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Art Beat: Abe Lincoln's pick for greatest invention? Sock-making machines

Mike Dunham

The cover article of this month's issue of The Atlantic magazine has me thinking about socks -- or rather, about what Abraham Lincoln said about them.

The article, titled "The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel," is a ranking of the innovations as determined by a dozen experts polled by essay author James Fallows. (The title is a little misleading; innovation No. 48, for instance, the lever, predates the wheel, according to the article.)

Number one on the list is the printing press. I won't argue with that. But lists like this spur argument, debate and -- a good thing, I think -- analysis of what's really important and why.

Most devices and systems spring from predecessors. What makes one step in the process particularly important?

For example, the printing press would be less useful if people hadn't figured out writing first. Writing isn't even on The Atlantic's list, though alphabetization comes in at No. 25 due to its utility in creating a searchable database. Yet, for 2,000 years before Gutenberg, writing was being used to pass what someone had learned to people they'd never met, people who hadn't been born, new generations who could access the knowledge already attained and then push it further without having to rediscover an essential fact or technique from scratch.

But writing wasn't enough, as poet and book collector Petrarch observed 100 years before the press. He lamented that written texts were being lost because it took so long to copy them. Gutenberg mightily sped up the replication process, among other things.

A number of The Atlantic's items have to do with health: vaccination, refrigeration, antibiotics and -- perhaps most important, says the guy who grew up with a honey bucket -- modern sanitation. The panel ranked them with whiz-bang technological achievements like semiconductors, the Internet and personal computers, which may indicate a first-world bias. If you can't get on Facebook, it's inconvenient; if you have to dump your waste in the street, it can be fatal. There's a difference.

The experts named the Internet the sixth most important innovation since the wheel, but had television at No. 45. They suspect that the age of television may already be passing, a blip in socio-technological history.

In 60 years, will the Internet also be considered a blip? Anesthesia and nails (Nos. 46 and 47) will be just as important in 2073 as they are now and, for that matter, have been from the moment people figured them out. Maybe they're more important than something that may be out of date in our lifetime.

The panel had four women and eight men, none of whom have done much laundry by hand, I'm guessing. The clothes washing machine, which arguably made possible a level of gender equality in industrialized nations that you don't see in places where Maytags don't exist, is not mentioned. Nor is the electric motor that runs them and so many other household appliances and power tools. Generic "Electricity" is No. 2 on the list, though it appears that the panel had light bulbs and computers in mind; the application of electricity to illumination and communication, enormous as it is, is markedly different from its application to labor-saving devices and how those gizmos have altered our lives.

Innovations seldom change the whole world at once; just swatches of it, with different impact in different places. Cars (No. 18) are nearly indispensable in Anchorage, but not so necessary in places more amenable to public transportation or foot travel. For many humans, airplanes (No. 15) have little bearing on daily life, but imagine, for a moment, modern life in Alaska without them.

Petrarch, who died in 1374, described two items widely used in his later years that were unknown in his youth: clocks and glasses. The Atlantic ranks them No. 27 and 5, respectively. Glasses are especially important, Fallows writes, because they "dramatically raised the collective human I.Q." by making it possible for more people to read, especially young people.

Petrarch viewed spectacles differently, as "a godsend to poor old people" that let literate elders continue to build on what they had already learned as their vision grew dim. Where Fallows sees a horizontal social broadening of education and intelligence due to glasses, the poet saw more of a vertical benefit, extending an individual's education and quality of life. Both may be right, but considering how few young people have problems with close-up vision, I incline toward Petrarch's opinion.

Which brings me to socks and Honest Abe. Lincoln witnessed trains, steamboats and telegraph lines transform transportation and communication -- and the country. He was keenly aware of their importance. Yet when he spoke about contemporary inventions that brought meaningful improvement to most Americans of his generation, he singled out factories that mass-produced socks.

"When I was a child, only the richest people wore socks," he said. "Today, only the poorest don't."

It's easy to miss humble but precious contributions that become so ubiquitous no one thinks about them any longer. Mechanized textile plants are not in The Atlantic's ranking, but I presume all of the contributors wear clothes that, with adjustments, cost a fraction of what one might have paid 200 years ago.

Nor on the list are any specifically art-related items. Cinema, the phonograph, pre-mixed paints, perspective and pianos (the television of the 1800s) didn't rank. Photography was included not as an artistic medium but a recording device, just as the printing press was prominent for reasons unrelated to the mass distribution of Tolstoy's novels.

Fallows reasonably differentiates science and technology from culture, which is constantly changing "without necessarily improving." One cannot measure whether today's fiction is better than Tolstoy's, but the telegraph patently gets a message from New York to San Francisco faster than the Pony Express.

Is art as unimprovable as it is unprovable? Is it as unimportant as we may infer from The Atlantic's list? Or is its influence so incremental as to be invisible, like sock-making machines? If there were a list of the 50 most important artistic breakthroughs of all time, what would it include?

I dunno, but I'm willing to entertain suggestions. Email 'em to the address below and maybe we'll start a whole new debate.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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