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10 Extremely Simple Concepts That Completely Changed the World

by Michael Burnham
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Simplicity often conceals profound power. Throughout history, seemingly straightforward ideas have transformed the course of civilization, shaping economies, revolutionizing societies, and redefining how humanity perceives the world. These concepts didn’t require intricate mechanisms or elaborate theories—they relied on the brilliance of their simplicity to profoundly change lives.

This list celebrates ten extraordinarily simple yet world-changing concepts. These ideas, born from ancient civilizations or individuals with a vision, are often taken for granted today. Still, their simplicity and universality continue to shape the way we live, work, and interact. Prepare to be amazed by how these unassuming innovations forever altered the course of human history.

Related: 10 Planet-Saving Inventions That You May Not Know Much About

10 The Game-Changing Placeholder of Zero

Why the number 0 was banned for 1500 years

The concept of zero, which originated in ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and Babylonians, is one of the simplest yet most transformative ideas in human history. Initially used as a placeholder in the positional number system, zero allowed for accurate mathematical calculations and clear distinctions between large numbers. This idea revolutionized mathematics, making advanced concepts like arithmetic, algebra, and calculus possible.

Ancient Indian mathematicians further refined zero, giving it a numerical value. In the 5th century AD, Brahmagupta wrote the earliest known rules defining zero as a mathematical entity in his treatise Brāhma-sphuṭa-siddhānta. These rules established zero as both a number and an operator, leading to the development of more sophisticated mathematical theories. Arab scholars later adopted these concepts, spreading them throughout the Islamic world and eventually to Europe via translations of mathematical texts.

By the 12th century, European mathematicians had embraced zero, incorporating it into the newly adopted Arabic numeral system. The concept was revolutionary for Western thought, paving the way for advancements in science, engineering, and commerce. Modern computers and digital systems, which rely on binary code—a series of zeros and ones—are a testament to zero’s enduring impact.

The notion of zero, a deceptively simple placeholder, has underpinned the rise of civilization, transforming not just mathematics but the very way humanity comprehends the universe.[1]

9 The Decimal System Made Counting Precise

Origin of decimal system / origin of zero – why do the numbers have the shape they have? Documentary

The decimal system, or base-10 system, has roots stretching back to ancient Egypt as early as 218 BC. The Egyptians counted in powers of ten, using their ten fingers as a natural counting tool. This method was further refined by the Indus Valley civilization, which introduced the concept of decimal points for measuring weight around 2600 BC.

The Chinese manuscripts from 1400 BC also shed light on a possible decimal system for making calendars, and the Greeks adopted it around 400 BC. However, it was Indian mathematicians who formalized the system around the 5th century AD. They developed the concept of zero and positional notation, which allowed each digit’s value to depend on its position.

Arab scholars recognized the potential of this system and called it the “Arabic numerals,” spreading it throughout the Islamic world and eventually to Europe. The Italian mathematician Fibonacci played a crucial role in popularizing the system in Europe with his book Liber Abaci in 1202. He emphasized the advantages of this system over the cumbersome Roman numerals.

The decimal system brought precision and simplicity to numerical representation, enabling more accurate calculations. From measuring weight and length to calculating the value of currency, decimals have become indispensable in everyday life. By breaking down whole numbers into constituent parts using a simple dot, decimals have paved the way for scientific progress and technological advancements. Their ability to represent fractions in an intuitive and universally understood way has made the decimal system a cornerstone of mathematics and commerce worldwide.[2]

8 Navigating the World with the Compass

The Ancient Chinese Compass

The magnetic compass, believed to have originated in ancient China during the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 220), was first used primarily for geomancy, or divination. The earliest records show a spoon-shaped compass made of lodestone, known as a “South-pointer,” placed on a cast bronze plate called a “heaven-plate” or diviner’s board. This board featured the eight trigrams (Pa Gua) of the I Ching, 24 directions, and 28 lunar mansions based on constellations. The square symbolized Earth, while the circular disc symbolized heaven. The Big Dipper constellation was often drawn within the center disc. In a culture that highly revered its ancestors, the compass was an essential tool for determining auspicious locations and times, particularly for burials.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese scholars discovered how to magnetize iron needles by rubbing them with magnetite. They also noticed that needles heated to red-hot and cooled in the north-south orientation became magnetized. These refined compasses were either floated in water (wet compass), placed on a pointed shaft (dry compass), or suspended by silk thread. The improved needle compasses were much more portable, making them suitable for navigation.

By the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), navigational compasses were in widespread use, allowing trading ships to sail as far as Saudi Arabia without getting lost. The diviner’s board was replaced with a bowl, which retained the markings of the heaven-plate. The inner circle featured the eight trigrams, and the outer circle contained the 24 directions. This development paved the way for global exploration, helping humanity unlock the secrets of the world’s oceans.[3]

7 The Scientific Method Unveils Nature’s Secrets

The Forgotten Origin of the Scientific Method

The history of the scientific method is a fascinating journey through time involving some of the most enlightened minds in history. It originated with the ancient Greeks and Zoroastrians, who made early contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. However, the Greeks were the first to formalize what we recognize as the scientific method. Aristotle, regarded as the father of science, emphasized empirical measurement, understanding that abstract reasoning must be supported by real-world findings. He proposed induction as a tool for gaining knowledge and meticulously observed everything from politics to natural history.

The early Islamic ages, known as the Golden Age of Science, built on Greek contributions and further refined the method. Ibn al-Haytham, known for his work on optics, emphasized the importance of observation and experimentation, interpreting data through mathematics. He understood the necessity of skepticism and believed science was a quest for ultimate truth. Al-Biruni and other scholars introduced replication to minimize bias and error.

During the Renaissance, European scholars like Roger Bacon, Galileo, and Francis Bacon developed the scientific method further. Roger Bacon refined the idea of hypothesizing and experimentation, meticulously documenting his work to ensure repeatability. Galileo, regarded as the father of modern science, standardized measurements and used inductive reasoning to confirm theories. Francis Bacon promoted observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning to uncover universal truths.

Isaac Newton later epitomized the scientific method with his work on calculus and the laws of motion. He emphasized the importance of combining induction and deduction, thus formalizing the approach that continues to be the foundation of modern science.

Today, the scientific method remains at the core of research across all disciplines. From physics to psychology, it guides us in understanding nature’s mysteries and drives advancements in medicine, technology, and environmental conservation.[4]

6 The Alphabet and Writing

History of the Latin Alphabet

Before the alphabet was invented, early writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform relied on pictographic symbols to represent words. These systems required a vast number of symbols and were thus limited to a small group of highly trained scribes. Around the second millennium BC, a group of Semitic-speaking people adapted a subset of Egyptian hieroglyphs to represent the sounds of their language, creating the first known alphabetic writing system.

This Proto-Sinaitic script, dating back to between 1850 and 1700 BC, consisted of 22 unique symbols representing consonantal sounds, omitting vowels. Written from right to left, this consonantal alphabet—also known as an abjad—was simple enough for ordinary traders to learn and use. The Phoenicians, who occupied parts of modern Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, spread this alphabet through their extensive maritime trade.

By the 8th century BC, the Phoenician alphabet had reached Greece, where it was adapted to include vowels, creating the first “true” alphabet. The Greeks initially wrote from right to left, then alternated lines (boustrophedon), and finally settled into the left-to-right pattern used today. The Greek alphabet later gave rise to the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, spreading across Europe and influencing modern writing systems.

The alphabet’s simplicity made reading and writing more accessible, enabling the rapid dissemination of ideas and information. It allowed literature, history, and scientific knowledge to be recorded and shared widely, laying the groundwork for education and scholarship. Today, most of the world’s alphabets trace their roots back to the Phoenician script, demonstrating how a simple set of symbols transformed human communication, education, and culture forever.[5]

5 Fire Ignites Civilization’s Progress

When We Tamed Fire

The controlled use of fire was a transformative discovery that fundamentally changed the course of human evolution. Archaeological evidence from South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave suggests that early humans tamed fire around 1 million years ago, much earlier than previously thought.

The cave contained charred animal bones and ashed plant remains, indicating that early human ancestors controlled fire to cook food, stay warm, and ward off predators. This finding aligns with the cooking hypothesis of primatologist Richard Wrangham, who argued that the ability to cook enabled early humans to consume more calories, leading to smaller teeth, smaller stomachs, and larger brains.

Fire provided crucial social and behavioral advantages, encouraging early humans to gather around campfires and stay up late. The warmth allowed them to venture into colder climates, and the protective light deterred predators at night. Moreover, firelight extended productive hours, fostering socialization and storytelling, which were vital for cultural development.

In addition to its immediate benefits, fire paved the way for technological advancements. The ability to control fire facilitated the development of tools, pottery, and metalworking, which enabled early humans to establish agricultural communities and urban settlements. The mastery of fire also became a symbol of life, knowledge, and purification in various cultures, underscoring humanity’s mastery over nature and the drive for progress.

Today, fire remains a central element in our lives, from industrial manufacturing to space exploration, demonstrating how this simple concept helped ignite civilization’s journey.[6]

4 Rolling Toward Innovation with the Wheel

The Invention of the Wheel – The Journey to Civilization #03 – See U in History

The wheel, a simple yet revolutionary invention, has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia over 5,500 years ago. Initially, it wasn’t used for transportation but as a potter’s wheel, allowing early artisans to create pottery with unprecedented precision. The first transportation wheels, appearing around 3500 BCE, were solid wooden disks with a hole for an axle. The combination of wheel and axle marked a turning point in human history, enabling carts and chariots to transport people and goods more efficiently.

The Bronocice pot, a piece of pottery discovered in Poland dating back to 3370 BC, is believed to feature the earliest depiction of a wheeled vehicle. These early carts likely had wheels and axles that turned together, but the fixed axle was later invented, wherein the axle remained stationary while the wheels rotated around it. This improvement made carts more stable and maneuverable.

The wheelbarrow we know today was likely invented by the Greeks and added another layer of utility to the wheel’s design, providing a simple yet effective way to transport materials. In ancient China, wheeled vehicles like chariots were used extensively in warfare and agriculture.

Beyond transportation, the wheel led to many other technological advancements. Water wheels harnessed the power of rivers, spinning wheels facilitated the production of thread, and gyroscopes enabled accurate navigation. The wheel remains crucial today in countless applications, from automobiles to complex manufacturing equipment, underscoring its enduring legacy as a simple concept that transformed the world.[7]

3 Hygiene: An Ancient Practice with Timeless Importance

A Brief “Dirty” History of Personal Hygiene

Hygiene, the practice of cleanliness, has deep roots in human history and even traces back to our earliest animal ancestors. Over four billion years ago, single-celled organisms developed mechanisms to defend themselves against parasites, and this behavior evolved as life forms became more complex.

Grooming and avoiding contaminated environments were essential behaviors that helped animals fend off parasites. For instance, bullfrog tadpoles avoid others infected with candidiasis, and ants groom themselves to remove fungal pathogens. Thus, hygiene became ingrained as an adaptive behavior that improved survival.

In humans, hygiene behaviors are often driven by a natural sense of disgust. When confronted with feces, rotten food, or bodily fluids, we instinctively react with revulsion. This innate response likely evolved to protect us from infectious diseases.

Historical records also suggest that early humans practiced hygiene. Neanderthals used seashell tweezers to pluck hair, and ancient Mesopotamian texts reveal concerns about cleanliness. Furthermore, religions developed purification rituals, while civilizations like Rome implemented plumbing and communal baths to promote cleanliness.

Despite these early practices, modern hygiene science only emerged in the 19th century with the germ theory of disease. Ignaz Semmelweis advocated handwashing to reduce maternal deaths, and Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic surgery. Today, understanding hygiene’s natural history helps us appreciate its timeless importance and informs public health campaigns. By leveraging our instinctive aversion to dirt and disease, we can continue to promote effective hygiene practices that protect humanity from infection.[8]

2 Soap’s Contribution to Proper Hygiene

A Brief History of Soap

The history of soap dates back to Ancient Babylon around 2800 BC, where evidence suggests early Babylonians understood soap-making. Archaeologists have discovered historic clay cylinders inscribed with instructions for “fats boiled with ashes,” a rudimentary method of creating soap.

The Egyptians also used similar soap-like materials, combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to treat skin diseases and for personal hygiene. However, the term “soap” originated from an ancient Roman legend. According to the tale, Mount Sapo was a place where animal fat and ashes were mixed with rainwater to form a cleaning clay mixture, thus simplifying the washing process.

By the 7th century, soap-making had become an established craft in Italy, Spain, and France due to their abundant supply of olive oil. However, after the fall of Rome in 467, Europe experienced a decline in bathing habits, leading to unsanitary conditions during the Middle Ages. This lack of hygiene contributed to the spread of diseases like the Black Death.

Despite these trends in Europe, daily bathing remained a common practice in Japan and Iceland, where hot spring pools were popular social gathering spots. It wasn’t until the 17th century that cleanliness regained popularity in Europe, particularly among the wealthy. In 1791, French chemist Nicolas Leblanc revolutionized soap-making by developing a process to create soda ash from common salt.

This discovery, combined with advancements in factory power, made soap production one of America’s fastest-growing industries by 1850. During World War I and World War II, a shortage of animal and vegetable fats led to the development of synthetic detergents, which are now commonly referred to as soap.[9]

1 Toothbrushes: From Chew Sticks to Modern Oral Care

How the Toothbrush Was Invented

The history of the toothbrush is as fascinating as it is ancient. Before toothbrushes, people relied on chew sticks—twigs with frayed ends—to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. This simple yet effective tool dates back to 3500 BC and was used in different countries, with some of the earliest examples originating from Egypt and Babylon. By 1600 BC, the Chinese fashioned chew sticks from fragrant plant twigs, creating an early form of breath freshener.

The first toothbrush, as we recognize it today, was developed in Ancient China during the Tang Dynasty (619–907). This early toothbrush had a bamboo or bone handle with bristles made from the coarse hairs of a Siberian hog. Later designs utilized horse hair instead of hog hair. The concept spread to Europe through global trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Europeans created their own versions using cattle bone handles and pig bristles. By 1844, Europeans improved the toothbrush’s cleaning ability by developing a three-row bristle arrangement.

Modern toothbrushes emerged in the early 20th century. In 1938, DuPont revolutionized oral care with the first nylon-bristled toothbrush. Softer nylon bristles were introduced in the 1950s, making brushing gentler on the gums. The 1960s brought the electric toothbrush, providing an easier option for those with arthritis or dexterity issues.

Today, toothbrush designs include ergonomic handles, various head sizes, and advanced bristle formations, proving that this centuries-old invention continues to evolve while maintaining its core purpose of promoting oral hygiene.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen