Which generation has seen the most innovation?

I think many people would consider people born in the last 50 or 60 years to have seen the most innovation, but I beg to differ. Some might even say it was the generation born in the 1920s or 30s. Again, I would beg to differ.

It wasn’t the people growing up in the medieval period, either. Not much changed for centuries, as I understand. 

Much changed in society when the Romans came, and again when they left. The Vikings, too, made their mark, but new innovation, not much.

Change happened when humans learned that flint could be chipped to create sharp tools, and with the invention of spears and spear thrower. These things made it much easier to catch prey. And the discovery of how to create fire was a major (if not the major) discovery of humans.

The domestication of animals and agriculture, too, were major things that greatly changed society.

Which generation do I think has seen the greatest innovation? I would argue that it was those born towards the end or the 19th century.

My grandmother was born in 1878 and died in 1965. Now let’s see the innovations she saw.

  • Edison developed the electric light bulb in 1879, the year after my grandmother was born. In 1881, the first streetlights were used in the UK.
  • With further development of electricity, it became used in domestic homes; something we cannot conceive of living without nowadays.
  • In 1901, the first vacuum cleaner was invented. Before that, carpets (which were not fitted) were taken outside, hung on a line and beaten with a carpet beater.
  • Electric washing machines were invented in 1904. Although there were machines before that, they still relied on hand power to work.
  • 1876 the first telephone was patented. Until it became common, communication at a distance was by letter. Even in the 1950s and early 1960s, not every house had a telephone and people had to go to a telephone box to make calls.
  • 1876, the first usable internal combustion engine was invented. Grandma was born in the age of the horse.
  • In 1888 the first motion picture.
  • 1887. The first gramophone. Known as a phonograph.
  • Louis Pasteur created the first vaccines.
  • 1832 Babbage created the first mechanical calculator.
  • 1885. The motorcycle.
  • 1893. The diesel engine.
  • 1885. The automobile.
  • 1903. The aircraft. And in 1906 the first usable jet engine, although jet power had been known since 150 BC. Steam was used through two nozzles to turn a sphere. But was not put to any practical use.

You could say that there have been many inventions since, but think for a moment. Many of the things we think of as modern are actually simply improvements on these things invented in my grandma’s lifetime.

We now have lightbulbs that are energy efficient, but they are still lightbulbs.

Dyson invented the cyclone vacuum cleaner, but it was only an improvement on the current ones, which generated a vacuum to suck dirt up.

We now have washing machines that not only wash, but spin, too. Some even dry clothes. But they aren’t new ideas.

But we now have mobile telephones. The old ones were fixed to the house by wires. But they are still telephones, just greatly improved and combined with computers.

Motion pictures! They were uncommon in Grandma’s early days. But what we have now, colour, amazing sound, even 3D are simply developments of the original idea. And television and radio. That must have been amazing when it first came into being.

Gramophones have been improved to the extent that we now have CDs and DVDs instead of holes punched in paper.

I might argue with Louis Pasteur inventing vaccination. I seem to remember being taught about Edward Jenner discovering a way to prevent smallpox in the 18th century. But Pasteur did discover the causes of disease and invented a way to make milk safe. It’s called after him. Pasteurization.

Computers, I hear you say. They’re new. No! The first computer was invented to simply calculate tables. It was invented in the 1820s.

Our current cars and motorcycles are simply improvements on the old ones Grandma saw come to light.

She saw the birth of flight, the first transatlantic flights and the use of Concorde.

And not least, in the 1950s, space flight came into being and she saw the first artificial satellites, live transatlantic broadcasts, and first person in space. Sadly, she died not 4 years before the first moon landing, so did not see a human walk on the moon.

I rest my case that the people who lived between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century saw the most innovation.

Do you think there were any other times that saw more? Please let me know in the comments box.


14 thoughts on “Which generation has seen the most innovation?”

  1. What an interesting reflection, Viv. You’re right that so many current innovations are mere improvements on the inventions of the past. I’d never thought of it that way before. I feel like Ive seen immense change in my lifetime – personal computing being the huge one. I wonder what will happen in the next 25 to 30 years (assuming I live that long). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I hate to agree with you, but yes, you do. But it seems intolerance and hatred are increasing around the world with the rise of extreme right wing people being elected.
          Have they forgotten what happened the last time extreme right-wing governments came to the fore?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I think they’re delusional, honestly, and can’t see beyond their own greed for wealth and power. There have always been warped people like that, but why we put them in power is mind boggling. Did you see the movie “Don’t Look Up.” It’s just like that over here.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Exactly. I’ve just finished a book – What We Owe The Future – in which the author makes your self-same point about innovation and its speed tailing off, as is life expectancy. In his view it will only speed up when we grasp the nettle of general artificial intelligence and exploit that properly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thought, Geoff. People seem divided about AI. Some see it as a great innovation, while others see it as a threat. A bit like the Industrial Revolution. Some people, as I am sure you know, went around smashing these new-fangled machines they saw a replacing them in the workforce.


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