Monday, March 05, 2007 03/05/07-Necessity and Inventions

In today's excerpt, necessity and inventions:

"The starting point for our discussions is the common view expressed in the saying 'Necessity is the mother of invention.' ...

"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 had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after a device had been in use for a considerable time did consumers feel 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 business to sell phonographs--but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for 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 twenty years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music."

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Norton, 1997, pp. 242-3.


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