The Haphazard History of New Ideas
The history of all inventions includes a curious mix of technological step-ups and creative side-steps; for example, did you know that the development of the modern camera involved Greek philosophers, Catholic saints, British algae and lessons learned from selling razor blades? Or that the electric guitar’s development involved ancient Mesopotamia, a sixteenth century Spanish friar and mathematician, a luthier widowed by tuberculosis and steel fence wire?
Non-linearity and Coincidence
I’ve spent much of the last few months writing a course on innovation and that has included writing a potted history of both the camera and the electric guitar. It has been fascinating to see how both new technologies – including optics, chemistry, mechanics and computer science in the case of the camera, weave themselves alongside curiosity, accidents, chance meetings, and inspiration borrowed from apparently disparate activities (such as George Eastman, founder of the Kodak company, borrowing his ‘camera-and-film’ sales model from the ‘razor-and-blades’ retail model).
What becomes abundantly clear is that innovation is not linear; it is not one neat invention after another. It goes in fits and starts, and apparently unrelated activities connect up in strange ways. At the end of the nineteenth century would either luthier Antonio de Torres (inventor of the classical guitar) or James Clark Maxwell (who developed the theory of electromagnetism) have foreseen the hybrid product of their innovations, the electric guitar, being played (and burned) by Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967?
Technology and Practice
Within this tangled picture are both new technologies shaking up established practices (i.e. reading, depicting, performing) and changes in practices driving the development and invention of new technologies. It could be argued that the rise of photography unleashed impressionist art, and it was absolutely the desire to audibly compete with the big (brass) band sounds of the early twentieth century that led to guitarists seeking to amplify their sound through the application of electronics.
So, what can we all take from this? Firstly, that we can’t accurately predict which of today’s new ideas will survive, thrive and combine in unexpected ways. Secondly, that we should retain an open mind and keep our eyes (and ears) open across a range of disciplines to spot, seize and blend ideas ourselves. Thirdly: we should all be in the business of experimentation. What is striking about any history of innovation is the necessary curiosity, perseverance and bloody-mindedness required by innovators going against the grain of the era to pursue their ideas.
So, look around you; where is a new technology going to disrupt a practice or where is a social or professional practice changing and making new demands on the technology at our disposal?
(Aristotle was amongst the first observers of the ‘pinhole camera’ effect, thirteenth century Catholic Saint Albertus Magnus noticed that silver nitrate blackened in certain conditions and botanist Anna Atkins’ book ‘Photographs of British Algae’ was the first photographically illustrated book in 1843 after she befriended Henry Fox-Talbot who invented the photographic negative. The guitar is believed to derive from ancient near-eastern stringed instruments including the lute and tanbur eventually making their way to Moorish Spain; it was Spanish friar and mathematician Juan Bermudo who first attests to the five-string guitar in 1555; the pivotal luthier De Torres only pursued guitar-making full-time after the unfortunate death of his wife in 1845, and it was the plentiful presence of steel wire in fencing the expanding American colonies that in part led to experiments in steel-string guitars being built by European immigrants.)
Dave Jarman is a Teaching Fellow in Entrepreneurship at the University of Bristol Centre for Innovation. He is also a self-employed Innovation Consultant and Entrepreneurial Educator.
Dave’s particular expertise lies in early-stage venture creation; from developing creative confidence, building creative habits, through to testing and validating potential start-ups. The application of this knowledge is useful to both emerging start-up entrepreneurs and larger organisations seeking ways to innovate and bring forward new ideas in an ‘intrapreneurial’ setting.