Top 5 products that moved humanity forwards

I spoke down-the-line with product designer Simon Heap, and we share our top five world-changing products, gently colliding over what can be construed a “product”.

Simon has dedicated his life to making, as he calls it, “a better mouse trap”, and now specialises in designing products for sport. You might know Simon’s work from Dragons’ Den, or perhaps you’ve bought his potato masher?

Screen grab from Simon's "Dragons' Den" appearance

Simon once designed a CD player and argued for a sense of jeopardy within the mechanism (in the same way that there is a way to put a record on wrong), and I found another member to join the ranks of those who mourn the passing of the MiniDisc. I also discovered that the Japanese may have the word I’ve long searched for, to describe that wonderful sense of joy and satisfaction you get from a mechanical interaction: a good button, a sturdy spring or a crunchy click.

Simon’s picks

In order of discussion:

The wheel

It’s round. It can be used to move things. Attach two of them to a thing, and you can move it even easier. It’s what Ford Prefect called “the single simplest machine in the entire universe”. It’s the wheel.

The match

Simon picked fire — or more specifically, the match — for the ability to create heat and light at will, therefore allowing people tilling the fields all day to come home and further their education at night.


This 1928 invention was Simon’s third pick, and something that came up in List Envy’s very first episode. He argues that, while most of the pair’s choices spread communication across the globe, penicillin spreads health.

World Wide Web

I know this, Simon knows this, and in case you didn’t before, now you do: the Internet and the Web are not the same thing. With that out of the way, Simon picked this as an extraordinary communication tool (for good or ill), and I brought up the Mosaic web browser as the first widely adopted way of “surfing hyperspace”.

Marine chronometer

This device enabled travel across the sea in a way that would previously have been infinitely more dangerous, allowed for more accurate mapping, and ultimately brought the world closer together by making it more navigable.

My picks

In order of discussion:

Wireless radio

I used the de Forest RJ6 as an early example of a commercially-available radio receiver, as the first in a set of communication devices I believe have propelled us.

Commercial aviation

I discussed the first commercial aeroplane flight, a short hop in 1914, which Simon contrasts with Kitty Hawk’s first public outing in 1903.

Nokia 8110

I picked this un-smart, by 2019 standards unsexy flip phone, as being among the first mobile phones to be desirable consumer products. Not to be outdone, this is the point in the episode in which Simon’s landline starts chirping in.

Apple Macintosh


I picked this computer — which was far from Apple’s first — again as a desirable object, that democratised, commoditised and made friendly the idea of computing. Simon suggested the first iMac might have been a good pick.

Audio cassette

I picked the hissy, mushy-sounding cassette as an interesting device in its own right, saying that, unlike vinyl or CDs, cassette tapes mark their last use: they have to be manually rewound… unless you had one of those fancy machines that messes with the tape heads and flips them around.

Honourable mentions

More of Simon Heap

Follow Simon on Twitter and LinkedIn, check out his latest business, Rugged Interactive, and his consultancy, Design for Sport.

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