The Needle: Our Stone Age ancestors had axes, spears and bravado. But it was the humble needle, carved from bone, that helped push them ahead of the Neanderthals. With needles, you get clothes that fit, and can be worn in layers. Compared to a slab of animal fur, it’s far warmer and more flexible; and kept us alive when others died.
The Alphabet: People living in today’s Syria and Lebanon seem to have been the first to come up with the idea of squiggles to represent sounds, rather than pictures to represent things. Very clever, and it’s stuck.
The Telescope: Galileo nicked the idea from a passing Dutchman and improved it; but through it we first realised that we weren’t really the centre of the universe. Many of us are still getting over the shock.
Farming: If we hadn’t stopped hunting and picking fruit, and started poking seeds into the dirt and tying up goats to keep them close, we’d never have had the extra calories and numbers to produce villages, cities… and everything else we call history.
The Separate Steam Condenser: James Watt’s invention turned the steam engine from an inefficient machine for pumping water out of coalmines into the all-purpose driver of the industrial revolution. The modern world followed.