The Roller-Coaster Ride of Innovation

I’m re-reading Steven Poole’s 2016 book Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas. He goes far back into history to find the distant roots of today’s inventions, and here’s what he found:

The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts…[instead it’s] a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks.

Some of his stories are well known by creativity researchers, but others will be new to most readers. In the well-known category is the electric car. In the late 19th century, electric cars competed directly with gasoline powered cars. In my book Group Genius I tell the story of how Thomas Edison’s lab worked hard to come up with a better battery so that these cars could run farther and longer. But gasoline technology took over from electric pretty fast. By the time Edison had perfected his battery, the electric car was old news. (He found out that he could still make money selling the battery to factories.)

Some examples that I didn’t know about are leeches (gross, but now they’re FDA approved) and blimps (they’re still used today but for carrying things, not people).

I loved this quotation from Nikola Tesla from 1926.

When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain. Through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face-to-face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments [we use] will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket. (emphasis added!)

(Tesla is the man who competed with Edison, and won. He developed Westinghouse’s AC electricity network, which was far superior to the DC system Edison was selling.)

Poole’s book shows that history aligns with today’s psychology of creativity. For my 2013 book Zig Zag, the subtitle is “the surprising path to greater creativity,” and my key message is that creativity is not linear. The path is wandering, unpredictable, and improvisational. It happens to you, every day, every week, every year. And thanks to Steven Poole, now we know that creativity shows the same pattern over many years.

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