“Men collectively, for instance, never have a joint creative impulse, and rarely, any kind of joint positive impulse, except when it is instilled into them by one man. A crowd of people never painted a picture, wrote a book, composed a song, or spontaneously hit upon the idea of doing much of anything else that was constructive. Even in primitive societies, doing or building is the result of conference in which individuals speak their minds. The acts of crowds, when crowds act at all, are almost wholly negative. Lynching and murder, torture, arson, stampede, stoning, persecution, heckling, fugue, rage, and other destructive processes are the frequent manifestations of gatherings of common people that, often enough, start for other purposes. True, mass rape and orgy could be construed as a creative act, but aside from that it is axiomatic that crowd behavior, if it takes any objective form, will take a fiendish one.”

                                                                                                            Philip Wylie, 1942

In 1976, The New York Times listed some inventions and how long it took between their conceptions and applied use. What could be added to this list to update it for the past 41 years?

Trait Conception Realization Interval years
Antibiotics 1910 1940 30
Automatic transmission 1930 1946 16
Ballpoint pen 1938 1945 7
Filter cigarette 1953 1955 2
Fluorescent lighting 1901 1934 33
Frozen foods 1908 1923 15
Heart Pacemaker 1928 1960 32
Helicopter 1904 1941 37
Instant coffee 1934 1956 22
Long-playing records 1945 1948 3
Minute rice 1931 1949 18
Nuclear energy 1919 1965 46
Nylon 1927 1939 12
Photography 1782 1838 56
Radar 1904 1939 35
Radio 1890 1914 24
Roll-on deodorant 1948 1955 7
Silicone 1904 1942 38
Stainless steel 1904 1920 16
Telegraph 1820 1838 18
Television 1884 1947 63
Transistor 1920 1956 16
Videotape recorder 1950 1956 6
Xerox copying 1930 1950 15

Necessity is not the mother of invention. Few major discoveries have happened because of the existing need.  We discover pre-existing principles, often by accident, mistake, or simple curiosity, and then try to figure out what do with them.  Inventions do not come from areas of perpetual poverty.  In the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or Mumbai, India, local residents only think of basic survival.  Most have no formal education, expertise, or interest to work toward any goal other than meeting their daily fundamental needs.  They have little free time.

Mother of Invention

Most innovations (new ideas or material traits) are contributed by individuals living in a well-educated, affluent, comfortable environment.  People have the time needed to be creative.  For several decades, California’s Silicon Valley has been a major center of innovation.  A new invention appears almost daily, it seems.  But only a small number of them end up being used.  They are created, but no application is found for them.

Looked another way, it can be said that “invention is the mother of necessity.”  We have something and then may find a use for it.  Before the automobile was developed, humans often traveled by horse and buggy.  In many places, laws were passed to limit or even prevent the use of automobiles, or “The Devil’s carriage” as it was called by some.  The first automobiles were clumsy and impractical machines and most roads were inadequate.  It took several decades before the automobile became widely accepted. Over thirty years passed between an idea to create fluorescent lightning and the beginning of widespread use.  A vehicle that runs exclusively on water (by separating oxygen and hydrogen) already exists in Japan.  Still, it may never find its way to mass production, because the existing automotive industry does not like such competition.

Despite being aware of the benefits of a particular invention, barriers to applied use are always in place.  They are removed once the invention begins to serve as a major source of income to corporations.  They, in turn, do not want to invest unless the invention is commercially feasible and attractive to consumers.  Corporations want to exhaust all possible profits from the existing product before they market new inventions.  Think how long it took to replace audio tapes, despite having the ability to produce, sell, and widely market affordable compact discs.  Can you list ten items that, if implemented earlier, would have improved global connections and the quality of life?

[Adapted from my book One World Or Many?, 2010]

Sentimental Issues

In our society the past is perceived as unappealing, rather than something to be excited about, and—in almost all aspects of life—is considered to be inferior to what certainly will be a glorious future.  Much of it has to do with inventions and their applied use (while making an almighty dollar!) that continuously stimulate us to conform to the needs of those who are selling us the latest invention.

Looking back on 1942, 1976, or 2010, can we say that we are experiencing an evolutionary peak? As a result, should we conclude that we live better today than, for example, twenty years ago? How were the United States—and the rest of the world—doing in 1997 and how are we doing in 2017?

Figure 1. Landscape of eastern Kentucky. (Photograph by the author.)

“When the end of the world comes I want to be in Kentucky, because it’s always twenty years behind,” reads a quote apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain.  By that definition Kentucky is now in 1997.

Perhaps we should warn the good people of Kentucky that, despite all inventions and their applications designed to improve the quality of life in the past twenty years, the humans are perfectly capable of applying them in a retrograde fashion.

Necessity is not a mother of invention, and necessity for building the right future should rely not on inventions pushed onto us by corporations.  In Kentucky of 1997, they still have time to avoid the mistake the rest of us have already committed.

From Creativity to Invention to Implementation