Skip to main content
 » Top 25  |  Then & Now  |  Special Report

Top 25: Innovations

The Internet, ranked No. 1, changed the world

The Internet made a world of information accessible to millions of people.



Which innovation changed the world most?
The Internet
The cell phone
Portable computers
Hearing aids


1. The Internet
2. Cell phone
3. Personal computers
4. Fiber optics
5. E-mail
6. Commercialized GPS
7. Portable computers
8. Memory storage discs
9. Consumer level digital camera
10. Radio frequency ID tags
11. MEMS
12. DNA fingerprinting
13. Air bags
14. ATM
15. Advanced batteries
16. Hybrid car
17. OLEDs
18. Display panels
19. HDTV
20. Space shuttle
21. Nanotechnology
22. Flash memory
23. Voice mail
24. Modern hearing aids
25. Short Range, High Frequency Radio


Technology (general)
Space Exploration

(CNN) -- The world was different before the Internet.

Without the Internet, you would not be reading this. There would be no way to instantly find the name of the movie your favorite actor was in five years ago or how much it costs to fly to Aruba. Shopping required braving the elements and the crowds. Paying bills relied on the postal service.

Today, with a couple of clicks, you can go anywhere in the world without leaving your computer.

So it should come as little surprise that the Internet (as we know it) headlined the top 25 innovations of the past quarter century, according to a panel of technology leaders assembled by the Lemelson-MIT Program, which promotes inventiveness in teens.

In creating the list, the group hoped to single out "25 non-medically related technological innovations that have become widely used since 1980, are readily recognizable by most Americans, have had a direct and perceptible impact on our everyday lives, and/or could dramatically affect our lives in the future."

The creator of the Web as we know it is British software consultant Tim Berners-Lee. Frustrated by the multitude of information systems requiring complicated access, Berners-Lee fashioned a universal one that made information readily available.

He created HTML (hypertext markup language) and its rules of usage (HTTP, hypertext transfer protocol) and in 1991 unveiled the World Wide Web, making no money from any of them.

Like the Internet, other items on the top 25 list have changed the way people go about their lives and are so commonplace that they are almost taken for granted.

For example, many people turn off their PCs (No. 3) and their HDTV (No. 19) or plasma screen TVs (No. 18) and grab their cell phones (No. 2) and laptop computers (No. 7) as they leave their homes.

Once in their cars, they will probably give the airbags (No. 13) that can save their lives in an accident barely an afterthought as they listen to music on CDs (No. 8).

Some will use the commercialized GPS (Global Positioning System, No. 6) to plan their route, and if it is a pleasure trip, they will probably bring along their digital cameras (No. 9).

Upon arriving at their destination, others will check their e-mail (No. 5) via short-range high frequency radio (WI-FI, No. 25) and their voicemail (No. 23), before heading off to an ATM (No. 14) for cash.

The technology that makes these items possible is taken even more for granted by the average consumer.

It is safe to say that the first words of someone who walks away from a car accident unharmed are not, "Thank goodness for the advent of nanotechnology (No. 21) and MEMS (microelectromechanical system, No. 11)."

Yet without the tiny silicon chip that sensed the impending collision, the airbag would not have deployed in time.

"The device that causes an airbag to inflate in a crash is a nanotech device," said David Kirkpatrick, senior editor at Fortune Magazine.

"It's a highly sensitive little device, an accelerometer that can detect when a car's movement has suddenly stopped. And that's a very key safety device that affects all of our lives."

Emergency phone calls are made possible by compact power sources such as nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries (No. 15). Without them, cell phones would be far less dependable and certainly not rechargeable.

Flash memory (No. 22) made the digital camera possible and changed the way people take photographs and OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes, No. 17) are likely to improve the displays on cameras and are starting to appear on some models.

"Flash memory is a tiny version of the disk drive that's in your computer," said Gene Fitzgerald, MIT professor of material science and engineering. "On your disk drive you might store pictures and other information, and the flash memory is a tiny device that can store all that information.

"You can have it in your cell phone, you can have it in your PDA, just like your disk drive in the computer."

Law enforcement has used science to its advantage with DNA fingerprinting, the process that produces a printed pattern of a person's DNA (No. 12), and everything from airport security to supermarket checkout lines use radio frequency ID tags (No. 10) to track materials.

Fiber optics help link the world together, making inexpensive phone calls and the plethora of cable channels possible.

Some of the inventions on the list have brought to life concepts formerly reserved for science-fiction writers. Among them are the space shuttle (No. 20), which advanced space exploration, and hybrid cars (No. 16) which pollute less by using less gasoline. Interestingly, the innovation that laid the groundwork for many of the inventions mentioned above can be found underground, where fiber optics (No. 4) has helped turn the world into a global village.

"Fiber optics have linked the world together and made our world, our planet, basically one small place," Kirkpatrick said. "If it weren't for fiber optics, we wouldn't be able to have inexpensive global phone calls or 200 cable channels on our televisions."

Rounding out the list are modern hearing aids (No. 24), which have improved the quality of life for the hearing impaired by offering sleeker, better-designed models.

Stay tuned to as CNN continues to celebrate its 25th anniversary by unveiling other top 25 lists through 2005.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.

© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines