A version of this article appeared in the 6-20-2016 edition of Middle Wisconsin. Given the growing level of inequality in America and how it is destroying our democracy and our nation, the message still seems relevant.

The investment – – and the enablement – – began 3.6 million years ago in Tanzania when two early humans stood upright and left the “Laetoli Footprints” in the wet volcanic ash. We do not know what these humans knew, but they had mastered enough of their environment to survive, because we are here today. We owe them a great debt.

A million years passed. Hammerstones and sharp stone cutting flakes were in use. Another million years passed and handaxes arrived. Hearths appeared 790,000 years ago. Humans had learned to control fire. Two hundred thousand years ago innovation in stone technology accelerated. Points were hafted to shafts to make spears. Stone awls were used to perforate animal hides, scrapers were used to shape wood. Investments were being made. We are deeply indebted to these people.

The first pottery arrived 30,000 years ago. At a site known as Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic figurines made of clay mixed with crushed mammoth bone were found. It is the first known synthetic material. Twenty thousand years ago the Ishango Bone appeared in the Congo. It was a counting tool using numbers and the beginning of mathematics. Ten thousand years went by and a monumental event occurred. In 3500 BC a human melted tin and copper together and the Bronze Age – and the science of metallurgy – were born. At about the same time one of the greatest innovations in all human history took place. The wheel was invented. The roots of the locomotive and the automobile were forming. In 1400 BC the Hittites used the first iron and the Iron Age arrived. The molten beginnings of the Mesabi Iron Range, the Great Lakes ore freighters, Pittsburg and Detroit were being poured. The investment in – the contribution to – the future of humanity was enormous, the debt owed the same.

In 350 BC the Greek philosopher Archimedes stated the mathematical principles of the lever and the concept of simple machines was born. The rudiments of gantry cranes, bulldozers and robotic arms were being formed. Centuries passed. In 1514 AD, Copernicus proposed the center of the universe was not Earth, but that our planet revolved around the sun. In 1633 Galileo, father of the modern telescope, was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life for furthering the ideas of Copernicus and advocating a heliocentric universe. Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the international space station were being fledged. The investment in the future was incalculable, the debt immeasurable.

The magnetic compass appeared in China around 1050 BC. But its mysterious force would remain unknown until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber. He coined the Latin word electricus from the Greek word for amber. The bedrock of 500-megawatt coal fired power generation plants, the computer and the internet was being laid. In 1687 Isaac Newton published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematic orthe Principia,” the most influential work on physics of all time. Newton’s work with prisms began the study of light waves and the electromagnetic spectrum. The seeds of radio, television, and cell phones were being planted. The investment in humanity surpassed description, the debt is unrepayable.

In 1669 phosphorous became the first element chemically isolated. Cobalt came in 1732, platinum in 1735. In 1869 Mendeleev arranged the 64 elements known at that time into the first modern periodic table and correctly predicted several others. Marie Currie and her husband Pierre discovered polonium and radium in 1898. Marie would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, a form of bone marrow damage caused by radiation. It was not until the 1940’s that the last of the naturally occurring chemical elements were isolated. Man had discovered the building blocks of the universe. It would take the accumulated history of celestial navigation, Prince Henry the Navigator, the clock, the square rigged ship, Captain James Cook,  the steam engine, well drilling, oil refining, gasoline, the internal combustion engine, hydraulics, pneumatics, generators, alternators, electrical power transmission, steam turbines, electric furnaces, the Bessemer process, the smelting of aluminum, glass, rubber, synthetic tires, Portland cement, asphalt, geometry, calculus, Einstein, the Wright brothers, World Wars I and II, Pearl Harbor, the Enola Gay, the atomic bomb and the death of 150,000 Japanese civilians to continue the synthesis of radioactive elements beyond those found in nature. The investment in mankind was beyond comprehension, the debt owed beyond imagination.

In 1947 the gifts, the investments, the lives of millions upon millions of human beings who had gone before, led to perhaps the greatest invention of the 20th century. The transistor was born at the Bell Industrial Laboratories. The enormity of its impact could never have been foreseen. Without the transistor and its offspring integrated and printed circuitry, there would be no personal computers, no cell phones, no IPads. There would be no internet, no Facebook, no Twitter. There would be no Microsoft, no Apple, no Intel. There would be no Amazon, no EBay, no Craigslist. There would be no high-speed computer trading by hedge funds and Wall Street banks. There would be little of life as we have come to know it.

The investments had been made, the enablement was complete. The “self-made” billionaire could declare – – – he did it all himself, he owed nothing to anyone. The world’s greatest corporations could become the world’s greatest tax dodgers. They owed nothing to anyone. They did it all themselves. Corporate CEO’s, Wall Street bank presidents, hedge fund managers, could become billionaires overnight. They could not be fairly taxed – they did it all themselves. They owed nothing to anyone. The resulting impoverished masses deserve their hopeless servitude, deserve their hungry children. The billionaires did it all themselves.