Name one Really Big Invention since 1970 (besides the internet)

Prompted by:

1) My curiosity about what might have changed in the ’70s

2) My sister’s suggestion that this Andrew Sullivan post might be a clue (we invent ipods now, not particle accelerators)

3) Tyler Cowen’s new e-book(let), The Great Stagnation (talking about America’s slow growth of the last 30 years), and

4) A realization I had a couple of years ago.

Here it is: pretty much every important invention of the modern world — trains, planes, automobiles, air conditioning, antibiotics, painkillers, telephones, radio/television, computers — had already been invented and was in at-least-fairly widespread use when I was growing up in the sixties. The only thing since then has been the internet.

Post-’70 it’s just been distribution, improvements (i.e. cell phones), and price reductions — important stuff, no doubt, but compared to the germ theory of disease or the electric motor? (Arguably even the internet is just a distribution thing.)

Can you think of an exception?

I don’t know quite what to do with this fact, but I would like to know if others think it is in fact a fact, and what you would do with it.







17 responses to “Name one Really Big Invention since 1970 (besides the internet)”

  1. jazzbumpa Avatar

    Lipitor, boner pills, MRI machines, great advances in neonatal cardiac surgery, surgery in utero – how long has that last one been around?

    Outside of the medical world, I’m not coming up with much.

    Reagan wasted the national treasure on totally ineffective – and quite silly in retrospect – missile defense. Did anything come out of that? Lots of electronic and basic science advances historically came out military developments and the space program.

    I coined the term GREAT STAGNATION on my own, and can trace it’s use back to May of last year on my blog, which I’m pretty sure Cowan doesn’t read.. I think I had been using it in comments other places for a while by then. Seeing Cowan co-opt it is pretty damned disappointing.

    Is he worth reading?

    Can you read an e-book on a regular computer, or is it in an e-reader only format?


  2. Chris T Avatar
    Chris T

    The problem is in the definition of ‘technology’. None of those you mentioned are technologies in and of themselves. They are made up of countless technologies that includes not only the components, but the infrastructure required to create them. The measure of technical advance is not how many new words we can create for objects, but how well they perform their intended function.

    The early car was not fundamentally different from a horse and cart. It simply replaced the horse with an engine. The advantage was greater speed and endurance, coupled with less (obvious) waste. The modern car still uses what we call an ‘engine’, but it is far better at its intended function – moving the vehicle. Broadly, the function is no different than what a horse provided, but it performs it far better than a horse ever could.

    As it is, using one nation’s economy to measure technological advancement is silly. The 2000’s had the highest per capita growth in global GDP in at least 50 years.

    Since you asked, a list of new ‘technologies’:

    Polymerase Chain Reaction – 1980’s – Revolutionized molecular biology

    Gene sequencing – 1970’s – Revolutionized biology, particularly when coupled with PCR

    Liquid Crystal Display – 1971 (very crude) – Dominant display type today

    Adaptive Optics – 1990’s – Revolutionizing astronomy, penetrating ophthalmology, and many other fields

    Fiber Optic Cables – 1973 (Modern Structure) – 1981 (economic manufacture) – Utterly critical to modern telecommunications

    Lithium Ion Batteries – early 90’s – Rechargeable with high energy storage density. Modern portable electronics could not be nearly as small without it.

    Economic Shale Gas Extraction – Late 2000’s – Is changing the face of global energy.

    Genetic Engineering – 1973 – Ask a diabetic how important this one is

    Flash memory – 1980 – Ubiquitous for data storage

    Global Positioning System – 1978 (first experimental sat) – 1989 (operational sat) – Modern transportation is increasingly reliant on it (fun fact: Accounting for general relativity is critical to its function)

  3. Dennis Avatar

    Agreed most new “inventions” are really refinements of or combinations of existing ones, but the following two relatively recent innovations jump out in my mind:

    1) OLEDs
    2) memristors

  4. zb Avatar

    First, why do we exclude the internet? Seems kind of like excluding airplanes or cars. Second, cell phones and desktop computers might be “extensions” of something that already existed, but, I think, not much more so than horseless carriages were an extension of horse-drawn carriages. Both have untethered people from places, producing a tremendous impact on how we live and work. Desktop computers have also produced the digitization of information, separating it from physical items in a way that revolutionizes information.

    And yes, medicine has changed, both in surgery and pharmaceuticals.

    I think you’re falling prey to the all to standard version of having walked up hills both ways as a child, only to see lackadaisical effort among the people of today. (We’re also not going to run out of food or energy, though if we’re not careful either of those things could look very different than what they do today).

  5. Asymptosis Avatar

    All: while my reference to ipods versus particle accelerators might suggest that this post is making a normative point, it really isn’t trying to. Mainly observational.

    I think Tyler may have a very good insight (yes, Jazzbumpah, he’s quite worth reading, though it’s important understand the GMU mind-frame within which he operates): we’ve been picking low-hanging fruit for decades. Not just technological, but natural resources, open space, etc.

    Personal insight: as a business owner I have always and everywhere, consciously and intentionally, scanned for low-hanging fruit, and tried to figure out ways to pick it easily and efficiently. My partners and I have always discussed opportunities in exactly those terms. It’s kind of obvious and natural.

    As a society, post-WWII we had this huge quantity of inventions that had not been exploited to nearly their potential. Over past decades we’ve done that exploiting (I do not intend that word normatively). Ditto energy, land, other natural resources.

    At the same time we’ve increased productivity/efficiency immensely — producing more with each piece of fruit.

    I wonder if there’s a useful/enlightening way to plot those two countervailing trends. Somebody’s probably done it, gotta look around…

  6. Asymptosis Avatar

    Oh and Jazzbumpah, Tyler’s book is avail in kindle format. There are free kindle readers for both Mac and PC. Unfortunately you can’t print it out.

  7. Chris T Avatar
    Chris T

    Asymptosis :
    As a society, post-WWII we had this huge quantity of inventions that had not been exploited to nearly their potential.

    You’re still thinking of technology as discrete items rather than as constant refinement. Widespread adoption of a given technology requires not simply that the capability exists, but that it’s economic enough to produce and operate. We have a huge quantity of ‘inventions’ now that are not being exploited to their potential, simply because they haven’t been developed enough to be economically used.

    The airplane didn’t become economic until more powerful engines were developed, better materials came about, and better manufacturing techniques were devised. Ditto the car.

    They only appear ‘discrete’ because you weren’t alive for the development cycle!

  8. jazzbumpa Avatar

    OK. Thanks.


  9. Chris T Avatar
    Chris T

    Case in point: The light bulb required a number of innovations. The filament was developed in 1802, the bulb in 1840, the first patent was issued in 1841 for the light bulb, and Edison then found a long lasting filament in 1879. 77 years of work before the bulb became practical.

  10. Asymptosis Avatar

    Chris: “They only appear ‘discrete’ because you weren’t alive for the development cycle!”

    Point very well put, and well taken.

    I still think there’s been a decline, though.

    One possible insight: pre-1960 inventions mostly affected atoms, not electrons. (Yes, electricity is about electrons, but the machines driven by electricity were about doing things to atoms.) The balance has shifted the other way.

    Atoms are what we eat and wear and live in — our essentials — so presumably controlling them yields highest utility. Electrons in the form of electricity give the power to control atoms. Electrons in the form of data give the power to control who controls atoms.


  11. gfhgdfjy Avatar

    Carbon Nanotubes.

    Ask futurist David Brin. He’s linked to your weblog before: “The the blogger at “Asymptosis” seems an especially bright fellow.”

    Don’t know what it takes to get past your damned spam filter, I’ve tryed posting this message half a dozen times already. It’s absurd. Random paragraph from my quote file (to get past your spam filters failed turing test): “Justice is a product of government, or of individuals choosing the common good over immediate personal gain. It’s an area quintessential market failure. As John Ikerd explains in Sustainable Capitalism, there’s an inherent conflict between the democratic, constitutional ethos that declares all people to have innate equal worth, and the capitalist ethos which declares all people to have only their market worth. It isn’t like we don’t know that the market is shaped by decision makers who think our worth is…less.”
    — Natasha Chart

    One thing is for sure, never posting here again.

  12. Asymptosis Avatar


    Thanks for your post. I hadn’t seen that davidbrin link. Nice to feel appreciated.

    You’re the third or fourth person over the years who’s reported trouble commenting. I assume there are more that I don’t know about. I scan spam logs occasionally, but with hundreds of spams coming in (10,000 blocked to date), I could have missed some valid comments.

    Question: do you have cookies or javascript turned off? I opted for an antispam tool that requires both, instead of requiring users to type catpcha words or the like.

    I’ve written to the developer asking about adding copy above the comments box telling people the gig. (I’m not enough of a WordPress/html/CSS jock to do it myself.)

    But I’m not sure that’s the problem. Would love to hear from you on that. Thanks, Steve.

  13. Chris T Avatar
    Chris T

    Doing what we can do with electrons has required us to vastly expand our capabilities with manipulating atoms. One can’t build transistors measured in nm if they’re not really good at manipulating atoms.

    Personally, I think the ‘stagnation’ is due to the opposite, rapid innovation. Information storage and distribution is one of the central pillars of the economy. It became costless over the last couple of decades sparking an ongoing reorganization of human society (I doubt the industrial revolution would have made much sense at the time either if it the economy was tracked like it is today). Modern macroeconomics doesn’t really know how to deal with something costless.

  14. Jeff C Avatar
    Jeff C

    Chris T. provides some great examples, and emphasizes the importance of thinking about technology as constant refinement.

    But I don’t understand your (Asymptosis’s) observation about atoms vs electrons. If anything, our movement from an industrial age into an information age is making invention & innovation more prevalent. Most of Ray Kurzweil’s projections about “accelerating technology” trends are rooted in areas that are based on information technologies (to which he now extends biological/genetic discoveries b/c we’re largely turning these fields into information sciences as we continue to decode genomes).

    It’s easy to overlook certain advances as not being truly novel (though, most of this willingness to overlook them is probably because we are immersed in their rapid pace of development). An internet-connected computer (cellphone) that fits in your pocket, provides access to almost all human knowledge, and can be afforded by ~5 billion humans has incredible implications. Implications at least equal to the car or train (think, as an example, about how much more quickly communications could be deployed to the 3rd world without the need to invest in landline infrastructure, and how that communication enables things like market arbitrage as farmers communicate across distance; or think about how micropayments & the internet are enabling microfinance possibilities like

    On top of all that, think about the incredible pace at which machine intelligence is being developed and deployed (largely led by the US) — DARPAs Grand Challenge a few years ago blew people away with self-driving cars, and now Google is developing a self-driving car that regularly drives on US highways. And if you don’t think IBM’s Watson QA program (which will challenge two human Jeopardy! champions in mid-February) is about to change the world of R&D (as well as call-centers), you might be underestimating it.

    The bottom line is that there continues to be a huge number of technological developments rolled out every year. It’s just that, similar to globalization, many of these technologies only manifest themselves as either iterative improvements on existing technology, or technology that only realizes its real potential when integrated with countless other technological developments — kind of reminds me of Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil.”

  15. […] the comments to a previous post there was some discussion of inventions that affect atoms (physical things) vs. electrons […]

  16. […] quite taken with the central notion of Tyler’s new mini-book — that America has been picking the […]