BusinessWeek has an article and slideshow featuring a list of what the author estimates to be the 15 historical innovations that have created the greatest improvements to human life. Not all the innovations are technological or scientific - some are financial, politcal, and legal.
Rather than debate the candidates or the ranking, what leapt out at me is something that most people overlook, but something I have nearly made the primary theme of this blog :
Notice that of the 15 innovations, 11-12 emerged in the last 200 years, and only achieved wide participation/ownership in the last 60-80 years. The 5000 years preceding the 19th century had only 3-4 of these 15 innovations reach maturity. Even a major dispute with the list will inevitably lead to a different list that is similarly weighted very heavily to the recent past.
Accelerating change is visible in this list, even if the concept is not mentioned (if noticed at all) by the author. This also tells us that the next 30 years will have several new innovations disruptive enough to earn a place on such a list.
What will the next great innovations be, under this methodology? I think nanotechnology is one, and virtual reality is another that could make this list by 2020. Time will tell, but the most important thing to internalize is that the interval between each major transformative leap continues to shorten.