100 Ideas that changed the world

Ideas are funny things. Invisible and weightless, they have no material substance, yet they have the power to change the course of history. Or as the French writer Victor Hugo put it: “One can resist invading armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas”

As a pioneer of science fiction, the British novelist H.G.Wells was especially attuned to new modes of thought. This is why he could say that “Human history is, in essence, a history of ideas.”

The Editors
100 Ideas that Changed the World
History’s Greatest Breakthroughs, Inventions, and Theories

The Ancient World

1. Prehistoric Man Imagines a World Inhabited by Spirits

“The world is alive.” You might say that was the central tenet of the earliest form of religion, one that we generally call “animism.” It’s a term that was coined in 1871 by pioneering British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. He used it to describe what he had concluded was one of the first spiritual intuitions, the belief among prehistoric people that all things, both living and inanimate, are inhabited by spirit. In the animist worldview, not just humans, but animals and plant, rivers and mountains, even stones, – all contain what might be called a soul. In his book Primitive Culture, Tylor explained that primitive peoples regarded this “ghost-soul” when it inhabited a person as “the cause of life and thought in the individual it animates.

For primitive man, it was the desires and moods of the animating spirits that explained many of the phenomena of the natural world, like what they believed to be the anger of the thunder clouds. Sometimes humans could summon or appease those spirits through the use of ritual or magic, the mysterious specialties of the tribal figure called shamans.

Tylor decided that the animist worldview eventually evolve into polytheism. the individual spirit residing in each river, for instance, might eventually be understood as a collective of river gods. But even in the modern world there are culture that retain the animist outlook. Among tribal communities of Africa and the Brazilian rainforest, and among the native peoples of the U.S. and Canada, belief in the multitude of spirits remains a foundation of their religion. And the spirit of animism also lives on in the concept of the human soul developed by many faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

2. A Multitude of Gods Give Way to One God Almighty
3. The World of Mathematical Form Takes Shape
4. Mankind Envisions Life after Death
5. King Hammurabi Lays Down the Law
6. The Alphabet Emerges
7. The Week Gets Seven Days
8. People Learn to Rule Themselves
9. An Enlightened Asian Seeker Founds an Enduring Philosophy
10. A Chinese Sage Creates a Guide for Personal Conduct
11. The Stoics Urge a Life of “Stoical” Forbearance
12. Ancient Greeks Surmise That the World Is Composed of Atoms
13. Socrates Develops a Powerful Means of Pursuing the Truth
14. Plato Proposes a World of Ideal Forms
15. Aristotle Arrives at a Way to Think
16. Does the Universe Go On Forever?
17. The Epicureans Discover the Pleasure Principle
18. The Skeptics Ask: Is it Possible to Know Anything With Certainty
19. The Romans Perfect a Building Block of Building
20. A Powerful Faith is Founded on Christ
21. The Great Religions Imagine the End of the World
22. St. Augustine Explains the City of God

Middle Ages

23. A Condemned Man Attempts to Understand God’s Ways
24. What Is Free Will? And Do We Have It?
25. Muhammad’s Teachings Shape a New Faith
26. Can Images Undermine Truth? Some Would Say So.
27. Mathematicians Discover the Power of Zero
28. China Discovers How to Have a Blast
29. Courts Demand That Detentions Conform to the Rule of Law
30. Verdicts Should Be decided by a Panel of One’s Fellow Citizens
31. The Magna Carta Imposes Limits on the Power of Kings
32. Thomas Aquinas Seeks to Reconcile Reason and Faith
33. Mysticism Pursues a Direct Route to God


34. Humanism Makes Man “The Measure of All Things”
35. Later Generations Rediscover the Civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome
36. Western Artists gain Some Perspective
37. Gutenberg Invents the Printing Press
38. Machiavelli Develops the Doctrine of Ruthless Power
39. Humans Aspire to an Ideal World
40. Luther Leads a Revolt Against Rome
41. Copernicus Turns the Cosmos Around


42. Science Arrives at Its Own method for Arriving at Knowledge
43. King Get Welcome News – Their Powers Derive From God
44. Descartes Hits on a Way to Prove His Own Existence
45. Electricity Crackles to Life
46. Thomas Hobbes Warns Life can be “Nasty, Brutish, and Short”
47. Isaac Newton Deciphers the Rules of the Physical Universe
48. Locke and the Social Contract
49. Vico Develops a Novel Theory of Historical Cycles
50. Deism Proposes a God Who Stand Aloof From His World
51. The Best of All Possible Worlds
52. A Skilled Clockmaker Solves a Serious Problem for Navigators
53. Political Thinkers Propose Dividing the Immense Powers of Government
54. Rousseau Concludes That Man Is Corrupted by Civilization
55. A Scottish Economist Defines Capitalism
56. Kant Delves Deep Into the Mind and Morality
57. Hegel Outlines the Dialectic
58. Edmund Burke Defines the Idea of Conservatism
59. A Remarkable Woman Calls for Women’s Rights
60. All Men Are Created Equal
61. The U.S. Pioneers a Lasting Separation of Church and State
62. Utilitarians Seek the Greatest Happiness for All

Modern Times

63. Romanticism Gives vent to the Passions
64. Transcendentalism decries the Bustle of America Life
65. Laborers Unite for better Pay and Working Conditions
66. Anarchists Envision an Orderly World without Government
67. Photography Ignites a Visual Revolution
68. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Analyze the Capitalist System
69. Nationalism Becomes an Ever More Powerful Force
70. The World Gradually Recognizes That Slavery Must Be Outlawed
71. A Scientific Monk Discovers the Rules of Genetics
72. The Russian Intelligentsia Descends Into Nihilism
73. Charles Darwin Develops the Theory of Evolution
74. Science Discovers That Germs Are the cause of Many Diseases
75. Nietzsche Analyzes Western Culture
76. Pragmatism Declares That Truth Is What Works
77. Sigmund Freud Produces a new Picture of How the Mind Works
78. The Wright Brothers Find the Way to Make Workable Flying Machines
79. Lenin Produces a Ruthless Game Plan for Revolutionaries
80. Einstein Rocks the World with His Theory of Relativity
81. Modernism Explodes the Rules of Literature and the Arts
82. Carl Jung Explores the Idea of the Collective Unconscious
83. Ford’s Assembly Line Revs Up the Age of Mass Production
84. Science Detects a Big Bang at the Beginning of Time
85. The Surrealists Go Forth in Search of the Uncanny
86. John Maynard Keynes Makes Deficit Spending Respectable
87. Fascism Rears Its Ugly Head
88. Television Emerges From the Work of Many Minds
89. A British Genius Hits Upon the Idea of Computing
90. Existentialism Defines an Absurd Existence
91. Great Leaders Prove the Great Power of Nonviolence
92. Atheism Develops a Following
93. Science Discovers “Chaos”
94. Sexual Orientation Becomes the Basis for a Social Identity
95. Behaviourists Discover “Conditioning”
96. Levi-Strauss Discerns the “Structures” of Thought
97. Monetarists Say Money Matters
98. Mankind Goes in Search of Extraterrestrial Life
99. People Begin to Ask: Do Animals Have Rights?

100. A Software Engineer Dreams Up the World Wide Web

It started in the Swiss Alps. The year was 1980. Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer working temporarily at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, was fooling with a way to organize his far-flung notes. Building on ideas then current in software design, he fashioned a kind of “hypertext” notebook. Words in a document could be linked to other files on Berner-Lee’s computer. But why not he wondered, open up his document – and his computer – to everyone and allow them to link their stuff to his. So he cobbled together a coding system – HTML (HyperText Markup Language) – and designed an addressing scheme that gave each web page a unique location, or URL (Universal Resource Locator). And he hacked a set of rules that permitted these documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet.

And on the seventh day, Berners-Lee assembled the World Wide Web’s first browser, which allowed users anywhere to view his creation on their computer screen. He alerted the world by way of a message to a newsgroup and the world came. On August 6, 1991, the web made its debut, instantly bringing order to the chaos that was cyberspace. From that moment on, the web and the internet grew as one, often at exponential rates. Within five years, the number of internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million. Until then, we hadn’t really known what a powerful new tool the computer could be for everyone. Now we do.

from 100 Ideas That Changed The World
History’s Greatest Breakthroughs, Inventions, and Theories
Time Books Special Edition 2013