I want to ask pretty much the question in the title with some side notes/hints for the context:

  • I don't mean first tools created by homo sapiens, I mean which societal or geographical developments led to first significant exponential growth of inventions (plausible are for instance wars between different tribes, tribal rivalry often creates/pressures technological advances)

  • Is there a steady exponential growth of inventions or was there after a first period of many inventions a decline or only linear growth. I don't know since when patent exists and are tracked/indexed.

The background of my question is that I would like to understand what actually thrives human ingenuity or humans to become ingenious, especially in the pre-industrial times and with existing larger tribes or societies, rather necessity, pressure, spare time, identification of geological sources or catalytic key technologies (nuclear fission)...

Do historians have a list/time of catalytic events in medieval history that led to sudden increased growth. One example

  • 2
    There are so many it's borderline impossible to begin answering this exhaustively in a SE answer... Incrementally go through all significant discoveries until recent times. Every time you improve the status quo in a meaningful way, you have a winner; and these were not restricted to the past two centuries -- think fire, stone working, bone working, agriculture, pottery, etc. in addition to things like computers in more recent years. Sep 26, 2019 at 19:17
  • Hi sera. You aim to developments only during middle ages or in any age in human history? I don't know whether early philosophy in ancient Greece or infinitesimal calculus in modern age apply to your question.
    – Santiago
    Sep 26, 2019 at 19:26
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    You let this whole exponential buzz phenomenon taint you. We live a time of decelerated changes compared to previous periods, e.g. from 1870 to 1970. There's no such thing as exponential growth.
    – 38876
    Sep 26, 2019 at 19:44
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    I'd recommend William McNeil's The Pursuit of Power which is basically a solid historical analysis of the growth of government aimed at the intelligent non-specialist. MacNeil speculates that the critical factor was the Fall of Rome, arguing that this led to a loss of monopolies of power in Europe which elsewhere prevented or greatly slowed technological and social change. In an interesting book.
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 26, 2019 at 20:21
  • @Santiago not necessarily as I don't know when the major declines and boost of ingenuity of mankind happend, I added some context to TED's valuable answer Sep 26, 2019 at 22:19

1 Answer 1


I believe what you are talking about is the rate of accumulation of knowledge, aka information. There's a relatively new branch of history called Informationalist History that studies this.

As an example, Douglas S. Robertson has classified all societies based on the amount of information, in bits, that a typical member has access to. Each is categorized based on the enabling invention that allowed humans access to that amount of information.

Where h is the amount of info one mind can hold, and is probably in the vicinity of 5Mb (5*106 bits).

  • Level 0 - 107 bits (h) - Pre-Language
  • Level 1 - 109 bits - Language
  • Level 2 - 1011 bits - Writing
  • Level 3 - 1017 bits - Printing
  • Level 4 - 1025(?) bits - Computers

The exponent on that number of bits is the important thing. How far one society outclasses another can be gauged by the difference in those exponents.

In Robertson's view, this is why Native Americans, the most advanced of whom barely had writing, had no hope of competing with Europeans with printing presses, but under the right conditions could actually replace a society of Europeans with no printing press a few years earlier. Being a couple of orders of magnitude back can perhaps be dealt with. However, be several back and you'll be lucky if they bother to treat you as the same species.

  • This is largely a copy of an aside in another answer I made to another question. If we can get this question into good enough shape to keep open, I'll edit that other question to just link here. I think potentially this could be a better location for this content.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 26, 2019 at 20:51
  • The question is maybe even deeper and ask if a rate of accumulation of knowledge alone necessarily thrives increasing ingenuity in human societies and is sufficient or if maybe catalytic events like wars/rivalry, climate change, migration of nations are always necessary. But I understand it's not explainable in a single answer, but I'm happy any perspectives like yours. For instance has ingenuity always in history only arosen in tribes who could afford this spare time for some part of the population like the romans, while people in africa nowadays fight every day to survive. Sep 26, 2019 at 22:12
  • But your answer is interersting as to me the question arises if the exponential growth of information correlates with exponential ingenuity or patents or as one commenter above believes is rather declining. The question is to me if this is rather determined by technological/information or cultural/societal factors/economical. I think in medieval ages rather the last, nowadays maybe the former. Sep 26, 2019 at 22:16
  • @sera - Things generally increase exponentially if future growth is limited by present levels. You'll notice from the list above that exact kind of dynamic: Printing is not possible without writing. Writing is not possible without language. Computers weren't invented alone by one smart guy: All of human knowledge to that point about chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, etc was required to be learned first. Its a self-building process.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 26, 2019 at 22:45

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