Last Updated Mar 20, 2008 4:22 PM EDT
Coffee (Early 9th century, Ethiopia) â€" Shepherds eager to stay alert in order to protect the flock from predators discover that a local crop, when steeped in boiling water, provides much-needed pep. It will come as no surprise to the modern-day manager that the first coffee breaks happened to coincide with the beginning of the decline of the once-thriving Nubian civilization.
The cigarette (9th century, Central America) â€" Mayan priests inadvertently hasten the end of the Mayan Classical Era by introducing a new way to ingest the area's beloved tobacco. Their crudely constructed version of the modern cigarette may not have had a filter or tasted of sickly sweet menthol, but the once-powerful engine of workplace productivity has been wheezing ever since.
The window (Early 13th century, Norway) â€" We haven't heard much from Norway since the days of Erik the Red. This is, in no small part, due to one of the more insidious architectural elements ever devised -- the window. Norway plunged into its 400-Year Night soon after workers gazed out the first window -- and, to think, they didn't even have to contend with the lazy drift of airplanes leaving vapor trails across the sky.
The eight-hour workday (1938, United States) â€" There was a time when the United States led the world in hard work. Workers wouldn't complain about spending half of their lives in the factory, office or mineshaft -- and every day was Bring Your Kid to Work Day. Then shiftless worker's rights groups, unions and angry mobs began demanding a higher quality of life. Productivity would never be the same.
The Nerfoop (1972, United States) â€" The crisis of leadership suffered in the United States in the '70s and '80s can be directly tied to the ability to close one's office door and relive high-school glory days with Parker Brothers' ubiquitous Nerfoop. Demand for secretaries was at an all-time high, as executives needed warning so no one would catch them shooting free throws when they should have been preparing board presentations.
Seinfeld (1990, United States) â€" Remember how George H.W. Bush had to raise our taxes back in the early '90s, even though he desperately wanted to keep them low? The media wanted to blame him for going back on campaign promises, but the real culprit was lackluster industrial production, or, more to the point, time wasted chatting about four underemployed urbanites in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. No one watched the first season in 1989, but by 1990 the series was going strong, and productivity was taking a big hit.
What do you think? What are some of history's other great enemies of productivity?
Tomorrow, look for our March Madness poll.