What I know about what happened when


A recent article in Business Insider included a chart of technological innovations and how they have spurred productivity growth over the centuries. I confess to not spending much time studying the finer points because I was immediately distracted by the dates accompanying the inventions. I realized that the ideas I have about when inventions entered my culture might be off by a substantial margin in many cases, and I wondered whether I’m alone in that. If I were to ask you to name the year that the light bulb was invented, how close would you come?

Keep your eyes up here with me for a minute, while I ask you a few questions, and then you can scroll down to see how well you did. As they used to say on radio quiz shows, if you’re playing along at home, have a paper and pencil handy.

Before we consider actual dates, let’s try something easier. Can you put these inventions in order from earliest to latest?

Television broadcast, penicillin, plastic, X-ray

Now try this set:

laser, electron microscope, FM radio, atomic clock, polyester

One more time:

touch screen, flash memory, cell phone, Hubble Space Telescope, email


x-ray image of lungs


men's leisure suits


Hubble telescope


Let’s see how we did.

The first group brought me some surprises:

X-rays (1895), plastic (polyethylene, 1898), Television broadcast (1909), penicillin (1928)

Here’s the next group:

Electron microscope (1931), FM radio (1933), polyester (1941), atomic clock (1948), laser (1960)

And the last group:

Email (1971), touch screen (1973), flash memory (1980), cell phone (1984), Hubble Telescope (1990)


In terms of actual dates, how well do you think you’ll do? Can you get within ten years of the introduction of any of these innovations?

Mechanical knitting machine


Sewing machine

Video tape recorder



Since these last two are more recent, can you get within a couple of years?






You can check your answers below. The list focused only on innovations that brought big changes in productivity, so there are many hundreds of other important inventions not mentioned here. I have little doubt, though, that I would be unable to state with any confidence when they were invented either.

1589  Mechanical knitting machine

1608  Telescope

1790  Sewing machine

1953  Video tape recorder

1935  Nylon

2000 Bluetooth

2009 Bitcoin


Here’s the entire chart. The original article is here.


Screen Shot 2018 04 13 at 11.11.22


Are there one or two inventions whose dates surprised you the most?



[Images: bianoti.com, Wikipedia, dailyman40.com, spacetelescope.org, thegraphicsfairy.com, Barclays]

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