Resistance to Useful Inventions

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Resistance to Useful Inventions

The history of technology is filled with inventions which languished while their inventors attempted to interest investors and developers of their products. At the same time, investors put money into other projects. Why do some inventions face resistance, and why do others seem to have their paths paved for them? The relative value of the idea seems to have little to do with this effect.

As a case study, the calculator is a good example of a device which has taken the "slow track" through its very long history. Depending on whether you count the abacus (2300 BCE), the slide rule (William Oughtred, 1621 C.E.), or Blaise Pascal's first mechanical calculator (1642 C.E.) as the beginning of calculator technology, the road to development and wide customer acceptance has been a long one. Pascal's calculator was expensive to build and maintain, and few-- if any-- were actually sold at the time. This "delayed adoption" by consumers certainly had nothing to do with the utility of the device. Indeed, many applications-- navigation, business, engineering, science, to name but a few-- were crying out for rapid and error-free calculation, even before the Enlightenment had accelerated the demand. Moreover, the appeal of a machine which could "think" should have made it fascinating to the public and generated interest in addition to the utility of the device.

One of the earliest commercially successful mechanical calculators was the Arithmometer, invented by a French insurance executive, Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar, in 1820. Even so, it had a long road to anything approaching wide adoption; only after it won a prize at an exhibition forty-seven years later did sales of the machine blossom. Not until the 1920s and 1930s did calculators — their costs reduced and reliability increased by mass-production techniques — become truly widespread, three hundred years after Oughtred's and Pascal's devices. Significantly, abacuses and slide rules continued in use until the 1970s and the arrival of the very powerful and very inexpensive electronic pocket calculators.

Given that all the mechanical components were in place by the end of the 19th century, and given the demand, why wasn't there an economic incentive to come up with design solutions much earlier? Certainly mechanical complexity or machining was not an obstacle-- intricate clocks and orreries had been understood and built for centuries prior to the mechanical calculator. Artisans capable of constructing Raineri's elegant clock in Venice with its procession of the magi led by an angel with a trumpet which actually sounded (1493), the Strassbourg clock with its angels, hourglasses, and roosters (1354), or Prague's astronomical clock (date uncertain), would not have had any trouble knocking together calculating machines.

Indeed, Blaise Pascal owned a pocket watch (he is said to have pioneered the wristwatch by attaching it to his wrist with string) which was already far more complex a device than his calculator.

So, why such slow adoption? Why did the calculator not follow the same path of increasingly widespread manufacture and price reduction that the clock did, such that almost everyone would own one by the beginning of the 19th century? Partly, it was the size and expense of the commercial product. Napier's bones or Oughtred's slide rule could do for a fraction of the cost what a mechanical calculator could do for three centuries. Perhaps most tellingly, it was the relative size of brain work versus muscle work in the economies of the world prior to the end of the Industrial Revolution. At a time when most work was physical, there weren't that many people doing calculations as a proportion of the population. Everyone might have needed a clock in their lives, but not everyone needed to do calculations.

Another personal device, the transistor radio, by contrast, was an invention that was eagerly and rapidly pushed forward. The time elapsed from glimmer of idea (1951) to mass market release (1954) was a blistering three years. The first designs were conceived, and a working prototype built, in the period between a Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday afternoon.

Consumer acceptance of the transistor radio was just as rapid; demand quickly outpaced supply. The irony is that the transistor radio was not a goal in itself. Pat Haggerty, at Texas Instruments, saw it as a way to learn about transistor manufacturing, and to develop a high-volume application for the newly-invented device. In 1955, the first full year on the market, TI made half as many transistors for that radio alone as the entire industry had made previously.

Being part of a larger agenda may be the most important factor of all in the development and adoption of an invention. If you want a device to succeed, make it part of a larger whole.