When you peruse the history of human civilisation, our progress has been driven by innovation, discovery and invention.
There can be no doubt that many of us and our forebears have benefited from the serendipitous distribution of the earth’s resources. We benefitted because we were in close proximity to fertile land, abundant wildlife, reliable water or mineral resources to name but a few. However, once we progressed from a very basic lifestyle, it was the accumulation and exploitation of ideas and the development of technologies that have fuelled mankind’s inexorable progress.
The way out of our bestial existence was paved by the discovery of how to utilize fire, construct basic shelter and in colder climes to utilize animal skins to keep ourselves warm.
Around 50,000 years ago, you might say the arms race began with the development of bows and arrows in west Asia. Although, no doubt, their first usage was to kill game, it didn’t seem to take long for our ancestors to understand that they could also kill their enemies! It was around this time and in this part of the world that further use of fire was enabled by the construction of ovens.
Historians locate the first prototypes of civilisation, as we currently understand it, in the so-called Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago. This encompassed the ancient nations of Phoenicia, Assyria and Mesopotamia. It was largely the area around and including the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. (Indeed in Greek, Mesopotamia meant “between the rivers”).Here the land was fertile and water abundant and reliable. As a result communities were for the first time able to sustain themselves by farming. They were in fact able to create surpluses of food which meant that, some of the population at least, wasn’t compelled to labour incessantly just to produce the means of survival. This provided an opportunity for people to devote time to religion, art and importantly, experimentation and discovery. And of course, because they now did not have to pursue game and seasonal opportunities, the citizens could settle – and thus our first cities evolved.
It seems likely that this was where we first learnt how to make glass, to write and manufacture the wheel. Each successive discovery added to our material progress. Such progress was very uneven and there were often setbacks. Progress was not uniform over time and geographically one region would spurt ahead only to come to a halt whilst progress passed on to somewhere else. Yet once mankind moved beyond a subsistence economy, more and more it was the power of ideas that propelled us forward.
By 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia we were beginning to understand how to smelt and work metals. Then in India, 2000 years ago we were learning how to manufacture textiles. At the same time in China civilisation was developing and adding the new technologies of printing and the making of porcelain.
It is not true to talk about a steady march of progress. There were often surges and then stagnation and even occasionally regression. As societies became wealthier they were often beset by the problems of parasites and predators. Rulers would often siphon off undue amounts of wealth returning the country to poverty and removing the capacity to innovate and experiment. As well, powerful neighbours would often covet the wealth and invade the country acquiring the wealth and often destroying the institutions that created it.
In those ancient times it is not possible to understand how discoveries were made or innovation was inspired. We will never know who invented the wheel or what cognitive processes drove that discovery. However in more recent times we have some idea about how these processes worked.
We could take up this discussion regarding the mechanism of discovery in many places, but for convenience let us start in the seventeenth century in which commenced the so-called “Age of Enlightenment”, when science began to be very influential in the development of the western world. Of course one of the principal architects of this movement was Sir Isaac Newton. Newton illustrates two of the principal means of discovery and innovation. He was both an experimenter and a theoretician. His experiments with prisms helped gain a greater understanding of the nature of light and that “white” light was composed of a mixture of wavelengths that gave rise to colours (as seen, for example, in a rainbow). But he was also a theoretician. For example in the plague year of 1666 he conceived of the notion of universal gravitation and used it very successfully to describe the motion of the moon around the earth.
Newton was an enigmatic figure. He was not inclined to spread his discoveries within the scientific world. He developed a mathematical device that he called “fluxions”. He used this to develop many of his theories but then when he propagated these theories went back to conventional mathematics to try to explain them In fact “fluxions” was equivalent to calculus and there was a long and bitter dispute between him and Leibniz (who formally brought calculus to the mathematical community) as to the priority of their discoveries.
Similarly whilst Newton had published on the effect of gravitation on the moon’s passage around the earth, he never made public his work which applied the same theory to the earth’s passage around the sun. Yet when the young astronomer Edmond Halley came to see him and asked of the nature of the earth’s orbit around the sun, Newton confessed he had already completed this work.
It is interesting that, despite his prodigious talent, Newton couldn’t get a promotion at Cambridge University because he was a Unitarian (ie he did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity).
But the overall conclusion I want to leave with you is that Newton was both an experimenter and a theoretician. Now it seems to me, that researchers tend to believe that these are the principal means to discovery.
Whilst the Newton led Age of Enlightenment had long-term impacts on society, (and at that time western society in particular) its immediate effects were nowhere near as dramatic as those of the Industrial Revolution which took place commencing in the next century. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas, Jr., “For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people [began] to undergo sustained growth… Nothing remotely like this economic behavior has happened before”.
What then prompted this momentous change? Was it science? Was it research?
The industry that was transformed first was cotton spinning and weaving both of which were of little interest to scientists.
Matt Ridley writes, “The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionalised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.”
Much of the momentum of the Industrial Revolution came from the development of the steam engine. The prime developers of this technology were Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson. None of these except for perhaps Watt had any scientific training at all.
The technology of the steam engine was again developed by “tinkering businessmen”. The original devices constructed were very inefficient. Eventually the scientists took up the call and developed thermodynamics which later enabled huge improvements to be made. But there is no doubt that in this instance science followed practical invention.
There are many examples where science does not initiate discovery but follows it.
James Cook knew that feeding his crew with lime juice prevented scurvy. It was probably two centuries later before scientists could show how ingesting vitamin C produced such benefits.
Howard Florey accidently discovered penicillin. He knew that penicillin killed bacteria – but he had no idea why. By the time scientists began to understand how penicillin worked, bacteria were already beginning to show signs of developing immunity to it.
And what about aspirin? Aspirin provides many benefits from the relief of headaches to blood thinning. The story of aspirin starts 2,500 years ago. Folk medicines used the bark of trees of the Salix genus (willows, poplar and beech trees) to treat a number of ailments.
The earliest recorded medicinal uses of salicylates date to the fifth century BC, when the Greek physician Hippocrates used a bitter powder extracted from the bark of willows to treat aches and pains and to reduce fever and inflammations. Although Salix based remedies were used extensively in the ancient world – from China to South Africa, the Americas and Europe, it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that the curative benefits of the Salix species was objectively studied. An English clergyman, the Reverend Edward Stone of Chippendale delivered a paper to the Royal Society entitled, “An Account of the Success of the Bark of the Willow in the Cure of Agues.”
Although acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) was first synthesized in 1853 by Charles Fredrich Gerhardt, professor of chemistry at Montpelier University, it was overlooked for nearly fifty years because the synthesis process was so arduous. His process was eventually improved upon by Friedrich Bayer and Company, originally a dye production company. This was finally transformed into a commercial product and launched as “Aspirin” in 1899.
Doctors knew for decades that aspirin ameliorated the symptoms of pain. It has only been in recent times that the pharmacology has caught up and given us some plausible reasons why it does its beneficial work.
In 1970, a 3M researcher, Spencer Silver was working in the company’s research laboratory trying to create a strong paper adhesive. The resulting product was disappointingly weak. The adhesive stuck to paper but could easily be lifted off. The product had no immediate application, but Silver didn’t discard it. Then one Sunday, four years later, another 3M scientist, Arthur Fry was singing in his church choir. He used markers to show the place in the hymnal of the various hymns that were to be sung that day. However, the markers kept falling out of the hymn book. Remembering Silver’s adhesive, Fry used some to coat his markers which worked to great success. Thus was born one of 3M’s most profitable product lines Post-it Notes.
The point that I am trying to make is that innovation, discovery and invention is a messy process.
Sometimes the science comes first. Newton developed his theory of gravitation which enabled practical application like the accurate prediction of tides. Einstein imagined what it would be like to travel on a beam of light. This enabled him to develop the theory of relativity which in turn spawned the atomic bomb, nuclear power and the atomic clock. His work on the nature of light spawned photo-electric cells and so on.
But oft-times the technology precedes the science. We saw earlier this was the case with steam power.
And then there are many examples when the discoveries are entirely serendipitous – for example the discovery of penicillin.
It seems to me that discovery will never be driven entirely by research without the added benefit of experimentation, tinkering and old-fashioned good luck. It is no surprise then that in this digital age, information technology has been driven as much, or perhaps more, by nerds working out of garages as by scientists in the laboratories of IBM or MIT.
Let us be grateful for such discovery and innovation however arrived at, because it is the engine of human progress.