Millennial Persons and Anonymous Inventors
The other day our Lamb person, Harry Trumbore, dropped by
and remarked that he enjoyed my recent column on living for a
long time. My response was "What are you talking about?"
Finally, I remembered the piece on the possibility of an infinite life
at a vastly reduced pace written just the week before. Now, as I
approach my 72nd birthday next month, it seems that the concept
of having to forget a thought to think a thought is all too realistic!
I''m beginning to think that our ultimate evolution will indeed be
to repeat the past ad infinitum.
Speaking of the past, a two-part series on A&E cable a few
weeks ago picked the "persons" of the millennium. The program
consisted of a reverse countdown from the 100th down to number
one, the most important person of the millennium. If you didn''t
see the programs, I suggest you come up with your own
candidates before reading the final paragraphs of this column. My
own choices prior to watching the program were Einstein,
Churchill and Galileo. Harry Smith, the narrator, warned the
selections might be controversial.
Emboldened by this audacious effort to select 100 out of
thousands of worthy candidates, I thought I would try something
similar, in response to a suggestion from a reader of this column.
Accordingly, here are my thoughts on the most important
inventions of mankind, ever. The nice thing about this endeavor
is that I can just wing it and not do any research on the subject.
Furthermore, the handful of inventions I''ve come up with are the
inventions of someone whose name will never be known (if
indeed he or she even had a name).
To begin, there''s the obligatory subject of fire. I feel that the
most important contribution was made by our ancestor who first
applied fire to make certain foods more palatable, the invention of
cooking. I just read an item in November''s Discover magazine
reporting a rather startling hypothesis about the significance of
cooking. Roughly 2 million years ago, our primate ancestors
began to pair up as couples and also began shrinking their jaws
and teeth to more closely resemble us modern types. At the same
time, the females, who were more diminutive relative to the
males, started growing larger. Discover reports that Richard
Wrangham and Greg Laden, of Harvard and the University of
Minnesota, respectively, attribute all this activity to cooked
vegetables! Their hypothesis is that smaller jaws and teeth
resulted from the more tender heat-treated roots no longer
requiring such vigorous chewing. Furthermore, the introduction
of cooking increased the delay between "harvesting" and eating,
allowing more time for theft of the food from the females by the
males. The postulated result is that the coupling of males and
females in a cooperative fashion was advantageous to the females
who, I would imagine, would employ whatever seductive ploys
necessary to attain this objective.
If true, cooking led to a second major invention, marriage.
Admittedly, it was marriage considerably less formal in nature
than today. All this leads me to propose my own hypothesis
concerning the current decline in the institution of marriage in our
society. Today, it seems that huge numbers of us are either eating
out, ordering in or simply microwaving previously packaged
culinary treats. My suggestion is that, if the invention of cooking
produced marriage, doesn''t the demise of cooking within the
marriage promote its disintegration? Just a thought. Could
Martha Stewart be the one to turn this whole thing around? I
read that in Silicon Valley there is an increasing involvement in
gardening and more cooking going on. And I''ve just received
another of many solicitations for funds from the VFW. Instead of
the usual return address stickers or the annual calendar, what
should be enclosed but a small cookbook of holiday recipes!
In my first column for this Web site, I explained that Allen F.
Bortrum is actually a nom de plume. I learned recently that
Mozart''s name was originally Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang
Gottlieb Mozart. You can hardly blame him when, at about the
age of 14, he began calling himself Wolfgang Amadeo, only to
change that about 7 years later to Wolfgang Amade (with a
backwards accent over the "e"). Which brings me to my third
major invention, the name. It seems plausible to me that the name
was invented around the time of cooking and marriage and that
the first name was given by the inventor to himself or herself.
Admittedly, the first name might not have sounded too
sophisticated, perhaps just a distinctive grunt or growl. I should
think that closely connected to the invention of the name was
another very important invention, the pronoun, in particular, the
words "I", "you" and "it". Again, the pronoun might have been
just a pounding of the chest for "I", etc. Out of the inventions of
the name and the pronoun and the characterization of one''s self
and others as having unique identities, must have followed an
eventual search for answers to the fundamental questions of life
such as origins, future, rudimentary technology, etc.
Certainly, the invention, or perhaps more accurately, evolution of
structured, more complex language with verbs and adjectives was
a key to everything else that followed. My candidates for the first
adjectives would be "good" and "bad" and "want", "give", "love"
and "eat" for the verbs. What do you think? One thing for sure -
nobody will ever know the correct answers!
The invention of the alphabet can be pinned down a little more
precisely, although we''ll never know the name of the inventor(s).
Quite by chance, I stopped writing my column at this point due to
a sudden failure of my keyboard to communicate with my
computer, which I had to turn off without the recommended
graceful shutdown. Frustrated, I decided to read the Sunday New
York Times and, coincidentally, on the front page was a long
article reporting new evidence that the alphabet arose in Egypt,
invented by Semites living in Egypt around 1800-1900 BC. This
is a few hundred years earlier than the prevailing consensus,
which is that the Semites had developed the alphabet outside
Egypt, but under the influence of the Egyptian pictographic
The current thinking, based on the new findings, is that the
Semites in Egypt were illiterate alien workers who would have
had to spend years learning the complex Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Speculation is that the Semites developed abbreviated forms of
these hieroglyphs, the abbreviations evolving into an alphabet. I
can certainly understand their approach by looking at the daunting
complexity of today''s Chinese pictographic writing system. The
invention of writing itself is credited to the Sumerians over a
thousand years earlier but the Times article said there is
controversy as to whether the Egyptians actually predated the
Sumerians. Both used the pictographs.
Certainly, a seminal invention occurred when someone first
deliberately planted a seed in order to harvest a morsel or so of
food. This invention of farming enabled a more reliable food
supply and an expansion of the variety of foods deemed to be
edible. The farming life would seem to have promoted the idea of
marriage and family, with the both the shared work and the
shared bounty. As with cooking, the decline in the number of
family farms, with increasingly urban lifestyles, has seen
increasing problems maintaining the close knit family ties.
I group three major inventions together because that is the
common context. They are, of course, wine, women and song.
The process of fermentation is at least 5,000 years old, practiced
in the Middle East, but I''d be willing to bet that someone must
have discovered the extra benefits of the alcoholic beverage prior
to that time. The consumption of wine or other spirits in some
parts of the world was actually a very positive health measure due
to the corrupted water supplies. Certainly among travelers today,
the consumption of beer, wine or soft drinks in certain areas is a
prudent alternative to drinking the water.
As for the invention of women, we men all know that they were
created from one of our ribs about 6,000 years ago. Source: the
Kansas Board of Education. I admit that there are some skeptics
who actually think that women had to coexist with men in earlier
times, if only to avoid the idea that the men were capable of
reproduction without the benefit of sex. I certainly would not
want to get involved in such a strange notion!
To my way of thinking, putting women at the top of the list as far
as inventions are concerned, song is a close second. The sound of
music is certainly an invention that has contributed immensely to
the enrichment of human existence. Whoever found that a hollow
wooden or bone tube with holes in it produced sounds of differing
pitch gets my credit for inventing music. This event occurred at
least 25,000 years ago, based on a bone flute found in France.
Actually, I should have said instrumental music and I realize that
somewhere along the line very early, a mother must have crooned
to her baby. OK, she gets credit for inventing music itself. The
sound of music will always remind me of seeing one of my first
Broadway plays, which happened to have that very title. I can
still remember the chills that went through me when Mary Martin
came on stage. Without uttering a sound she was music,
radiating a compelling stage presence the likes of which I have
not seen since.
An overlooked invention of great importance is gambling. Who
was the first to say to his fellow Neanderthal or whatever, "I''ll bet
you my ax against your spear that you can''t bring home a
mastodon for dinner tonight." The introduction of the word "bet"
into language must be the precursor to today''s lotteries, casinos,
and of greatest significance to all of us, the stock market.
In this era of HMOs and money-losing hospitals, I must give
thanks to the first individual who successfully treated someone
else''s wound by whatever method available and actually made that
person better. This invention of medicine was great but, having
had surgery for a leg broken playing golf over a year ago, I give
my personal vote of thanks to a much later invention, anesthesia.
I know that this is a pretty modern invention, out of spirit with
my list to this point, but I can''t forget the first time I saw
depictions of Civil War surgeries, including amputations,
performed without benefit of anesthetics.
I''ve barely touched the surface of major inventions but space-time
has run out. Now for A&E''s person of the millennium. First, my
own choices, Einstein, Churchill and Galileo were in the list,
numbers 8, 52 and 10, respectively. The most important person
of the millennium was not a scientific genius or a major political
figure, but rather a tinkerer of sorts with a persistent mechanical
bent. Perhaps you''ve noted that my inventions are primarily
slanted towards language and communication. Well, the person
of the millennium was Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing
press. It was the feeling of the A&E panel that, without his
invention, the spread of ideas, literature, news, art, music, etc.
throughout the world would never have been possible to the
extent that happened.
In case you''re curious, the top 25 in A&E''s selection, in order,
were Gutenberg, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther, Charles Darwin,
William Shakespeare, Christopher Columbus, Karl Marx,
Einstein, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da
Vinci, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, Thomas
Jefferson, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, John Locke,
Michelangelo, Adam Smith (not today''s Adam Smith!), George
Washington, Genghis Kahn, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Thomas
Aquinas and James Watt. Certainly an illustrious and influential
group. Some of the individuals would probably be very surprised
to see themselves in their particular grouping, e.g., Hitler
sandwiched between Jefferson and Gandhi. For you music lovers,
Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were in the next five, along with
Henry Ford and Napoleon Bonaparte. I certainly disagree
strongly with the placement of Elvis in 57th place, above FDR,
Joan of Arc, Walt Disney, Heisenberg, Ronald Reagan and
Picasso, among others. But hey, maybe it''s just a generational
thing; I did say I was going to be 72.
Allen F. Bortrum