f the many pleasures of family gatherings, the occasion to bicker with rarely-seen relatives stands in high relief. My cousin-in-law, for instance, spars with me every year over the topic of Science between the cheese plate and the turkey. He’s a Harvard astrophysicist and I am not—he frowns upon my reflections on the nature of scientific inquiry, less (I suspect) for their content than their temerity. He dismisses my view that invention is a messy affair, driven by tinkering and practical accident rather than formal rigor or trained expertise. We once rose like gamecocks over whether the steam engine could have been invented without formal thermodynamics. This review is my chance to get in a cheap shot before next year’s main course.
I’ve long held to Gavin Weightman’s premise in Eureka: How Invention Happens: invention is more serendipitous than rigorous, more eclectic than meritocratic. Technological breakthroughs are as likely to come from cranks, misfits, and amateurs as from experts, institutes, and the well-financed. Using the examples of flight, television, bar-coding, computers, and cell phones, Weightman demonstrates how technological inventions “invariably come from outside the mainstream of existing industry and technology.” Invariably, in case you missed that. This book doesn’t cherry pick quirky examples to suit a “bottom up” narrative: innovation appears to require cranks and misfits, and grinds to a halt if left strictly to the “authorities.”
Weightman develops a number of insights about innovation.
First, all modern inventions have an ancient history. I was startled to discover that my MacBook’s forefather was a silk loom invented by Joseph Jacquard in 1804, lauded by Napoleon and Josephine for its intricate weaving capacities. Jacquard was a deadbeat and dilettante by many accounts, but he stumbled upon a novel technique of instrumenting his machine with punched cards, and the rest is history.
Second, the inventor who makes the breakthrough is often an amateur. Guglielmo Marconi, the 24-year old son of an Italian estate-holder and an Irish whiskey heiress, pioneered radio communication, cellular technology’s backbone. The self-trained tinkerer made radio work, even while not entirely understanding the science. Meanwhile the formally trained “Maxwellians” assured the world that radio waves, like light beams, would shoot straight out into space and be useless for anything more than line-of-sight communication. Reality disagreed.
Third, the wisest and most knowledgeable of scientists and philosophers will have declared the dream impossible right up to the moment it is shown to be feasible. In 1894, a special commission of German scientists published the final, conclusive determination that manned flight was physically unattainable. At the same moment, Otto Lilienthal was demonstrating remarkable proficiency in flying (unpowered) from the top of his Fliegerberg. His dedication and encouraging publications eventually inspired a pair of bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio….
Fourth, Inventions are never the work of a lone genius. The lowly bar code might be dull as technical innovations go, but Weightman shows how it revolutionized commercial transactions, production, and market research, leading to incredible gains in economic efficiency. While the romantic “Eureka” moment is evocative (Joe Woodland drawing his fingers across Miami Beach sand, recognizing that the marks could be an optical version of the Morse Code he learned in Boy Scouts), it took three decades of steady collaboration, freakish coincidences, and agonizing perfecting by thousands of individuals to make the breakthrough into mainstream reality.
Fifth, necessity is rarely the mother of invention. When John Baird transmitted the first successful “Televisor” image in 1928, he wasn’t responding to a demand for televised images. Few people could imagine such a thing, let alone “need” it in any meaningful sense. The same is true of most of the modern gadgetry we now find indispensible—does anyone recall a desperate need for cell-phone navigation in, say, 1990? Improvements are demanded, but radical innovation never is.
While these insights are profound, it is the details that make the book worth reading. From the curious light-sensitive properties of selenium that made television possible, to the Federal Radio Commission’s crackdown on early experiments in broadcasting, to the bizarre accidents that helped Wilbur and Orville Wright get airborne, the palpable particulars make Eureka come to life. Though Weightman does not make capital and tragedy into themes, their effect on innovation is significant. Government financing generally—and not surprisingly—has a poor record, as Charles Babbage’s failed computer and Samuel Langley’s failed airplane glaringly attest, while private inheritances and personal fortunes often purchased the necessary leisure to work on breakthroughs. Personal tragedy seems to have played an outsized role in driving innovation. If not for the freak hockey accident that cloistered him with his books, Wilbur Wright might have gone on to a sports scholarship at Yale. If not for the indiscretion of his mother’s illicit love affair, Alexander Graham Bell may never have come to America.
Eureka‘s exposition can be clunky, but its skill in making inventors compelling, complex, humane figures makes a book about technical invention, well, riveting. It is sobering to imagine, for instance, the rush of gratitude felt by Agnes Lilienthal, the destitute widow of Otto Lilienthal upon receiving an immense check on Christmas Day from the Wright Brothers. It was offered, they said, “in honor of your late husband’s inspiring pioneering exploits.”
Once the counterintuitive principles behind invention are understood, it seems as likely that cold fusion will arise out of the scrappy workshops of American Chopper as from the particle accelerators at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. “Truth,” Francis Bacon said, “is the daughter of time, not authority.” While Weightman is careful not to discount the contributions and relevance of trained experts and institutional backing, his book is a refreshing antidote to the growing mythology that the pursuit of the unknown is best left to the “authorities.”
I have my book gift list started for next year—cousins-in-law beware.