Knives, guns and other tools

If you were asked to name the tools that have most impacted human civilization and helped shape the course of history, what would you choose?


In 2005, polled 3,000 of its readers, consulted with a panel of experts and surveyed 10 of its senior editors to determine the most important tools of all time. The final rankings were a weighted average of the readers, editors’ and experts’ choices.

Given the number and variety of tools that humans have used throughout the millennia, the choice couldn’t have been easy. After what must’ve been some highly spirited discussions, the knife was chosen as the No. 1 most-important tool.

The knife, in my opinion, was a good choice for first place. A knife can be used for both defense and offense. With a knife, you can make pretty much everything you need. With a knife, you can make traps for animals. Attach a knife to a stick, and you have a spear that can kill a large animal. With a knife, you can skin the animal, cut its meat into chunks and cut animal hides into strips and pieces, from which you can make clothing, shelter and even a boat. With a knife, you can make a bow drill and tinder for making fire. With a knife, you can make tools for cultivating soil and harvesting crops, as well as tools for cooking and eating. I hope I never have to keep a bear out of my cave with a knife, but it has probably been done.

Another good choice was the compass, ranked as No. 3. The compass made an enormous difference in man’s ability to explore, conquer, pillage, pacify and “civilize” parts of the world that had previously been out of reach.

The first report of the use of a compass for navigation was written by Chinese astronomer and mathematician Shen Kua in 1086. Four hundred years later, the magnetic compass was in common use aboard ships on the Mediterranean and along the coast of Europe. The four transatlantic voyages made by Columbus marked the beginning of the exploration and colonization of the Americas, which couldn’t have happened without the compass.

The rifle ranked No. 7, between the scythe (No. 6) and the sword (No.8). Due its spirally grooved barrel, the rifle is far more accurate than its predecessor, the smooth-bore musket. The spiral groves cause a bullet to spin, just as fletches do for an arrow, enhancing stability in flight. The rifle became useful in the 1700s. Famous rifles include the Winchester Model 1873, “The Gun That Won the West”; the .30-40 Krag, carried by Teddy Roosevelt in the Battle of San Juan Hill; and the M1 Garand, the rifle General George S. Patton called “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Like the knife, the rifle is useful for both defense and offense.

I was surprised that the lateen, a triangular sail, didn’t make the top 20 list. Before the lateen, ships could sail only with the wind. If the wind blew north, you sailed north. Maneuvering or sailing against the wind with square sails required oars. The inability to sail in contrary winds made trade and exploration highly risky ventures and greatly delayed what is known as “progress.”

The origin of the lateen is uncertain, but it was in use in the Mediterranean in the eighth century. With a lateen, a ship could make forward progress even when sailing almost directly into the wind. When combined with the square sail, the lateen sail opened the world to exploration and commerce by full-rigged ships that could sail even in “contrary” winds.

My biggest disappointment with this list was that the fish hook ranked No. 19. I would’ve placed it near the top, maybe even No. 1. Without fish hooks, life as I’ve known it never would’ve happened.

Les Palmer can be reached at


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