Game-Changing Inventions

25 September, 2017 / Articles
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Why don’t cows choreograph dances? Why don’t alligators invent speedboats?” These are questions that Anthony Brandt, a composer, and David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, ask—and immediately answer—in the first chapter of their new book, The Runaway Species. Animals can’t match human ingenuity, they explain, because of “an evolutionary tweak in the algorithms running [our] brains.” We’re different because we see the world not just as it is but as it could be. We think What if? and can therefore create our own futures. And what an existence we’ve fashioned so far: language and accounting, the wheel and the plow, vaccines and medicines, cinema and skyscrapers, satellites and smartphones.

Of course, even ideas conceived and developed by the world’s best minds rarely lead to meaningful progress on that level. So which inventions have had the most impact—and why? What can they teach us about game-changing innovation? And how will science and technology revolutionize our lives next?

The rest of The Runaway Species sheds light on these issues—as do three other recent releases: Simply Electrifying, a thorough history of electricity by the industry veteran Craig R. Roach; Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, a collection of short essays on subjects from plastic to property registers, by the economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford; and Soonish, an in-depth, occasionally humorous look at 10 emerging fields of research (think asteroid mining, programmable matter, and brain-computer interfaces), by the bioscientist Kelly Weinersmith and her cartoonist husband, Zach.

Wisely, none of the authors really attempt to answer the first question: Which inventions do or will matter most? Whether the light bulb and the steam engine trump space travel and Google search is something for philosophers to debate. It’s more useful to explore why some ideas transformed business, culture, and society while others didn’t.

Skimming all four books might lead you to believe that top-tier invention begins and ends with individual genius: Brandt and Eagleman often reference Picasso; Roach’s chapter titles include “Benjamin Franklin’s Kite,” “Samuel Morse’s Telegraph,” and “Thomas Edison’s Light”; Harford tends to focus on the people behind his economy-shaping ideas; the Weinersmiths interviewed an array of “scientific oddballs.”

But a closer read reveals an emphasis on collaboration and cross-pollination: between experts in different disciplines, researchers and technologists, entrepreneurs and financiers, private and public sectors. “Creativity is an inherently social act,” Brandt and Eagleman contend. Just as great art comes from “bending, breaking and blending” previous work, “groundbreaking technologies…result from inventors ‘riffing on the best ideas of their heroes.’” (This argument is bolstered by delightful visuals.)

The Weinersmiths agree wholeheartedly, noting that “big discontinuous leaps, like the laser and the computer, often depend on unrelated developments in different fields.” One of Roach’s more compelling chapters explains how George Westinghouse paired his business know-how with the science of “brilliant, quirky” Nikola Tesla to build a commercial-scale alternating-current power system. And Harford notes that iPhone technology wouldn’t have been possible without government-funded experimentation.

The courage to take risks and fail is another key theme across these books. Harford suggests that the best way to foster future innovation may be to simply allow “smart people to indulge their intellectual curiosity without a clear idea of where it might lead.” Roach lauds the two men who harnessed and explained electromagnetism—the “workbench experimenter” Michael Faraday and the “mathematical prodigy” James Clerk Maxwell—for their “willingness to go in a direction that was at odds with the accepted theories of the day.”

Brandt and Eagleman talk about the Wright brothers’ tests of 38 different airplane wing surfaces and James Dyson’s 5,127 vacuum prototypes and offer a charming quote from Edison: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.” They note that the idea isn’t to just tolerate failure but to expect it, because you’ve generated so many options that some will need to fall away before the best can rise to the top.

Soonish captures this ethos perfectly. Each chapter explains a complex goal and the various technologies being developed to achieve it. For example, scientists are working on six possibilities for cheap access to space: reusable rockets; air-breathing rockets/spaceplanes; “mega-superguns” that would launch rockets; laser ignition; starting at a very high altitude (via spaceport, balloon, or aircraft); and space elevators/tethers. Time will tell which (if any) of these ideas pan out.

Other recommendations that pop up in these books include understanding what Roach calls “the needs and preoccupations” of one’s time; providing equal-opportunity education that emphasizes problem solving; launching innovation contests; investing more in pure science; and “rightsizing” regulation (which is easier said than done).

Finally, all these authors emphasize that innovation is best viewed through what Roach calls a “wide-angle lens”—genesis, development, and consequences. As Harford explains, “Inventions shape our lives in unpredictable ways—and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else.” So with any new idea “it makes sense to at least ask ourselves how we might maximize the benefits and mitigate the risks.” The Weinersmiths do that: For each technology they cover, they also outline “the ways it might make everything terrible, and the ways it might make things wonderful.”

Human beings are wired to seek all kinds of novelty. But surely we can focus on ideas that will help, more than hurt, the world.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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