph, the telephone, and now things like the Internet. Until about 150 years ago, it was impossible to communicate with someone in real time unless they were in the same room. Today, in the developed world at least, we think nothing of talking with people on the other side of the world. During the course of a normal working day, many people spend more time dealing with people remotely than they do face-to-face. The ubiquity of telecommunications technology has become deeply embedded in our culture. Of course, life has sped up as a result. But we watch TV and use telephones, fax machines and, increasingly, the Internet, almost unthinkingly. If the mark of an advanced technology is that it is indistinguishable from magic, then the mark of an important one is that it becomes invisible — that we fail to notice when we are using it. That makes the significance of telecommunications technology very easy to overlook, and underestimate.”

© Tom Standage, Science Correspondent of The Economist First published on

“In my view, questions of “importance” cannot be answered without first specifying “criteria of importance,” of “important with respect to what.” Thus, I would give the following answer to your question: “One criterion for “most important” is that which has most profoundly altered patterns of human mating. Changes in mating can affect the subsequent evolutionary course of the entire species, with cascading consequences for virtually every aspect of human life. Although many inventions have altered human mating over the past 2,000 years, television must rank among the most important. Television has changed status and prestige criteria, created instant celebrities, hastened the downfall of leaders, increased the importance of physical appearance, and accelerated the intensity of intrasexual mate competition — all of which have acutely transformed the nature of sexuality and mating and perhaps forever altered the evolutionary course of our species.”

© David Buss, Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. First published on


As nearly as we can tell from archaeological evidence, the wheel was invented somewhere in present-day Iraq or Iran around 3500 BC. That in itself is surprising, because it’s so late in human history. The other odd thing about the wheel is that it stayed within Europe and Asia as long as it did. Wheels were hardly seen in the American hemisphere until they were brought into regular use by European settlers in the 17th century. There’s evidence that 11th-century Mexicans had the concept, but no evidence of its general use. Of course, we’ve lived since birth with a hundred thousand different forms of the wheel. It’s hard for us to imagine what a difficult concept it represents. But look at it, if you can, from the standpoint of someone who’s never seen one. You understand movement in a straight line, and you understand the idea of turning things around. But can you make a connection between the two? Can you conceive of making a vehicle go forward by turning something around? We’ve all played the children’s game of patting our head and rubbing our stomach at the same time. It’s very hard to do, because it’s hard to conceptualize these two very different kinds of motion at the same time. Most of the important ancient inventions seem to have been made over and over — at different times and in different places. Not so the wheel. It seems to have originated in one place and diffused to other peoples and other cultures from there. It was very likely the product of an isolated act of human ingenuity.

© John H Lienhard, University of Houston, voice and author of the Engines of our Ingenuity


A Russian historian, Znachko-Iavorskii, tells a surprising story about concrete and cement. Too many historians of concrete have studied only written documents. That’s not where the story is. The concrete itself survives from Roman times right down through the ages. Znachko-Iavorskii has looked at old concrete all over the world and found that it’s remarkably variable. But chiefly he’s found so much very good cement and concrete that’s been passed over and forgotten. He finds highly water-resistant plasters from the 4th century BC. He finds that egg whites, Cheshire cheese, and sour camel cream were all used in the Middle Ages to make cements water-resistant. He finds a great deal of medieval, and even Roman, concrete that would easily pass today’s standards. He tells us something historians of technology have learned the hard way, and only during the last 50 years. The scribes of kings and emperors didn’t write down the means used by craftsmen out behind the castle. Documentation of ancient technology is very minimal. The word technology itself is a modern concept. It literally means the study or lore of technique. Engineering textbooks — that written lore — are really very new. Consequently, an art that is as base, and yet as fundamentally important, as mixing concrete was learned and forgotten a hundred times.

© John H Lienhard, University of Houston, voice and author of the Engines of our Ingenuity


Around 1000 BC that the Mayan civilisation began to chew and smoke the leaves of the tobacco plant, as well as mix the leaves together with herbs and plants and administer the mixture to the wounds of the sick. Columbus was probably the first European to see tobacco leaves although he did not smoke them himself. A fellow explorer, Rodrigo de Jerez, shortly after, landed in Cuba and observed some of the inhabitants smoking the tobacco leaves. On his return to Spain, laden with heaps of tobacco, Jerez startled his fellow countrymen by smoking in front of them. Never in their lives had they seen a man with smoke coming out of his mouth and nose. People thought that he was possessed by the devil and members of the Spanish Inquisition imprisoned him for several years. During his imprisonment, smoking actually became quite popular in Spain. Pipe smoking and snuff became popular in London during the 17th Century but it wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the cigarette as we know it was manufactured. At the start of the WWII, American president Roosevelt made tobacco a protected crop. There were shortages of tobacco in America and England, as packets and packets of cigarettes were sent to the troops fighting in the war. During both World Wars smoking cigarettes became immensely popular. After the war the soldiers went back home and introduced cigarettes to their families, thereby strengthening the trend.