What would you name as the most transformative invention of the modern centuries? No doubt any list of possibilities would include automobiles, airplanes, telephones, radio, televisions, computers, internet, modern medicines and treatments, atomic weapons and others that I overlooked. The volume of new inventions is so great that we can hardly keep up with it. But around 1900, Director Charles Duell supposedly recommended closing the U.S. Patent office. The story is probably apocryphal, but many people of that era did believe that everything possible had been invented.
I limited the list of impactful inventions to the modern centuries. If we were to review the whole history of mankind, four early innovations might transcend all later ones: language, clothing, numbers, and alphabets/writing. Inventions such as the printing press and telescopes were also transformative. We barely notice others, the horse collar, for example. I’m serious; by allowing draft animals to pull much heavier loads without injury or strangulation, it revolutionized agriculture and food production in the late Middle Ages and made the Modern Age possible. If armies travel on their stomachs, as the old saying goes, it is also true that civilizations ride on the shoulders of the farmers who feed them.
But I place first an innovation that may have affected the human social structure itself more than any other in modern times. I refer to the contraceptive pill. For uncounted ages, the fate of most sexually active women in or out of marriage was to reap a harvest of babies. Consequently, female chastity, love and marriage went “together like a horse and carriage,” as the lyrics of a popular song described it around 1950. But by 1970 this expectation was becoming obsolete.
For the first time in history, human sexuality and pregnancy were separated and social transformation soon followed. Now women could decide to become pregnant or not. No longer did women have to marry to be sexually active, and many decided not only against marriage — but also against the obligation to have children if they did. Women began to consider sex and motherhood not as a duty imposed by nature and culture, but a personal decision they alone would make. Women came to see sexual engagement as an equal right to pleasure and amusement for both sexes, not mainly a male prerogative, as had been assumed in former times.
Abortion is not new. Earlier women secretly interrupted pregnancies without today’s moral controversies. In frontier America, people thought a fetus was not alive until the woman could feel it moving. Certain herbs and self-inflicted violence were means of aborting. The ancient Greeks had few qualms about “abandonment,” the practice of dropping unwanted babies in the wild to starve or be eaten by animals, as some people still dispose of kittens and puppies.
The pill was not just another gadget, but a product that drastically altered human relationships. It may be the most socially transformative innovation of our age.