Organizational systems that changed history

When thinking about organizing, you likely don’t consider it to be world changing or revolutionary. However, the history books would suggest differently. For example, there are two scientists who reorganized information and created organizational systems that allowed humans to make significant advancements in the fields of science and technology.


Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) was not the first scientist to recognize that different species could be grouped together based on some common characteristics. However, until Linnaeus’s time, scientists arbitrarily gave the species they classified complicated Latin names that they changed whenever they wished, depending on what other species they were classifying at the time. This meant that two different scientists could be using different names for the exact same species.

In 1735, Linnaeus published the revolutionary book Systema Naturae. It outlined his scheme for classifying all known and yet-to-be-discovered life forms. His system was simple to understand and apply, and it could be easily modified to accommodate changes and new developments. Linnaeus’s method of organization was accepted as the scientific standard by the early 1800s.


In the early 1800s, scientists attempted to organize chemical elements by listing them in order of atomic mass, but that method didn’t adequately explain the relationships between the elements. And, scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) realized that there was a recurring pattern relating the physical and chemical properties of elements to their atomic number — it wasn’t chaotic.

In 1869, Mendeleev re-arranged the elements. He moved them from a list into a table. He placed the elements into horizontal rows in order of their atomic number and placed those with similar properties into vertical columns. By organizing the elements in this way, Mendeleev allowed scientists to classify, systematize, and compare all the many different forms of chemical behaviour.

In science classrooms all over the world, posters of his Periodic Table of the Elements hang on the wall.

Organizing can change the world. And, although organizing your wardrobe or kitchen cupboards may not win you a Nobel Prize, it just may make your life a little easier.

10 Comments for “Organizational systems that changed history”

  1. posted by Alix on

    Don’t forget the Dewey Decimal System!

  2. posted by Susannah on

    Interesting that you’re lauding Linnaeus just a few days after this post

    listed his Systema Naturae among the nine most influential works of scientific racism, due to his categorization of humans into five groups by race and ability.

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Susannah — I think if you look at most of scientific history pre-1950, you’re going to find it ALL plagued with racists. It’s horrible and sad. It’s a very depressing realization, but until the human genome project, many scientists expressed deeply racist beliefs about cultures other than their own. (And, even more depressing, many cultures and groups today still turn their backs on scientific evidence proving otherwise and claim that their particular race/ethnicity/culture is superior to others.) Since we’re not discussing his categorization of humans, I think you can assume that we are not promoting his racist and non-scientific opinions. Similar to how we do not promote Washington’s views of slavery when we’ve written about him, nor Shakespeare’s nor Ghandi’s, we do not promote racism on this site.

  4. posted by Miriam Ortiz Y Pino on

    I’m a total science geek and I love this! I think it should also include the dewy decimal system to be complete.

  5. posted by Miriam Ortiz Y Pino on

    Oh, I almost forgot – my favorite elements Br & Ba
    As a historical, world view at the time scheme, the basics if not the specifics of the Systema Naturae are solid.

  6. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Have no fear fellow Unclutterers! Melvil Dewey and a few more organizers who changed history will be featured in an upcoming post.

  7. posted by David on

    Love this article 😉

  8. posted by Rebecca on

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who immediately thought to bring up Melvil Dewey and his decimal system. Good to hear he’s coming in the future.

  9. posted by Harry on

    There were two in the business field:
    1. The post on which Victorian merchants stuck their copies of the receipts. Doesn’t seem dramatic to us, but that was the beginning of modern receipt organization and tracking.

    2. Double-entry bookkeeping. Compared to previous methods, it made cost streams easy to track. It made fraud much harder, too.

  10. posted by Carm on

    I don’t know if it’s the same, but I think of the Human Genome Project. It’s amazing to me what they can do with DNA now.

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