A competition sponsored in 1913 by Scientific American asked for essays on the 10 greatest inventions, Scientific American reports. The rules: “our time” meant the previous quarter century, 1888 to 1913; the invention had to be patentable and was considered to date from its “commercial introduction.” Perception is at the heart of this question. Inventions are most salient when we can see the historical changes they cause. In 2013 we might not appreciate the work of Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison on a daily basis, as we are accustomed to electricity in all its forms, but we are very impressed...

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