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Inventions That Changed Our Lives Only Because of Liberty

Written by Gary North on October 29, 2016

The world of 1900 was nothing like the world of 1800. The world of 2000 was nothing like the world of 1900. Why? Because of 2% per annum economic growth per capita.

No one can perceive this low an increase in one year. But when compounded, no one can miss the changes in our lives over a lifetime. I dealt with this in my Mises Institute lecture, “How Come We’re So Rich?

In my life, I experienced only one major change in my productivity. In late 1980, I switched to a computer to write. I used a primitive version of WordPerfect on a mini-computer: Satellite Software International. In one week, I doubled my output. I continued to use the DOS-based version of the program for the next 25 years.

For small businesses, the big breakthrough was VisiCalc: the first spreadsheet. This was the “killer App” that made the Apple II the first business microcomputer in 1979. There have been improvements since then, but VisiCalc fundamentally changed the process of business planning. It came as a result of a “what if” class assignment at the Harvard Business School. If any other business program has had greater impact on how businessmen run their businesses, I am unaware of it. Maybe computerized accounting programs are more widely used, but they are digital versions of paper-based principles that go back six centuries. There has been nothing to match double-entry bookkeeping during this period.

Tim Berners-Lee converted the Internet into the World Wide Web in 1990. It was a hobby project. The graphical user interface for the Internet launched a communications revolution five years later. A group of nerds at the University of Illinois invented it. YouTube followed a decade later. Facebook changed the way a billion people live. These were revolutions. They were all originally hobby projects. The applications of these technologies have been decentralized and marginal, but our world is different.

There are occasional big ideas. There are not many of them. Then decentralized marginal extensions of them change our world.

This takes liberty. It takes a free market. No central planner or planning committee could foresee these applications, let alone design one. Yet there are still socialists who imagine that some planning committee could do this. They see all around them the fruits of the private ownership of the means of production, and then they go online to call the rest of us to vote for central planning.

We think of Bernie Sanders as a socialist. But, compared with Marx, Lenin, and Mao, he is a free enterpriser. He wants wealth redistribution. He and his followers use the word “socialism,” but they still want Facebook and YouTube in private hands. The world around us is the world of decentralized capital. Sanders and his camp want government redistribution of wealth, but they don’t want the world run by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Defense Department’s DARPA gave us the Internet. This is the only government program that really has changed the world in my lifetime. It was designed to deal with military communications in a nuclear war. The Internet was a revolutionary technology to deal with what would have been the most discontinuous event in history — one that did not take place. Technologists invented a communications technology to deal with one kind of discontinuous event, and the invention became the source of revolutionary change. Bottom line: the Internet was an unintended consequence of a government program to deal with the potential devastation imposed by another government program. Other than the atomic bomb in 1942-45 and the Internet’s physical backbone, I cannot think of any government projects that have led to revolutionary social and economic transformations.

Furthermore, there have been few breakthroughs made by large corporations. Small companies make large conceptual breakthroughs, and then they turn into large corporations.


I have created a list of inventions for use in my history course for the Ron Paul Curriculum. I begin in 1799. The 19th century was incredible. Invention after invention appeared. Collectively, they changed the world. No single invention did this.

What amazes me is this. After 1960, it is hard to identify major breakthroughs. The online lists peter out. Is change slowing? Or are the inventions so marginal that we pay no attention to them? They make our lives better, but we barely notice. We are too close to them. The list is here:

If you can spot any invention/inventor I have missed, send me a note:


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