What’s the greatest invention of all time? According to Donnie Darko in the movie of the same name it’s antiseptic. Not even close. Most scholars would point to Gutenberg and the printing press, arguing that all other inventions would either not have been made at all or would have come along much later if not for the written word. My argument is that plenty of great inventions took place before Gutenberg’s invention, not to mention that any invention that results in the mass production of books by Rectal Noun and Michael Crichton can’t possibly even be considered as one of the greatest inventions of all time. No, my choice for the greatest invention of all time is the refrigerator.
Or, to be more specific, refrigeration. Think about it for a moment. If we didn’t have modern day refrigeration, everyone would have to either still grow their own food or live within spoiling distance of a grocer. People in Kansas would never know what Mahi Mahi tastes like and while that may not be a bad thing, it’s still better than reading Rectal Noun or Michael Crichton. Well, actually, I guess even eating unrefrigerated three day old Mahi Mahi would be preferable to reading Rectal Noun or Michael Crichton. The very fabric of modern day society would be torn asunder if not for refrigeration. Think about what refrigeration really means: without it, you’d actually have to come home from work-where, I might add your lunch choices would be severely constrained-and, no matter how tired you were, actually prepare and cook dinner. Microwave ovens would be pretty much obsolete since they are typically used for reheating refrigerated food or defrosting frozen food. Consider how different your life would if there was no such thing as refrigeration. Forget about fast food, it wouldn’t exist. Nor would most of your favorite sit-down restaurants. You would literally be forced to cook 90% of your meals yourself.
I’ll bet you’re starting to come around now, aren’t you? Maybe the refrigerator really is the greatest invention of all time. We take refrigeration for granted, but when it comes down to it, that invention probably plays a far greater role than the printed word in our daily lives. And, after all, if we didn’t have the printed press, there are enough people now to employ as full time transcribers that we’d probably never miss it. But try replacing refrigeration! Those ancient Greeks and Romans who did quite well without Gutenberg’s press actually did make some pretty impressive attempts at refrigeration. The way they handled the problem was to hike up a mountain and bring back ice and snow. If you were a particularly well-off Greek or Roman, you had what was known as a snow cellar, which was basically just a big hole in the ground that had been lined with wood and insulated with straw. Once the ice was packed solidly into a snow cellar, food could then be preserved for weeks or even months. I happen to live in Florida and we only have two mountains here and both of them are hundreds of miles away from me and only have steel and a concrete at the top, and maybe a hidden Mickey or two.
I suppose I could take my cue from a climate and geographical area somewhat relative to my own. In ancient India the way people handled the lack of the greatest invention of all time was to make a clay tray and scoop it with water. They would take this tray and put it on a bed made of straw. The water would evaporate from the sides and surface and due to the drop in air temperature at night a thin sheet of ice would form. Ask Beakman to explain how this could happen even though temperatures didn’t drop to anywhere in the vicinity of the freezing point. If the temperature did get nearer to the freezing point, however, sometimes the result would be a solid block of ice. Of course, if the weather was that temperate, you really didn’t need the refrigerative effects anyway.
So, we know Gutenberg gets the credit for the printing press, but who is really responsible for the greatest invention of all time? The invention of the refrigerator is a bit more complicated than that of the printing press, although for all we know Gutenberg was the Thomas Edison of his day, stealing other people’s inventions left and right and taking the credit for himself. A man named William Cullen is usually credited as being the inventor refrigeration due to experiments he conducted in which he evaporated ethyl ether into a vacuum, the result being first vapor cooling process. Even so, it would take a few more inventors working from Cullen’s imperfect design such as Jacob Perkins who was the first to use a compressor and a system using a volatile liquid. That was back in the 1830s and it would take almost a hundred years before such names as General Electric, Kelvinator and Frigidaire became household necessities. On the other hand, how many of us actually ever actually owned a printing press? Yes, Donnie Darko was wrong. It is not antiseptic that is the greatest invention of all time, it’s the refrigerator.