What is the most underrated innovation of the last one hundred years?

That was another question I was asked.

I find it difficult to compare the “ratings” of early 20th century innovations to the ratings of innovations today, since it is often different audiences doing the admiring, or lack thereof.

For the most underrated innovations of the last one hundred years I might pick the insights of Alan Turing, various developments in electrical engineering including better transformers, or the nitrogen-fertilizer connection, noting that in some quarters there is already plenty of recognition for each of these, Turing in particular.  But still not enough!

As for contemporary innovations, I see an underrated one as Amazon’s warehousing and shipping practices.  It will mean the death of much of retail and transform our suburban physical spaces into something quite…????.   Into something, in any case.  I am a social networking optimist, and think it has largely beneficial effects on social mores, but I also see it as having peaked at a near-saturation point.

Here is a good video on “Amazon yesterday shipping.”


What often gets underrated is the development of skill at using different policies or technologies integrated together.

An example from WWI was the integration of infantry, artillery, tanks, reconnaissance aircraft and a mechanised supply chain, which in 1918 proved a winning formula. Much better known is the WWII integration of fighter aircraft and radar which proved key in 1940 for Britain, and the integration of armoured divisions and dive bombers which did so well for Germany.

Can anyone suggest overlooked integrations?

Wal-Mart's supply chain management.


Correct; they set the standards which Amazon and everyone else have copied.

I never hear anyone talking about the development of plastics, without which we would be a very different and very much worse world. (Outside of the tip Dustin Hoffman got in The Graduate.)

How about flushing toilets? Or the alarm clock?

Both are nineteenth century inventions. But I agree they are awesome

Drat! What about the semiconductor?

Social networking benefits social mores? Maybe in the sense that it fosters weak ties. It is now possible to vaguely keep track of lots of acquaintances you don't strongly care about, who in the past you would have forgotten.

I'm not sure that this offsets the amount of costly status-seeking performance that goes on (the race to have lots of pictures of yourself acting high-status at parties, the false fawning over female friends' profile pictures). Nor, among the more future-time oriented young people, the conformity effect where unusual or controversial thoughts and lifestyles become more costly and difficult to hide.

I see social networking as basically a pro-conformity force, "conservative" in a catholic sense that includes punishing political incorrectness, that mildly strengthens weak ties at the cost of opening a new front in zero-sum status competition.

If your FB punishes political incorrectness, then you have a unique set of friends. I've never seen so much direct direct commentary of social problems or expression of biases. I don't at all understand the last clauses of your last sentence. So we get stronger 'weak ties' and in exchange we give up 'zero-sum' status competition?? This all sounds 'good'.

Certainly in social circles where political incorrectness is expected, facebook encourages political incorrectness. However that kind of culture is rare in the more influential circles, where I am a third-tier spectator. (This is ignoring humorous faux-political-incorrectness, like those making fun of Irish or Chinese. If it wouldn't get sink your academic career to leak it on Gawker, it's not real political correctness.)

And you misread me: I think we get stronger weak ties but MORE status competition.

If you are to identify Turing's insights as underrated, then surely those of Alonzo Church are even more underrated, as Turing has become a public persona and Church remains unknown except to specialists, the disadvantage, one supposes, of a less colorful biography.

I agree that Amazon's warehouse and shipping practices are underrated, but I will be even more curious to learn how their pricing practices perform over time (and naturally wonder about the great "what if" of how the Soviet Union's economy would have performed had it had access to a similar system!)

I'm a bit shocked that Tyler would consider Turing relatively unknown particularly given that The Turing Award, the so-called Nobel Prize for computing, is named after the guy and pretty much any computer scientist will bump into Turing machines. (His name is still even popping up in the news, albeit primarily due to the history of how he was treated as a homosexual).

I suppose that the original post did mention that: "in some quarters there is already plenty of recognition for each of these, Turing in particular. But still not enough!" How much would be enough though? If you asked the average person on the street to name even five 20th century scientists or five 20th-century economists (etc), what fraction of the population do you think would actually succeed at the task?

If you we are talking about underrated scientists, I would pick Claude Shannon. He is iconic in the world of communication systems but little known except to EE/CS theorists. Information theory is stunningly elegant and has had a profound impact on everything from space exploration to CDs to wireless communication to the internet.

Jon Gertner in his recent book The Idea Factory says something like "The transistor revolutionized computing, but it was an invention waiting to happen. But Shannon's theory was nowhere on the horizon. I might have been 20, 30, even 50 years before these ideas of representing information crystallized."

Oh, and Shannon had a seminal master's thesis as well- using Boolean algebra to design digital circuits.

+1 for Claude Shannon. It is amazing how much of the communication revolution was spurred by the fundamental ideas contained in his work.

+0/1 for Claude Shannon.

I'd add Andrey Kolmogorov, who generalized Shannon's theories and unified them with computer science. (Chaitin and Solomonoff also get kudos here).

Computer science? Kolmogorov's work in axiomatizing probability theory are worth it alone. Kolmogorov was one of the greats.

I'm honored to have taken graduate probability from his student, the also eminent Eugene Dynkin.

One side effect on online shipping becoming easier and cheaper is that there's less variety in stores. If you want something today rather than in a day or two or you aren't in a good position to receive packages, this can be a problem.

One economist down under cited the shipping container, mainly on the grounds that it reduced employment opportunities for stevedores, whom he hated.

On a similar note, the American Interstate system?

Citation for 'economist down under' please?

Radio is underrated today. I've heard the claim it saved the homogeneity of American English.

saved or imposed?

The pill?

Is it underrated if they made movie about it?


I think that underrated is continuous improvement in energy efficiency.

In case we used the same amount of fuel to get same output as at the beginning of XX century we would spend not 5% on fuels, but almost all our money just on purchasing fuel. ( See works by Ayres ).

Well it was 1907 so more than 100 years, but the answer is the Triode!

The shipping container?


Computers. I read a book by a famous economist that said the internet was the only major innovation since television. (I read this book on my telephone, btw.) That tells me that computers are pretty underrated.

Apart from penicillin?

Several that have provided the power of the 20th century

Most of all: Seismic testing and almost the entire field of geophysics, also sonar and radar that modern life would not be possible without. Heck even the cheap and easy construction of large structures and multistory buildings in all environments would not be possible without basic seismic testing to find bedrock depths and social compaction rates

In addition there are a lot of technical innovations in well manigement that are totally unappreciated outside of the field that have allowed the huge supplies of both oil and groundwater needed for modern life

-the invention of well logging through electrical resistivity by Schlumberger

-the portable truck mounted drilling rig and the invention of directional drilling

And a couple that gave us the huge step up in agricultural productivity in second half of twentieth century
-The Theis Equation that allowed the first true method of studying aquifer storarivity and conductivity
-Center pivot irrigation

the cheap and easy construction of large structures and multistory buildings in all environments

We're probably not going to see many more skyscrapers being built, at least as corporate-ego trip home offices. The trend will be to disperse employees that seldom communicate face-to-face even now to cheaper locations closer to their homes where they will make use of electronic means to carry on business.

My mother has a three story house we did a seismic test for, even building a shopping center competently generally requires one. And for highways and runways it is completely necessary. Also if you build a tunnel without one you are basically playing craps, though in most environments your odds would be much better in a casino. Building a dam or retention pond without one can actually ger one improsoned for negligent homicide in the US or Europe, and executed in some Asian countries. And that is aside from the huge change of just midrise structures to the worlds urban/suburban landscape.

The ubiquity of the use of a strike plate, a string of seismophones and a sledge hammer to determine bedrock depth is so established and cheap that you might as well argue the theodolite is an obsolete invention.

Does genetic engineering count for the last one hundred years? Pretty hard to think of something that has saved as many lives and yet is not only underrated, but isn't even considered a plus by much (most?) of the world.

Factory farming certainly should count for the last one hundred years, and has much of the same logic behind it. More food, more surplus American labor to invent the Internet and things like that, despised by the public.

Selective breeding has been around for much longer than a hundred years, and genetic engineering in the direct, GM-sense of the phrase has led to important but (in my opinion) relatively incremental improvements so far.

Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution get a lot of publicity in the right circles (including here on MR) and he did win a Nobel Peace Prize and various other major gongs, but given that there are not yet statues of Borlaug 100 feet tall in every major agricultural region, he may still be underrated :).

Why do I say that? Wheat yields in 1950 should have been one of those things that was the very definition of a mature technology: we've been working on it for millennia, it's the focus of much study, and a 10% increase would have been big news. Instead, the Green Revolution saw crop production double in 35 years.

I also like the nominations for containerization. That enormously increased the efficiency of shipping, and I don't think people think about the "pre-container era" with nearly the awe they hold for, e.g., the "pre-car" or "pre-telephone" or "pre-computer" eras.

If I had to pick an innovation that is seen as novel today, but not yet crushingly important, I would pick "telecommuting," by which I mean all the ways work is organized by groups that are not in the same geographical location (this ambitious definition could include everything from outsourced production to online learning). I don't think this has nearly reached its potential, and the current tools are underused or underdeveloped or misunderstood, but in my opinion we're not far from a sudden moment where the tools for group-y action at a distance* will become good enough, and white-collar offices will empty out surprisingly quickly.

And self-driving cars are the innovation that is not yet in production, but will be astoundingly ubiquitous (and surprisingly transformative) very soon after it is available for sale.

*I could not help myself.

Another vote for the shipping container. I moved from the US to the South Pacific, and it was dead cheap to have our household goods moved. The container shows up at the house, and professionals packed it up right in front of us. On the other end, I could see that nothing had been tampered with. And cost-wise, the modularity made it cheap enough that the container could be moved "hub and spoke" instead of "point-to-point". The container went by road to LA, and then by ship to China, Australia, and then New Caledonia. Pre-container, it would have been a shit-load of crates, any one of which could have gone missing, and the cost for a point-to-point shipment from LA to Noumea would have been staggering.

Radar, in addition to military and safety uses think of the impact of meteorology

Sonar, which allowed the rapid mapping of the ocean floor

My vote is for linear programming. Being able to solve large-scale optimization models has led to so many improvements in logistics and operations.


The practice and logistics behind nightly grocery store shelf stocking. The store saves a boat-load of money on storage costs and the customer never has to wait more than one day for an item to be available for purchase (If ever at all). Each day, the store gets depleted and then replenished by the next morning. Simple, boring, and too convenient.

This is a good one. My local Whole Foods has an amazing food court with creative hot meals that change every day. I would love to do a tour of the warehouse where this is all made.

The technology known as "table d'hote" predates the 20th century.

Just-in-time inventories are a notable technology, but grocery store restocking is a small subset of a much more general trend. And I don't think the inventory turns are quite as dramatic as you believe, though. Industry superstar Costco has a turnover ratio of 12 or so, which equates to selling out the entire store once a month (Walmart is about 8 (and you can assume every other retailer in the groceries/soft-goods world would kill to see those turnover ratios.))

The most noteworthy inventory freaks are two companies at opposite ends of the retail spectrum: Apple (74) and McDonald's (142), the latter getting very close to your dream of a store that is depleted every day (it is actually a bit more than every two days).


I was going to suggest chlorinated water supplies, but that really started late 19th/early 20th... so perhaps the use of liquefied chlorine gas to disinfect water supplies?

No one has mentioned anti-biotics and/or immunization. I can only presume this is because they usually get a rating, but it's still hard to rate these two highly enough

Logically, the most underrated invention will be something that none of us will think of.
This question is a paradoxon.

Not necessarily. The most underrated invention could still be something highly rated, just not rated highly enough. "Most underrated" is not well-defined. Particularly as the number of responses increases, it's likely that someone will think of it.

However, it's unlikely that we'll agree on the correct answer. Unless the particular type of most underrated is something that falls into the "taken for granted, but when you think about it, obviously very important and worthy of greater recognition" category.

I would argue that it is air conditioning. It allowed areas that were not very productive due to excessive humidity and high temperatures to create comfortable working and living environments.

God didn't mean for people to live in Phoenix.

Good one. The South would not have nearly as much political power without AC.

As a southerner, and a native Houstonian no less, I can assure you that a/c is probably the most highly regarded invention in my hometown. Also Willis Carrier, may peace be upon him, invented the modern air conditioner in 1902, which was 110 years ago.

This is where to look.

The things that we don't have to think about because they release our minds to other pursuits.

The credit card.

Revolving credit existed at least back to the 1600s, at least for a very few, but what amounts to a bearer instrument for loans radically changed retail in ways that are still being sorted.

If credit cards are som important, why are there so big differences in usage? In Sweden everyone carries a debit card, but credit cards are not at all as common as in the U.S.

The biggest invention you've never heard of is the Lake relay (also known as the storage counter). Before the Lake relay, punched cards were not very useful. The Lake relay was the key invention that made possible the electronic accounting machine, which revolutionized data processing, made a fortune for IBM, and paved the way for IBM's dominance of computers for 30 years. Young people today look at a bill or invoice printed by a machine in the 1930s, and they don't have a clue how it could have been made. It was printed by an EAM.

One Lake relay provides storage and computation for one decimal digit. It can be read electronically and it can perform addition and carry. A bank of relays is a register which can be used to tally a total from a deck of punched cards representing individual unit sales, as well as many other operations. An EAM is programmed by interchangeable plugboards, so a shop with one EAM can service many clients by simply swapping plugboards.

The Lake relay was invented by Clair D. Lake, truly one of the least known giants of 20th century technology.

How about income tax directly debited from your pay? That must have changed enormously the finances of states and therefore their ability to fund wars, welfare states and so forth. By partially disguising taxation rates, it probably amplified the state's ability to take wealth and power from its citizens.

Ironically, the US has Milton Friedman to thank for that.

If every worker had to write a large cheque (or "check") to the IRS (or that country's equivalent) annually (or quarterly), the state would be a lot smaller.


Lee Kuan Yew liked the air-conditioner.

Related to air-conditioning is refrigeration. The modern world couldn't exist without it. (And Singapore wouldn't exist as a place where anyone would want to do business without both.) While refrigeration was reasonably well-understood and used in shipping and manufacturing environments by 1900, large-scale use of non-ice-box refrigeration wasn't done until the mid 1930s.

And when you combine cheap refrigeration with standardized shipping containers, you can ship food anywhere on earth...

I actually got asked a similar version of this question on my Microsoft interview: "What is the most important non-STEM innovation in the past 50 years?" It's actually quite hard if you think about it given how much of our progress has been due to STEM advances. This was also eye-opening in making me realize how little I knew about advances in the arts.

That is a tough question. It excludes virtually everything related to materials, processes, genetics, communications, etc. That leaves what? Military tactics, politics, business methods, advertising, architecture, artistic expression, food preparation -- but the 50-year time limit excludes much from these fields. I know somebody had a patent on the Please Wait Here For Next Available Teller sign for creating one line that served multiple checkers/tellers, which was one of the earliest business method patents. I think that was after 1962, so it might qualify.

You should have said "Apple's advertising." :)

You wouldn't have gotten the job either.

Now that I've thought about it some more, "reality" TV shows and securitization of mortgage debt seem like better answers.

The way this question is phrased, I probably would've replied desegregation, though that might be outside the intended realm of the question.

The all-volunteer army? Changed the complexion of civil-military relations as we know it.

The 20th century mass-market paperback.

I nominate the deregulation of trucking that began in the late Carter administration. While it might be described as a "corrective" more than an "innovation," it made possible just-in-time inventory practices and the rise of Wal*Mart style retailing. Deregulation removed massive amounts of friction from the system and made many other innovations possible.

Also an excellent suggestion.

The Vote for women ? ( Although some of it started towards end of the previous century).

The most underrated innovations are management practices (including those stated above such as integration, linear programming, Amazon's warehousing). They do not get enough attention since they are too diffuse and seem obvious once they spread. Also, most people implicitly assume that innovations occur only in STEM fields. Of the many underrated innovations in business, the most underrated is the multi-business firm.

I vote for the air conditioner.

The economic and social development of the Sun Belt would not have happened without it. Ultimately, it could spur economic development in tropical countries.

I am sure it has boosted productivity of all insider workers and students during the warm months.

It may have had an important and underappreciated role in the reduction in violent crime seen in recent decades as a/c spread to households. Overheated people suffer psychological stress and greater irritability, which can trigger violence.

Milton Friedman thought that a/c made living in Washington DC bearable and so encouraged the growth of central government.

Well, I'm not so sure whether this innovation is "underrated" but the electric bass guitar was invented during the 20th century. Many musical genres wouldn't be here today if not for that instrument.

I would say the Haber-Bosch Process. The process was first realised on an industrial scale in 1913 so just falls within the 100 year window. It produced the nitrates behind the German WWI war effort when Britain had a virtual monopoly on nitrate sources and it currently produces fertiliser that is responsible for the feeding of about 1/3 of the world's population. Seems fairly important to me and the fact that no-one has mentioned it yet suggests some degree of underratedness.

Agreed, I was also very surprised no-one else mentioned that one. It might be well-known among chemists, but I think it is hardly known to the general public, even the more educated part of it. As you mentioned, it had some negative effects (the Central Powers war effort couldn't have lasted into 1915 without nitrogen fixation given the Royal Navy blockade) but its importance is utterly undeniable.




Agreed. The nitrogen-fertilizer connection was already well recognized by the middle of the 19th century, and took the form of knowledgeable (not just empirical) use of legumes for nitrogen fixation (splitting N2 to N, resulting in nitrates, ammonia, urea, or similar) and the use of ammonia-rich guano and mineral nitrates for fertilizer.

But the Haber-Bosch process greatly improved on these techniques.

The role of nitrogen fixation in the early history of life is also greatly underrated.

How about the invention of national standards, a prerequisite for advance in many fields--credit Herbert Hoover for that.

I vote for Statistics: from design of experiments to statistical quality control, to data mining. It also has influenced both industry and academia. And Varian said "it's the sexy proffession"

I vote for Statistics

I look forward to this invention. It would be a great thing.

BIOS. To me it is simply amazing. Apply power and something happens, and all of IT comes after.

Some designs are inevitable—spoons, road signs, shipping containers, etc. While its inevitability doesn't mitigate the respect that its inventor deserves, it does somewhat mitigate the importance of the invention (not the end product). For example, the invention of the chair is an unremarkable event (perhaps because we don't know who invented it or how it was invented), but its importance in today's society is unrivaled. Can you imagine working 8+ hours/day without sitting down?

Thus, I would argue that things like air conditioning, shipping containers, credit cards, etc., are very important to society, but should not be considered noted inventions. It's only the invention of something that is incredibly innovative and unique that should be categorized as a truly breakthrough invention.

It would only have been a matter of time before someone standardized shipping container sizes, or devised an apparatus to separate room-temperature air into cold air and hot air, or put graphics on computers, or figured out how to mail packages cheaply and quickly.

Most of the important things we have "invented" are just products of intellectual evolution. Does that mean that inventors shouldn't get any credit? Of course not—they were the first to think of it. However, the standardization of shipping containers doesn't get the credit as the enabling invention of large-scale international trade, and that's the way it should be.

If you think about it, suddenly all inventions seem to be unimportant. After all, it would only be a matter of time, right?

Dangerous way of thinking, for sure.

Can you imagine working 8+ hours/day without sitting down?

That used to be the norm. And we'd be much healthier.

I disagree with you on the container issue. A single container ship worked with five cranes can easily discharge over 20,000 tons of goods in an eight hour shift. The volume and value of goods that we move in Malcom's boxes would be impossible were we still using the crate and pallet methods that were good enough for a couple thousand years. You couldn't build enough docks, warehouses, ships, and boxcars. In the field, the invention and standardization of intermodal contaienrs gets a huge a deserved amount of credit for the increase in international trade over the past 50-60 years.

Clean Drinking Water & Sewer Systems.

Those were invented thousands of years ago.

The Voting Rights Act and related Civil Rights legislation. In my lifetime I have seen as a child segregated restrooms (I remember on a trip to Tennessee that I wanted to go into the colored restroom since all the ones I had seen had black and white tile). Recently, on a trip through the deep south, I noted the number of multi-racial families. Everywhere in America one sees multiracial ads, news teams, etc. Differences from 60 years ago occur almost on an hourly basis for many of us.

The automatic washing machine. It freed up the labor of 50% of the human race for other activities.
Clean drinking water and sewers would be the answer if the time scale were 5000 years.

The combinatorical algorythms that allow logistics to happen over a large scale.

Turing is one of the most well known computer scientists ever...
I'm not sure what Tyler is trying to say here. Is he just revealing ignorance of culture or is he trying to say that we STILL don't rate him highly enough.
Either way, I'm with the person who said linear programming.

Geographic Information Systems. Essential for global logistics, spatial analysis, urban planning, environmental science, military, and on and on. And yet, if you mention GIS to most laymen, all you get are quizzical looks.

Linear programming is nice, but it didn't do too much for the commies.

Popular opinion has Turing and the computer rated fairly. It's the biggest post WWII invention and he's the largest contributor. Until we all become uploads on some vast celestial ipod, it's hard to rate the computer more highly than it already is.

The seedless watermelon. (just kidding, but they are great).

Or the acid-free pineapple?

My standard answers, completely reenforced by this summer's heat wave:

A/C and the Martini.

In 1935, splinter free toilet paper was invented by Northern Tissue.

The Bedazzler. Close runner-up: Hair in a Can.

Techniques of mass production. Assembly lines changed the nature of consumer goods, and won a war to boot.

How about the Atomic Bomb, which put an end to great war between major nations.

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The semiconductor was crucial -- without it digital electronics and solar cells would have only a miniscule fraction of the performance, functionality, and importance that they have. The semiconductor is I suppose fairly well known, but the printing of electronic circuits using photolithography is not so widely appreciated. Photolithography along with the semiconductor are the main innovations behind Moore's Law and digital electronics.

Diesel-Electric locomotive. It improved the economic efficiency of rail transportation tremendously, almost as much as containerization did for shipping in general. Diesels allowed multiple unit power (pretty tough to run a steam engine from the other end of the train, especially using 1940s technology), vastly reduced power unit maintenance, less pollution, less damage to the infrastructure, etc.

The most underrated non-STEM innovation has got to be no-fault divorce. It transformed the marriage contract into something totally different. (An argument could be made that it is the most overrated, given the remarkably mixed character of it's consequences.)

Vasectomy began to be regarded as a method of birth control on national scale !!!!

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The answer from Mel Brooks in the 2000 year old man was Saran Wrap.

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