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Innovation as an evolutionary process

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street

Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to
attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the
first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes
of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little
doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.

The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science.
Innovations famously occur to different people in different places
at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or
the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural
selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and
others), the history of science is littered with disputes over
bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.

As Kevin Kelly argues in his book “What Technology Wants,” there
is an inexorability about technological evolution, expressed in
multiple discovery, that makes it look as if technological
innovation is an autonomous process with us as its victims rather
than its directors.

Yet some inventions seem to have occurred to nobody until very
late. The wheeled suitcase is arguably such a, well, case. Bernard
Sadow applied for a patent on wheeled baggage in
1970, after a Eureka moment when he was lugging his heavy bags
through an airport while a local worker effortlessly pushed a large
cart past. You might conclude that Mr. Sadow was decades late.
There was little to stop his father or grandfather from putting
wheels on bags.

Mr. Sadow’s bags ran on four wheels, dragged on a lead like a
dog. Seventeen years later a Northwest Airlines pilot, Robert
Plath, invented the idea of two wheels on a suitcase held
vertically, plus a telescopic handle to pull it with. This
“Rollaboard,” now ubiquitous, also feels as if it could have been
invented much earlier.

Or take the can opener, invented in the 1850s, eight decades after the
can. Early 19th-century soldiers and explorers had to make do with
stabbing bayonets into food cans. “Why doesn’t somebody come up
with a wheeled cutter?” they must have muttered (or not) as they
wrenched open the cans.

Perhaps there’s something that could be around today but hasn’t
been invented and that will seem obvious to future generations. Or
perhaps not. It’s highly unlikely that brilliant inventions are
lying on the sidewalk ignored by the millions of entrepreneurs
falling over each other to innovate. Plenty of terrible ideas are
tried every day.

Understanding why inventions take so long may require mentally
revisiting a long-ago time. For a poorly paid Napoleonic soldier
who already carried a decent bayonet, adding a can opener to his
limited kitbag was probably a waste of money and space. Indeed,
going back to wheeled bags, if you consider the abundance of
luggage porters with carts in the 1960s, the ease of curbside
drop-offs at much smaller airports and the heavy iron casters then
available, 1970 seems about the right date for the first invention
of rolling luggage.

Just as it made little sense to invent the wheelie-case before
the great expansion of air travel, so it made little sense to
invent the laptop before 1982, when computers had begin to shrink,
or the bicycle before the emergence of the motorcar had resulted in
the appearance of smooth roads and pneumatic tires.

The more you examine the history of technology, the more
evolutionary it looks. Invention is incremental rather than
revolutionary, inevitable rather than idiosyncratic, and it emerges
unplanned from the cross-fertilization of ideas. Once the Internet
exists, the search engine will not be far behind. Even something
that seems unique to one culture, such as the boomerang in
Australia, turns out not to be. There are 3,300-year-old returning
boomerangs in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  wall-street-journal