The human race has had a long and romantic tradition of crediting great breakthroughs to the tribulations of single individuals: Einstein, Archimedes, Benjamin Franklin, Van Gogh, da Vinci—the list is lon^g. Interestingly, every story about an epiphany is similar: An eclectic individual attempts to solve a complex problem that has stumped humankind for centuries, when suddenly he stumbles on an "aha!" moment. At first his revelation is rebuked by everyone, and then, over time, the inventor is redeemed and his ideas enthusiastically emtraced by all. The town throws a parade. The discoverer is praised for his unwavering persistence, lavished with acknowledgment and riches, and then rides off into the sunset as the film fades to black.
But is it true? Are insights the unique providence of individual genius?
Sometimes they are, but more often they are not.
It turns out there's a reason schoolchildren can name the inventor of the cotton gin and steam engine (even though they have never seen one) but have no idea who invented the Internet, semiconductor, or cell phone despite using these products every day. Today more and more innovations are the result of collaborative teams, not individuals. In fact, so many people play a role in complex collaboration that we would be hard-pressed to decide which individual's contribution was the most valuable: Was the mathematician more important than the chemist or physicist or engineer? It's as difficult as deciding who is responsible for a successful movie: The director? Producer? Screenwriter? The actors, the animators, or the editors? No wonder acceptance speeches for movie and science awards sound an awful lot like roll calls as recipients thank dozens upon dozens of collaborators and invite ten people to stand with them on the stage. They know that complex projects require collaboration—no single mastermind can claim all the credit.
That's because the solutions to large, complex problems demand a convergence of many different areas of expertise. No one person possesses enough talent in enough disciplines to tackle today's systemic problems. One person solve global warming? Not a chance. Terrorism? No way. Preventable childhood diseases? Not even Bill Gates himself It's not a matter of resources; it's a matter of difficulty.
It is by the aid of iron that we construct houses, cleave rocks, and perform so many other useful offices of life. But it is with iron also that wars, murders, and robberies are effected, and this, not only hand to hand, but from a distance even, by the aid of missiles and winged weapons, now launched from engines, now hurled by the human arm, and now furnished with feathery wings. This last I regard as the most criminal artifice that has been devised by the human mind; for, as if to bring death upon man with still greater rapidity, we have given wings to iron and taught it to fly. ... Nature, in conformity with her usual benevolence, has limited the power of iron, by inflicting upon it the punishment of rust; and has thus displayed her usual foresight in rendering nothing in existence more perishable, than the substance which brings the greatest dangers upon perishable mortality.
An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn't take his education too seriously. You see, from the time a person is six years old until he graduates form college he has to take three or four examinations a year. If he flunks once, he is out. But an inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. It he succeeds once then he's in. These two things are diametrically opposite. We often say that the biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work.
As the component parts of all new machines may be said to be old[,] it is a nice discriminating judgment, which discovers that a particular arrangement will produce a new and desired effect. ... Therefore, the mechanic should sit down among levers, screws, wedges, wheels, etc. like a poet among the letters of the alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of his thoughts; in which a new arrangement transmits a new idea to the world.
The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York.
The work of the inventor consists of conceptualizing, combining, and ordering what is possible according to the laws of nature. This inner working out which precedes the external has a twofold characteristic: the participation of the subconscious in the inventing subject; and that encounter with an external power which demands and obtains complete subjugation, so that the way to the solution is experienced as the fitting of one's own imagination to this power.
This is the patent-age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions;
Sir Humphrey Davy's lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,
Tombuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles,
Are ways to benefit mankind, as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.
I have read somewhere that the resistance offered by a wire ... is affected by the tension of the wire. If this is so, a continuous current of electricity passed through a vibrating wire should meet with a varying resistance, and hence a pulsatory action should be induced in the current ... [corresponding] in amplitude, as well as in rate of movement, to the vibrations of the string ... [Thus] the timbre of a sound [a quality essential to intelligible speech] could be transmitted ... [and] the strength of the current can be increased ad libitum without destroying the relative intensities of the vibrations.
The final version of the lamp was wonderfully simple and surprisingly small. It was a standard uninsulated oil lamp, approximately sixteen inches high, with an adjustable cotton wick, enclosed in a tall column or ‘chimney’ of fine iron mesh. Astonishingly, the lamp required no other protection. In later models Davy added various improvements, largely designed to withstand rough use in the mine.
Yet the fundamental notion that flame would not pass through gauze appeared so unlikely, so completely counter-intuitive, that Davy had to lay out the stages of his discovery with absolute clarity, step by step. The result was a new kind of scientific narrative. The uncertainty and false starts of the experimental laboratory disappeared. Faraday’s sketches showed that trial models had originally included a piston-bellows lamp, a spring-valve lamp and a hinged lamp, none of which was subsequently mentioned.81 Instead the account was transformed into a gripping, single-track narrative of progressive, seemingly inevitable, discovery.
Suppose, in our imagination, we take this radio apart. Suppose we take all the pieces out of the wooden box we call a cabinet. Now, you could call in a good cabinetmaker and say, "Jim, can you make a cabinet like that for me?" He'd answer you, "Of course I can. For about five dollars." You could say to another fellow, "How much can you make that pin for?" He might say, "Oh, about a dime."
Then you look at all the parts on the table. Someone had to make every piece in the set. If you checked only the weight of the material, you'd probably find the radio could be bought for forty or fifty cents a pound. But you can't buy a radio the way you buy a pound of meat. That material isn't all you bought. You bought something else. You bought that intangible something which, when the parts are all put together, makes it work. That something which makes it possible for you to hear the announcer say, "This is London calling."
When you bought that radio you bought the combined knowledge and experience of every great electrical scientist from Michael Faraday on down to the present. You also bought the results of endless experiments and the ideas of thou-sands of inventors.
That is what is housed in that cabinet along with so many pounds of material - that intangible some-thing which goes into every product - that something which is priceless.
To illustrate how priceless it is - let us suppose there was some force that could take radio away - could completely wipe out radio in the world. What would it be worth to have a group of men rediscover and redevelop that intangible something? The something which makes it possible to take a few pounds of material and a few hours of work and with it be in contact with almost any place in the world.
As purchasers, we see the finished article - the automobile, the radio, the telephone, the airplane or the Diesel locomotive. But how did they come about?
You have heard a great deal about science, research and engineering. But for every experiment that has been a success, there have been thousands of failures, much discouragement and sleepless nights. Long hours have been spent in just thinking about and experimenting with these developments. If that work had not been done, man would not be flying. We would have no electric lights, no motorcars, nor could you now be listening to this great orchestra.
So the thing that really started and maintains progress in the world is man's ability to think, and his dissatisfaction with things as they are. That is the intangible motive power which makes for human progress.