Some emphasized the importance not of specific breakthroughs but of broad categories of achievement.
This enabled mass production and the Henry Ford–style assembly line (49 on The Atlantic’s list), and the profound shift from handmade to volume-produced versions of everything.
Modularity didn’t make it onto our final list; the adoption of standardized shipping containers, which extended the same logic in a different realm, just missed the cut.
Others are valuable because no answer is right; the payoff comes from the range of attempts. But the exercise of asking, comparing, and choosing helped us understand more about what these historical figures had done and about the areas in which American society had proved most and least open to the changes wrought by talented, determined men and women. The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life.
Seven years ago, The Atlantic surveyed a group of eminent historians to create a ranked list of the 100 people who had done the most to shape the character of modern America. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago.
But in the end we had enough comparable and overlapping suggestions, from enough people, with enough spelled-out explanations, and enough force of experience and insight behind them, to be comfortable presenting The Atlantic’s survey of humanity’s 50 most important technical breakthroughs since the wheel.