Evidence of tool making has been found at archaeological sites dating from more than a million years ago. For most of these million+ years these tools evolved very little; humans were happy to go on flaking and chipping in the same way that their ancestors had done. This contrasts sharply with the frenetic rate of change we see in the twenty-first century.
The great bulk of inventions takes place far away from university research laboratories – very little is found by controlled experiment. Of course there are inventions that are the result of a very deliberate process – the nuclear programme or the space race. Nevertheless, most invention occurs in the everyday world.
Often these inventions are the result of serendipity. Penicillin is one that springs to mind. And even when the inventors had a use in mind the actual use of the product is totally different. The phonograph was invented by Edison as a way for people to preserve the last words of dying people and recording books for blind people to hear books. He was initially horrified at the way it was being for something so vulgar as listening to music. The Internet was designed by the U.S. army for communication after a nuclear war. The humble zipper was invented to replace shoelaces and not buttons and its inventor, Whitcom Judson died in 1909, believing that his invention might never find a practical application.
It is necessary to make a distinction between invention and innovation. Jan Fagerberg neatly summarised the difference:
“An important distinction is normally made between invention and innovation. Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.” We tend to fetishize the invention but in fact maybe the innovation is what really counts. The rise of coca-cola cannot be explained merely by referring to its inventor, John Pemberton. Where would McDonald’s be without Ray Kroc? Critics tend to minimise the significance of Bill Gates, saying he copied from Apple. But what Bill Gates did was to get millions of people using computers. This difference between invention and innovation helps to explain the sad fact that many talented inventors died in poverty while their inventions went on to change the world and make other people extremely rich.
Invention is only the first step – just ask the Chinese. The list of Chinese inventions is impressive: cast iron, gunpowder, paper, printing (woodblock printing and movable type), silk and toilet paper and that’s just scratching the surface. But from the fifteenth century onwards they were to be overtaken by Europe. The case of gunpowder is fascinating. Originating in China it was used mainly for ceremonial purposes. China had a stable political system; Europe on the other was competitive fractious and gunpowder was too valuable to be left for fireworks. A state that refused to use it would soon find itself overwhelmed by its neighbours.
Why then has Europe been so successful while China, which invented so much has been left behind? Partly these things are cyclical; countries and empires rise and fall. However, there are more factors. Europe has had growth-fostering social institutions (the rule of law relatively free markets etc). Innovation and invention have been rewarded, encouraging others to try to emulate this success. The scientific method was an indispensable tool in the creation of prosperity, enabling an innovator to think rationally about solving a particular problem. This way of perceiving the world is not universal. In his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes points out that societies in which innovation is seen as a sinful disruption of the proper cosmological order, or in which individuals are punished or shunned for thinking differently than others, are unlikely to experience innovation.
What makes an invention successful? There are no golden rules. It is not necessarily the best product that is adopted. We often hear the examples of Sony and their Betamax and Apple and its Mac as examples of superior products that were undermined by not having open systems. But recently Apple has reinvented itself using two devices that are basically closed. Personally, I am not a fan of Apple as I prefer inclusive systems but it is impossible to deny their success. The best invention does not necessarily triumph. The QWERTY keyboard is the classic case. There is an alternative keyboard layout, “Dvorak” which is said to be superior, faster and more ergonomic but QWERTY was first and now it would be too complicated to change.
What all this shows is that invention is not enough. That is when the real work begins. This applies to inventors and to countries. Just because you have a lead in one moment doesn’t mean that you will be able to maintain this edge. We have seen the serendipity involved in so many inventions but we need a society capable of taking advantage of this luck and rewarding those individuals who help to make our world a better place to live in.