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Newest isn't always greatest

Jul 29, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

What's your pick as the top invention in human history?

Sports fans watched with great interest at the turn of the century when ESPN began its countdown of the greatest 100 athletes of the 20th century.

There was no doubt in my mind that No. 1 would be Jim Thorpe, the Sac-and-Fox multi-sport athlete from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, but much to my chagrin, the great decathlete, football and baseball player came in a disappointing seventh among the ESPN panel of sports writers, broadcasters and historians.

Many consider it more of a statement on the limited attention span of Americans today than an actual accurate representation. Michael Jordan came in first and Babe Ruth second in the voting. Jordan was a testament to the brilliant marketing of the NBA and Ruth to the lasting popularity of "America's Game" as it was played in the Golden Age. Thorpe played long ago without the media blitz that is sports today.

As long as there are at least two people remaining on their earth, there remains the possibility of contradictory opinions. With more than 7 billion on the planet, that chance exceeds exponential possibilities.

Sports is from the only thing that people try to quantify. There are very few things that we don't create some form of hierarchy for.

Special interest cable channels devote a lot of programming to the top 10 in vehicles, aircraft, weapons, fast food, barbecue and just about anything else you can ride, eat or drink.

But, what is the greatest invention that mankind has created thus far?

Good arguments abound for the basics of civilization in the written word, spoken languages or perhaps a bit more sophisticated in the printed word.

Johannes Gutenberg's 15th century invention revolutionized the world. It proved the adage that knowledge is power. It created a middle class between those born of privilege and those destined to grovel in the earth for their limited existence. It toppled empires, led to revolution and eventually led to the education of the entire globe.

Still, what would the printed word be without a written model or writing be without spoken tongue to follow?

Recent surveys indicate the smartphone is the winner in general population surveys on the greatest invention ever. Give me a break.

The clear lack of a historical view by the American masses rears its clueless head once again. If the same people were asked that question 10 years ago it would be the desktop computer, 20 years ago the Walkman, 40 years ago color television and the trend would continue back in time to include whatever the current "marvel of the age" was at the time.

Whether its Michael Jordan or the iPhone, Americans just can't get past the current push to sell the latest widget to an over stimulated, overly entertained audience with an attention span attuned perfectly to 45 second increments.

The 45-second rule applies in commercials, news broadcasts and network sitcoms. Watch prime-time TV, and time the transitions. You'll find that only PBS and a handful of other channels deviate from the pattern.

So what do you consider the greatest innovation of man?

Most of the top vote getters in popular polling all have to do with one form of media or another. Whether its writing, printing, speaking, listening to the radio, watching television, talking on the phone, cruising the Internet or texting your life away on your smart phone, you've voted for some form of communication.

My vote is a bit different, and it is easier to understand in the long cold nights of winter than it is right now with many of the long days of summer still ahead of us.

The electric light has transformed our lives in a more profound fashion than any other invention. We've grown so used to it that its absence in a power outage often elicits a form of hysteria in urban dwellers.

The night was once the realm of nocturnal animals, criminals and the seedier elements of society, but now night is day for much of the world.

The night was once a fearful thing, broken only by open fires or bits of candle flame, but no more.

A map of Earth at night reveals the wealth of the western world as much as it shows the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Europe, Japan and the American, Asian and Australian coasts are ablaze, but most of Africa, Siberia, Mongolia, the Australian Outback and our own Great Plains and Rocky Mountains are as dark as they were 150 years ago. The world was a vastly different place before Edison revolutionized it with his simple incandescent bulb.

Perhaps our greatest traditions and beliefs are tied to illumination.

The second and third verses of the first chapter of Genesis speak of it.

"Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light."

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