Necessity’s Mother

Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a while. Jared Diamond masterfully tells the story of how and why civilizations have developed differently across the globe. I wanted to share a passage which questions the common thinking that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

The starting point for our discussion is the common view expressed in the saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ That is, inventions supposedly arise when a society has an unfilled need: some technology is widely recognized to be unsatisfactory or limiting. Would-be inventors motivated by the prospect of money or fame, perceive the need and try to meet it. Some inventor finally comes up with a solution superior to the existing, unsatisfactory technology. Society adopts the solution if it is compatible with the society’s value and other technologies.

Quite a few inventions do conform to this commonsense view of necessity as invention’s mother. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, the U.S. government set up the Manhattan Project with the explicit goal of inventing the technology required to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could do so. That project succeeded in three years, at a cost of $2 billion (equivalent to over $20 billion today). Other instances are Eli Whitney’s 1794 invention of his cotton gin to replace laborious hand cleaning of cotton grown in the U.S. South, and James Watt’s 1769 invention of his steam engine to solve the problem of pumping water out of British coal mines.

These familiar examples deceive us into assuming that major inventions were also responses to perceived needs. In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device has been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after it had been in use for a considerable time did consumers feel that they ‘needed it.’ Still, other devices, invented to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unanticipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that these inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.

A good example is the history of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison’s list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter the business to sell phonographs- but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music.

The motor vehicle is another invention whose uses seem obvious today. However, when Nikolaus Otto built his first gas engine, in 1866, horses had been supplying people’s land transportation for nearly 6,000 years, supplemented increasingly by steam-powered railroads for several decades. There was no crisis in the availability of horses, no dissatisfaction with railroads.

Because Otto’s engine was weak, heavy, and seven feet tall, it did not recommend itself over horses. Not until 1885 did engines improve to the point that Gottfried Daimler got around to installing one on a bicycle to create his first motorcycle; he waited until 1896 to build the first truck.

In 1905, motor vehicles were still expensive, unreliable toys for the rich. Public contentment with horses and railroads remained high until World War I, when the military concluded that it really did need trucks. Intensive postwar lobbying by truck manufacturers and armies finally convinced the public of its own needs and enabled trucks to begin to supplant horse-drawn wagons in industrialized countries. Even in the largest American cities, the changeover took 50 years.

Inventors often have to persist at their tinkering for a long time in the absence of public demand, because early models perform too poorly to be useful. The first cameras, typewriters, and television sets were as awful as Otto’s seven-foot tall gas engine. That makes it difficult to foresee whether his or her awful prototype might eventually find a use and thus warrant more time and expense to develop it…

If you need any more convincing, this book is on Charlie Munger’s reading list. Check it out.

Source: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies

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