Sunday, January 03, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel on invention

For my holiday break reading, I just finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. I heartily recommend it! It's about the broad patterns in human history: lots of it is about the development of agriculture ("food production", he usually calls it), how and why it happened where it did, and the historical ramifications as societies develop and come into contact/conflict with other societies.

There's a lot about germs, too. The diseases that a society carries and develops resistances to are extremely important when running into another group. A people can be totally wiped out, faced with a disease it's not accustomed to.

But I wanted to share with you a bit that particularly resonated with me, as a technology-producing person.
Thus, the commonsense view of invention that served as our starting point reverses the usual roles of invention and need. It also overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That "heroic theory of invention," as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work. From a patent lawyer's perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors, like Athene springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.

In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim that "X invented Y." For instance, we are regularly told, "James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769," supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a tea-kettle's spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt's repair work. Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. All this is not to deny that Watt greatly improved Newcomen's engine (by incorporating a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery's.

No comments: