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The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel

Northwestern historian helps develop top innovations list, argues best is yet to come

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November 11, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr was one of 12 scientists, historians and technologists asked to share his expertise in developing an article titled “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel” for The Atlantic magazine’s November technology issue. 

In addition to the list -- which led with the printing press, electricity, penicillin, semiconductor electronics and optical lenses -- The Atlantic story asked if technological innovation today has hit its peak and is fizzling out. 

While some economists argue that it’s running out of steam, Mokyr comes to a very different conclusion. “If we rethink how technological innovation happens, we’ve every reason to suspect that we ‘ain’t’ seen nothing yet and that the best is still to come,” he says. 

Mokyr contends that the momentum of technological progress has been sufficiently powerful to overcome adversity.

“If you look just at the 20th century, the odds against there being any improvement in living standards are enormous,” Mokyr told Atlantic reporter James Fallows. “Two catastrophic world wars, the Cold War, the Depression, the rise of totalitarianism -- it’s been one disaster after another…. And yet this past half century has been the fastest-ever time of technological growth.”

He also points to the enormous improvement in computing power in the service of science as a catalyst for scientific innovation, and likens it to the way that the telescope and microscope foreshadowed an era of accelerated scientific progress in the 17th century.

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of “The Lever of Riches,” “The Gifts of Athena” and “The Enlightened Economy,” all books that focus on technology and economic growth.