Electricity and the Bomb still lead as best and worst inventions

February 21, 2014, 2:22 PM GMT+0

More than sixty years since the question was first asked, electricity is still considered to be the greatest invention in human history

Americans see the pace of scientific and technical change as about right – with as many saying it’s too slow as thinking it’s too fast. The latest Economist/YouGov Poll, however, also finds that some opinions about scientific discoveries haven’t changed all that much in the last 60 years: we still think electricity is the best invention ever; we still think nuclear weapons are the worst.

The Gallup Organization asked Americans in 1947 to name the greatest invention of all time: 29% volunteered electricity. But number two, with 17%, was the atom bomb. The Gallup Poll was conducted less than two years after the end of World War II; that war ended shortly after the United States used atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radio ranked third in 1947.

When Gallup repeated the question in 2005, electricity still ranked number one. The atomic bomb had disappeared from the list completely, replaced by the automobile and the computer. The airplane, the telephone and the wheel made both lists.

Today, electricity and the lightbulb remain at the top.

There are some obvious changes. Computer and the internet didn’t exist in 1947. And American belief that the atomic bomb was a great invention faded. Television never quite reached the importance radio had in 1947. Today, older Americans are more likely to credit the wheel than to cite electricity; younger adults rank electricity and the internet about even.

There has also been little change when it comes to the top mention for the one invention that Americans wish had never been invented. In 1947, 29% named the atomic bomb. Nothing else came close. And nearly half could think of nothing.

This year, atomic and nuclear weapons are the most frequent mention, too. 22% in the Economist/YouGov Poll cited those weapons of mass destruction as the one thing they wish had never been invented. 10% name guns and gunpowder. But the same percentage name another invention omnipresent today: 10% say they wish telephones, especially the cell phone and smart phone, \had never been invented. 3% each mention the computer and the internet, which others see as the greatest invention ever.

Today, a third can think of no invention they would reject.

Nuclear weaponry tops the list for all age groups and political groups. But Democrats are more than three times as likely as Republicans to say they wish guns had never been invented; Republicans are three times as likely as Democrats to say that about cellphones.

Image: Getty

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

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