Cat Valente wrote a post last week about the ways the washing machine changed the world. Which I can vouch for since my own grandmother, who had three other jobs and 13 kids, had a job washing other people’s laundry on her own machine. But it got me thinking about other technologies that changed the world that you never hear about.

  1. The Pill
    The birthcontrol pill has given women control over when they have children as well as neutralized some crippling diseases. In high school I had a friend who pretty much couldn’t do anything during her period because she was in so much pain that she spent at least a day a month lying on the bathroom floor, trying to stop puking. Going on the pill made it manageable. And even beyond horrible pains, being able to (at least mostly) control when they get pregnant women have received an automatic access to liberties that they never had before like getting educated.
  2. Germ theory
    Yes, antibiotics and vaccinations are obvious technologies, but basic hygiene is not. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about what was likely the first recorded HIV epidemic (that wasn’t actually recorded as HIV) that apparently spread because the nurses were using the same needle over and over again; that happened in the 1950’s. Pretty much everyone still gets the seasonal common cold because we’re still not very careful about hygiene but we might one day live in a society where everyone doesn’t.
  3. Statistics
    Mathematics seem an obvious choice, but statistics doesn’t get talked about that often. Seeing as a lot of science is using statistical methods to interpret the data received from experiments, statistics is pretty darn important. It effects elections too as well as advertising. Statistics are basically everywhere if you care to look. It’s just that a lot of people never do.
  4. The Compiler
    A compiler takes a programming language and interprets it for the computer so we don’t need the huge piles of punch cards that were so ubiquitous when computers were first created. Computers are nothing without the programs so the results of this incredible invention are even in your wallet. Compilers allow programmers to actually read code and enable much more complex programs than would have ever been able to exist without it. While it’s still not easy to spot your mistakes, debugging your code doesn’t require shelves upon shelves of space.
  5. Synthetic fibers
    Unless you have made a concerted effort not to wear any synthetic fibers (or, of course, you are naked), you are wearing some right now. While natural fibers are great in a lot of ways, they are also costly to produce both in terms of time and resources. This is of course reflected in their price and availability. Synthetic fibers allow for easier washability (to bring it back to Catherynne Valente’s washing machine), shrink less and in general require less in the way of maintenance. Because they are cheaper and more readily available, they also allow for fast-paced fashions.

I’m probably missing loads of other invisible technologies and I’m hoping you can help me think of more in the comments.