The Mother of All Inventions: A Surprise Candidate

If you were asked to come up with a list of the most important inventions of all time, the chances are that you’d include among them agriculture, writing, the internet, the steam engine, the printing press, the car, and the airplane. If you’re young enough you might include the iPod and if you’re whimsical enough you might include the flushing toilet. But there’s one invention you almost certainly wouldn’t even think to include on your list, let alone to put it at number one. As far as I can tell it’s never made any published list except rather vaguely as “food storage and processing”.  And that invention is the granary. You see, I want to make the claim that the granary, dating as far back as 11,500 years ago and predating agriculture by a millennium, has had a greater impact on the human race, and thus on the world, than any other invention before or since and therefore deserves the title of “the mother of all inventions”, even more than necessity itself.

 The reason is twofold. Firstly, it was directly responsible for the development of several of the other inventions that all usually make the top ten on the list:

 -       It created the infrastructure and rationale for farming (which, without food storage, is just a more laborious way of putting food on the table than hunting-gathering)

-       It enabled the growth of larger, denser populations. Some of these populations would eventually become cities, widely regarded as the crucibles of creativity and innovation.

-       It made possible the concepts of ownership and trade, by transforming surplus into an asset

-       It drove the development of written language and numbers, as granary owners looked for reliable ways to control and account for their inventories. It is surely no coincidence that Nissaba, the Sumerian goddess of the granary, was also the patron of scribes.

 Secondly, and this is even more important though not as immediately obvious, the granary also fundamentally changed our relationship with nature. For the first time in their history, our ancestors no longer lived hand to mouth, dependent on whatever nature provided to them then and there. Now, they could take out of nature more than enough crops to satisfy their immediate needs and build up reserves in their granaries to feed themselves during times of scarcity or to trade with others. The granaries made the grain more useful to the gatherers than if they had left it on the wild crop stands. This gradually became a new way of thinking about the world, a logic that declared that everything in it – not just grain - is available to us as a potential resource; that the more control we have over a resource the more value we can derive from it; and that the easiest and best way for us to wield that control over any given resource is to control its environment. I call these environments “stores” and this way of thinking about the world “store logic”.

 The granary was our first store, and we have applied the same logic, store logic, to resources and stores of all types ever since then. We have increased the value of animals and plants by controlling their propagation in fields and farms, of ideas and memories and knowledge by controlling theirs in tablets, papyri and paper (and back to tablets!), of raw materials in factories, of finished goods in retail stores, of students in classrooms and schools, of electricity in batteries, of water in dams, of “knowledge workers” in the appropriately named cube farms, and so on.

 Everywhere we look we can see stores and store logic hard at work. Even the remarkable 21st century achievement of physicist Lene Hau and her team in capturing light in a Bose Einstein Condensate, a highly exotic store, is grounded in the same belief, that if we can control the propagation of a resource, even light itself, we will be able to make more use of it. The original granary builders would be proud.