The greatest invention

Tom Standage argues that writing is the greatest invention.

The greatest invention of all must surely be writing. It is not just one of the foundations of civilisation: it underpins the steady accumulation of intellectual achievement. By capturing ideas in physical form, it allows them to travel across space and time without distortion, and thus slip the bonds of human memory and oral transmission, not to mention the whims of tyrants and the vicissitudes of history.

Many of the great inventions since (e.g. the printing press, email, the internet, social networks) are powerful because of the way they efficiently transmit the written word. The great inventions since writing have been better ways to spread writing, iterations on a central idea.

Writing today is ubiquitous and everyone learns it in school, but it wasn’t always like that.

The amazing thing about writing, given how complicated its early systems were, is that anyone learned it at all. The reason they did is revealed in the ancient Egyptian scribal-training texts, which emphasise the superiority of being a scribe over all other career choices, with titles like “Do Not Be Soldier, Priest or Baker”, “Do Not Be a Husbandman” and “Do Not Be a Charioteer”. This last text begins: “Set thine heart on being a scribe, that thou mayest direct the whole earth.” The earliest scribes understood that literacy was power – a power that now extends to most of humanity, and has done more for human progress than any other invention.

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